notes from the sociological underground

There is a great, funny story in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground that has been on my mind lately (bear with me—there is a point to this, although maybe not a good one). In the story, the narrator of the book—an unnamed, isolated, and self-loathing man—becomes enraged with a large military officer who, in a crowded bar, physically moves the narrator out of the way as he (the officer) negotiates the crowd, doing so without in any way acknowledging the narrator. The narrator, unable to work up the courage to confront the officer at the time, fixates on the officer: he watches for him around the city (“staring at him with hate and malice”), figures out his routines, and starts following him from a distance; he writes a satirical essay about him but doesn’t publish it; he contemplates challenging the officer to a duel—tellingly imagining how this might lead the two to become good friends in the end—but shrinks from doing so.  This goes on for several years.

At last he decides upon the perfect solution. He has noticed that on his daily walks the officer never steps aside when those of lower social status meet him on the path—he just bulls ahead, pretending like they don’t exist, and they invariably move aside. The narrator’s plan is that he will walk towards the officer on the path and will hold his ground; the officer, then, will be forced to acknowledge him and recognize his worth. The narrator plans for a long time. He decides that he will have to be well dressed in case there is a scandal afterwards, so he gets an advance on his salary to buy a new hat and new gloves; resolving that this is not enough, he begrudgingly borrows a large sum of money—several months worth of salary—from a colleague he doesn’t like so to replace his beaver overcoat collar with one made of raccoon. (I can relate!)

Thus attired, he attempts to carry out his plan several times, but on each occasion moves out of the way at the last instant. Hating himself, he finally works up the nerve to hold his ground, and the two run into each other, shoulder against shoulder: “[The officer] did not even glance back and pretended he hadn’t noticed anything; but he was only pretending, I am convinced of that! I am convinced of it to this day. Naturally, I got the worst of the collision, for he was stronger, but that was not the point. The point was that I had achieved my goal, I had sustained my dignity, I had not yielded a step and had publicly set myself on equal footing with him. I came home fully avenged for everything. I was jubilant. I was ecstatic and sang Italian arias.”

The story has been on my mind because I realized a few months ago that I think of it often when people start discussing sociology’s relationship to economics. Admittedly, this may just be a quirk on my part and no one else may see it—and I should also say that I make the comparison in a self-deprecating spirit.  Even so, the fact that it keeps coming to mind makes me think that, however unflattering, such a comparison (not being noticed by a high status counterpart, dwelling on what they think of us when we are far from their mind, putting on our best models in an attempt to be acknowledged, celebrating victories in battles that they didn’t even know took place) must have some truth to it.  It must represent one real position, even if an extreme one, that sociology has taken toward economics. 

What to make of this? Hell, I don’t know.  A couple of random thoughts:

1) Maybe we are moving past the worst manifestations of this. You don’t need to look any further than this blog to see that there is some great dialogue between economic folks, sociology folks, and all of those in between.  Maybe—much like the qualitative/quantitative split in sociology seems to produce much less animosity than 20 years ago—there this borderline is becoming less contentious, and a more constructive dialogue is taking place now.

2) Less optimistically, I don’t think mainstream economics is going to start recognizing the contributions of sociology anytime soon. This can certainly be frustrating (for example, I have been reading Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge and I’m enjoying it quite a bit, but in it they discuss how instead of treating all money as fungible, people tend to earmark certain money for particular purposes—and who do they cite? No one, of course; they just provide some anecdotal examples and imply that it is common sense). But, even if this is true, it seems much better for sociologists to go about their own work with confidence in its value than to try to “nudge” economists on the sidewalk just so they will acknowledge our existence.  I know, I know, this is obvious and probably doesn’t need to be said—really, most of the people I know who are working in the borderland between the two disciplines are doing this already—but, again, there must be a reason why this story keeps coming back to me . . .


P.S. Coincidentally, there is also a very amusing critique of rational action in the first section of the book.




Written by Michael

June 24, 2008 at 5:45 am

Posted in uncategorized

11 Responses

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  1. Here’s my (very quick, late-night) two cents on the divide:

    1) I think there is some incommensurability (in epistemology, logic, ideology, language) between econ and soc and thus confrontations sometimes are not very productive. (Though, I frankly think that the incommensurability argument is just an intellectual copout for not wanting to engage.)

    2) another way to think about the two, is to consider them each partial explanations (explain some x amount of variance).

    3) building on the above — the performativity program for example has taken a different tack, they in essence would argue that they are more ‘upstream’ in their theory building, not conflicting with economics but rather explaining the soc/pol/tech factors that construct models and markets.

    4) some of econ soc also is an effort to fill in residual anomalies in mainstream econ.

    I think the Fourcade (ABS, 2007) piece, if I remember correctly, actually has some nice distinctions related to various ‘types’ of economic sociology.



    June 24, 2008 at 6:25 am

  2. Nice post. I’d add a few random comments:

    1. Soc and econ have always had a tense relationship. Many major soc advances start out as rejections of econ/utilitarianism.

    2. One interesting phenomena is that soc is the “Other” for economists – the vague, lame and unscientific poor relative. See Greg Clark’s recent higher ed column. Or Manski’s 2000 article claiming that soc is just too vague. Or Akerlof’s description of soc in the same terms. Or … just about anytime economists take the time to talk about soc in print. Basically, economists use soc as an excuse for a new research topic, if they acknowledge it all. “Until now, soc writing is too vague/imprecise/etc on topic X. Now here I am to clear things up…”

    3. I think you are right. There is little that will change – there’s no incentive to do so. But here’s a suggestion. Why doesn’t every sociologist email an economist they know with a cool article once in a while? Or maybe, take an economist to lunch day?

    4. The basis of this is probably that as long as other social sciences are math lite, most economists won’t take them seriously.



    June 24, 2008 at 3:17 pm

  3. Manski’s 2000 article claiming that soc is just too vague.

    Sociology is an extremely diverse discipline. Research in sociology encompasses a lot of different methods, theoretical points-of-view, subject matter, etc. Because there is so much heterogeneity, it’s easy to find examples of theory that are too vague, methods that are not systematic enough, writing of poor quality, etc. But there’s also a lot out there on the opposite end.

    Another problem that sociology has in communicating its ideas to other disciplines (like economics) is that because of its vastness, it’s easy to get lost in the discipline. Sociology is hard to peg down if you’re an outsider and so it might be hard to know where to look. It’s hard enough for those of us in the field to stay apprised of the latest and greatest.



    June 24, 2008 at 3:46 pm

  4. Fabio, So that means you’re buying, right, when you invite me to lunch?

    Michael, I appreciate this post very much. Ironically, I’ve noticed some economists put down sociologists while some sociologists put down economists. Though the reasons are different, there is an inherent similarity that each is really putting down a caricature of the other: “sociologists are so vague that they can’t make their arguments precise” while “economists are so precise as to miss the important points.” I find works in both disciplines to support these caricatures, but I also find works that violate them.

    But you point out something that I hadn’t considered, i.e., that some sociologists may really be bothered by some economists thinking lowly of sociologists. I wonder if these feeling is only possible for a sociologist who actually give credits to economic analysis and so feels like a respectful dialogue between disciplines would make for better overall social science.

    In the end, sociologists and economsts probably need a common enemy. Like those nasty archaeologists. Can’t they ever get anything right? I mean, come on already.



    June 24, 2008 at 5:19 pm

  5. Whoa! Slow down there, Fabio. I was looking for vague platitudes, not radical grass-roots, one-economist-at-a-time strategies that would require effort and pain on my part–are we really that desperate? (Actually, I think it’s a good idea).

    Brayden: I agree about the diversity of sociology, but I also wonder about how much that really accounts for the difference. Sometimes I think it has as much to do with economists’ willingness to write these very readable umbrella-type summary books that impose a sensible order on a lot of loosely related research and package it for a more general audience. I would love to see a sociology book like this–I would do it, but there is a real chance that it might suck.

    Also, I was remiss in mentioning that Nudge also contains an entire chapter on organ donation (which I haven’t read yet) without even a solitary mention of one K. Healy. Now that should get the hackles of up! No justice, no peace.



    June 24, 2008 at 5:27 pm

  6. Mike: I was responding while you were.

    That’s a great idea. Maybe it would be even better to go after a random group outside of the academy, like farmers or something. What’s up with them anyway?



    June 24, 2008 at 5:31 pm

  7. Michael: Why the angst? Can’t each discipline just blissfully pretend that the other does not exist — sociologists go to ASA, publish in their own journals and talk to their kind; economists go to AEA, publish in their own journals and talk to their kind. A healthy solution, right – why fight it? (Though I do like Fabio’s grassroots approach!)



    June 24, 2008 at 5:34 pm

  8. I’ll guess that its about r.e.s.p.e.c.t.



    June 24, 2008 at 5:54 pm

  9. This is kind of timely, as I’m (avoiding) working on a thesis on job satisfaction, a topic on which both economists and sociologists have written a lot. A whole, whole lot.

    I’m also writing it while holed up in an office in my local econ department’s building, which they generously lent to me for the duration of my office’s renovation. So I’ve been reading their posters, syllabi taped to doors, and so on quite a bit lately. I think I’m definitely one of sociologists Mike describes. I keep seeing things that make me want to track down the authors and hand them soc articles, as well as things that I’ve been taking note of for my own research.

    I’m only two years into my grad program, so I might not have a great view of either discipline, but I have increasingly felt that I have a lot more in common with a subset of social scientists – soc, econ, even psych (now there’s a common enemy if ever there was one) – than I do with sociologists in general. Not coincidentally, this blog seems to be kind of a locus of that subset.


    The Mad Slave

    June 24, 2008 at 10:27 pm

  10. tf wrote: “Can’t each discipline just blissfully pretend that the other does not exist — sociologists go to ASA, publish in their own journals and talk to their kind; economists go to AEA, publish in their own journals and talk to their kind. A healthy solution, right – why fight it?”

    That’s what most of them (us) actually do. It’s only those who work near the intersection (the people at orgtheory, et. al.) that feel the conflict. And in that stretch of border sidewalk, the Dostoievsky analogy is apt. The economists shoulder the sociologists out of the way, barely noticing them. Even when what they are doing is really sociology (freakonomics-like topics, capital punishment, etc.), the economists assume that they are the first to do it or that if anyone else has done it, the economists are still the only ones doing it the right way.


    Jay Livingston

    June 25, 2008 at 10:08 pm

  11. […] over at Orgtheory posted a lovely story about the troubled relationship between sociologists and economists. I’m posting the link by […]


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