if sociology sucks, why do economists keep on doing it?

You know that joke about the cranky restaraunt customer? “The food is terrible – and the servings are so small!” That summarizes the relationship between economics and sociology. Here’s a few observations:

  • Max Weber, an economic historian, defects from the mainstream of the day and becomes a founding figure of sociology.
  • Talcott Parsons, a Harvard economist, defects from the mainstream of his day to become a towering figure in the sociological profession.
  • Gary Becker, a neo-classical economist, makes it cool for economists in the 1960s to study stuff like race and marriage, long as you call people’s choices “taste” and “preferences.” Gets a Nobel prize for doing so.
  • In the 1990s, Steve Levitt becomes the poster child of economics by hooking up with sociologists and policy folks to do theory lite applied stats on sociological topics, like crime.
  • After Levitt, economists stampede to sociology and churn out paper after paper of theory lite, stats intensive analysis of sociological topics. In econ, sociology is called “applied micro.” Sociology is a bad, bad word.
  • In the 2000s, George Akerlof, a Nobel winner, finds out that “identity” is the new black.

Just the other day, Bryan Caplan wishes that he could call himself a sociologist, if it weren’t for the annoying folks who already use the word. As loyal readers know, I welcome any person who works on important topics that constitute modern sociology. I just wish we’d get a little more love from the customers who regularly dine at our restaraunt!


Written by fabiorojas

June 22, 2009 at 12:17 am

Posted in economics, fabio, sociology

16 Responses

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  1. You seem to suggest that sociology is the “restaurant” and the “customers” are economists who enjoy the restaurant’s food. I think the more appropriate metaphor might be that of people sneaking food (economics) into a stadium baseball game (interesting topics) because the food there is so bad (sociology).



    June 22, 2009 at 1:22 am

  2. Sociology is the rotgut $5/quart vodka that economists steal from the warehouse, pour into empty bottles of Grey Goose and sell for $85 a go.



    June 22, 2009 at 2:17 am

  3. […] 22, 2009 Fabio Rojas at Orgtheory asks: if sociology sucks, why do economists keep doing it? He cites Weber, Parsons, Becker, Levitt, Akerlof, and Caplan as examples of economists who […]


  4. Why is that when I go to econ blogs, I get lots of ideas–some theory about this or that phenomenon or ongoing story. But when I visit orgtheory, I just get a lot of hand-wringing over why sociology isn’t bigger. Maybe you could emulate the best econ blogs–MR, Brad DeLong, and the like–by putting up interesting, original content and ideas related to ongoing events. You might say that sociology doesn’t lend itself to such short exposition–but that’s exactly the problem. You should be able to wrap up the ideas/problems/hypotheses into bite-size chunks to interest the mass market, which is very interested in people attacking big problems in an accessible way (Blink, Guns Germs Steel, etc). I think it’s exactly this ability of economists–rather than any “nobel halo” or use of math (which is really very limited online, where their presence is enormous)–which explains their dominance.

    For instance: freakonomics had a bit a while ago about how to divide up rooms in an apt of varying sizes. The econ people took and ran with it, mostly thinking up various auction ideas. But I’m sure you guys have some thoughts too. The nudge blog does this stuff pretty well.



    June 22, 2009 at 2:48 am

  5. Kieran, I can always depend on you for a precise, yet utterly devastating, metaphor. I’m glad you’re on our team.

    Thorfinn, if this hand wringing is so annoying, why do you keep coming back? I think you secretly long to be a sociologist!



    June 22, 2009 at 2:49 am

  6. I believe it was Kieran who — in response to something snarky uttered by myself about a certain non-technical school on the Charles — claimed that being from neither Chicago nor Harvard allowed him to call me out on my snarkyness.

    Well, technically I am neither a sociologist nor an economist. My degree is from a lowly business school (the technical school on the Charles which doesn’t even have a sociology department). And so, I’ll pose the question:

    If sociology’s so great, why do we keep trashing economists?

    I’ll take my coat now.


    Sean Safford

    June 22, 2009 at 12:32 pm

  7. I think comparing Weber’s historic analysis of capitalism to Levitt’s playing around with price theory is a bit of a stretch…


    Will Davies

    June 22, 2009 at 1:27 pm

  8. Of course, they’d call themselves sociologists if it weren’t for the pay cut they’d have to take.



    June 22, 2009 at 3:03 pm

  9. On the nose, sherkat!

    Fabio, Could we perhaps rephrase your question: Why is it that sociologists do something that is just economics in disguise? After all, these economists you mentioned may have seen their work enough within the realm of economics to consider themselves qualified to pursue it. :)


    Mike McBride

    June 22, 2009 at 4:38 pm

  10. Fabio, interesting post, as always. But you overstate the Levitt effect. He’s hardly the “poster child of economics”; indeed, there’s been a bit of a backlash lately against Freakonomics-style research, particularly since the advent of the financial crisis, about which guys like Levitt have absolutely nothing to say. Economists are turning again to real problems (like the business cycle), not puzzles. See a few O&M posts on the subject:


    Peter Klein

    June 22, 2009 at 8:24 pm

  11. Yeah, well, I married one so I can freeride. Of course, she thinks this sociological crap is “just a bunch of words.” If I ever call it theory, I have to duck or some large object will hit me in the head. Not that any damage could be done by that.



    June 23, 2009 at 1:38 am

  12. BenjaminL

    June 23, 2009 at 6:24 pm

  13. Applied micro does NOT equal sociology. Check out any of Bajari’s papers (a star in the field) and point me to the sociologist who could understand them:

    As an econ phd student I would refrain from saying I work in sociology because it is generally believed (accurately or not) that most sociologists have a poor grasp of serious statistical and mathematical methods. It’s a discipline that eagerly shares its bed with Continental obfuscation and model-free regressions. If you are an economist hoping to be heard by most other economists you do not associate yourself with these methods nor do you waste time in sociology journals trying to find those articles that actually respect statistical methods.

    To me, it is a difference of methodology more than it is one of subject, and it would be better for everyone if economic analysis was tempered by some sociology-inspired reflection and sociology put some mathematical rigor into its models and treated data less as a mine for regressions and more as pieces of a puzzle in need of a model.



    June 24, 2009 at 3:36 pm

  14. […] that in a perfect world, he would call himself a sociologist. This led Fabio Rojas over at Orgtheory ask “if sociology sucks, why do economists keep doing it?” I question whether many of […]


  15. As an economics undergrad considering a variety of social sciences for my postgrad options, I completely agree with PiffleDragon. I find that sociology and economics both have a lot to say about the same things; the difference is sometimes in what they say and often in how they say it. It’s hard for me to discern a systematic approach to the study of society in sociology; with economics the view systematically taken is to approach things through the lens of incentives (albeit increasingly tempered by our knowledge of behavioral economics).

    The problem is that economics has I think gone too far in this systematic approach. Mathematical modeling has been all the rage in economics for decades, and only now are we slowly moving towards a saner and more reasonable approach. If you get a postgrad degree in econ, you’re basically getting a postgrad degree in applied math because most of what you’re doing is mathematical modeling. Because that’s not what I want to do, I’m in a pretty pickle now. Sociology seems appealing but I find it goes too far in the opposite direction and doesn’t do any modeling at all — everything is so disaggregated and haphazard.



    July 14, 2009 at 8:50 am

  16. […] course, some have wondered, if sociology sucks, why do economists keep on doing it? 20 Comments Tags: capitalism, class, commodification, consumption, economics […]


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