does justin wolfers actually read sociology?

Over at MR, there’s a discussion of disciplinary trade, a favorite topic of mine. Tyler cites Justin Wolfers:

What is interesting to think about are the terms of trade between economics and all these other disciplines. We are clearly a net exporter to political science and sociology. [emphasis mine]

I was surprised by this. If anything, sociologists are pretty hostile to economics. Wolfers does admit he had a sociologist on his committee and he’s probably more engaged with sociology than most economists, but I don’t really agree with this assessment. Here’s what I think the exchange is between sociology and economics:

  • Overall, economists and sociologists don’t really engage each other, except in a few specialties. I’ve never seen a sociologist rave about an AER article, nor have I seen an economist pick up a copy of AJS. Graduate curricula rarely acknowledge the other side. Basically, each discipline thinks the other is, well, deeply flawed.
  • Soc -> econ: Economists often use sociological ideas with some frequency, but they don’t give much credit. For example, a number of economists are starting work in network analysis. But I doubt that they will acknowledge the 40+ years of work by sociologists and anthropologists. Similarly, Akerlof is getting high fives for the Soc 101 observation that personal identity matters. It’s like a sociologist in 2010 claiming the power and beauty of marginal utility.
  • Econ -> soc: Quantitative sociologists routinely import statistical techniques developed by economists. Game theory pops up from time to time. I think there’s a fair discussion of economic theories of family, crime, politics, and religion in sociology, but I wouldn’t describe these as standard theories in those areas. There are vast areas of the profession where economic theories simply aren’t present (e.g., ethnography, urban studies, life course studies, most social psychology, network analysis).

The bottom line is that there’s a huge gap and little trade. It’s a shame, as I’ve written before, there’s a real potential for fruitful work between sociologists and economists.

Written by fabiorojas

September 23, 2010 at 12:27 am

Posted in academia, fabio

15 Responses

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  1. “Economists often use sociological ideas with some frequency, but they don’t give much credit.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Akos Rona-Tas and Nadav Gabay have an excellent ESR article about this:

    Click to access viewer


    Ted Hirsch

    September 23, 2010 at 1:42 am

  2. A prominent economist and his coauthor recently wrote a paper whose first line was (paraphrased), “this is the first study of X’s effect on Y”. Their paper came out more than 6 months after they were sent, and acknowledged the receipt of, a reprint of an AJS paper from 5+ years earlier that studied X’s effect on Y. “Disciplinary blinders” seems a rather kind interpretation.



    September 23, 2010 at 2:22 am

  3. i actually agree with Wolfers that, jokes about can openers notwithstanding, sociologists cite a reasonable amount of econ and this greatly exceeds the opposite flow. i just counted and my last publication had 21 citations to economists (out of about 60 total citations). that was mostly because we were trying to import a model from econ (actually, re-import it as Stinchcombe anticipated the econ lit), but i cite economists even when i’m not explicitly doing the intellectual brokerage thing. for instance the article i have out for review now is pretty hardcore sociology, but it still has 7 citations to econ.

    has anybody who has been playing with web of science or google scholar give us some actual hard numbers on this?



    September 23, 2010 at 5:42 am

  4. Gabriel: When it comes to citation counts, I’d easily believe it. Sociologists will cite just about anyone in any discipline. Economists seem pretty stingy. Multiple friends in economics have been warned that citing too many non-economists is seen as bad form in a paper. Getting economists to cite anything by a non-economist is hard.

    I have literally had conversations that went like this with economists:

    Me: “Have you ever considered the effect of X on Y?”

    Econ: “No, why would it be important?”

    Me: “The intuition goes likes this….”

    Econ: “That’s not what economists think.”

    Me: “Sure, but it’s been explored in another area.”

    Econ: “I haven’t seen it in an econ journal or used as a variable in an econometric model.”

    Me: “True, but that doesn’t mean that people haven’t learned something about this topic in other fields.”

    Econ: “It’s not what I’ve read in economics journals.”

    At that time, I give up and realize that I’m stuck in the “news for parrots” sketch.



    September 23, 2010 at 5:52 am

  5. The parrots sketch:



    September 23, 2010 at 5:55 am

  6. sociologists cite a reasonable amount of econ and this greatly exceeds the opposite flow

    To keep with the original metaphor, the question (as krippendorf’s comment makes clear) is more whether official statistics accurately capture actual flows of goods and services. It would seem not.



    September 23, 2010 at 1:33 pm

  7. Another possible independent variable to consider:

    Clearly, the marginal cost of importing an idea from an article in a sociology journal is greater than importing one from economics. Just compare the excess verbiage in AJS/ASR or worse, Sociological Theory to AER/QJE/JPE.



    September 23, 2010 at 5:19 pm

  8. One factor I think is being glossed over: many teachers in both disciplines still see “the social” and “the economic” as different objects of study/spheres of knowledge. Students in one discipline are discouraged from venturing into what is perceived as the work of the other. In other words, sociologists are trained to avoid economic analyses, and viceversa.



    September 23, 2010 at 5:33 pm

  9. A few comments on this:

    1. Here ( is an analysis of cross-citation patterns among Econ, Soc, and PoliSci, which I did in 2003. It would be interesting to update it. I would actually hypothesize that there has been an uptick in citations by economics to sociology in the recent period, largely driven by the increased influence of network ideas in economics. To be clear though, this does not mean that there has been a significant increase of serious engagement and extension of due credit to sociologists; it’s just that the base rate was so low that a few ceremonial citations should generate a modest increase.

    2. I have a lot of experience at the boundary of sociology and economics, and unfortunately much of it is painfully consistent with this thread (including several versions of krippendorf’s story). At the same time, one of the best things about working in a bschool has been the many productive exchanges I have had with economists. I am positive that I do better sociology today because of these experiences.

    3. As I suggest in that piece cited above, we sociologists should hardly be surprised by economists’ aversion to citing sociologists. There is an well-known status hierarchy to the social sciences and we all know who is above whom. This doesn’t excuse economists’ behavior, bit it certainly goes a long way towards explaining it. And it also raises the question of whether we are actually so much better-behaved. In particular, there are still lower rungs on the social-scientific ladder than sociology– essentially among applied areas. The test (perhaps just hypothetical due to the difficulty of generating an apples-to-apples comparison) is whether we behave any differently towards these guys than do economists towards us. I certainly can think of many examples of sociologists who blithely ignore work in their domain of interest simply because they know they can get away with ignoring it. Oh, what’s that you say? We’re more justified in ignoring work in those areas because it invariably sucks and who has the time to wade through it to find something useful? Hmm… sounds familiar, right? (see S’s comment above)



    September 23, 2010 at 10:49 pm

  10. No to distract from the interesting discussion on knowledge trading, but I just wanted to say that Akerlof is a good guy, and his open mindedness has made him the target of sociologists trying to reeducate him for a long time. To wit, from page 5 of Akerlof’s lecture linked by fabiorojas:

    “The description of what people are maximizing gives a way to classify how firms and consumers both behave. It classifies their motivations. But economists’ characterization of these motivations is now very narrow. This was pointed out at the beginning of the Twentieth Century by Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto said that economists missed important aspects of motivation. According to Pareto people typically have opinions as to how they should, or how they should not, behave. They also have views on how others should, or should not, behave. Their views about how they and others should behave depends also upon who people think they are.

    [b]Sociologists would say that it depends upon their identity.[/b]

    This means that they lose utility insofar as they, or others, fail to live up to these beliefs regarding what people should or should not do.

    [b]Such notions are central to motivation in modern sociology.[/b] But they are absent from economists’ representations of utility. People’s views of how they, and others, should or should not behave, are called norms.”

    See, he gives us credit. I would even say that, since our postmodern abandonment of normative theory in sociology, Akerlof is taking norms as seriously as we are.

    But of course he then tries to reduce identity and norms to an argument in a utility function. Haverford College sociologist Mark Gould has an excellent econ soc curriculum about how economists’ attempts to introduce sociology is doomed to failure because of the logical structure of economic theory, even if they want to. He has a similar piece in print about how economist’s attempts to engage normative theory demolishes everything it touches (a bad bad thing for legal principles like fiduciary responsibility). But that’s in a volume about Parsons, so sociologists aren’t likely to pick it up for a while:

    Gould, Mark. 2005. “Looming Catastrophe: How and Why ‘Law and Economics’ Undermines Fiduciary Duties in Corporate Law. In RC Fox, VM Lidz, and HJ Bershady, eds. [i]After Parsons–a theory of social action for the twenty-first century.[\i] Russell Sage Foundation.

    Incidentally, Mark tipped me off to what looks like fun book on the incommensurability of social and market norms ( Maybe we should be happy that sociology is infiltrating econ pop culture. Like Harry said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Plus when they figure it out we can say I told you so.



    September 24, 2010 at 1:55 am

  11. PS, regarding the different citation behavior of sociologists compared to almost everyone else, Moody and Light’s 2006 article “A view from above: The evolving sociological landscape” illustrates this nicely in a visualization of the social science journal network that uses Web of Science data compiled by Loet Lleydesdorff:



    September 24, 2010 at 1:58 am

  12. “After Parsons–a theory of social action for the twenty-first century”

    Tangent – that has actually been on my radar for quite a while. The book has also received favourable reviews. Sociologists aren’t just dismissing it.



    September 24, 2010 at 12:21 pm

  13. I wanted to echo part of what EZ’s comment. One benefit of organizational and economic sociology’s move into b-schools is the degree to which these settings *can* set the stage for more productive conversations across the disciplines. As someone with a foot in a b-school, I know I get exposed to a lot of economists and economics that I wouldn’t be otherwise.


    Benjamin Mako Hill

    October 1, 2010 at 4:12 pm

  14. Austrian economists read sociology. I’m not sure they like what they read though.


    David Hoopes

    October 28, 2010 at 4:29 pm

  15. @Brooks on Sept 24: Unfortunately, I am not the Mark Gould you think I am. Rather than a Sociology professor at Haverford, I am a former law lecturer in the UK. Thanks for spotting my blog though!


    Mark Gould

    December 7, 2010 at 10:41 pm

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