christakis 1, gelman 0

The plaintiff: Andrew Gelman – fellow blogger and poli sci pugilist. The defendantNicholas Christakis – sociologist, physician, tweeter.  The claim: Christakis wrote the following, which made Gelman, like, really mad:

The social sciences have stagnated. They offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years: sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology and political science. This is not only boring but also counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge. . . .

I’m not suggesting that social scientists stop teaching and investigating classic topics like monopoly power, racial profiling and health inequality. But everyone knows that monopoly power is bad for markets, that people are racially biased and that illness is unequally distributed by social class. There are diminishing returns from the continuing study of many such topics. And repeatedly observing these phenomena does not help us fix them.

Gelman’s complaint? It’s a little hard for me to understand, but he doesn’t like the fact that Christakis said that we have really beat some topics into the ground and that maybe we should expand a little:

Regarding the question of illness being distributed by social class: Is it really true that “everybody knows,” for example, that Finland has higher suicide rates than Sweden, or thatforeign-born Latinos have lower rates of psychiatric disorders. These findings are based on public data so everybody should know them, but in any case the goal of social science is not (just) to educate people on what should be known to them, but also to understand why. Why why why. And also to model the effects of potential interventions.

Christakis is making a point about the maturity of research topics, not public knowledge of specific results. For example, the “SES gradient” is one of the most well established results in all of health research. It appears in every single sociology of health class and it is not easy (though certainly not impossible) to find a health condition where SES (or income or status) doesn’t affect the likelihood of contracting the condition or recovering. In other words, if you know anything about sociology or health, you know this finding and it is very, very, very well established.

Of course, within any field, there are notable puzzles, like the finding that immigrants (in the US) tend to be healthier than second generation people. I’m a bit puzzled by the importance of  the suicide fact. Perhaps suicide is an exception, but I believe the SES gradient enough that I’d wager that for many important health conditions that (a) SES within Finland (or Sweden) makes a big difference or (b) that wealthy countries do better on the condition that poor countries (e.g., Finland v. Sweden is probably not as important as Finland v. Gambia or Guatemala).

Gelman raises the issue of causation, and once again, it seems like he’s missing the point. Christakis is not suggesting that people stop investigating causes. Rather, it’s about the relative amount of effort. Hundreds of papers have attempted to explain the SES gradient in one way or another. In fact, it’s come to the point that if I see a talk that is about SES and health, I can nearly always predict the tables and coefficients – and I’m not even a specialist on the topic. This suggests that the marginal benefit of yet another study on the SES gradient is likely to be small. Instead, maybe people should look into new areas of inquiry unless you have a really, really, really amazing way to get at causation.

Judgment: The Court of Orgtheory finds against the plaintiff and in favor of meeting some new people.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 22, 2013 at 4:53 am

Posted in blogs, fabio, research, sociology

19 Responses

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  1. It is strange that the three specific research areas that Christakis objects to, “monopoly power, racial profiling and health inequality” are all ones that challenge existing disparities. Why not less politicized examples? And then to suggest replacing fields like sociology with “behavioral genetics”? At a minimum, it is tone def to how this would be received within the social sciences.

    Also strange to focus on health inequality when that is a major area where people across campuses are working on the same problem. In fact, I would wager that more research on health disparities happens outside of the social science than inside of them. For example, here’s the most cited works of the last five years on “health disparities” according to Google Scholar.,34

    Lots of medicine and public health, with just a sprinkle of social science.


    neal caren

    July 22, 2013 at 11:47 am

  2. The op-ed actually included three different bad ideas. The first is that social science department should be narrower rather than broader. So behavioral genetics instead of sociology. The second is that we should stop studying inequality because we already know it exists. The third is that we need to bring more biology into social science. Each of these could be its own separate discussion.


    Philip N. Cohen

    July 22, 2013 at 12:55 pm

  3. I generally like the tone of Christakis: lets not get caught up with institutional structures because they may as much hinder us as they help us. I am not particularly sure that all the work that goes on in Europe around sociological classics is producing much insight. There are many interesting development and questions that can remain unaddressed unless we invent new identities. However, I would suggest that organization theory has been quite effective in this, coming up with topics such as organizational ecology/demography, work on organizational routines (spanning arguably economics, cognitive psychology, and sociology), all the network stuff, and even the whole topic of leadership. Entrepreneurship scholars have been trying all kinds of innovative disciplinary combinations from cognitive ‘recognition’ stuff to genetics (although I am not sure they have broadly speaking contributed very much yet).
    I am not so sure about particulars of the suggestions either, both in terms of what is wrong and what is good. I have to admit I never understood the point of evolutionary psychology very well. I just cannot see how untestable theories of why we as a species became to be what we are adds much value to actually studying what we are like (although the arguments make great news stories — like that our brains developed to win arguments and not to be correct). Also, isn’t ‘behavioral economics’ mostly just a natural expansion of cognitive psychology with a somewhat new identity?



    July 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm

  4. Big Z

    July 22, 2013 at 4:21 pm

  5. I agree that we have enough descriptive statistics about health inequality, but also that we don’t have nearly enough knowledge on the “why?” questions. By “why”, I’m referring to mechanisms that connect the causes to the effects.

    One of thechallenges, however, is that mediation analysis is what you primarily need if you’re going to start answering the “why” questions. In psychology departments, you may not take a class on mediation but you will be expected to know how to conduct a mediation analyses by the time you get your PhD. In sociology departments, as far as I can tell, mediation analyses is likely to be neglected as part of the curriculum, so entire cohorts of graduate students end up not even knowing that mediation analysis exists as a technique. (Or the outdated Baron and Kenny method is briefly covered).

    I can’t speak for economics, business, anthropology, and the other social sciences, but I’d be curious to know what the situation is there. I’m also speaking from personal experience, which is limited, so if anyone has data on mediation and sociological education, please share!


    Chris M

    July 22, 2013 at 4:21 pm

  6. I just did a Google Scholar search for the phrase “mediation analysis” in journals that have either “sociology” or “sociological” in their title. I limited my analysis to the years 2009-2013. Total number of articles: 16.

    I realize that many sociology journals, like Social Forces, don’t have “sociology” in their title. But seriously, 16?


    Chris M

    July 22, 2013 at 4:27 pm

  7. I was greatly irritated by Nicholas Chistakis column when I read it. It was not about “meeting new people,” or allowing new research areas to flourish. I am all for that It was a political statement deploying the rhetorical framing that natural science should be a model for the social sciences and that we should privilege those areas at the intersection of natural and social science. Christakis argued:

    “So social scientists should devote a small palace guard to settled subjects and redeploy most of their forces to new fields like social neuroscience, behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology and social epigenetics, most of which, not coincidentally, lie at the intersection of the natural and social sciences. Behavioral economics, for example, has used psychology to radically reshape classical economics.”

    As a practitioner and advocate of the interdisciplinary study of social networks, an area with increasing participation of natural and social scientists, Christakis statements are also self-serving.

    His argument about diminishing returns of certain research areas seems quite ill-informed.

    “Everyone knows that monopoly power is bad for markets?” Tell that to Michael Porter who turned a theory of monopoly power (bad) into a theory of “sustainable competitive advantage” (which is taught as something desirable). And we know relatively little about monopoly power in dynamic markets. Monopoly power is not a fashionable topic these days but I would argue that we need more not less research in this area.

    As for everyone knowing that people are racially biased, I found that statement quite ironic given the long discussion here at orgtheory,net regarding the Zimmerman case and whether or not racial bias was a factor in GZ’s actions and in the verdict. Even if the academic consensus is that “people are racially biased,” does that mean we should stop focusing on when and how racial bias is salient or not and whether it is consequential for decision making and inequality of outcomes? The point that racial biases are omnipresent only begin to scratch the surface of an extremely complex issue.

    While it is probably true that inequality is a central focus of sociological research, it seems hardly true more generally in the social sciences. Economists barely study inequality. As neal caren suggests, it is perhaps “strange” that Christakis seems to be saying that inequality is a settled subject and should receive less research focus (and implicitly resources).


    William Ocasio

    July 22, 2013 at 4:44 pm

  8. The new academic departments in the hard sciences are the result of new discoveries and tools. I am not sure that new academic departments in the social sciences will be as fruitful.



    July 22, 2013 at 5:08 pm

  9. […] York Times op-ed, “Let’s Shake up the Social Sciences.” Fabio Rojas scores the exchange for Christakis, but his commentators provide convincing rebuttals to Rojas. Once […]


  10. Quoting from Professor Christakis:

    “It is time to create new social science departments that reflect the breadth and complexity of the problems we face as well as the novelty of 21st-century science. These would include departments of biosocial science, network science, neuroeconomics, behavioral genetics and computational social science..

    …We have not yet changed the basic DNA of the social sciences. Failure to do so might even result in having the natural sciences co-opt topics rightly and beneficially in the purview of the social sciences.”

    Where is the potential for co-optation? I completely fail to see it. Exactly what are the findings made in the above fields that have amounted to more than confirmations of previously formulated theories in fields like sociology, anthropology and psychology?



    July 22, 2013 at 5:24 pm

  11. […] York Times op-ed, “Let’s Shake up the Social Sciences.” Fabio Rojas scores the exchange for Christakis, but his commentators provide convincing rebuttals to Rojas. Once […]


  12. sfer raises a good point. Christakis may be confusing cause-and-effect when he argues that institutionalizing new fields of inquiry will result in greater innovation.



    July 22, 2013 at 6:54 pm

  13. I very much appreciated sfer’s comment about the possible flipping of causation and correlation in the formation of new scientific fields (e.g. materials science emerges in part because of the electron microscope, not the other way around).

    Similarly, where is the evidence that social scientists aren’t starting new departments or engaging in new kinds of interdisciplinary research? For example, and for better or for worse, business schools now employ tons of social scientists (largely economists, but also a smattering of psychologists and sociologists). Policy schools are dominated by social scientists. Schools of information have them as well. And so on. Do these fields – either new, or newly run by social scientists as opposed to practitioners – not count because they tend to be applied rather than theoretical? Do area studies and science studies not count because they made alliances with the humanities and not the natural sciences? Etc.


    Dan Hirschman

    July 22, 2013 at 8:26 pm

  14. I think there are problems with Christakis’s argument, but it isn’t those that Gelman makes. It’s certainly worth pointing out that social sciences are largely contextual disciplines, affected by culture such that “closing the book” on certain topics doesn’t work in quite the same way as physics and chemistry (which has some real implication for his solution to just start new departments). But if we’re trying to advocate real change, why choose are the unit of analysis the “department” – a sort of bureaucratic/political historic holdover from and era when scholarly collaboration and only worked when your collaborator was right down the hall? Here’s a thoughtful response to the article along those lines:


    Russ C.

    July 22, 2013 at 11:56 pm

  15. Incidental note: the Tuesday 12:30 thematic session at ASA includes a real, live, mainstream behavioral geneticist (Eric Turkheimer). Come see what all the hullabaloo is about.

    One thing that’s illustrative from the example of behavioral genetics is that there are only a few places that have department-like concentrations of behavioral geneticists (in the US, Boulder, UVA/VCU, MInnesota, maybe one or two others), and those places exert an influence on the field that is wildly disproportionate even when you take the number of people into account. Same thing can be said about demography. For the purposes of advancing science, it seems plain that it makes more sense to have a smaller number of places with a higher concentration of people. It’s only for undergrad pedagogy that it makes sense to have a model where you’d spread people around so that departments have lots of people have one or two people in a large number of different specialties with only modest overlap with one another.



    July 23, 2013 at 3:27 am

  16. I find it incredibly ironic that @WilliamOcasio posted a statement like “economists barely study inequality” the same day there’s a major nytimes spread and econ blog explosion on Raj Chetty and colleague’s work on the geographic correlates of social mobility.

    The fact is that economists – and even mainstream economists – really care about these issues. Reading that work, all I could think is “why wasn’t a study like this done by sociologists”. I don’t know if others had a similar reaction.



    July 23, 2013 at 8:16 pm

  17. Jacob Model: “I find it incredibly ironic that @WilliamOcasio posted a statement like “economists barely study inequality’ the same day there’s a major nytimes spread and econ blog explosion on Raj Chetty and colleague’s work on the geographic correlates of social mobility.

    The fact is that economists – and even mainstream economists – really care about these issues.”

    Perhaps I overstated the point by using the word “barely.” During the last 15 years prominent applied economists at top schools have taken interests in issues of inequality, for example Raj Chetty at Harvard and Emmanuel Saez at Berkeley. It is now again a legitimate subject in ways that were not so in the 1970s and 1980s, when economists who studied inequality like Lester Thurow were viewed as out of the mainstream. Poverty is also now again a legitimate topic in economics with stars like Esther Duflo at MIT.

    Economics is now a more open field than it used to be and the effects of behavioral economics have been quite positive.

    While it is an empirical question, in my experience the great majority of economic research still privileges interest in efficiency, macroeconomic stability, and economic growth over concern with income and wealth inequality. This is really the point I wanted to make.

    If you look at Raj Chetty’s own work, only part of which is about inequality, he typically relies on social welfare theory in economics to evaluate policy desirability, which is based on Pareto efficiency, rather than concern with inequality.

    As per my own work, we live in a world that privileges the market logic with its concern with economic efficiency. And the concentration of income and wealth in the United States has increased significantly during the last 30 years.

    I am glad to be reminded that not all economists have abandoned an interest in inequality and that excellent research is being done in this area. But in my judgment we need more, not less, and that is not what I undertstand to be the implications of Christakis views in his op ed.


    William Ocasio

    July 23, 2013 at 10:04 pm

  18. “I find it incredibly ironic that @WilliamOcasio posted a statement like “economists barely study inequality” the same day there’s a major nytimes spread and econ blog explosion on Raj Chetty and colleague’s work on the geographic correlates of social mobility.”

    Sorry to go off-topic, but can anyone provide a link to this editorial?



    July 23, 2013 at 10:11 pm

  19. Actually, until very recently, economists didn’t study inequality that much. Anthony Atkinson – one of the outliers who did study inequality for a long time and is now involved in the Piketty and Saez top incomes project – argued just that in his 1996 presidential address to the Royal Economics Society, “Bringing Income Distribution in From the Cold.” Things have changed a bit in the past 10 years, but even so, his main critique is still largely valid:
    “Taking all journals and books together, there is, of course, a large number of articles on income distribution. If one types in the key words ‘income distribution’ to the EconLit database 1969-6/1995, then one comes up with 4,549 entries. (In contrast, ‘international trade’ generates twice as many entries.) But if one examines these, one discovers that a large proportion deal with development economics. This is clearly of great importance, but here I am concerned with OECD countries. A sizeable number deal with the impact of income distribution on other variables. There are articles on the statistical evidence about distribution and about the measurement of inequality; there are articles on the redistribution of income and social security. But what I missed when I read through these entries is research which ties income distribution centrally into analysis as to how the economy works. What is the connection between income inequality and the macro-economic variables that are centre stage in most economic debate? What is the inter-relationship between economic performance and income distribution? How can we use economic theory to explain what is happening to the incomes of individuals, families and households?”

    So, yes, economists do talk here and there about inequality. But it is not, and has not been for many decades, a central topic in economics. If you want more details, I’m happy to circulate a draft of a paper I’m working on about the history of economists ignoring personal income distribution.


    Dan Hirschman

    July 23, 2013 at 10:53 pm

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