it’s the economists, stupid

Orlando Patterson probably didn’t write the title of his Chronicle piece, “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant.” But it’s great clickbait, even if, as Jeremy noted over at scatterplot, the sociology self-hate “gets frankly tiresome.”

Patterson makes some fair points. But framing the question as “why sociologists failed” points attention away from a question that’s actually more interesting: “why did economists succeed?”

Patterson does gesture toward the centrality of economics to social policy. He talks about economists’ dominance of the Moving to Opportunity study and notes that, unlike sociologists, they’ve “had their say in debates over incarceration, gangs and violence, high-school dropout rates, chronic unemployment, and socioeconomic disconnection.”

But Patterson puts most of his focus on sociologists, who (he says) have turned away from policy. He reserves some secondary annoyance for the policymakers who have neglected sociology’s insights. But this misses an enormous piece of the story.

Over the past fifty years, while sociology was looking inward, economics became the master policy science. Economics has a powerful set of tools, and lots of meaningful policy insights. But it wasn’t simply natural and inevitable that economics would become the dominant way of thinking about policy, and it didn’t happen overnight. It took decades of work, and there were at least four components to its success.

1. Economists established organizational footholds in government. The Council of Economic Advisers, created in 1946, was the first big success on this front. But there were others. The Planning-Programming-Budgeting System fad of the mid-1960s did not transform budgeting. But it seeded policy planning offices, typically economist-led, in nearly every executive agency. The Congressional Budget Office run by economists, was started in 1975. OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, OIRA, which employs lots of economists, was created in 1980. It’s easier to have a say if you’re already in the room.

2. Economists successfully exported their ideas to law and policy schools. By the early 70s, economics had made substantial inroads into law schools, with most top schools offering a course in economic analysis. Classes on antitrust and regulation had already added substantial economic components. Economics was integral to the creation of public policy programs, which did not exist before the mid-1960s and which were typically organized around a microeconomic core. This didn’t turn lawyers or policy analysts into economists, but it did familiarize them with an economic style of reasoning that their older counterparts hadn’t encountered.

3. Economists linked successful administrative techniques with disciplinary expertise. Cost-benefit analysis is the best example here. It originated (in the U.S.) with engineers carrying out water resources policy. But in the late 50s, economists grounded these bureaucratic practices in the framework of welfare economics. Over the next several decades, economists worked to expand the applicability of cost-benefit analysis by, for example, developing new ways to value life, or to measure the recreational value of natural resources. Economics didn’t invent cost-benefit analysis. But it made it its own, to its own benefit.

4. Over time, economists expanded into more policy domains, encroaching on the turf of competing experts — or converting them. Economists weren’t always go-to experts in education policy, or healthcare policy, or on crime. But over time, they staked claims in these areas. In the process, other types of experts — sociologists, psychologists, natural scientists — lost ground. In antitrust policy, economists not only gained a role for themselves, but converted lawyers to their way of thinking. I don’t want to overstate this; clearly economics has not entirely displaced other disciplines. But, just as clearly, it has gained ground.

This is “how economists succeeded.” I’ll save the question “why were they able to succeed” for another day. But in the meanwhile, what lessons does this hold for sociologists or other experts bemoaning their lack of influence?

Well, first, gaining policy influence is a long process. To be fair, economics had a head start; Barry Katz argues that even during World War II economics was the highest-status of the social sciences. But the work of gradually expanding policy influence took decades. And it took serious institution-building. Creating a new discipline of public policy, for example, required decades of concerted effort.

Second, establishing organizational locations in government is key. Convincing someone to create a new office requiring your expertise seems to be most effective, though you still have to work to make sure the office actually matters. Taking over an existing office appears to be harder. Small offices can make a difference; it doesn’t require a Council of Social Advisers in the White House.

Third, it pays to be opportunistic. Economics didn’t make inroads in all parts of policy at once. Instead, it began with places its insights challenged the status quo, expanded on the back of policy fads, and made successful administrative practices its own. Similarly, other experts might look for the low-hanging fruit — the places their insights are particularly successful at explaining what economics can’t: for sociologists, maybe it’s neighborhood effects; maybe it’s the cultural aspects of poverty.

Finally, this history, in conjunction with conversations with folks who either study or are involved in state- or city-level politics, has increasingly made me think that sociologists are much more likely to have a practical effect by working at subnational levels. Without that national level infrastructure to create a demand for your expertise, sociologists are just not likely to be heard.

Lower-level governments, on the other hand, are often desperate for any knowledgeable experts. And while state and local policy may be less glamorous, a lot of really important decisions are made at that level. So if you want to affect policy in the near term, and aren’t prepare to undertake a multi-decade institution-building project, consider starting somewhere closer to home.

Written by epopp

December 2, 2014 at 1:16 pm

Posted in economics, sociology

14 Responses

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  1. Fair enough for the “how” question but I really wonder the answer of the “why” question.


    Umut Koc

    December 2, 2014 at 3:03 pm

  2. Keep in mind that sociologists DO have major policy influence in SOME countries, so it is not a pure disciplinary effect.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 2, 2014 at 4:16 pm

  3. Fourcade, Ollion and Algan’s recent paper seem to point to some potential explanations (for the US): the discipline is more hierarchical, more homogenous disciplinary-wise. See



    December 2, 2014 at 4:21 pm

  4. Another reason could be that there’s more topical inequality in sociology than economics. In sociology 5% of all “social facts” seem to get 80% of the attention. Economics, despite its maddening assumptions, seems to have less topical inequality.



    December 2, 2014 at 4:46 pm

  5. I agree with the substance of the post. At the fuzzy boundary of “what” and “why” is the very large number of economists employed in US government agencies to collect and analyze mountains of data required under various policies. The BEA is a great example. At one time, there were more economists in USDA than any other government body in the world. Of course, there is Treasury and other likely haunts. Whereas the post implies that economists actively insinuated themselves into the policy apparatus, we find that the demand for economic analysis has been a major feature of the policy process. And since most policies are about making the majority worse off so as to make target populations better off, one needs at least the rudiments of a cost-benefit analysis to get the budgeting right.

    So government reaches out to economists. Think of the OPA during WWII. How many economists were needed to set ration levels, analyze supply curves, and do cost analyses? How many sociologists?



    December 2, 2014 at 5:00 pm

  6. I’ll tackle the “why” one of these days when I’m feeling provocative.

    @OW: Good point. I hear via Twitter that Dutch sociologists have more clout.

    @Randy, on the one hand, I agree that the OPA probably didn’t really need many sociologists. On the other, there are a surprising number of places that seem now seem self-evidently tied to economics but weren’t always. For example, it wasn’t till the 60s that economists started to dominate the Fed: Economics wasn’t central to antitrust policy till the 70s. Cost-benefit could have continued to develop in engineering, though obviously it would have looked different. Some of that data analysis could have been done by people with statistics, rather than specifically economics, skills. So it’s a two-way street: what government needs and how economics evolves, with the relationship between the two strengthening but also changing over time.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 3, 2014 at 2:42 am

  7. Incidentaly, this graph about the salaries of economists, sociologists, and statisticians has been circulating on twitter:

    To epopp’s point, it would be nice to figure out who is employed as a statistician rather than a subject-matter expert.



    December 3, 2014 at 3:20 am

  8. Agreed! If this is not a case of co-evolution, I do not know what one is.



    December 3, 2014 at 3:26 am

  9. I would imagine that economics is altogether less controversial societally because they purport to be a value free social science. Most sociologists who are any good have tended to remind their audience that no research is really value free. So, in short: honesty.



    December 3, 2014 at 9:01 am

  10. Henry Farrell: “While I’ve no doubt that that external markets do play a role, I don’t think that it’s nearly as much of a role as Noah suggests. Instead, I suspect that much of the assumed authority of economists (just like the authority, in certain policy roles, of international relations scholars like myself), is socially constructed. Expertise is not just a matter of raw talent, whether mathematical or otherwise. It’s a matter of legitimation – of being anointed with the proper sacraments associated with publicly acknowledged expertise in a particular topic. And that is, unquestionably the product of a certain kind of politics, a kind of politics that sociologists have a lot of experience in studying.”

    Liked by 1 person

    Umut Koc

    December 3, 2014 at 3:55 pm

  11. Henri, I don’t think economists purport to be value-free. Like sociologists, economists claim to be interested in increasing human welfare well-being, which is a value.



    December 3, 2014 at 7:12 pm

  12. Alan Blinder’s just-published review of Jeff Madrick’s Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World seems relevant here. I think Blinder does a nice job of quickly conveying the point that economists’ influence is actually quite limited:

    “Then think about how often Congress has enacted or raised a carbon tax. Or reduced the tax advantage for homeownership. Or how many cities charge congestion fees (high tolls in peak hours) on their bridges and tunnels. In each of these cases and many more, a huge majority of economists—Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike—not only favors the indicated policy but thinks it axiomatic. Arthur Okun, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under President Lyndon Johnson, wrote forty-four years ago that “on a number of issues, a bipartisan majority of the profession would unite on the opposite side from a bipartisan majority of the Congress.” That hasn’t changed.”

    I think this point is subtle and important to remember in debates about the relative influence of the disciplines. As Beth notes, sociology lost out in part *because* economics won. Winning here means that economists get jobs in government and think tanks, that economic numbers circulate widely and economists are called upon to interpret them, and that economists have a seat at the policymaking table. But “winning” didn’t mean complete dominance, or even a strong link between consensus among economists and the enactment of particular policies. And given the diversity of reasonable positions on many issues (worsened by the rise of partisan think tanks), economics often ends up being a source of legitimating rhetoric as much as a source of independent policy influence.


    Dan Hirschman

    December 3, 2014 at 7:43 pm

  13. Chris, that is not really the same thing. I meant that sociologists acknowledge that their research is driven by values that are subject to political struggles. Increasing human wellbeing is not really very controversial. At least here in Europe.



    December 4, 2014 at 8:28 am

  14. in my limited experience in areas of public policy analysis, point three is crucial: the rise of cost-benefit analysis benefitted economists and vice-versa).

    an ancillary point: communication of research in the 1970s and onward depended increasingly on briefings presented with slides, before long powerpoint slides, that displayed costs and benefits of various policy options. economists often had an edge is designing such briefings. the worst briefings, all cluttered up, were usually by non-economists.

    i’d suggest therefore, exaggeratedly but perhaps not by a lot, that the rise of powerpoint briefings helps explain the rise of economists in policy analysis areas.

    Liked by 1 person

    david ronfeldt

    December 21, 2014 at 8:09 pm

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