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.