economics and sociology, part cdlxvii: comments on a blog post by noah smith
A few weeks ago, economics columnist Noah Smith wrote a blog post about how economics should raid sociology. This raises interesting questions about how academic disciplines influence each other. In this case, why has sociology not been a good a receptor for economics?
I start with an observation, which Smith also alludes to: Sociology has already been “raided” by economics with only moderate success. In contrast, economists have done very well raiding another discipline, political science. They have done fairly well in establishing pockets of influence in public policy programs and the law schools. By “success,” I do not mean publishing on sociological topics in economics journals. Rather, “success” means institutional success: economists should be routinely hired sociology programs, economic theory should become a major feature of research in graduate programs, and sociological journals should mimic economics journals. All of these have happened in political science but not sociology.
Here’s my explanation – Sociology does not conform to the stereotype that economists and other outsiders have of the field. According to the stereotype, sociology is a primarily qualitative field that has no sense of how causal inference works. In some accounts, sociologists are a bunch of drooling Foucault worshipers who babble endlessly in post-modern jargon. Therefore, a more mathematical and statistical discipline should easily establish its imprint, much as economics is now strongly imprinted on political science.
The truth is that sociology is a mixed quantitative/qualitative field that prefers verbal theory so that it can easily discuss an absurdly wide range of phenomena. Just open up a few issues of the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology or Social Forces. The modal article is an analysis of some big N data set. You also see historical case studies and ethnographic field work.
It is also a field that has import traditions of causal identification, but does not obsess over them. For example, in my department alone, there are three faculty who do experiments in their research and one who published a paper on propensity scores. Some departments specialize in social psychology which is heavily experimental, like Cornell. There are sociologists who work with data from natural experiments (like Oxford’s Dave Kirk), propensity scores (like IU’s Weihua an), and IV’s (I actually published one a while ago). The difference between economics and sociology is that we don’t reward people for clever identification strategies or dismiss observational data out of hand. If possible, we encourage identification if it makes sense. But if an argument can be made without it, that’s ok too.
So when economists think about sociology as a non-quantitative field, they simply haven’t taken the time to immerse themselves in the field and understand how it’s put together. Thus, a lot of the arguments for “economic imperialism” fall flat. You have regression analysis? So does sociology. You have big N surveys? We run the General Social Survey. You have identification? We’ve been running experiments for decades. One time an economist friend said that sociology does not have journals about statistical methods. And I said, have you heard of Sociological Methodology or Sociological Research and Methods? He’s making claims about a field that could easily be falsified with a brief Google search.
In my view, economics actually has one massive advantage over sociology but they have completely failed to sell it. Economists are very good at translating verbal models into mathematical models which then guide research. The reason they fail to sell it to sociology is for a few reasons.
First, economists seem to believe that the only model worth formalizing is the rational actor model. For better or worse, sociologists don’t like it. Many think “formal models = rational actor model.” They fail to understand that math can be used to formalize and study any model, not just rational choice models.
Second, rather than focus on basic insights derived from simple models, economists fetishize the most sophisticated models.* So economists love to get into some very hard stuff with limited applied value. That turns people off.
Third, a lot of sociologists have math anxiety because they aren’t good at math or had bad teachers. So when economists look down at them and dismiss sociology as whole or qualitative methods in particular, you loose a lot of people. Instead of dismissing people, economists should think more about how field work, interviews, and historical case studies can be integrated with economic methods.
I am a big believer in the idea that we are all searching for the truth. I am also a big believer in the idea that the social sciences should be a conversation not a contest of ego. That means that sociologists should take basic economic insights seriously, but that also means that economists should turn down the rhetoric and be willing to explore other fields with a charitable and open mind.
** For example, I was once required to read papers about how to do equilibrium models in infinite dimensional Banach spaces. Cool math? Sure. Connection to reality? Not so sure.