orgtheory.net

what if sociology does not really want to have a public impact? commentary on economics and sociology blogs

A constant point of discussion in the social sciences is the relatively strong position of economics. That profession has more institutional power, higher salaries, and more public visibility than related social science fields. If you ask sociologists who study academic professions, like our own Elizabeth Popp-Berman, Michel Reay, or Marion Fourcade, you will get stories about how economists have the support of the private sector or how their intellectual tools support various interests or state building projects.

I won’t dispute that, but I’d like to offer an additional simple hypothesis: economists want public impact harder than other fields and they actually take the effort to build the tools to allow you to do it. Here’s a few examples:

  • If you take a standard graduate level micro economics class, you learn about social welfare theorems. That provides a simple template for defining and estimating policy impacts. Sociologists want you to know about  Max Weber.
  • Economists have put a huge emphasis on identification of causal effects. It’s now front and center and it helps you determine what actions might be worth doing. Sociologists have long done experiments and they also worry identification, but it’s a second place subject in our methods training and the way we approach things.
  • Economists created the National Bureau for Economic Research … in 1920. They publish papers and their online archive has papers going back to the early 2000s, if not earlier. We have no analog for NBER and SocArXiv started in 2016.

Here’s an example closer to home – blogging. Blogging is literally free and easy to do, and for a short while, sociologists were totally into it. Now? Basically, there is orgtheory, a newly revived Scatter Plot (thanks, Jess!), Soc images, Phil’s Family Inequality, and the Society pages. Norton also runs a sociology blog (Everyday Sociology). The only other very active blog in sociology I can think is Mobilizing Ideas. Randall Collins has a blog, but it runs posts a few times a year and most don’t notice it. If you look at the dozens of blogs listed on the side of this blog, most are defunct or rarely updated. Adding insult to injury, sociology blogs have dead comment sections.

Econ? There is a list of 100 (!) active econ blogs. And we aren’t talking about obscure people – blogs are maintained by folks like Harvard’s Greg Mankiw, Berkeley’s Brad DeLong and Piketty himself runs a blog. Libertarian blogs like Marginal Revolution and Econ Log are also active and draw a vibrant discussion community. These blogs are so active and vital to the informal discussion community in the academy that that Library of Congress (!!) has decided to permanently archive Marginal Revolution and other selected economics blogs as example of important early 21st century intellectual life. The only conclusion I can draw is that economists care more about their ideas and discussing them in public than other fields. Rather than drop blogs when social media became hot, they saw blogs as one tool in a public outreach arsenal.

This leads me to a hypothesis about sociology and its relationship to public impact. Sociologists are into policy and outreach if you can talk about it in the concluding section of a paper, or as a way to show you are cool because you know that DuBois was an activist. But if it involves the continual effort to reach the public, or the grinding work of building institutions to make the impact possible, or doing the messy work of interfacing with the state, non-profits, and other non-academics, they won’t be around. But you can find them retweeting the latest political outrage.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 10, 2019 at 4:21 am

Posted in uncategorized

19 Responses

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  1. At the risk of adding insult to injury: demand for economic commentary drives supply.
    BALTHAZAR

    Liked by 1 person

    BALTHAZAR

    April 10, 2019 at 6:22 am

  2. Perhaps econ blogs have a different “psychological contract”? orgtheory used to have lively and interesting comment sections. They were, as I recall, quite deliberately shut down.

    Liked by 1 person

    Thomas Basbøll

    April 10, 2019 at 7:12 am

  3. Thomas: That is wrong. Comments were not shut down. In the 10+ years of the blog, we only banned three people: one person who repeated the same comment over and over and two who intentionally antagonized others.

    Balthazar: sociologists study really popular things like culture and family. Plenty of demand.

    Liked by 1 person

    fabiorojas

    April 10, 2019 at 12:40 pm

  4. Maybe sociologists are generally more careful about what can actually be done from their works than economists are (this is how it looks like to me but I may be wrong). And also, maybe economists are generally more in favor of a technocracy than sociologists are. Economists seem to give more straightforward advice, to have more confidence in the predictive power of their theories, than sociologists (and maybe more so than their theories can actually predict btw but that’s another story).

    Liked by 3 people

    G Quentin

    April 10, 2019 at 12:47 pm

  5. The irony here is thick. “If you ignore what people who study this thing say, then you’ll find my evidence quite compelling” is the most economist take ever.

    Liked by 2 people

    Nicholas Membrez-Weiler

    April 10, 2019 at 12:49 pm

  6. Fabio: I didn’t mean “shut down” in the literal technical sense. Brayden made it clear what kind of discussion was wanted here, and during that particular episode debate was in fact physically shut down (by disabling comments for a time). Like I say, I think a different “contract” is probably in force at the econ blogs you mention and this may explain why, as you put, “sociology blogs have dead comment sections.” It’s just a hypothesis, from the point of view of someone who was once a lively participant in discussion here and was, for all intents and purposes, told to cut it out. I could be wrong. Maybe that episode doesn’t mark a decisive change in the tone here. But it certainly felt different to me afterwards.

    Liked by 1 person

    Thomas Basbøll

    April 10, 2019 at 1:53 pm

  7. Are there better professional incentives for blogging in economics? In any case, I definitely wish there were stronger professional incentives for sociologists to blog or write for newspapers and popular magazines.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think cost benefit analysis is a much better example than social welfare theorems… I think it’d be great if sociologists did more cost benefit analysis. Yes, it involves simplifying assumptions, but ya know what… that’s life. Do some sensitivity analyses.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Where have you gone, Kieran Healy
    Our discipline turns its lonely eyes to you
    Woo, woo, woo
    What’s that you say, Professor Fabio
    Snarkin’ Healy’s left and gone to Tweet
    Eet, eet, eet
    Eet, eet, eet

    Liked by 6 people

    Aaron Silverman

    April 10, 2019 at 2:21 pm

  10. 1. I think it would be very hard to go through a quantitatively-focused PhD program in Sociology these days and not get a basic training in causal inference. Of course you’re not going to get the econometrics training most economists do, on average, because we’re a heterodox field with a much wider methodological toolbox. Regardless, sociologists unwillingness to jump to causal inference reflects a knowledge that making causal inferences on the types of topics we study using observational data is often foolhardy. This reflects: 1) a methodological restraint economists often lack, and 2) studying topics that lend themselves to quantitative analysis but not necessarily causal inference. These are good things. I’m happy sociologists are more likely to study important problems and questions and find more tentative answers, then decide what to study because based upon the availability of an instrument.

    2. If you think there are only four sociology blogs, well: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=sociology+blogs

    3. “Sociologists are into policy and outreach if you can talk about it in the concluding section of a paper, or as a way to show you are cool because you know that DuBois was an activist.” This is nonsense on both the policy and outreach fronts. Sociologists are active in policy on education research, from early childhood to postsecondary. Writing not only policy papers but providing counsel to policymakers. This is also true in neighborhoods. And gender inequality and segregation. And racial inequality and segregation. And social welfare policy. And family and demography. Honestly — this claim is just disconnected from reality and kind of insulting.

    Liked by 4 people

    erik westlund

    April 10, 2019 at 2:30 pm

  11. […] Yesterday, I suggested that sociology is not as oriented toward policy as it might be, especially in…. The blog post offered some evidence: sociology did not, until recently (see SocArXiv), have institutions that are designed to collect and distribute research like the NBER; sociology does not build standard policy evaluation tools into its curriculum (like cost/benefit for undergrads, or social welfare analysis for grads); sociologists do not make identification a central focus of methods training, although things are changing in some departments. […]

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  12. Thomas: When Brayden intervened via comments, it was really about one or two people who were spiraling out of control. If you got a different message, I apologize. We like civil comments.

    Erik: have you actually typed “sociology blogs” into google? I did and this is what you find:

    – everyday sociology which was mentioned in the post
    – a spammy link to feed spot.
    – a post called “Where are all the sociology blogs?” on Debra Lupton’s blog, which is actually maintained
    – The sociological review… which seems to have stopped up dating in 2018
    – UMD’s blog list, some of which are still active
    – An old (2013) list of blogs, many of which are defunct

    If you are expecting an army of active and maintained blogs, you will be disappointed.

    Liked by 1 person

    fabiorojas

    April 10, 2019 at 5:40 pm

  13. I think this is interesting — particularly about NBER. I do wonder if economists’ greater access to resources via the private sector and greater legitimacy among policymakers and journalists, as opposed to sociologists’ alleged aversion to affecting policy may explain more of economists’ policy involvement and greater visibility in the blogosphere. I would also echo Erik Westlund in pointing out that many sociologists (probably not a majority of us) are actively involved in designing policy or suggesting policy reforms. One example that comes to mind is Doug Massey writing an amicus brief in favor of Affirmative Action in the U. Michigan case years ago. “Crook County” just got the DuBois award and that book is certainly engaged with changing policy. More consequential has been Matt Desmond’s influence on local policymaking related to eviction. Sociologists are frequently quoted in large circulation dailies and are increasingly authoring their own articles in venues like The Atlantic. I think our lesser involvement in policy circles vs. economics likely reflects the fact that government agencies/officials actively seek out (and employ) economists and are more reluctant to engage with sociologists because we (often, though not always) have a critical view of existing policies. I don’t think it is because we do not desire to change the institutions we write about.

    Liked by 1 person

    Joel Stillerman

    April 10, 2019 at 5:48 pm

  14. Fabio: No worries. I disagree with you (as I did at the time) that anything was “spiralling out of control”. What was happening is regular fare on the econ blogs that you (if I may) envy. Some people were telling other people in plain terms that they thought they were wrong. Whatever the intention, I wonder if you agree that the comment section here “died” as a result of that incident. If so, I’m just suggesting an explanation. A sociological explanation, if you will.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Yes, by all means, let’s relitigate “who killed the sociology blogs?” We could name names of bad faith commenters — Fabio clearly has one of the all-time bad actors in mind above — or we could talk about how so many of the soc bloggers had thin skin. (One of the bloggers here regularly exploded when criticized…it got so embarrassing that someone obviously told him to walk away from the site.) But, in the main, the issue seems to be that people grew up and found they had bigger fish to fry. The fact that things may be different in econ may speak more to incentives in each field than to “lack of hard work” or an perverse desire to *not* have a “public impact.”

    Liked by 1 person

    Sean Borren

    April 10, 2019 at 7:04 pm

  16. Demand creates supply, i.e., given that economists head large organizations and government agencies, and play key roles as advisors to presidents, there are plenty of incentives to get your research out there – you may influence these bodies, or even wind up in one yourself.

    Liked by 2 people

    BALTHAZAR

    April 10, 2019 at 9:12 pm

  17. I cannot speak for the discipline, but I can speak for myself. I am a sociologist who uses my disciplinary training to try to make a public impact. But I do not do so via a sociology blog. I do so by doing the real work–by giving testimony to my state legislature, testimony in which I can use my credentials, my authority, and my voice to signal-boost arguments that might otherwise go ignored when made by others who are fighting in the trenches. If we want to have an impact, we need to speak truth to power, not just shout at each other into some Internet void.

    Liked by 1 person

    Mikaila

    April 11, 2019 at 2:54 am

  18. Mikaila. By “blog” I was thinking of mine: https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ I slowed down on content when I got busy, but I try to post policy-relevant stuff. I try to use the blog to write the “public” version of academic findings and to engage public issues. As you may know I also have done the kind of local work you are talking about.

    Liked by 2 people

    olderwoman

    April 11, 2019 at 3:20 am

  19. […] Had as Much Influence as Economists?” or, more recently, by a sociologist him/herself: “What if Sociology Does Not Really Want to Have a Public Impact?“). From the point of critics, the latest launch of the “Economics for Inclusive […]

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