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should sociologists copy economists? no, but we could certainly learn from them

A few months ago, I gently chided scolded like a drill sergeant sociologists for not building a platform for creating policy influence. I noted that economists taught policy analysis in the curriculum, hired economist PhDs with policy experience, founded organizations to spread economic ideas and sociologists … kind of didn’t.

People have asked me many times since then, “do we need to copy economists?” My answer is “you can learn a lot from them.” Notice that I did not say that we need to completely mimic them. That would be crazy as economics is simply different than sociology. They are essentially applied decision scientists while sociologists have a more holistic and multi-method approach. Economists are very comfortable in the halls of power and sociologists tend to be oppositional in attitude.

Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a lot. What are the lessons? Here are a few simple ones:

  • Actionable proposals matter: Sociologists are very good at being critics, but they often lack proposals, beyond taxing the rich more. For example, a million sociologists can document racial discrimination at work but precious few actually conduct studies actually trying to reduce it. They exist, of course, but are rare. In economics, there are tons and tons of people in various areas who obsessively focus on policy effects. You could fill a small stadium with economists who’ve studied minimum wage laws, for example.
  • Pessimism is poison, optimism sells: To have policy influence, you need to believe that there is something that can be done that actually helps. Right now, sociologists are so pessimistic about various social problems that it seems as if they believe that no improvement is possible. Returning to study of race, for example, many sociologists believe that racism has not actually improved over time. Similarly, many inequality scholars seem to resist the well documented fact that poverty has gone down in the last few decades. In contrast, economists mainly believe that economic growth has occurred and have all kinds of proposals for increasing it. Who would you buy policy advice from – the person who believes nothing has changed or the person who wants to help extend positive trends?
  • Teach it: This is a no brainer. Sociology programs should have courses called “Sociology and Policy.” Some do. Most don’t.
  • Hire People with Non-Academic Experience: Economics programs routinely hire people post-PhD with experience at the Fed, the World Bank, and other agencies. In contrast, sociologists rarely hire anyone who has left the tenure track. It happens, but it is rare.

Bottom line: Sociology has a lot to offer and we don’t need to mindlessly mimic other fields. At the same time, if your neighbor is building a sweet house, maybe you should wander over and check things out.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 29, 2019 at 2:42 am

Posted in uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Why? I distinctly remember something Gabriel Rossman said on an episode of “The Annex” podcast.

    > Everything wrong with sociology is because sociologists want it that way.

    If you wanted to make a difference as a sociologist you’d leave sociology, or become a liminal member of the sociological project, after your Ph.D. You’d try for a job in a policy school, or go into non-academic research at a think tank or in government where there’d be a greater chance of policy relevant research effecting policy. Or maybe go into public health. Sociology as a discipline is so politically one sided that any Republican talking to an academic sociologist would be well advised to think

    “Why is this person, who is my enemy, and wishes harm on me, my political constituency and the people I care about and represent, giving me this advice?”

    That’s how overwhelmingly lopsided sociology is as an academic discipline and in the minds of politicians and their staff who consume research. There are plenty of left wing economists and even a substantial number of political scientists but sociology is barely less hostile to the right than anthropology and tending more that way by the year.

    Also, where are the resources for this shift going to come from? If they appeared there’d be plenty of sociologists willing to jump on the funding. It’s not like there’s a shortage of good to great sociologists who can’t get jobs, in any sub field. But there’s no money, in part because of the retreat from policy relevance that’s been ongoing since at least the ‘70s. Why would funders allocate money to sociologists when there’s limited proof that sociologists can even do policy research, when economists look at the entire social world already and go

    “Yeah, I can have a crack at that research question. I have the methodological and statistical tools to do it, and there’s already a literature to mine for insights.”

    That’s what economics imperialism is about; their confidence in their methods and the person decades of research that have already gone into any arbitrary Economics of X subfield. I read a macroeconomist yesterday bemoaning the relative fall in macro’s share of economics research as what he called causal inference studies increases. Economists have been thinking about how to deal with messy real world data for a long time. Sociology doesn’t even really have its own in-house statistical experts to deal with the kinds of problems they deal with. Sociology lacks an equivalent of econometrics. Compared to even political science there’s just not the focus on figuring out what *exactly* causes what, how, and how much. Sociologists are all about the mechanism, and the channels of the mechanism but the strength of effects is comparatively neglected.

    Liked by 1 person

    Barry

    July 29, 2019 at 7:43 am

  2. Prior to 1980, sociology had more sway in policy circles than economics. 1980 brought the Reagan era and the rise of Milton Friedman as a public intellectual. Economics eagerly stepped up to argue that the welfare state should be shrunk and that this move was good for the state, taxpayer, and even the former benefit recipient. I wouldn’t want sociology to mimic that aspect of economics but there are plenty of issues for sociologists to take the lead on: gender and bathrooms, gender and amateur athletics, the social aspects of diet and nutrition, learning in groups as opposed to just individual effort, studying the social construction of economic processes rather than just pretending they arise from an abstract market, etc. People should trust sociology more because we don’t use overly simplistic econometric modelling. As for statistics, sociologists need to stop cramming stats into bad social psychological studies and we need to emphasize our strengths in qualitative research. The best stats people are not in the social sciences.

    Liked by 1 person

    Dr. Kevin Lynn

    July 30, 2019 at 12:04 am


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