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gary becker 1, rational choice haters 0

One of the most striking arguments of Gary Becker’s theory of discrimination is that there is a cost of racial discrimination. If you hire people based on personal taste rather than job skills, your competitors can hire these better works and you work at a disadvantage. I think the strong version argument isn’t right. Markets do not instantly weed out discriminators. But the weak version has a lot of merit. If you truly avoid workers based on race or gender, you are giving away a huge advantage to the competition.

Well, turns out that Becker was right, at least in one data set. Devah Pager has a new paper in Sociological Science showing that discrimination is indeed associated with lower firm performance:

Economic theory has long maintained that employers pay a price for engaging in racial discrimination. According to Gary Becker’s seminal work on this topic and the rich literature that followed, racial preferences unrelated to productivity are costly and, in a competitive market, should drive discriminatory employers out of business. Though a dominant theoretical proposition in the field of economics, this argument has never before been subjected to direct empirical scrutiny. This research pairs an experimental audit study of racial discrimination in employment with an employer database capturing information on establishment survival, examining the relationship between observed discrimination and firm longevity. Results suggest that employers who engage in hiring discrimination are less likely to remain in business six years later.

Commentary: I have always found it ironic that sociologists and non-economists have resisted the implications of taste based discrimination theory. If discrimination in markets is truly not based on performance or productivity, there must be *some* consequence. However, a lot of sociologists have a strong distrust of markets that draws their attention to this rather simple implication of price theory. I don’t know the entire literature on taste based discrimination, but it’s good to see this appear.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 22, 2016 at 12:20 am

noam chomsky > talcott parsons > gary becker > albert einstein

Citation count craziness:

Talcott Parsons has a bigger google scholar citation count than Albert Einstein. So does Gary Becker. And Noam Chomsky. According to gs, Parson’s biggest hit is The Social System (8500 cites). Becker’s is The Treatise on the Family (7800 hits). Chomsky’s Theory of Syntax: 12000! Einstein? A 1935 article on quantum mechanics garners a measily 5400 hits. Loser. So, by the Transitive Law of Citation Impact Scores, I declare Chomsky the most important academic of the 20th century and twice as important as Albert Einstein.

Written by fabiorojas

November 13, 2009 at 4:38 am

dear gary becker


So I was reading Richard Swedberg’s Economics and Sociology, a book of interviews with sociologists and economists talking about the boundary between the two fields. A few questions after reading the Gary Becker interview:

1. At the time of the interview (1990), people expected rational choice theory to become a big deal in sociology, or at least a major competitor to existing pardigms. Major figures like Jim Coleman and Gary Becker were pushing for it, special journal issues were dedicated to it, and a journal was created to promote it. You could also find a fair number of articles in soc journals employing game theory, and a few folks made their reputation doing it like Richard Breen. But rational choice has not become a major program in sociology and even seems to be in the decline, judging by recent dissertations and journal publications. What happened?

2. Gary Becker mentioned the creation of a program of rational choice study at Chicago. Did any soc students actually go through this program? If so, where are they? If not, why did the institutionalization of rational choice fail at Chicago? When I was there, I didn’t even realize we had such a program.

3. Is the current applied micro movement in economics the “rational choice sociology that almost happened?” If so, what are the major theoretical lessons for sociology from that area? Is it a bunch of interesting empirical cases, or are there important theorems and insights of the sort that emerged from earlier applications of microeconomics to politics (e.g., median voter), education (e.g., human capital), or race (e.g., taste based discrimination theory)? Personally, I’m a bit skeptical because much of the theoretical lesson from recent research seems to be that “people respond to incentives,” which I kind of already knew.

4. Parsons not only alienated economists like Becker, Parsons also alienated sociologists. What would Becker say about post Parsons sociology? Modern sociology is filled with discussions of institutions, networks, symbolic and social capital, and a host of other mechanism driven topics might be fruitfully discussed by economists. Parsons is a bogey man that doesn’t even decribe modern sociology. There can’t be more than a few handful of Parsonsians in the leading programs. The journals rarely publish abstract Parsons style theory anymore. Has this change made sociology more accessible and appealing to economists?

Gary, if you have answers, just drop ’em in the comments. Thanks!

Written by fabiorojas

November 14, 2007 at 4:09 am

Posted in economics, fabio, sociology

gary becker, discrimination, and rap music


I was thinking this weekend about an argument made famous by Gary Becker. It goes something like this:

Racial discrimination is a preference reflected in the person’s willingness to pay for the privilege of employing/trading with people of a certain group. If blacks and whites produce equivalent goods, a racist would be willing to pay more for goods & labor produced by whites. If markets are competitive, firms that pay for the privilege of working with only one ethnic group will suffer because competitors can produce cheaper goods because they will refuse to pay the price of discrimination. Therefore, competition will make taste based discrimination (i.e., distinctions made on skin color or ethnicity, not output) unsustainable in the long run.

Fair enough – we can all think of examples of where professed hate for other groups breaks down in the face of competition. Think of all the anti-immigrant folks who eat at cheap restaurants made possible by Mexican migrants.

There is one big issue in Becker’s theory that has always bugged me and I don’t remember seeing it addressed in The Economics of Discrimination. What if the consumer’s utility depends on the racial group of the producer? The theory assumes that the market price of goods is independent of who made it. The theory addresses things like cars. The price doesn’t change depending on whether the buyer knows that Mexicans assembled the car.

If consumers are willing to include the producer’s identity in their utility function, there’s no reason to suspect that there would be any competitive pressure to eliminate taste based discrimination in certain kinds of labor markets. I can easily imagine different kinds of markets where Becker’s argument might not apply. For example, cultural markets might work this way. In certain art or music markets, people seem to value the fact that people from a certain group made a product. Think about blacks in classical music, or white in jazz and hip hop. Or more benignly,many people like buying crafts from poor people in central America, not the local basket weaver. People might like to be served by people from certain groups. Think of people who go only to white doctors or lawyers.

What in Becker’s argument would make me think that taste based discrimination is unsustainable in these situations? In other words, why should I not expect consistent wage gaps among grooving white rappers?

Written by fabiorojas

November 5, 2007 at 4:45 am

Posted in economics, fabio

Gary S. Becker, RIP

Gary Becker passed away this weekend at the age of 83. Becker was among the most influential economists in sociology. He was one of the first economists to use economic theories to explain social phenomena, leading the way for contemporary scholars like Steven Levitt.  Interestingly, I think Becker was less influential in organizational theory, despite doing important work on human capital. Over on the evil twin blog, Peter Klein pays a nice tribute to Becker, mentioning his relationship to organizational economics.

Sociologist are fond of citing Becker for saying that he thought about transferring to sociology in grad school but that he found the subject “too difficult.”  One thing that made Becker stand out from sociologists was that could simplify very complex problems/social phenomena – like discrimination – using a equilibrium model. This is not the sort of thing sociologists would do, and I suspect that most sociologists found the language he used to describe preference maximization offensive, but in a world of formal modeling and rational choice theory, Becker’s perspective was elegant. He helped create a tenuous bridge, along with Jim Coleman, between mathematical sociology and economics.

Reading his Nobel speech this afternoon, I was struck by this insight about the impossibility of Utopian dreams.  Becker reminds us just how precious and valuable our time is, especially in a society where so many of our other wants and needs are satisfied.

Different constraints are decisive for different situations, but the most fundamental constraint is limited time. Economic and medical progress have greatly increased length of life, but not the physical flow of time itself, which always restricts everyone to twenty-four hours per day. So while goods and services have expended enormously in rich countries, the total time available to consume has not. Thus, wants remain unsatisfied in rich countries as well as in poor ones. For while the growing abundance of goods may reduce the value of additional goods, time becomes more valuable as goods become more abundant. Utility maximization is of no relevance in a Utopia where everyone’s needs are fully satisfied, but the constant flow of time makes such a Utopia impossible.

Written by brayden king

May 4, 2014 at 8:30 pm

lunch with gary

Update: Bryan Caplan also discusses this lunch at Econlog.

There have been a lot of wonderful tributes to Gary Becker, who passed away this weekend. In the blogosphere, you have commentary at Marginal Revolution, Econlog, and Mankiw’s blog. Organizations and Markets posted two tributes. Kieran has a very insightful discussion, which draws on Foucault’s reading of the rise of economic thinking, and Brayden’s commentary is worth reading as well.

Here, I’ll relay a story that is a little more personal. In my first or second year of grad school at Chicago, my friend Bryan Caplan was invited to give a talk at an economics department workshop. He came at the invitation of Sam Peltzman. While showing Bryan around campus and getting him to his next meeting, Peltzman said that it would be ok if Bryan’s friend could come to lunch at the faculty club. I readily accepted the invitation.

After we sat down, and I ordered the trout, Peltzman indicated that his friend would be joining us. It was Gary Becker. He just came in and ordered his meal. Now, since Becker was a presence in my building and my econ friends where taking micro with him, I wasn’t surprised. I saw him all the time. But Bryan was a huge Becker fan and was star struck. So much that he fumbled his glass and spilled some water on himself. He denies it to this day, but this is truth.

The conversation started out in a way that kills all your dreams about hanging out with star faculty. Peltzman, I think, was talking about weddings. Bleh. Then, Becker, I think, talked about some home repair. Maybe it was a broken appliance. Double bleh. I was bored silly. Is this what Nobel prize winners talk about over lunch?

I was totally lost in my trout when, finally, the conversation shifted. Things perked up a bit when Becker and Petlzman started to assess some other economist. Some junior professor whose work left them totally unimpressed. This was the first moment that I realized that academia is, at its core, about evaluation. I had never heard professors talk this way about each other. It was all lovey dovey in the class room. But, here, right in front of me, these two professors were shaping the career of some other colleague. Humbling moment.

Then things got really testy when Peltzman and Becker, and Bryan to a lesser extent, started arguing the merits of this funky new paper they’d just read. They were kind enough to summarize it for me: This economist was arguing that abortion legalization resulted in lower crime rates. Really? Why? The people who tend to get abortions are low SES are also the people who tend to have children who grow up to commit crimes. Then, they started thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. As usual, Becker focused on inter-temporal  utility issues. He was worried that abortion didn’t reduce crime because getting abortions didn’t necessarily reduce the number of low SES kids. It might just shift them in time. Peltzman, I think, focused on the econometrics.

As this debate went on, I finished my trout and a few thoughts crossed my mind. First, wow. It’s pretty cool that I can hear such talented people debate such a novel hypothesis. Second, whoever wrote this paper must be a real clever person. The claim is designed to make everyone angry. Liberals would hate it for its implied eugenic policy implication. Conservatives would hate any paper that had a good thing to say about abortion. Third, I was fascinated by the way that Becker and Peltzman picked at the paper in a dispassionate, but sharp, way. It was a real model of critical thinking.

That was the last (and only) time I ever had any serious interaction with Gary Becker. A brief encounter, but one that was that was instructive and memorable. You can read orgtheory articles that are about Becker here.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 5, 2014 at 3:53 am

Posted in economics, fabio, the man

when was the last time an economist rocked the social sciences?

Question: When was the last time an economist had big impact outside economics? It’s been a while. Gary Becker might be the best example, but that was in the 1970s – forty years ago!!! Of course, there are individual papers or research findings that attract interest (e.g., Deaton’s recent work on mortality), but more recent examples of work that change areas outside economics are hard to find. For example, Steve Levitt is hugely popular, but he hasn’t changed the way people think about areas outside of economics. At best, the big message of early 2000s “cute-o-nomics” is that we can try harder to find clean identification in naturally occurring data. Not a bad message, but not epic, either. And a lot of people were kind of doing that already.

More recently, one might think of Daron Acemoglu, for his massive work on development, or Esther Duflo for field experiments. Both are clearly high impact scholars, but I’d guess that they are high impact within specific areas. You don’t see conferences on the theoretical implications of Duflo or Acemoglu on other disciplines, or even on areas outside of their expertise. Their work doesn’t travel the way Becker’s did, or the way game theory or early econometrics did

Why? Unclear to me. In terms of quality, the average economist is probably stronger than in the past. On the other hand, most of the training in economics programs is on model building. Culturally, economists have developed a disdain for other areas, so they have little incentive to produce work that speaks to anyone except themselves. Then, there are financial incentives. If your salary is way above other disciplines, and you have great job prospects, influencing other fields probably isn’t worth your time. The only thing worth your time is really impressing elites within the field. Not a bad thing per se, but it is not the right environment for work that will reverberate across the academy. Maybe the simplest explanation is low hanging fruit – you have a big impact by bringing a simple idea to an adjacent area. Once that is done, all you are left with are hard problems that only insiders care about.

That’s too bad. I love sociology but I also feel excitement and challenge when a major figure steps up and offers a new way forward. I’d like to see more of it. Not just from sociology, but also from other fields.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome

Written by fabiorojas

August 29, 2017 at 12:01 am

how to fight from a minority position in academia

Over the years, I have been asked by people if academia is hospitable toward minorities. Sometimes, they mean racial minorities or sexual minorities. Other times, they mean ideological minorities in the academy. Once, a student confessed to me that she believed she would be excluded due to her religion (Latter-day Saints, in that case). What all these people have correctly observed is that academia can be an unforgiving place. It’s a place where only half of doctoral students ever finish and only half of those make it into the tenure track. Many spend years working as adjuncts and never get a stable position. The basic truth of academia is that supply outstrips demand, so buyers have leeway to discriminate.

Still, unpopular opinions and people are not always doomed. Rather, it means that you can’t take things for granted. You have to be very careful about how you do things. In fact, it is not terribly hard to find cases where minority people and opinions do well. We can look at those cases and learn. In this post, I want to offer some advice for people in the unpopular position.

  • First, be at peace with the fact that there will be a double standards. While complaint may sooth our feelings, bemoaning double standards is not a productive strategy.
  • Second, fight from a position of strength. Example: James Coleman’s famous report went against the grain in sociology and he was hounded for years. However, he won out because he used the best possible data. In fact, that 1966 data is probably a stronger data set for studying school effects than what many use today.
  • Third, do not fight from a position of weakness. Example: The Gentleman from Texas* decided to fight a contentious battle using very weak data. Result? Two sociologists (IU chair Brian Powell and alum Simon Cheng) found that the data contained serious errors. When the analysis is conducted without data errors, the original conclusions do not follow. Even if Powell and Cheng had not found rather obvious errors, The Gentleman from Texas still had to stretch the data to reach his result. I would not stake my personal reputation on such data.
  • Fourth, cultivate a reputation for mainstream excellence. I have often noticed that people who succeed from unpopular positions are also known as people who have really mastered the mainstream of their discipline. Example: Gary Becker. The original econo-troll said more than enough to ruffle feathers, but no one could question his mastery of traditional economics. You need “street cred.”
  • Fifth, be nice. You will need lots of help to succeed. If you are in an unpopular position, you will need even more than the average. Don’t alienate people with rude behavior. These people will help you later in life. A related point – be useful. If you volunteer in the lab, on the journal board, or in other ways, people will like you and help you back.
  • Sixth, don’t hide, but don’t be a flagpole for the freak show. This is a subtle point. Often, people think there is a dichotomy between the “closet” and “flaming.” That is false. There is lots of space in between. You will be surprised. “Fly causal” and they may lower the shield.

Bottom line: Academia is tough on unpopular people. Be smart, be nice, and you may live to tell the tale.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

* Sorry, I can’t write his name because it automatically attracts this insane commenter who once emailed me to tell me that I was responsible for the murder of LBGT people in the Ukraine.

Written by fabiorojas

May 14, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in academia, fabio

“chicago economics,” “chicago sociology,” and “chicago anything else”

Near the end of James Heckman’s lecture on the scholarly legacy of Gary Becker, Heckman argued that Becker was a fine addition to the legacy of “Chicago economics.” He didn’t mean that Becker was a monetarist – the “Chicago school” of Friedman and his followers. Instead, he meant that Becker fit in well with the long tradition of great Chicago economic thinkers including not only free marketers (like Friedman) but also liberals (Paul Douglas), socialists (Oscar Lange), and weirdos (Thorstein Veblen). But what does that mean? Here is what it means:

  1. People know the whole field of economics, they aren’t just narrow specialists.
  2. Economics is not a parlor game. It is important.
  3. Empirical work is important and it is not devalued.

Thumbs up. But let me extend it. This Chicago attitude should extend to the whole of social sciences. People ask me, for example, why I was so damn harsh on the critical realists and the post-modernists. Why? Because what I do is important. It is empirical and it reflects what I’ve learned from absorbing the hard earned lessons of my predecessors. So when I see scholarship sink into a miasma of words, or the toy tinkering with cuteonomics, I can only conclude that the person is here to play games, not figure out how the world works. Excuse me while I get back to work.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 1, 2014 at 12:01 am

questioning the higher education bubble

I was recently quoted in the Huffington Post in a story about Thiel’s claim that higher education is a bubble. I was quoted as one of the skeptics. Later that day, Thomas Gorkey, who teaches at Syracuse, read the article and wrote, I said that higher education wasn’t a bubble in the normal sense of the word because education is not a commodity that you can trade:

This doesn’t seem right to me, but I’d love for you to convince me that I’m wrong! To me it seems that students (and mainly parents) do in fact treat college as a tradable commodity. They trade thousands of dollars (that they don’t have) for an education that is supposed to land them a job that pays even more than what their education cost.

I think this deserves a response. In my response, I relied on a distinction made by the economist Gary Becker: physical capital vs. human capital. Physical capital is some physical object that allows you to produce more goods and services for sale on the market. Human capital is the skill that someone has that allows them to gain income from the market. Becker’s argument was that education resulted in higher income because schools trained people in various skills and thus create human capital.

Now let’s get back to the higher education bubble. When people say “bubble,” they usually mean “an unsustainable rise in prices,” which is often, but not always, due to speculation. The reason that prices have to eventually go down is that the underlying value hasn’t risen. The gap, as I mentioned, is often attributed to speculation. People consistently buy something hoping to quickly sell it off.

Notice that in this description of a bubble, some commodity is circulated and there’s a consistent error that pushes the price up and up each time the commodity changes hands. This describes the housing bubble well. People (including banks) started believing that housing prices would just go up and up, which then justified all kinds of crazy loans. However, college education is a form of human capital. The stuff you learned can’t be transferred to another person, no matter how much they pay. So it can’t be a bubble, at least they way most people talk about bubbles.

Thus, something else is happening in higher education. For a certain segment of the market, there is a huge over investment in human capital. As in some bubbles, people are making some sort of gross over estimation of how much some economic resource is worth. But the difference is that there’s no Ponzi scheme since you can’t sell or transfer your college degree to someone else for an even higher price. Human capital simply can’t be transferred. I agree with Thiel that something is very much wrong in higher education, but it’s not quite analogous to the housing or dot-com bubbles.

Let me end with a few hypotheses about why some people – mainly middle class people sending their kids to private colleges – are paying way to much for college. (a) Can’t say no. (b) They simply don’t understand that their kids won’t make the income to cover the loan. (c) Emulation of the wealthy. (d) Consumption good – they simply value the four years a lot. (e) Myopic preferences – people seriously underestimate long term costs.

Written by fabiorojas

May 15, 2011 at 12:57 am

Posted in economics, education, fabio

nova: mind over money

I couldn’t sleep last night and I thought some wee-hour TV (yes indeed, at 4am) would take care of things.  Boy was I wrong.  I ran into the PBS NOVA documentary Mind Over Money (it appears the documentary was just released a couple days ago, and it’s now online). Be sure to watch it — it’s very good.

The documentary features interesting discussions and debates about the efficiency (and not) of markets, emotions, value and decision-making, rationality, bubbles (housing and tulips), and so forth.   The documentary is peppered with interesting experimental findings, highlights of research and engaging interviews with scholars such as Gary Becker, John Cochrane, Eugene Fama, Jennifer Lerner, Robert Shiller, Richard Thaler, Vernon Smith, etc, etc.

I’m guessing most orgtheory readers are quite familiar with the central issues raised in the documentary, but it’s definitely still worth watching and I can see this documentary being very useful in the classroom.   Good stuff.

Written by teppo

April 29, 2010 at 10:14 am

what should be my twitter strategy?

I think twitter is the bee’s knees, but I haven’t settled on a way to use it. As far as my tweets go, I’m sticking to a once in a while format of shout outs to various people and news blips. But which people should I follow?

  1. my friends – just to check up on them
  2. experts – there are some academic/wonk types who use tweets to bring attention to papers/websites
  3. voyeurism – just follow famous people so see what they’re like (think Gary Becker has a twitter?)
  4. random – apparently people I have no connection to have started to follow my tweets, is there a point to such a behavior?

How do you choose people?  Which tweet following strategies do you use?

Written by fabiorojas

November 11, 2009 at 12:08 am

if sociology sucks, why do economists keep on doing it?

You know that joke about the cranky restaraunt customer? “The food is terrible – and the servings are so small!” That summarizes the relationship between economics and sociology. Here’s a few observations:

  • Max Weber, an economic historian, defects from the mainstream of the day and becomes a founding figure of sociology.
  • Talcott Parsons, a Harvard economist, defects from the mainstream of his day to become a towering figure in the sociological profession.
  • Gary Becker, a neo-classical economist, makes it cool for economists in the 1960s to study stuff like race and marriage, long as you call people’s choices “taste” and “preferences.” Gets a Nobel prize for doing so.
  • In the 1990s, Steve Levitt becomes the poster child of economics by hooking up with sociologists and policy folks to do theory lite applied stats on sociological topics, like crime.
  • After Levitt, economists stampede to sociology and churn out paper after paper of theory lite, stats intensive analysis of sociological topics. In econ, sociology is called “applied micro.” Sociology is a bad, bad word.
  • In the 2000s, George Akerlof, a Nobel winner, finds out that “identity” is the new black.

Just the other day, Bryan Caplan wishes that he could call himself a sociologist, if it weren’t for the annoying folks who already use the word. As loyal readers know, I welcome any person who works on important topics that constitute modern sociology. I just wish we’d get a little more love from the customers who regularly dine at our restaraunt!

Written by fabiorojas

June 22, 2009 at 12:17 am

Posted in economics, fabio, sociology

who invited the economists? math in poli sci & soc, part 2


Last post for me before the ASA: A few days ago, we got into a discussion about why political science became a much more mathematical discipline after the 1970’s, at least when compared to sociology. A lot of folks offered good answers, and I wanted to discuss a few so I can tease out a general theory of how social science disciplines work. Gabriel offered this thought:

so the question then is why don’t math-focused sociologists go into formal modeling. i think there are two answers, selection and treatment. selection is that since Gary Becker it’s been possible to address sociological issues within econ departments, so students who want to, for instance, apply game theory to the family can do so in econ where they’re going to find much more support for formal modeling. On the treatment side, the study of social networks soaks up the remaining sociologists who like math.

This is a logical story, but it would suggest that *all* social science formal models would migrate to econ and the rest of the social sciences would be the qualitative leftovers. One could easily imagine poli sci being the discipline of classicists, comparativists, and historical institutionalists (i.e., pre-1970’s poli sci). Just like soc now has a core of social constructivists, Durkheim interpreters, and ethnographers. In the same way we have math soc, poli sci would have a rather small subdiscipline named “formal politics.” Yet, reality is different: formal models are now a substantial chunk of the poli sci mainstream, while the most technical work in soc remains in applied statistics.

However, I think you can save Gabriel’s selection/treatment explanation if you notice that the most notorious formal poli sci folks tend to be either econ PhD’s, econ MA holders, or have other extensive formal training. This suggests that much of the formalization of poli sci was done by outsiders. Formalization of politics wasn’t driven by internal developments. It’s driven by invasion and imperialism. Thus, methodologically speaking, poli sci = soc + econ migration.

Notice that poli sci is the *only* major social science discipline to have sustained long term colonization by renegade economists. Soc, anthro, demography, crim, psych, law, education, and history are all low-formal model fields, with a few math pockets. [Ed. – Even demography? Yup – most of the models are really statistical, aside from Markov chain pop models. Go read a demography book!] The applied fields like management and policy have bigger math pockets, but they resemble soc more than econ. If the *normal* state of social science is qual + applied stats, then why are the boundaries of poli sci so poorly guarded? That brings me to Jacob’s comment:

A quirk of path dependence? In poli sci, the separately-federally-funded centers that tended to distract people from being core members of the department were on the qualitative side– area studies centers that emphasized language training. This tended to leave the core departments relatively more dominated by quant folks. In soc, the equivalent was (maybe?) the demography centers, which tended to isolate one of the most quant contingents in soc and left the core departments relatively qualitative…?

This is a key point. The gatekeepers of a discipline – journal editors and hiring chairs – are the ones who “keep the front line” against cross disciplinary invasion. Once you either publish or hire people, then they reproduce inside the new host department. I haven’t been in soc long enough to know if Jacob is on target, but demography accounts for many of the statistically savvy folks who might be open to formal modelers who try to invade soc. But demography is a field with a lot of grants, which means course releases and travel. That means not being around the department as much as the historical or ethnographic types. The result: strong boundary enforcment. In poli sci, the big money was in area studies, which as Jacob points out, draws the qualitative types away. Result: weak boundary enforcement, followed by opportunistic invasion by higher status math heavy groups (economists).

The punchline about math and social science: In general, the bulk of social scientists are fairly low tech, creating an opportunity for a model intensive discipline (econ) while the rest retain a math lite orientation (anthro, soc). At the same time, most social sciences have big batches of quant data that begs for specialization inside the discipline; you get a bifurcation of fields into qual sections and applied stats with fairly small internal demand for models, since most social scientists have modest mathematical training. Therefore, the equilibrium state of social science might be something like: applied stats + qual, with one discipline specializing in models. You can have exogenous forces, like grants and research centers, that weaken boundaries and create opportunities for invasion, producing “twisted” fields, like poli sci, torn between the equilibrium state and the math modelers.

If you believe my theory, the shift of poli sci toward econ in the 70s, 80s and 90s wasn’t the beginning of unstoppable economic imperialism. Instead, it was probably just a relatively contained disturbance created by temporarily weak disciplinary boundaries. As area studies declines as a federally funded area, we are likely to see the scattering of qualitative poli sci types come back to these programs, creating another generational bulwark against economists. Unlike the perestroika that toppled the Soviets in the 80s, poli sci perestroika is probably the sign of an old guard coming back to reclaim its rightful place at the center of a discipline.

Written by fabiorojas

August 6, 2007 at 4:45 am

violence and the anti-war movement


A few days ago, Gary Becker and Richard Posner asked why there are few violent anti-war protests. They pointed to the usual suspects: no draft, the fact that the war directly affects a small portion of the population, cultural change, etc. Aside from the usual lame entries, the comments were quite good. Here’s what I would add to the discussion, based on my own research:

  • The anti-war movement has realized that violence simply isn’t effective. Few people will change their minds in response to riots. However, many voters will sympathize more if you are “for the troops” and pro-American. You can read about it here.
  • There is also a tendency to professionalize and act more like a lobbying group. The anti-war movement is trying to expand its repertoire so that it can take advantage of more routines avenues of influence, not just confrontational tactics. Read more about this in a recent article I wrote with my collaborator. You can also listen to a recent NPR story about this, where I was interviewed.
  • Violence is not simply a matter of what the movement decides to do. It is also a matter of what the police and state choose to do. Since the 1960s, police departments have tried to be way less violent in their monitoring because of a general liberalization of American culture, and also because they can get sued. In my research on the anti-war movement, I’ve been to a lot of events, and with a few exceptions like 2004 RNC protests in New York, the police have been fairly restrained. It is also often the case that the major movement groups will often alert police about their plans, to minimize violence and arrests.

The last point deserves much more attention. The unstated assumption in the Becker/Posner discussion is that violence is really about the demonstrators. I don’t think this is true – police policies and behaviors also play a role in how much violence we have. It’s certainly true in revolutionary movements – repressive states tend to generate more violent movements. An enterprising social movement student could mine this insight in more detail.

Written by fabiorojas

May 1, 2007 at 8:11 pm

looking for a reader for cultural sociology? see Matt Wray’s Cultural Sociology

Looking for a reader for a cultural sociology class?  Matt Wray has put together Cultural Sociology: An Introductory Reader, which is an excellent anthology that covers classic and contemporary readings of cultural sociology, including several penned by our very own orgtheory bloggers and guest bloggers like Jenn Lena and Stephen Vaisey.  In addition, Wray has interspersed excerpts with his own essays, which uses Burning Man as a phenomena to help students understand sociological concepts and forms of inquiry. 

Bonus: Wray’s cover art also exhibits good taste in featuring Pepe Ozan‘s (2005) The Dreamer. (Read about Steve Mobia’s account of making the Dreamer and subsequent activities here.)

Here’s official info about Cultural Sociology: An Introductory Reader:
“Available for Fall courses, this brand new reader is a comprehensive and clever mix of classic and contemporary essays on the sociology of culture. This mix of essays is an essential resource for understanding this fast growing, dynamic area of sociology. An introduction outlines the building blocks of a sociological approach to studying culture, and helpful headnotes guide students through each reading. For more information, or to order an exam copy, visit”

Click below for the Table of Contents:
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

June 25, 2013 at 4:00 am

Posted in books

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where is chomsky in the social sciences?

Although my post last week on citation counts was meant to be fun, it raised an important issue that deserves some thought. Here’s the comment from Eric Schwartz:

The hold of Chomskyan theory over the field of linguistics, and the strength of its exportation to other fields like philosophy of language and evolutionary psychology, is substantial.

Indeed. In some areas, Chomsky has played the role of a founding figure who articulated some pretty deep principles. Probably the most important is his argument is that people (and I suppose most organisms) are born with some hard wired architecture that helps them interpret and communicate about the world. We all are born with some type of rules that allow us to process information and communicate. It’s a powerful insight. It explains, for example, why children can pick up and generate language, which can be extremely complicated.

Now, here’s my question: where is Chomsky in the more macro social sciences? Sure, he’s a founding figure in linguistics and evolutionary psychology, and has a following in related areas. But he’s rarely a figure in fields where culture and decisions are important. You don’t see many soc of culture syllabi with Chomsky in it (except his political works). He’s non-existent in economics and political science, and barely shows up in anthro. There are occasional articles using “generative approaches” (see Farraro and Butts or Cederman) in sociology, but it’s not hard core Chomsky. Noam – where are you?

Written by fabiorojas

November 16, 2009 at 12:28 am

Posted in fabio, psychology, sociology