Cultural Learnings of Economics for Make Benefit Glorious Discipline of Sociology

May 28, 2013 at 7:28 am 15 comments

| Gabriel |

[Note, if you subscribe by RSS or email you might have gotten an earlier and incomplete version of this that I posted by accident on 5/25/13]

A few weeks ago the political scientist Henry Farrell posted a point-by-point critique of an LA Review of Books essay that was smugly denouncing economics while getting pretty much all its facts about economics dead wrong. (Most notably it confused the difference between public choice and game theory in ways that are extremely funny if you have a working knowledge of both literatures). The thing that made me really cringe about the LARB article though, which was written by a non-academic journalist/ social critic, was how if you told me it was written by a sociologist and got through peer review at a soc journal, I would have believed you.

Sociologists love to talk about how obtuse and limited in vision economists are but we often do so with only a vague awareness of how they do things but a pervasive suspicion that whatever they’re doing, it’s probably nefarious. It’s kind of like hearing peasants describe Jews. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a sociologist claim that economist tears prevent AIDS, or at the very least that they have horns.

The main reason for this is that we tend not to study economics itself, at least not on any kind of systematic basis but rather learn about it by reading polemical criticisms of economics’ excesses and/or intrusions into sociological turf. Which is fair enough since it’s hard enough to learn your own discipline without getting another too, but it does give us a rather particular vantage point that’s not at all emic. So rather than reading stuff that economists tend to consider fundamental we might read specific works in economics that either seem to be internal criticisms that grope towards sociological enlightenment (e.g., Akerlof, Williamson) or we read stuff that tries to reconceptualize sociological phenomena as exchange (e.g., Becker or Posner on sex and the family) and which tends to involve bizarre epi-orbit type arguments (e.g., “rationally maximize bequests”) or simply make bad predictions we can debunk.

(Note though that Pierre Bourdieu is a lot closer to Gary Becker than you’d think based on the kind mood affiliation heuristic in which we’re supposed to love one and boo and hiss at the other. Not only are both of them known primarily for extending the metaphor of “capital” but Bourdieu’s theory of gifts is very Becker/Posner like in seeing gifts as ultimately a calculated exchange).

A slightly more charitable way to put it is that your average sociologist’s understanding of economics is a lot like learning about Gnosticism by reading Against Heresies. Iraneus had himself read Valentinius and knew enough about Gnosticism to intelligently critique it from the perspective of proto-orthodoxy, but most later Christians and historians knew gnosticism only through Iranaeus’s arguments against it. In this analogy actually learning and reading economics for yourself is like finding the Nag Hammadi library. Once you’ve translated AER and a Principles textbook out of Coptic, you’ll see that they do indeed say a lot of the things we attribute to them, others of their arguments we characterize uncharitably to the point of being barely recognizable, much of what we think they hold central is actually incidental in their own conception, there’s a lot of stuff they care about which we never noticed, and there’s actually a lot of overlap.

Now mind you, it’s not like economists have a clear understanding of what we do either, with their understanding generally falling into three categories:

  • Homo sociologicus ordinarius – A politically correct ninny with more indignation than expertise
  • Homo sociologicus reticularis – Social network analysts who make cool pictures and have mastered a technical expertise different from but on par with anything economists do
  • Homo particularis sociologicus – A particular colleague or noteworthy scholar who happens to be a sociologist but with their identity and contribution being understood as idiosyncratic rather than disciplinary

On the other hand, the economic folklore about sociology is different in character from ours of them insofar as economists’ views of the other social sciences are like how Bukowski was asked what he thought about another poet would always reply “I don’t think about him.” In that sense econ’s ignorant understanding of soc is more like our understanding of anthro than our understanding of economics since there’s a big difference between having a vague understanding of a discipline that you’re dedicated to critiquing and a vague understanding of a discipline that you mostly just ignore.


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  • 1. Jim  |  May 28, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    I really like James Montgomery’s syllabus for his “Microfoundations of Economic Sociology” as a manageable reading list for when I don’t want to actually know what I’m talking about in modern economics:

    Click to access soc%20655%20-%20reading%20list%20-%20spring%202010.pdf

    • 2. gabrielrossman  |  May 30, 2013 at 11:30 pm

      That does look interesting, thanks. The topic list in particular looks very fair to our sister discipline.

    • 3. Jim  |  June 1, 2013 at 11:13 pm

      Ugh. By “don’t want to actually know” I meant “don’t want to look silly.”

    • 4. socprofessor  |  June 12, 2013 at 11:27 pm

      Thanks for the syllabus

  • 5. Jay Livingston  |  May 30, 2013 at 4:41 am

    My impression is that most economists just ignore sociology except to dismiss it in the occasional smug joke. Then they take an obviously sociological idea to cover gaps in their models, give it a new name –e.g., “signalling” — and think they invented it. (True, Veblen was an economist, but he wasn’t their kind of economist.)

    • 6. gabrielrossman  |  May 30, 2013 at 11:33 pm

      Kind of what I meant by the first subspecies in the Linnaean taxonomy I see them viewing us through.

      I’m more charitable on the “stealing our ideas” thing since I think often things just get reinvented. For instance, there was a sociological team spillovers lit before there was one in econ but I’ve read both lits pretty carefully and I get the strong sense they independently reinvented it after our own spillover lit died out.

    • 7. Graham Peterson  |  May 31, 2013 at 1:15 am

      Signaling is a term in economics that comes straight out of computer science and information theory, which both of them submit to optimization and linear programming models that economists are comfortable with.

      In some hazy sense the re-orientation of micro theory into game theory (which is where you’re going to see the concept of signaling) has made economics more sociological, but I think to claim that signaling is a sneaky adoption and renaming of a sociological concept denies a closer look at the history of thought, and the proximity of other fields much closer to econ.

      • 8. socprofessor  |  June 12, 2013 at 11:29 pm

        I thought signaling theory has its origins with Spence (and his advisors). There are certainly signaling ideas in classical sociology, but these were generally mentioned in passing (with one or two exceptions).

  • 9. Rense Corten  |  May 30, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    I very much agree with your post, but now I’m still curious what you see as the most important Cultural Learnings of Economics for Make Benefit Glorious Discipline of Sociology.

    • 10. gabrielrossman  |  May 30, 2013 at 11:28 pm

      I’ve learned a lot from economics and my whole point is that you can’t really sum up a discipline fairly in a blog comment, or even a chapter in an econ soc handbook contrasting ourselves to them. I think in general econ gives very parsimonious descriptions of economic exchange in market settings (that scope condition is important, I rapidly lose confidence in the presumptive relevance of economics as you move away from markets). The most recent specific idea I’ve gotten from econ is that the article I’m doing now draws heavily on Tullock 1967. Likewise my 2010 ASR w Esparza and Bonacich draws pretty heavily on econ models of spillovers. It’s not that I think econ’s perfect or even the specific literatures I draw on. (eg, I feel both public choice and spillovers literatures suffer a mismatch between theory and empirical work.)

      • 11. Rense Corten  |  June 2, 2013 at 1:12 pm

        I’ve worked quite a bit with and alongside economists, and in general I admire their efforts to create *systematic* theory (at least in micro) and the thoroughness of econometrics (although they do tend to be carried away sometimes).

  • 12. Graham Peterson  |  May 31, 2013 at 1:49 am

    On my early investigations, sociology seems like it is just everything economics is not, and vice verse. Compte and Marx kicked it off. Marx’s empirical predictions didn’t work out, so the economists said screw it. A few guys updated Marx in the late 19th century and tried to pull the arguments into other “social spheres.” The euros took off with critical theory and the American Marxists huddled off in their little corner to cheer on the Soviets and Chinese. Americans picked up Weber and ran with him. Economists stopped doing evolution and institutions and systems-level theory after about the 30s. Sociologists dropped evolution because of the scientific racism and “legitimation narratives.” Then they cut Parson’s throat. The cliometricians and Becker uniformly pissed off the sociologists by re-doing the industrial revolution and family in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The rest of the history of the last half of the 20th century seems to be these two sides feeling dimly aware of each other’s theories and maintaining opposition to one another as a First Principle.

    It’s really strange that economic sociology is now a “subfield” of sociology, considering the relationship between economics and sociology, looks to me, like the aorta of the history of thought here.

    You say that economic models work well as long as they stick to markets. But I think you’re buying into the separate spheres analysis (or cf. Zelizer’s “hostile worlds”). And I think the separate spheres taxonomy has been a really destructive idea in social science, both in its theoretical weaknesses and the disciplinary politics it engenders. It’s a little silly to presume that a guy gets up in the morning, and wears his communitarian social-exchange hat at the breakfast table — then goes out into the marketplace and wears his rapacious competition hat — then goes to vote and wears his power and dominion hat (though I imagine Machiavelli owned a number of great looking hats). People seem to be at least boundedly rational and prudential when weighing the costs and benefits of having more children. Alternatively, there is demonstrated evidence that people use social norms to set prices in certain markets (

    I think sociology and economics both should continue looking for a nice generalized model of behavior, and that they should work together on that project.

    But you’re absolutely right, Professor Rossman: economists and sociologists seem to fundamentally agree on at least one thing — that neither needs to read the other’s literature in order to confidently denigrate it. What an amazing amount of time and energy this must save for both sides of the debate.

    • 13. gabrielrossman  |  May 31, 2013 at 6:21 am

      My exact phrase was “presumptive relevance.” I think there’s potential insights from applied micro but I’m less optimistic and more skeptical about this than I am about econ’s power to explain markets. My reasoning is that I don’t believe there can be a generalized model of behavior since I think people think differently about different spheres, which is why I’m so into Fiske’s RMT. There’s a difference between areas of life that are explicitly oriented towards calculability and commensurability and those where these are implicit at best. Hence the moral indignation pretty much everyone feels in reading about the (possibly trolling) anonymous economist who wants to sell an AER whereas nobody cares if we engage in sorting with co-authors of similar quality. Likewise, to say that fertility vaguely approximates rational action is one thing, but that’s a much weaker claim than saying that deciding to have babies is like trading wheat futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

      • 14. Graham Peterson  |  May 31, 2013 at 10:28 am

        Fiske RMT? Again, my prior is opposed to separate spheres thinking, but then again I do subscribe to a heuristic toolbox view of cognition (because of its computational efficiency — so, rational irrationality pace Simon and Gigerenzer). It’s maybe contradictory of me to swat at separate spheres analysis when I don’t like what it’s doing to divide labor among social scientists, then celebrate it (implicitly) by signing up for context-dependent mental heuristics when thinking deeply about whether people solve calculus problems subconsciously.

        I keep a weak rationality at hand as an Occam’s Razor — I don’t buy “as if” modeling as a descriptively powerful analysis, but it is certainly predictively powerful in many contexts. I think you’ve basically got evolutionary systems which broadly evolve evolutionarily stable strategies which agents use in a knee-jerk manner. So lizards appear to be rational in foraging in the same way grass does, and humans too. None of these agents are actually solving calculus problems though. For humans, the ESS’s are heuristics that emerge from the evolutionary dynamics of social systems. I think, at least.

        Interesting that you bring up the Merc, because sociological models of cascades and imitation do a much better job of describing asset pricing than economic ones (asset prices follow a Markov chain quite well — between this and epidemic cascades re: crises it’s pretty clear everyone’s just following the leader — oh and the fact that traders openly admit they have no idea what they’re actually trading and just follow each other around the herd). But then again, cascade behavior is boundedly rational.

        I like the way McCloskey puts it — people are prudent. It’s a virtue. One among many. And people are prudent in having children and selling wheat futures alike, but there are a number of other ethical demands and virtues imbued in both contexts as well.

        People feel moral indignation about buying and selling things that haven’t been bought and sold before because of a historically-determined ethical framing about markets that says they are, ethically speaking, a necessary evil at best — and ethically abhorrent at worst. So anyone who tries to bring a new good from the filial (Zelizer’s work on insurance) or aristocratic (your example about the academy) spheres into a market exchange gets screamed at.

        But this has nothing to do with commensurating incommensurables (read all 940 pages of Capital this semester — his early chapters on use and exchange values are the weakest of the entire book). If Maussian gift giving is to work, people must commensurate values in exchange which are “qualitatively different.” If I am to not engage in feudal warfare with your family when you break up with my sister, I must decide what degree of proselytizing and material favors is “enough” to make up for your ethical harm against my family. And so forth.

        There are good reasons to doubt the psychology of strict economic rationality. Marxian incommensurability and the inability of agents to assemble well ordered sets of preferences are not one of them, in my humblest.

  • […] brilliant and funny Gabriel Rossman takes up the article to discussion how sociologists, his posse, tend to misconstrue what economists do, and how they […]

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