Cultural Learnings of Economics for Make Benefit Glorious Discipline of Sociology
| 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.