Monday, March 20, 2017

Do policymakers need more advice from sociologists?

Sociologists sometimes feel neglected. And this can cause them to complain - about economists. Economics is a successful social science. While most social sciences do well in attracting undergraduate students, economics has performed well off campus. An undergrad economics major pays well, and an economics PhD provides entry into plentiful high-paying jobs on Wall Street, and in government, central banks, and academia. As well, policymakers care what economists think, and seek their advice (current occupants of the executive branch excepted).

But life isn't so easy for the downtrodden sociologist, which has led to writing like this piece in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. I discussed that article in this blog post. Seems the upshot of the authors' critique is that economics would be much better if it adopted ideas from other social sciences - sociology in particular.

Economics is hardly perfect. To move forward as a science, we need to be objective, heartlessly self-critical, and outward-looking - ready to absorb new and useful ideas from other fields. So what does sociology have to offer us? Neil Irwin, at the New York Times, suggests that there are some key ideas in sociology that economists, and policymakers, are not absorbing. Irwin says:
They say when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And the risk is that when every policy adviser is an economist, every problem looks like inadequate per-capita gross domestic product. Another academic discipline may not have the ear of presidents but may actually do a better job of explaining what has gone wrong in large swaths of the United States and other advanced nations in recent years.
So, (i) things have gone wrong in the US and elsewhere. (ii) We may be ignoring better explanations for these things than what economists are supplying.

That other academic discipline with the explanations is sociology, of course. Neil then interviews a sociologist, to get her perspective:
“Once economists have the ears of people in Washington, they convince them that the only questions worth asking are the questions that economists are equipped to answer,” said Michèle Lamont, a Harvard sociologist and president of the American Sociological Association. “That’s not to take anything away from what they do. It’s just that many of the answers they give are very partial.”
So apparently we have been somewhat conspiratorial, whispering in the ears of the Washington elite that economics is it - and all the time neglecting some important stuff. But what exactly are we missing?

The rest of Neil's article details what he views as important contributions of sociology, that help us understand current problems:

1. “Wages are very important because of course they help people live and provide for their families,” said Herbert Gans, an emeritus professor of sociology at Columbia. “But what social values can do is say that unemployment isn’t just losing wages, it’s losing dignity and self-respect and a feeling of usefulness and all the things that make human beings happy and able to function.”

2. Jennifer M. Silva of Bucknell University has in recent years studied young working-class adults and found a profound sense of economic insecurity in which the traditional markers of reaching adulthood — buying a house, marrying, landing a steady job — feel out of reach.

3. “Evicted,” a much-heralded book by the Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, shows how the ever-present risk of losing a home breeds an insecurity and despondency among poor Americans.

4. ...a large body of sociological research touches on the idea of stigmatization, including of the poor and of racial minorities. It makes clear that there are harder problems to solve around these issues than simply eliminating overt discrimination.

So, unemployed people feel really bad, young people worry about the future, poverty is horrible, and stigma exists. I would hope that most people would know these things, and that they shouldn't need sociologists to point out the importance of these observations. But, if the role of sociologists is to inform otherwise-oblivious people about this stuff, then good for them.

But we're looking for something more, I think. Surely sociologists have ideas about solutions to these problems that they have spent so much time studying? Well, no.
And trying to solve social problems is a more complex undertaking than working to improve economic outcomes. It’s relatively clear how a change in tax policy or an adjustment to interest rates can make the economy grow faster or slower. It’s less obvious what, if anything, government can do to change forces that are driven by the human psyche.
Apparently sociology is so much harder than economics that sociologists are bereft of solutions. And no one's asking them anyway, so why bother?
But there is a risk that there is something of a vicious cycle at work. “When no one asks us for advice, there’s no incentive to become a policy field,” Professor Gans said.
Still glad to be an economist, I think.


  1. All 4 of the "important contributions of sociology" are addressed in economics. They amount to taking richer classes of utility functions. For instance, (1) says that you care about others' beliefs about your abilities, directly or instrumentally. The latter is a reputation model, while the former is more complicated, and comes up in social network models. (2) and (3) are, possibly, about more complicated ways to measure risk aversion over time (think Kreps-Porteus) and possibly extreme values (rank-dependent utility). (4) is similar to (1).

    The point is economists have formalized ways to think about all these issues. The trouble is that the approaches to thinking about these problems (especially (1) and (4)) requires the use of more parameters, where I care about what others think of me etcetera. Measuring these other parameters is fantastically difficult. Which is one reason we try and build models that don't rely on them, or at least look at a large enough data set and hope that these effects won't matter too much in the aggregate.

    Of course, if you're trying to understand and ameliorate inner-city blight and violence, you definitely can't ignore these issues, but it's not clear how much they matter in the aggregate, when 90% of the country doesn't have these problems.

    1. Yes, I agree, for the most part. Most, if not all, criticisms of economics are criticisms of econ 101. We actually think deeply about social interaction in ways that get far beyond prices and budget constraints.

      "Of course, if you're trying to understand and ameliorate inner-city blight and violence, you definitely can't ignore these issues, but it's not clear how much they matter in the aggregate, when 90% of the country doesn't have these problems."

      Blight and violence exist in other countries, but are exaggerated in the United States, which suggests that solutions exist to mitigate these problems.

  2. If I may quote Dave Barry (from his piece on college education),

    "For sheer lack of intelligibility, sociology is far and away the number one subject. I sat through hundreds of hours of sociology courses, and read gobs of sociology writing, and I never once heard or read a coherent statement. This is because sociologists want to be considered scientists, so they spend most of their time translating simple, obvious observations into scientific-sounding code. If you plan to major in sociology, you'll have to learn to do the same thing. For example, suppose you have observed that children cry when they fall down. You should write: "Methodological observation of the sociometrical behavior tendencies of prematurated isolates indicates that a casual relationship exists between groundward tropism and lachrimatory, or 'crying,' behavior forms." If you can keep this up for fifty or sixty pages, you will get a large government grant."

  3. Great post! Definitely do not regret majoring and pursuing further studies in Economics one bit.