Sociology: the scientific analysis of a social institution as a functioning whole and as it relates to the rest of society.So, that seems very promising. Some scientists, who specialize in the analysis of institutions and the role those institutions play in society, are going to figure out the economics profession.
Here's what I'm thinking. I've never taken a sociology course, but being a social scientist maybe I can guess how a sociologist might think about the institution of economics. What is the social role of the economics profession? First, human beings have a need for pure scientific knowledge - we just want to know what is going on. How do economic systems work? Why are some countries and individuals so poor, and why are some so rich? Why do prices of goods, services, and assets move around over time? Second, human beings have a need for applied science. How do we take what we know about economics and use that knowledge to make human beings collectively better off? Third, we might be interested in where economics came from. Who were the first economists, and how did they put together the seeds of economic knowledge? How is the economics profession organized? How is economics taught? Fourth, what makes economics different from other disciplines? If there are large differences in economics, are the human beings who do economics somehow different, for example do they self-select as economists due to particular skills they possess? Is economics different by chance, or is there something about the nature of things that economists study that makes the field different? Finally, how does the organizational structure of the economics profession help it to perform its key social role? Are there ways we could improve on this organizational structure? This could be pretty interesting, and I'm pleased, in principle, that there are scientists who care about these things, and are willing to help out.
First, I'll tell you some of what I know about the economics profession. Economics is clearly successful - in economic terms. Economics is a high enrollment major in most universities, one can make a decent living selling economics textbooks to undergraduates (as I can attest), an economics undergrad major pays off handsomely, and PhD economists are very well-paid - as academics, in the financial sector, and in government. Economists are also influential. They are called on to run key interational institutions like the IMF and World Bank, they more often than not serve as the chief officers in central banks, and they hold important positions in government. Further - and this must be unique among scientific pursuits - you can become extremely rich as a specialist in bad-mouthing your fellow economists.
Economics is very different from other academic pursuits, as any economist who has had to educate a Dean (of Liberal Arts, Social Sciences, Business, whatever) can tell you. In most academic fields, jobs are scarce, and mobility is low. Not so in economics. It is typically hard work to convince a Dean that one needs to make 8 job offers to fresh PhDs in the hope of getting one or two acceptances, that senior job candidates may be even harder to get, and that departures from your economics department need not mean that good people are fleeing a bad department. Salaries are always an issue. Basically, you need to know some economics (though not much) to understand why the economists are paid much more than the philosophers. Economists have a well-organized fresh-PhD job market that operates under clear rules, and performs the function of matching young economists with employers. Economists are social and love to argue. If you are uninitiated and happen to walk into an economics seminar, you might think you should call the police. Don't worry, it's OK.
Fourcade et al. get some of the facts right, but I came away puzzled. Some data is marshalled, but I wouldn't call this paper science, and it's unclear what we are supposed to learn. The first argument the authors want to make is that economics is "insular." By this they mean that economists don't pay much attention to the other social sciences. The evidence for this is citations - apparently the flow of citations is smaller from economics to the rest of the social sciences than the other way around. Whether this is a good way to measure interaction is not clear. There is a very active area of research in economics - behavioral economics - that uses developments in psychology extensively. There is extensive interaction between economists and political scientists - especially those interested in game theory. But I don't think I have ever encountered a sociologist in an economics seminar, or at a conference. However, suppose that economists totally ignored the other social sciences. Could we then conclude that this is suboptimal? Of course not. Maybe what is going on in the rest of the social sciences is actually of no use to economists. Maybe it is of some use to us. Certainly Fourcade et al. don't give us any specific examples of things we're ignoring that might help us out.
And economists are far from insular, especially if we look beyond the social sciences. Economics is a big tent. To gain admission to an economics PhD program requires some background in mathematics and statistics typically, but we don't necessarily require an undergraduate economics degree. People come into economics from history, engineering, math, psychology, and many other fields. As well, an undergraduate degree in economics is an excellent stepping stone to other things - professional degrees in business and law, or graduate degrees in other social sciences. Economic science did not come out of nowhere. Indeed, it often went by "Political Economy" in the early days, and sometimes still does. Most of our technical tools came from mathematicians and statisticians, though econometricians have developed sophisticated statistical tools designed specifically to deal with inference problems specific to economics, and macroeconomists took the dynamic optimization methods invented by mathematicians and engineers and adapted them to general equilibrium economic problems.
The authors of "The Superiority of Economists" see us as hierarchical, with a power elite that controls the profession. PhD programs are indistinguishable, and publication and recruiting are regimented. Seems more like the army than an institution that is supposed to foster economic science. Well, baloney. People of course recognize a quality ranking in academic institutions, journals, and individual economists, but I don't think that's much different from what you see in other fields. Powerful people can dominate particular subfields, but good ideas win out ultimately, I think. In the 1970s, there was a revolution in macroeconomics. That did not happen because the research of the people involved was supported by the Ivy League - far from it. But modern macro research found supporters in lesser-known places like Carnegie-Mellon University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Rochester. People like Bob Lucas and Ed Prescott got their papers published in good places - eventually - and then got their share of Nobel Prizes in Economics. The economics profession, though it could do better in attracting women, is very heterogeneous. I have no hard evidence for this, but my impression is that the fraction of foreigners teaching economics in American universities is among the highest across academic disciplines. I don't think you would see that in a rigid profession.
Ultimately, Fourcade et al. think that our biggest problem is our self-regard. Of course, people with high self-regard are very visible, by definition, so outsiders are bound to get a distorted picture. We're not all Larry Summers clones. But if we do, on average, have a high level of self-regard, maybe that's just defensive. Economists typically get little sympathy from any direction. In universities, people in the humanities hate us, the other social scientists (like Fourcade et al.) think we're assholes, and if we have to live in business schools we're thought to be impractical. Natural scientists seem to think we're pretending to be physicists. In the St. Louis Fed, where I currently reside, I think the non-economists just think we're weird. Oh well. It's a dirty job. Someone has to do it.
Well put. I'd add just two more things.ReplyDelete
Economists are pretty open/shameless to adopting the best ideas from other social science disciplines. For example, a social psychologist, Sidney Siegel, was foundational to the creation of behavioral economics:http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167487010000176
I.e. it's because economics is NOT insular (unlike sociology) that it has an advantage.
The other thing is that economists seem to have a knack for writing for the public - not just books like Freakonomics
but in the blogosphere. There at at least 200 good economics blogs. How many sociology blogs? there are no barriers to entry here - it's a free market. Even the liberal NYT chooses an economist as their social science columnist, not a sociologist.
Dear PJ, there are quite many good sociology blogs out there (no wonder you don't know about them) and I am not sure where you get the number 200 for econ blogs. You need to give us adjusted figures by the number of economists there. (i.e. size of AEA is larger than ASA). Even then, it is hardly the evidence that these blogs are for the general public. Many of them use heavy jargon and only followed by other economists and economics PhD students. I would expect more convincing arguments from a member of a discipline that is proud of its rigor. Final point re-"shameless to adopting best ideas..." it is true. The problem is that economist often won't acknowledge that they got these ideas from other disciplines. That is where some shame is needed.Delete
" People of course recognize a quality ranking in academic institutions, journals, and individual economists, but I don't think that's much different from what you see in other fields."ReplyDelete
You might want to actually read the paper, champ. The authors are quite clear in making the case that the amount of institutional control in economics is vastly different from other social sciences. Whether this a fair comparison or not is debatable perhaps, but you didn't raise it.
"The authors are quite clear in making the case that the amount of institutional control in economics is vastly different from other social sciences."Delete
I did read the paper, champ, and the evidence for this is pretty sketchy. What does "institutional control" mean anyway? How would I measure it properly? What are people controlling and who are they? Suppose all the journal editors were at Harvard. How would that make a difference?
"but I don't think that's much different from what you see in other fields"Delete
What is this based on though? From personal experience there are economists who complain that economics is very "clubby". Maybe other sciences don't have that problem? Or do you have evidence to suggest otherwise?
"From personal experience there are economists who complain that economics is very "clubby"."Delete
You're saying that's evidence of something? Seems all human beings are "clubby." There are many clubs I could complain about not belonging to.
No, it is not evidence of anything. Neither is your "I think it's the same in other fields" argument. This paper shows that there does seem to be some evidence that economics is "clubby" relative to other fields. But that's sketchy evidence,Delete
Part of the problem is that we need to know what "clubby" means, and how we would measure it. We know there will be some clubbiness, but how do we determine if there is too much or too little? I would think that this is something sociologists are supposed to know something about. They should be really good at measuring how human beings interact in institutions, and what might go wrong. But I'm coming away from this paper empty-handed.Delete
......"as a specialist in bad-mouthing your fellow economists".....Krugman did not get the Noble Prize for badmouthing a select group of economists, I suppose! But some economists will likely be known primarily nothing other than 'badmouthing Krugman."ReplyDelete
Badmouth: To criticize or disparage, often spitefully or unfairly.
I think Krugman criticizes people unfairly - indeed, he's dishonest. He received the Nobel prize for work he did long ago, and currently makes his living attempting to point out how stupid people are in comparison to himself. I don't think I'm being unfair or dishonest in pointing that out. It's pretty obvious.
I think Krugman criticizes people unfairly - indeed, he's dishonest.Delete
Says the guy who claimed that loose monetary policy will lead to hyperinflation and now claims that it will lead to deflation / low inflation without ever having acknowledged that whatever model he used to make his hyperinflation prediction totally failed empirically.
Where's the dishonesty? I once worried about higher inflation (not "hyperinfation" as you claim), but with more observation and thought, I think I now know what's going on. There wasn't any explicit modeling result behind the earlier worry, which was part of the problem. I made an explicit forecast here, last December:Delete
Read the last paragraph.
Well said, Steve!ReplyDelete
"It's pretty obvious" like the current conditions and level of discourses in macro and monetary economics where so-called smart economists are calling each others' names for not seeing the things their ways! And if I call someone "dishonest", maybe I am also 'badmouthing'. Or maybe not, if it is against Krugman who, according to some expert economists, deserves to be "badmouthed."Delete
"Some data is martialed..."ReplyDelete
Typo or clever pun?
I could say it's a typo, but it's a plain and simple spelling error. Should be marshal.Delete
"Some data is martialed, but I wouldn't call this paper science, and it's unclear what we are supposed to learn."ReplyDelete
Yes, and that's a very effective description for large stretches of the social (so-called) sciences.
The problem is that in real science, theories are formulated and then tested against the data. In the social sciences, theories are formulated and the data is then tortured until it submits to the theories. The process is referred to with some elegant-sounding name usually prepended with "critical" (e.g., "critical pedagogy", which I think is about as frightening as it sounds), presumably because the data is critiqued until it submits and accepts the theory. Over and over again, social scientists formulate theories and then try to explain the world in terms of them. Real scientists do the opposite - explore the world and then try to find theories that fit.
There isn't anything original in my insight - it's a rough and less erudite summation of Karl Popper's insights. But with Popper, I think it's important to draw sharp lines between what is real science and what is junk, and a lot of the social sciences clearly fall on the far side of that line.
Well, I can't speak for the other social sciences. Of course, the charge you're making, that we're not a "real" science, is pretty insulting. Are we supposed to think that, but for the stupidity of economists, we would be doing "real" science? That view seems inconsistent with the fact that when, for example, physicists try to do economics, they typically make a mess of it. The truth is that economics is different from, say, physics or chemistry. We're dealing with the behavior of human beings, experiments are more often than not infeasible, and the measurement is very costly and imperfect. The result is that weeding out bad theories is hard, particularly when the bad theory is the bread and butter of a large segment of the profession. That's just something we have to live with.Delete
"The result is that weeding out bad theories is hard, particularly when the bad theory is the bread and butter of a large segment of the profession. That's just something we have to live with."Delete
Indeed. Some people seem to make a living via proclaiming that hyperinflation is around the corner (during a balance sheet recession :D), then do a 180 without acknowledging their mistake and claim that monetary policy works exactly the other way it actually does.
In any other profession people who fail at basics would be unemployed.
As a sociologist who does read quite a bit of economics (and works in this new emerging murky middle field of the new economic sociology), I find your characterization of economics to be the very thing that Fourcade et al were interested in documenting.ReplyDelete
Just first off, Noah Smith revealed himself on twitter to have never bothered to sociology at all and was quickly called out on it. He was convinced it was mostly a qualitative / "critical theory" field, but if one even looked at the table of contents of ASR literally over its entire lifetime, this assessment would obviously be quite off.
Thus, when you write, "Maybe what is going on in the rest of the social sciences is actually of no use to economists. Maybe it is of some use to us. Certainly Fourcade et al. don't give us any specific examples of things we're ignoring that might help us out," I can't help but wonder why you lack basic human curiosity. Are you really that confident that nothing of interest happens outside of your seminars?
I benefit immensely from conversations with economists, but I also devote a great deal of my time in graduate school to attending workshops in philosophy, literature, history, and many other social sciences. It would be insane to a chemical biologist (one is a good friend) to suggest that nothing of interest happens in the rest of the natural sciences. Yet, while other social scientists freely read each other and collaborate, economists almost always stay in their little corner.
Second, it's just simply not true that economists have a heterogenous feeding pipe. I know this because I happen to be at one of those prestigious top places and can count many economics graduate students as friends and know their curricula. The mathematical rigor of the state of the field, for good or for ill, simply means that students with backgrounds in say history (like Bob Lucas had back in the day) or in really any of the humanities or social sciences would not have a feasible chance of entering a top program.
Moreover, you mention game theory and behavior economics as sights of collaboration. True while I think game theory could be much more widely used in my own discipline, both of these paradigms of research are still -- generally speaking -- focused on individual utility maximizers. It ensconces that action within real human psyches and structures, but it's not a fundamental shift in ontology.
Third, you should read Marion's full book on this as she describes why citation networks are fairly critical. On the one hand, economics benefits a great deal in my view of having a coherent conception of good work and a set of institutions that support it. However, because economics is an "article discipline", new ideas are always tightly controlled through the peer-review process. Unlike say history or sociology or political science where a brave new researcher can publish a big book, no such comparable mechanism for new ideas exists in economics. Thus, the pattern of citations becomes a critical socialization tool. It establishes in every young graduate students mind what the core frontier of research is and where the discipline needs to move next. This has its strengths, but it also limits the field of action.
This, you conclude this piece somewhat flippantly. I certainly don't think economists are jerks. What I do find somewhat ironic is that you and Noah seemed to have set out to prove Marion right more than she could have hoped for.
"I can't help but wonder why you lack basic human curiosity. Are you really that confident that nothing of interest happens outside of your seminars?"Delete
What makes you conclude that I'm not curious? Society's knowledge is vast, of course. It's impossible to keep track of everything going on in all other fields. let alone what is going on in economics. I'm curious enough about sociology to have read the Fourcade et al. piece. That didn't help in getting me interested in sociology. As I point out, they don't provide any good examples of sociological research that could be useful for me.
"The mathematical rigor of the state of the field, for good or for ill, simply means that students with backgrounds in say history (like Bob Lucas had back in the day) or in really any of the humanities or social sciences would not have a feasible chance of entering a top program."
You're suggesting perhaps that we ban mathematics from our PhD programs so that these people can get in? Bob Lucas is a good example of why we shouldn't. Indeed, Bob was an undergraduate history major, and the University of Chicago PhD program (early 1960s vintage) was quite low-tech when he was there. He learned his mathematics while he was teaching at Carnegie Mellon, and he was a big influence in making the profession more technical. Anyone can do math, and I think the public at large - and some undergraduates - have a bad attitude toward math, and a lack of appreciation for what it can do. There are plenty of people who have been very successful as economists, and who came into PhD programs in economics with weak math skills, picked the skills up while they were learning economics, and succeeded through hard work.
"What I do find somewhat ironic is that you and Noah seemed to have set out to prove Marion right more than she could have hoped for."
So what Marion hopes for is to have people believe that economists ignore her field? That seems pathetic.
"Second, it's just simply not true that economists have a heterogenous feeding pipe."Delete
Many have but it is incredibly hard to get such ideas into the research system. Try publishing something in macro that is not DSGE.
I like your post but think that you missed the elephant in the room: many economists are corrupt because their work, unlike that of many other social scientists, can be misused for rent seeking purposes. During my undergraduate studies there was a professor who was the head of a research institute which was partially paid by the insurance industry. More famous examples are Cochrane (hedge funds industry) or Larry Summers (financial industry) and I guess many of us saw Hubbert in Ferguson's Inside Job.
And even when economists are impartial scientists their judgement is doubted (and rightly so!) because there are virtually no pareto improvements in reality so any proposal always implies losers and winners.
"...many economists are corrupt..."Delete
There are many things that could be going on when x pays y. Maybe x pays y to say something that y knows is a lie. That would be corrupt. Maybe y is just offering x his or her best advice about a problem that x wants to solve. Maybe z comes along, who has another agenda, and wants to make a film, and understands - correctly - that if he or she can make a film about corruption, that will be a big seller. Maybe z finds real corruption, or maybe z can find instances where x is corrupt, and y is not particularly corrupt but is perhaps clueless about x's corruption. Getting x on camera in such circumstances makes excellent documentary footage. Conclusion: A successful profession that gets paid for doing stuff will eventually encounter corruption, and will show up in documentary films.
"A successful profession"Delete
Thanks for proving my point. The above mentioned economists are indeed successful in terms of personal income but the profession totally failed at doing anything useful macrostability-wise for the general public in this century. This is what Krugman has complained about and this is what you disavow.
If you cannot see the clear indications that a housing bubble is about to burst (I know that you believe in the Lucas voodoo nonsense that this is not possible but some economists like Roubini proved that it is as their are not ideologists but pragmatic economists who are connected to the real world) and if in addition to that afterwards many economists stick to 80 year old fallacies like the treasury view these folks would be socially more useful if they flipped burgers.
Sad little anonymous poster, do you need a hug? We're so sorry that the profession has chosen to ignore you and your tremendous insights, which obviously would have saved the world from the big bad financial crisis; of course, you didn't act on your knowledge to prevent it or enrich yourself so that you could make many charitable donations to those impoverished by the market, so maybe it is your fault after all.Delete
"Here's what I'm thinking. I've never taken a sociology course, but being a social scientist maybe I can guess how a sociologist might think about the institution of economics."Delete
This is where the problem lies...
Sad little troll, do you wanna go on ad infinitum embarrassing yourself about your total lack of understanding concerning anything remotely connected to economics?Delete
Any embarrassment is clearly yours to feel.Delete
see How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education at https://chronicle.com/article/How-Sociologists-Made/150249/ReplyDelete
As a former acsdemic, economics as a scholarly field seems superior because there are contending theories espoused by elements of the profession. Sociology, on the other hand, seems to be totally dominated by the Party. I like the comment, sociology can be summed up in two propositions--1. poverty exists; 1. America sucks.ReplyDelete
A sharp perspective on current debates in economics by a sociologist written in 2009 who sees a lot of Krugman's battles echoing those that Keynes fought in the 1930s against both Classical economists and Marxists, much revolving around debunking Say's Law but saving the discipline from nihilism.ReplyDelete
"There are plenty of people who have been very successful as economists, and who came into PhD programs in economics with weak math skills, picked the skills up while they were learning economics, and succeeded through hard work."ReplyDelete
Certainly Bob Lucas shows that people can come from the humanities and rise to the top of economics. However, I feel that is not how the economics profession works 99 per cent of the time. Graduate schools of economics are dominated by ex-engineers and physicists. It is good to have these people, sure, but we are not getting enough diversity. We need to respect other skills are around besides mathematics one. The ability, for example, to work with non-quantitative facts and synthesise a narrative from complexity and contradiction. Dealing with the subjective is also a form of intelligence as well as a skill. Having people who have read complex works of philosophy, or say have studied the classics and have pieced together a story from primary documentation would be invaluable to understanding big issues now - eg how do societies and capitalist systems decline over time and what are the signs.
All economists should know some maths, but I think it has been taken a little too far in that direction. The result is now it is a barrier for people from other backgrounds to get into economics profession. ANd this is self-perpetuating. A discipline that looks like a subfield of applied maths will attract more such people, making the discipline look more like it and isolating it from accumulated knowledge elsewhere.
No one is excluded if they have read philosophy. But if they lack the quantitative skills to turn philosophy into a useful and explicit economic theory, then they have no business getting a PhD in economics. Skills are respected when they are useful.Delete