Economists and Sociologists

Fabio Rojas at Orgtheory asks: if sociology sucks, why do economists keep doing it? He cites Weber, Parsons, Becker, Levitt, Akerlof, and Caplan as examples of economists who “regularly dine at our restaraunt,” yet constantly complain about the service. I’d add Douglass North, Timur Kuran, and many of the contemporary Austrian School to the list of economists doing important work on sociological topics.

I’m neither a proper economist nor a proper sociologist, but I have undergraduate majors in both. To me, it seems that while many economists are doing work on traditionally sociological topics, very few are using the insights or methodology of sociologists. Commenter Gordo at the Orgtheory post nails it:

You seem to suggest that sociology is the “restaurant” and the “customers” are economists who enjoy the restaurant’s food. I think the more appropriate metaphor might be that of people sneaking food (economics) into a stadium baseball game (interesting topics) because the food there is so bad (sociology).

That seems to be the general consensus among economists: sociological questions are interesting, but sociologists are not rigorous enough to be of any use in answering them. There doesn’t seem to be any inconsistency in economists sneaking within sociological borders while badmouthing the natives.

I don’t quite agree with that apporach, howver, as I think the work of many sociologists would be useful for economists, particular those studying politics, to consider.

Recent work by Brennan & Lomasky, Caplan, and Kuran demonstrates that we can’t think of political behaviour simply in rational choice terms. This means we need to think about collective behaviour, symbolism, and social conformity – things sociologists have seen studying for a long time and on which they have had many interesting insights.

I think there are huge potential gains from economists taking this body of work seriously, while maintaining a critical stance towards some of the methodological weaknesses in the field. There’s some bad sociology out there, but there’s also a lot of very bad economics.

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