April 4, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

We sociologists don’t get much respect.

Duncan Watts, in a Scientific American Q & A, describes how other people’s perceptions of him changed when he left physics/math and got into sociology – good-bye Einstein, hello Rodney Dangerfield:
I started out life in physics and then mathematics, and at some point I switched over to become a sociologist—and in the process of transitioning, I noticed this interesting phenomenon: When people perceived me as a mathematician, and I would describe my research, they would say, "Wow, that's really fascinating. How do you figure these things out? It's complicated and difficult." But when a few years later I was describing the same work in terms of social phenomena and the behavior of people, fads and historical events, success and failure, and so on, people would say, "That sounds kind of obvious. Don’t we all know that?"
It’s probably because we study people. Everybody has a working theory– probably several theories – about why people do what they do. Those ideas are dime a dozen. Ah, but scientists . . .
When someone tries to explain to us how electrons behave, we think it’s amazing and completely unintuitive, but when we explain how people behave, it always seems trivial.
I’m not familiar with Watts’s work. Sight unseen I’m fairly sure I don’t have the math chops to handle much of it (the library call number prefixes on his earlier books are QA, not HM). It’s about social influence and networks – he takes issue with some of the “tipping point” and “small world” models. I might have better luck with his new book (published, less dauntingly, by Crown Business), Everything Is Obvious:* *Once You Know the Answer

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