Still Giving It Away

May 14, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Back in 2001, Joel Best published an essay called “Giving It Away” (American Sociologist, .pdf here).  Written in the key of Rodney Dangerfield, the essay bemoans sociology’s “modest standing in the academy.”  Worse, we let the ideas and practitioners that might bring us more respect slip off to other disciplines with barely a word of protest. The study of organizations became “management” and went to business schools. Public opinion and survey research blossomed elsewhere as marketing and polling. “Every time sociologists develop something that looks like it could turn a buck, we get rid of it.”

What brought the essay to mind was economist Noah Smith’s recent blog post  aboutFreakonomics, one of the most successful social science books ever. It’s become a franchise with radio shows, podcasts, sequels, and probably t-shirts.  But as Smith says, “there's very little actual economics in it!”

The quantitative empirical work is mostly reduced-form regressions with natural experiments. That's a fine and good research technique, but it's not really special to econ - it doesn't include anything about market design, structural estimation of supply and demand, game theory, search, prices, general equilibrium...nada!   

Here’s the kicker.

So this book has sociology, history, stats, and some general empirical techniques that could be used by any social scientist. . . .  An empirical sociologist could easily taken Levitt's place as the technical co-author of the book, alongside journalist Dubner.

But it was an economist Dubner got, and Freakonomics was billed as a pop econ book, not a pop sociology book. Why? It seems to me that it's because economists are respected as all-purpose sages. Like I said in my previous post, economists get taken seriously on any topic imaginable. [emphasis added]

I tell ya, we don’t get no respect.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very well said, Doctor. As a former undergraduate student of sociology (and I still consider myself a student)I found that very few people in the business world really understood what sociology is and what social scientists do.Lets think about this, what do advertisers or people in marketing who might be trying to sell a particular product to a specific demographic group do? Perhaps that might include controlling for(age, gender or socio-economic class). That endeavor is a sociological one, pure applied methods of social research. They might use "focus groups". Lets see who first designed those; Robert K. Merton. Hmmm. Economists who are attempting to determine consumer sentiment will use sociological techniques . In fact I have often thought that economics is often really the sociology of consumer and capital markets. So sociology is actually used frequently in the secular world, yet its moniker or lineage is rarely ever credited. Besides the obvious accreditation in academia, sociology is really "applied" in many places, from census workers to anyone in business who is trying to understand what groups of people do.