Economics & Sociology: Skinning the Same Cat

There’s a lot of chatter among academics in the econosphere about Paul Romer’s paper on “Mathiness” as an almost illness in the economics discipline. Mathiness, according to Romer, is the use of mathematics in such a way as to support an ideology rather than actually prove anything, ignoring contradictory data. Most Economic Sociologists and Social Economists have not only agreed with Romer, but have been pointing this fact out for a very long time. Interestingly though, the economists that have been defenders of “mathiness” have taken some shots at sociology (and other social sciences). It’s important to distinguish the difference between the theoretical and methodological differences between sociology and economics, which has taken about 160 years to evolve. They are quite different.

Let’s start with methodology:

Sociology Economics
Data is data Data has to be manipulated
Qualitative and Quantitative Quantitative only – qualitative is looked down upon & ignored
Society is more than sum of parts Aggregates – representative agents of the whole
Labor is central to social life Labor is only considered a “lagging” indicator and marginalized in wider analysis
Quantitative methods can be inductive Inductive methods are never allowed
A hypothesis is developed based on observations and is an educated guess Hypotheses are based on axioms: given assumptions that never need to be proven
Exploratory, Explanatory and Descriptive methods Only explanatory methods

And then there are the theoretical differences along economic lines.

Sociology Economics
Economics is a social process Economics is the math of production & consumption
Resources are controlled by power structures Resources are scarce
Presentation of self in society Rational self interest
Self-regulation based on social norms & social forces Utility maximization through hedonism
Theory of social returns to labor Theory of monetary returns to capital
Human behavior & habits is a social phenomenon based on social forces Human behavior & habits that are not rational are an anomaly
Prices are predetermined by the owners of production Prices are “discovered” through the equilibrium of supply & demand
Social institutions are dependent upon, and change over time All time is in the present and all economic exchanges happen instantly

math-cartoonThere is of course a long, 150-year history that I’m not including between the two fields that goes back to the old-school political economy days. Political economy split, creating modern day sociology versus modern day economics, with Karl Marx versus Léon Walras (if you consider 160 years “modern”). In a nutshell, Marx believed that Capitalism was a series of sociopolitical and as well as economic institutions that effected social life, while Walras, in response to Marx believed that Capitalism was just mathematics (known as the Marginal Revolution – in revolt to Marx). In essence, the differences between sociology and economics have been going on for about 160 years.

To be sure, sociology is not without its ideologues (a topic for another post). The question is this: while there are many ways to skin a cat, does economics and sociology actually skin the same cat? The theoretical and methodological divide is so great that one can only wonder.

There are plenty of Economists doing the work of Sociologists, mostly because Sociology has been strangely silent on sociological issues in the public sphere. Stiglitz, and Picketty has been a beacon on inequality issues. Krugman and Reich have done tremendous work in political economy.

Economist John Schmitt did an outstanding paper on job quality for African-American workers. This was UNIQUELY sociology, and could’ve even been a good anthropology paper. It was researched, written, and published by an economist (in The Review of Black Political Economy, no less!).

Younger economists are also questioning the methodology that they were taught, and shifting into the idea that data should not be manipulated to fit an economic model, putting economic methodology on its head. Noah Smith (for example) is sounding more like Max Weber’s Verstehen theory every day; where participatory examination of social life can determine WHAT we study, but not HOW we study it (leaving that instead to the social-scientific method).

So both economics and sociology appear to be skinning the same cat, but it’s a little one-sided. There are people in both sociology and economics that want to practice their discipline as praxis, in a Bourdieu-esque sort of way.

I believe that the discipline of economics is going through a paradigm shift in both theory and methodology, that will be slow, and painful, but in the direction of being more scientific. Sociology needs to go through a paradigm shift to be more active in the social world, and be open to engage the filed of economics more to gain a better understanding of that social world. If sociology does not engage this paradigm shift, it risks being left to the anachronisms of academia.

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This entry was posted in Economic Theory, Economics, Political Economy, Sociological Theory, Sociology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Economics & Sociology: Skinning the Same Cat

  1. Pingback: Sociology’s Internal Conflict: Obstacles and the Publics | Social Economy

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