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17 March 2017

An Economist Likes Sociology--But Finds It Still Lacking

The Upshot's Economic View just penned a love letter of sorts to Sociology. It's great, and it makes me smile. Go read it. I do have a minor quibble with it, though. In particular, the three final paragraphs were somewhat sour to my taste:
And trying to solve social problems is a more complex undertaking than working to improve economic outcomes. It’s relatively clear how a change in tax policy or an adjustment to interest rates can make the economy grow faster or slower; it’s less obvious what, if anything, government can do to change forces that are driven by the human psyche.
It may be true that these lessons on identity and community don’t lend themselves immediately to policy white papers and five-point plans. But a deeper understanding of them sure could help policy makers.
Setting aside the fact that boiling down sociology to "the human psyche" is just wrong, I think this is emblematic of a problem particular to sociology that I have to regularly fight with my students, namely that sociology doesn't imply actual solutions to the social problems that we are quite adept at pointing out. I think it's fair to say that sociology has been less explicit in terms of policy per se. However, sociological research typically does point toward relatively obvious solutions. It's not that they're not there; it's just that they tend to be radical! (To be clear here, I use "radical" properly. It means "to the root," though not necessarily "extreme.")

Sociology shows one of the roots of racism in economic insecurity so restructure the labor market to guarantee employment. Sociology shows one of the roots of gender inequality in the way we organize the workplace so change how we conceptualize the workday (e.g. flex time) and family leave (e.g. require fathers to take time off). Sociology shows the roots of poverty in capitalism itself so replace capitalism with another economic system. As you can see, the policy implications are there; they just happen to be radical and, thus, difficult politically. It's one thing to say, "Hey, just tweak this part of the tax code," and another to say, "Um, you'll need to upend an entire social institution."

The issue is that "Economics" as a discipline would more accurately be titled "Capitalism Studies," and if everything is framed within the rules of capitalism, the solutions--inasmuch as we can call them that--are within those rules as well. In Neil Iwin's words from the Upshot piece, "...economics is only a piece of a broader, societal problem. So maybe the people who study just that [i.e. sociologists] could be worth listening to."

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