British economics writer: economics has failed but are the sociologists ready to step up?

This is an interesting viewpoint: “Mainstream economic models have been discredited. But why aren’t political scientists and sociologists offering an alternative view?” Here is some of the discussion about how sociology has failed to seize this opportunity:

Perhaps you have more faith in the sociologists. Take a peek at the website for the British Sociological Association. Scroll through thepress-released research, and you will not come across anything that deals with the banking crash. Instead in April 2010, amid the biggest sociological event in decades, the BSA put out a notice titled: “Older bodybuilders can change young people’s view of the over-60s, research says.”

Or why not do the experiment I tried this weekend: go to three of the main academic journals in sociology, where the most noteworthy research is collected, and search the abstracts for the terms “finance” or “economy” or “markets” since the start of the last decade.

Comb through the results for articles dealing with the financial crisis in even the most tangential sense. I found nine in the American Sociological Review, three in Sociology (“the UK’s premier sociology journal”), and one in the British Journal of Sociology. Look at those numbers, and remember that the BSA has 2,500 members – yet this is the best they could do…

It wasn’t always like this. One way of characterising what has happened in America and Britain over the past three decades is that people at the top have skimmed off increasing amounts of the money made by their corporations and societies. That’s a phenomenon well covered by earlier generations of sociologists, whether it’s Marx with his study of primitive accumulation, or the American C Wright Mills and his classic The Power Elite, or France’s Pierre Bourdieu…

Nor is there much encouragement to engage with public life. Because that’s what’s really missing from the other social sciences. When an entire discipline does what the sociologists did at their conference last week and devotes as much time to discussing the holistic massage industry (“using a Foucauldian lens”) as to analysing financiers, they’re never going to challenge the dominance of mainstream economics. And it’s hard to believe they really want to.

Ouch.

I can imagine some sociologists might argue that the world is much bigger than markets and economics. They would not be wrong. At this same time, this critique could be viewed as a call to action: does sociology offer a compelling alternative way to view the world? How can we account for both economic and social life?

I will say that there does appear to be growing interest in economic sociology. This may not be reflected in these particular journals but more sociologists are looking at the social and cultural dimensions of economics. As noted, this was a key concern of a number of foundational sociologists, observers who noticed that industrialization was changing the social world. I wonder how many sociologists would view studying the economic realm as something “dirty” (too many ties to capitalism, too messy, too close to economics, etc.) or “uninteresting” (not what really motivates them to research, teach, and engage in public life).

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  1. […] relevant and hip topics!” This is not necessarily a bad idea; earlier this year, there was a newspaper back and forth in Britain about whether sociologists were really tackling the economic c…. More broadly, sociologists don’t have the same kind of public clout as economists or […]

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