Freakonomics.com readers vote to eliminate sociology

Responding to the question “Which social science should die?”, the readers of Freakonomics.com voted out sociology:

As you can see from the chart below, nearly 50 percent believed that college/university presidents should eliminate sociology. Nearly 30 percent thought poli sci should be shuttered. [Editor’s note: it is perhaps not surprising that Freakonomics readers wouldn’t vote to eliminate economics.]

The rationales varied. Many felt that sociology had become too insular and out of touch. Some argued that political science had become a sub-field of economics, and a good old-fashioned “M&A” could occur. Others said “market” discipline should be enforced: that is, save the departments that bring in the most cash to the university.  And many of you argued that the tradition of the disciplines was being ignored — e.g., sociology used to promote reform, but is no longer organized around such pragmatic tasks—and so it makes sense to close them for good.

One possible explanation: economists and sociologists don’t always get along.

I would be interested to see a larger poll of academics about this. Could this be related at all to the size of relative departments?

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).

The role of emotions in buying a McMansion

“Financial journalist and author” Jean Chatzky discusses her rules about money and hints that buying a McMansion and working with money in general is complicated by emotions:

Have money rules changed with the recession?

I don’t know that the money rules have changed, but I think the recession has made people realize the importance of some of the money rules. For example, Money Rule #26 is “Just because someone will lend it to you, doesn’t mean you should borrow it.” I think it’s the lesson of the housing crisis. We over-borrowed. We took out bigger mortgages than we could truly afford because the banks were willing to give it to us. Every unfurnished McMansion proves that point. For everybody who’s ever felt house-poor or student-loan poor or credit-card poor, the recession has hammered that home.

Why do people tend to overcomplicate money?

It’s really emotional. If I had a bottle of champagne and I opened it with a group of friends, there would be this feeling that we should divvy it up fairly. But if I said, “I have some extra money,” people start making value judgments. There’s morality involved with how we divvy up the money.

Combined with that is the fact that we’re not taught about money as kids or in the schools. There’s not room for it in the curriculum. Getting financial literacy into every school in the country is a very important thing to do, but it’s an uphill battle. The combination of those two things makes many of us feel insecure when it comes to making the right decisions about our money, whether we’re spending it, saving it, or investing it.

Her rules seem meant to limit the emotional side of money. If you have rules to follow, you can sidestep the emotional aspects. While the rules may be helpful, this is a good reminder that economic activity is often emotional. We often talk as if humans make decisions purely for economic reasons when the real story is much more complicated. Stock trading and investing in stocks, purchasing consumer goods, and saving money are laden with emotions.

So what emotions lead to purchasing a McMansion? I haven’t seen an academic study that addresses this. However, critics of McMansions have made a number of arguments about why people buy McMansions: they want to impress other people, they have little sense of style or design, they have money to burn, they don’t realize they can get by with less space, they are unaware of how others might negatively view their home, and they are obsessed with getting a deal without thinking about quality. Critics generally argue that McMansions are attempts at displaying a particular status to others and this causes the buyer to overlook some concerns to which they should pay attention.

I’m guessing that McMansion purchasers wouldn’t give the reasons that critics suggest. At the same time, purchasing a home, usually the biggest purchase of someone’s life, is full of emotions. Buying a dwelling is one thing but when you add up a mortgage plus the idealization of a home in the American Dream and it becomes much more than that.

Glaeser argues “desegregation is unsung US success story”

Residential segregation is a persistent feature of American life (a few earlier posts here, here, and here). Yet, economist Edward Glaeser argues that things are improving on this front:

As the figure shows, as of 1970, almost 80 percent of either whites or blacks would have had to move neighborhoods in order to achieve an even distribution of whites and blacks within the average metropolitan area. By 1990, that dissimilarity measure had dropped to 66 percent; it is 54 percent today. We are very far from living in a perfectly integrated society, but our nation is far more integrated than it was 40 years ago.

The progress over the last decade has been particularly dramatic. Every one of the 10 largest metropolitan areas experienced drops in both dissimilarity and isolation of 3.6 points or more. The isolation index is below 45 percent in every one of those 10 largest areas, except for Chicago. Long among the most segregated places in America, the Windy City has experienced a particularly dramatic decline in segregation since 2000.

The general decline in segregation has also been accompanied by a change in its nature. Before 1968, segregation is best understood as the result of hard, if often informal, barriers against black mobility. There were neighborhoods that were simply off-limits. The effect was that blacks paid more for housing, especially in more segregated cities…

After 1970, however, that pricing pattern switched. By 1990, blacks were paying less for housing than whites, especially in more segregated metropolitan areas. This switch can be explained if segregation, post-1970, reflects white preferences rather than barriers preventing black mobility. If the segregation that remains is the result of whites liking to live in primarily white neighborhoods, then we should expect whites to pay a price for limiting their own choices, and that is exactly what the data show.

The decline in segregation hasn’t been uniform across the black population. Much of the decline reflects relatively well- educated black Americans moving into white districts. While that freedom is something to celebrate, the exodus of the more skilled left many urban neighborhoods behind, and the effect of growing up in a segregated community appears to have gotten worse over time.

A few things to note here:

1. Glaeser ends by suggesting this is a triumph for everyone. While the numbers overall may have improved, there is still a lot of work to do – as he notes, cities like Chicago still have higher levels of segregation and only certain segments of the black population have had the options to move to whiter areas. On one hand, you want to celebrate progress but on the other hand, you don’t want to minimize the fact that this is still a major issue. The issue of where people (can) live is tied to a lot of other concerns including school performance, wealth, and life chances.

2. Glaeser suggests the change in recent decades is due to white preferences rather than the presence of real barriers. Two thoughts on this:

a. Really? There are no barriers for lower-income or non-white residents to move into wealthier areas? Why do we still then have cases about exclusionary zoning (such as an example in Westchester County)? Why there are still big debates about constructing affordable housing (an example from Winnetka, Illinois)?

b. Glaeser seems to suggest these white preferences are okay since they pay for this privilege. This is the appropriate penalty for essentially restricting the abilities of others to live in certain places? I bet a lot of sociologists might have some complaints about this – this is the key difference between de jure and de facto segregation and both have negative outcomes.

Another story on Glaeser’s study has a response from a sociologist who suggests some caution:

“We’re nowhere near the end of segregation,” says Brown University sociologist John Logan, who was not involved in the study. “There are still no signs of whites moving into what were previously all-minority neighborhoods, and there is still considerable white abandonment of mixed areas.”

3. Glaeser also seems to be only looking at the black/white divide in where people live, the widest measure. I would be interested to hear his explanations for the differences between whites and other groups.

WaPo op-ed suggests sociology degree are the antithesis of Wall Street

An opinion piece a few days ago in the Washington Post contrasts those working on Wall Street and sociology majors:

How nice it would be if the 99 percent had never heard of Wall Street – perhaps if it didn’t exist at all.

There would be no need to be jealous of your college classmates’ $10 million paydays while you majored in sociology. No egg on your face if, as a hot-shot investment manager, you had poured $100 million of widows’ and orphans’ money into securities called collateralized debt obligations that you didn’t understand. There would be no collapse in the value of the home you bought in 2005. Several million people who lost their houses to foreclosure might still be proudly mowing their lawns. And your retirement savings would not be shattered because of all those high-flying technology firms that your mutual fund bought back in the 1990s.

The rest of the opinion piece goes on to talk about the downside of Wall Street. But the comparison of wealthy Wall Street employees versus sociology majors is interesting. The main point seems to be that sociology majors don’t make much money. My response: sociology majors aren’t at the bottom of the heap for median earnings.

A more latent point might be that sociology majors might be the most recognizable discipline that is opposed to the free-market capitalism represented by Wall Street. Is there any other discipline that would be even close? This animosity between sociology and neoliberalism or free-market economics could come from two areas:

1. Different explanations for human actions. Economists tend to go with rational choice explanations that humans are motivated by incentives and self-interest. Sociologists would suggest things are more complex and include factors like values, emotions, ideology, social networks, and altruism.

2. Different values: money and resources flowing freely versus a greater sense for a need for economic and social equality.

There are ways to bridge these two approaches, perhaps in subfields like economic sociology. At the same time, it is interesting to see the choice to contrast Wall Street and sociology.

The contradictions of social commentary: too much and too little saving and moving is bad

In this week’s column, Gregg Easterbrook points out two interesting contradictory social messages regarding the behavior of the American public:

Ten years ago the fact that Americans had a negative savings rate — by borrowing, most spent more than their incomes — was said to be very bad. In the last three years the personal savings rate has gone steadily up as Americans react to the unsettled economy by spending less and building up reserves. That was supposed to be bad, too. Prominent commentators blamed “higher personal saving” for dampened demand, which in turn slows GDP growth. So not saving is bad, and saving is also bad.

Wait — the latest indicators are that not saving is on the upswing again, and of course, that’s bad. The sudden surge in not saving “raises the question of whether consumers are returning to their old spendthrift habits.”

In the recent past, the fact Americans move often has been decried as rootlessness and a barometer of too many unconnected to the life of their communities. “Bowling alone” and all that. Now comes word that the Great Recession has led to a sharp decline in moving. Previously, moving was said to be bad. Now not moving is bad, being spun as evidence of “loss of mobility.”

Here are several possible interpretations of these conflicting takes:
1. Commentators have moved to generally seeing only negative traits in people’s behaviors.

2. Most commentators genuinely don’t know what is good or bad for the economy or larger society so they always suggest the opposite. Sometimes they may be right, sometimes they may be wrong.

2a. An added bonus: when the situation appears to be “bad” (which is often a social construction itself), commentators want any action that attempts to reverse the trend. Doing nothing is seen as worse than trying something that you perhaps think has a reasonable chance of failing.

3. Americans themselves live with these tensions. Take the mobility issue. We have always had a running battle in the United States between rootedness/community and mobility. We say we value civic organizations and discussions but we also are willing to drop everything and leave if a great job offer comes along. Plenty of people wrestle with this on a regular basis. These commentators simply reflect true tensions in American culture.

American language about government policy and economic life shifts from community to individualism

Here is an interesting argument about how common American discourse about public policy and economic life has shifted since the 1930s:

In 1934, the focus was on people, family security and the risks to family economic well-being that we all share. Today, the people have disappeared. The conversation is now about the federal budget, not about the real economy in which real people live. If a moral concept plays a role in today’s debates, it is only the stern proselytizing of forcing the government to live within its means. If the effect of government policy on average people is discussed, it is only as providing incentives for the sick to economize on medical costs and for the already strapped worker to save for retirement.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, as the Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers demonstrates in his recent book, “The Age of Fracture,” American public discourse was filled with references to the social circumstances of average citizens, our common institutions and our common history. Over the last five decades, that discourse has changed in ways that emphasize individual choice, agency and preferences. The language of sociology and common culture has been replaced by the language of economics and individualism.

In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become “entitlements,” a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being.

Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words — and with them the ideas — to frame our situation appropriately.

This is a fascinating line: “The language of sociology and common culture has been replaced by the language of economics and individualism.” This reminds me of the findings about how public opinion changes when asked about “welfare” versus “assistance for the poor.” The concepts are similar but the connotations of the specific terms matter.

Is the end argument here that changing the language will lead to more communal understandings or does reversing the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon have to come first? It would be helpful to know what exactly these commentators think happened in this period beyond simply the change in language. Could we argue that the success of the community-oriented policies of the mid 1900s that led to a booming economy, rising incomes, suburbanization, and homeownership was “too successful” in that it led to these shifts in language and focus?

Quick Review: Spousonomics

I picked up Spousonomics recently after reading some reviews earlier this year. Here are some thoughts about this book that has the intriguing subtitle “Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage and Dirty Dishes”:

1. The book uses economic principles to illustrate common problems in marriage. The bulk of each chapter is made up of case studies, usually three per chapter, where we read about how couples were using economic principles without knowing it.

2. I’m not sure what this book aspires to be: a primer in basic economic principles? A marriage book? Based on the front cover blurb from Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) and the heavy emphasis on case studies, it reads more like a marriage advice book, just from the perspective of economics. On the other hand, the authors, both journalists, begin each chapter by explaining economic concepts and seem interested in sharing these ideas with a broader public. With some more information (more on this in a moment), this could be an interesting introductory text using a context that many adults are familiar with (not so much for high school and college students). If I had to choose, I would argue the book is more of a marriage book dressed up with economics. Even so, I imagine there is a decent-sized market for texts about marriage.

a. Here is the justification early in the book for why economics can help marriages:

We believe in economics because it doesn’t discriminate between the sexes, between who’s “right” and who’s “wrong,” who communicates better and who talks worse. It doesn’t talk down to you or attempt to psychoanalyze. It doesn’t care who won the last fight or whose turn it is to control the remote. Instead, it offers dispassionate, logical solutions to what can often seem like thorny, illogical, and highly emotional domestic disputes.

3. Several things grated on me throughout the text:

a. The authors say they talked to a number of economists but they quote relatively few economists. Perhaps I am reading this too much like an academic but why not utilize more information form the experts?

b. The authors cite economic studies but often only cite one or two to illustrate a point. There is a lot more complexity to some of these concepts that one or two study (which can often be complex themselves).

c. The authors talk about how they collected data by interviewing couples and conducting a survey. However, they continually refer the survey as the “Exhaustive, Ground Breaking, and Very Expensive Marriage Survey.” This may be interesting the first time but not every time they talk about the survey results. Additionally, most of the case studies they present in the book seem to be middle- or upper-class couples that deal with middle- and upper-class problems of balancing work and family ambition, kids who are in too many activities, etc.

d. The writing style can be quite informal – I know this is aimed at a mass audience but I wonder how much of this comes from the authors themselves or from editors who suggested that they needed to find “their voice.”

4. So has anyone written a similar mass-market book utilizing sociological concepts? This would be a classic example of an attempt to use an everyday phenomenon to teach about a particular discipline.

Overall, some of the case studies are interesting (there are a lot of examples in here and this would make it easier for people to identify with something) and the idea that economic principles can help us understand our relationships is intriguing. But some of the recurring smaller issues kept me from being impressed and in the long run, I wonder if this isn’t just another book dispensing marital tips.

Ronald Reagan was a sociology and economics major

I occasionally run into stories about famous people who were sociology majors in college (these are often professional athletes) and found another example yesterday: President Ronald Reagan was a sociology and economics major. And this came from an unlikely source, Newt Gingrich, who was speaking at Reagan’s alma mater, Eureka College:

Gingrich, who announced last week he is seeking the GOP nomination for president in 2012, braved rain and wind to speak to about 140 students at Eureka College in western Illinois.

The former House speaker said the small liberal arts college was one of the most influential institutions of the late 20th century because of its ties with Reagan. The 40th president graduated from the school in 1932.

“The collapse of the Soviet Union began here in 1928,” he said to audience members. “The resurrection of general economics and the development of American economic growth and jobs for 25 years began here when Dutch Reagan took a degree in economics and sociology.”

I had never heard this before so I did a little digging into this:

-The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation says Reagan was an economics major: “Ronald Reagan officially majored in Economics at Eureka College, but unofficially minored in extra-curricular activities.”

-The Reagan portal for Eureka College gives a lengthier explanation:

Academically, Reagan’s major area of study was Economics and Sociology in which he received his degree in 1932. Somehow, blinded by the lights of Hollywood, this academic element has been overshadowed in history, yet, as U.S. President, it had a powerful intellectual impact on Reagan. Eureka College taught Economics and Sociology as a joint degree purposefully as a pure reflection of the College’s goals reflecting “the mutual development of intellect and character” or Economic=Money and Sociology=People or How Money Effects People. The servant leadership focus of the College founders still pervaded the culture and curriculum of Eureka College.

Several thoughts quickly come to mind:

1. Would it be bad for Reagan, probably the foremost conservative in the late 20th century, to be known as someone who studied sociology as opposed to economics? (I am thinking of the Presidential Library emphasis on economics while Eureka explains how the two disciplines were combined.)

2. Would it be possible anywhere these days to have a joint major in economics and sociology? These two often seem to be placed at opposite poles of thought.

3. It strikes me that having a former US President as an alum could be a huge boon for a small college. However, it does mean that Newt Gingrich wanted to visit…