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Monday, November 27, 2006

Did Economics Crowd Out Sociology?

Have economic ideas displaced the ideas of sociologists in recent decades? According to this they have, but there may be room for sociology to make a comeback:

A call to arms, by Anthony Giddens, Commentary, The Guardian: All you sociologists out there! All you ex-students of sociology! All of you (if there are such people) who are simply interested in sociology and its future! I'd like to hear from you. We live in a world of extraordinary change, in everyday life, family relationships, politics, communications and in global society. We are witnessing, among other things, a return of the gods, as religion re-emerges as a major force in our societies, locally and on a worldwide level.

All grist to the sociological mill, one would have thought. Sociology was born at a period of transformative social change, during the early part of the 19th century. It was a time of the "three great revolutions" - secular political revolution, the industrial revolution, and the emergence of a predominantly urban society, replacing a predominantly rural one. It would be very difficult to say whether developments today are as far-reaching as those of 150 years ago. But we can probably all agree that this is a time of very large-scale change, for the first time happening on a truly worldwide level.

My question is: in such circumstances, why isn't sociology again right at the forefront of intellectual life and public debate? ...

A possible response might be to doubt the diagnosis. Perhaps it is a mistake to think that sociology isn't in the intellectual forefront any longer. Take the debate about globalisation... Haven't sociologists contributed significantly to this discussion? Indeed they have, but it has been driven far more by economists ... or those in the field of international relations. What about the impact of the communications revolution? Sociologists ... have written important works on the issue. But I don't believe sociology has been the main source of contributions to the field. ...

So what are the reasons for sociology's decline? I would suggest two main ones. First, sociology's star was dimmed by the rise of market-based philosophies from the early 1980s onwards. As a phase of government, market fundamentalism lasted some twenty years - roughly the period covered by the Reagan and Thatcher governments. Its overall influence lasted longer, since more sophisticated versions of it continue to guide international organisations, especially the IMF and World Bank... If markets settle most aspects of social life, including social justice, the scope of social factors - the prime province of sociology - is correspondingly reduced. The economic, as it were, predominates heavily over the social.

A second reason I would single out is the impotence many people feel in the face of the future. There are no longer utopian projects that would supply a source of direction for social reform and a source of motivating ideas. I'm not saying that sociology was ever itself a form of utopianism. But sociological thinking, born of the political and economic revolutions of the 19th century, certainly was regularly stimulated by an engagement with those who wanted to change the world for the better. ...

What is the remedy...? Well, in some part the world is moving in a propitious way for a recovery of the sociological imagination. Market fundamentalism is disappearing from the scene. The stage is set for a return to the social. After all, even the IMF these days gives social and political factors a significant place in development processes - and Mrs Thatcher is long gone. ...

The answer for me is a return to the style of thinking that originally drove the sociological enterprise. A little bit more utopian thinking might help too... We need more positive ideals in the world ... that link to realistic possibilities of change. Most of all, though, we need to confront the big problems..., and provide a field of debate for helping us understand them better. Globalisation itself is far more than just an economic phenomenon. It's a set of processes that increasingly links our personal lives, even intimate aspects of them, to global events - the controversy over the Islamic headscarf is just such an example. Why is religion seemingly again so influential in the world today? What accounts for the resurgence of ethnical conflicts in so many countries? Is the family dying or not? These are quintessentially sociological questions. Let's get to work to answer them.

Long ago, my dissertation adviser visited Caltech. He had a statistics question and tried to make an appointment to talk to one of the statisticians there. He was told, "I only have time for real scientists."

Since I've been bristling lately at how scientists view economics, I should admit that economists often display a similar lack of respect for other social sciences. We shouldn't do that.

    Posted by on Monday, November 27, 2006 at 01:17 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (2)  Comments (22)

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