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Sociologist Could Teach Economists a Trick
The world would be a better place if politicians, civil servants and others concerned with public policy listened more to sociologists and less to economists.

One of the blind spots in contemporary thinking about public life today, on the part of both people and professionals, has to do with the word "social". We have the concepts of polity (government, politics) and economy clearly clearly in mind, but we do not have a regular, operating understanding of "society". Yes, we speak of the family and ethnicity, for example, but, in general, we don't have an obvious understanding of the role of the social in public life.

This means we do not, for example, take into account the social consequences of economic behavior, systems, and policies.

In the article in the Financial Times, reproduced below, Michael Prowse discusses some important social thinkers and what sociologists may contribute to understanding public life today.

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Sociologists could teach economists a trick

By Michael Prowse

From the Financial Times, Mar 21, 2003

The world would be a better place if politicians, civil servants and others concerned with public policy listened more to sociologists and less to economists. President George W. Bush has a Council of Economic Advisers. But why not an equally prominent council of social advisers? Why do governments so often treat economics as though it is the only social science of any significance?

The death last month of Robert Merton, one of the leading US sociologists of the 20th century, illustrated the marginal role that non-economists now play. Merton's death did not go unnoticed. He got a long and respectful obituary in the New York Times. Other newspapers, including the British broadsheets, scrambled to follow its example once their editors had ascertained that Merton was a sensible fellow and not a closet Marxist.

Yet Merton is hardly a name with resonance. Had an economist such as Milton Friedman died, friend and foe would have filled many more column inches. Sociology's 19th century founding fathers, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, are well known, although rarely read. But there have been few prominent contemporary sociologists, apart from Jürgen Habermas and the late Pierre Bourdieu who became forces to be reckoned with in public policy debates in Germany and France respectively.

Amitai Etzioni, the American sociologist, is perhaps a partial exception, but he acquired a name in the 1990s as a promoter of communitarianism, the political philosophy that urges us to be less egoistic and more supportive of our communities.

Anthony Giddens, outgoing director of the London School of Economics, is another public face of sociology, but not an altogether happy one. A social theorist in his youth, he has latterly sounded increasingly like a market economist. His "third way" is largely a face-saving exercise for New Labour, a means by which Tony Blair and others could commit themselves to economic liberalism, an old philosophy, while pretending to stand for something new.

As relieved obituary writers discovered, Merton's life was colourful enough to produce readable copy. Born Meyer Schkolnick, the son of poor Jewish immigrants, Merton lived out the American dream. His first job was as a magician at children's parties (his stage name Merlin was later changed to the more dignified Merton, and he added a middle name King for additional gravitas).

The teenage wizard got himself into Harvard and then spent most of a distinguished academic career at Columbia. While conjuring with ideas, he came up with some practical tools for social research. Justly famous is the focus group, a tool that has proved such a reliable means of ascertaining the public's attitudes to new products that politicians now feel naked without one. He also coined phrases such as "role model" and "self-fulfilling prophecy". Merton is credited with influencing the legal reasoning behind Brown v Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that led to the attempted desegregation of American high schools.

Why do I claim that the world would be a better place if people listened more to sociologists and less to economists? Well, perhaps I should enter a caveat: I am thinking of traditional market economics, where the emphasis is on the self-interested optimising behaviour of individuals. Recently, sub-disciplines such as behavioural and institutional economics have widened the dismal science's scope. It would hardly be fair to accuse Nobel prize-winning economists such as George Akerlof and Amartya Sen of the tunnel vision that still characterises so many in their profession.

The problem with traditional economics is that it arose out of a need to understand behaviour within a particular social context: the capitalist setting established by private property and contractual exchange. As such it is a pretty useful tool. But the gauges that economists use to measure the "efficiency" of outcomes within that framework are not particularly useful for deciding when and where the framework itself is appropriate. Yet economists are frequently called on to make such decisions. They assert, for instance, that market forces should be unleashed in healthcare, education and broadcasting, without stopping to ponder the special characteristics of these services.

The advantage of sociology over economics is its greater breadth of vision. It is the science of all social forms or institutions, rather than merely those that support the market. As such it is in a position to decide the circumstances in which the market will promote the common good, and to work out the kind of restraints that should be imposed. This is a task that policymakers would be unwise to entrust to economists: it would be as foolish as asking bats whether echolocation is the best way of finding one's way in the dark.

Merton's analysis of inconsistencies between the norms or values that societies promote and their institutional structures, illustrates the virtues of breadth. As he noted, the US puts enormous stress on material success yet fails to distribute at all fairly the educational and other means of achieving it. The result is a lot of deviant behaviour: people resort to crime, drug-dealing and prostitution because they see no legitimate ways of achieving the goals that society tells them are so important.

His point seems obvious, but it is not one that practitioners of the dismal science would have stumbled on.


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Date Added: 3/27/2003 Date Revised: 3/27/2003 11:36:17 AM

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