Applied Sociology and Economic Consulting

Writing for Bloomberg View, American Professor of Finance, Noah Smith, superficially reviews a sociology discussion paper exploring the social networks of economists. The original paper by sociology Professor Marion Fourcade and colleagues finds that economists are better positioned materially to both benefit from, and influence, economic policy because they work in business schools as well as in lucrative consulting firms. Smith argues that sociologists are out of touch with what the market demands are, and he concludes that we don’t earn enough as a result. In Smith’s eyes, we don’t do enough statistics. Applied sociologists earn less, in general, not because our work is arcane nor because it is not useful, but because we mostly work in low-paying -though no less important – social welfare and health policy fields.

Annual median and 90th percentile wages in selected disciplines, 199-2012. Via Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion, and Yann Algan.
Annual median and 90th percentile wages in selected disciplines, 199-2012. Via Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion, and Yann Algan.


Applied Sociological Work in Support of the Economy

It’s true that the business and policy sectors prefer statistics. Notwithstanding the fact that sociologists also work with statistics, this does not make our non-statistical research any less relevant. We work within health and community sectors, providing much needed data and advice on how to improve social services. We work for not for profit agencies, shaping education policy, addressing unemployment and economic outcomes, and improving programs for disadvantaged groups. We work in government departments focusing on consumer rights, helping local councils to improve the business sector, and we also work alongside economists adding social insights that are very much in demand.

Applied sociologists work on a plethora of social welfare policy issues. We may not be paid as much for our economic policy work and consulting, but this doesn’t mean our work does not have value. Quite the opposite, applied sociologists go into under-funded areas that sustain economic and social productivity, looking after public health and society’s most vulnerable. All of this is vital economic work.

To put it in sociology terms, economists may have better social capital by virtue of who they work with and where they work. Social capital is a measure of how symbolic resources, such as social ties (networks or who we know), have a significant impact on maintaining or increasing material capital (wealth and other assets). In turn, this leads to increased income, power and influence. Economists have links to high-paying clients and influential businesses. Their social networks pay off: they make more money, even if their research areas overlap with applied sociology.

Social Capital & Inequality Within Economics

So how do economists achieve this social capital? Smith conveniently leaves this out. The study by Fourcade and colleagues shows that studies by economists show that they perceive themselves to be insular:

“The field is filled with anxious introspection, prompted by economists’ feeling that they are powerful but unloved, and by robust empirical evidence that they are different.”

Moreover,  while 73% of sociologists agree with the statement, “In general, interdisciplinary knowledge is better than knowledge obtained by a single discipline,” only 42% of economists agree. Conversely, 57% of economists strongly disagree with this statement, while only 25% of sociologists disagree. This shows that sociologists are more open to interdisciplinary collaboration while economists are much less so. Why might this be? Fourcade and colleagues’ analysis shows that this insularity helps to maintain power and influence. If economists set themselves as the premier experts in all aspects of the economy, less interdisciplinary collaboration keeps their social capital in high demand within high-paying circles.

Fourcade and colleagues also find that economic journals have an inbuilt “home bias” in that their high impact journals are based in elite, well-funded universities, where economists cite one another. Sociologists do not show this specific bias; applied sociologists in particular are likely to publish in non-sociology journals and for policy and public audiences that are no measured by academia. As such our influence may go unnoticed by the academy, but it doesn’t mean it’s not important.

Fourcade and colleagues also show that economics has a tighter career guidance structure for students, something sociology lacks. As a result, sociology graduates go into a plethora of applied fields, while economics majors are funnelled into a narrower career path that yes, is better paid, but guided by values of economic rationalism. Like most academics, economists generally vote more “left” leaning politically than the average American, but they are closer to the “right” than other social sciences. Fourcade and colleagues write:

For example, two-thirds of sociologists say that corporations make too much profit, but only one-third of economists and virtually no finance professors think so. The overwhelming majority of sociologists (90 percent) endorse the proposition that “the government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt,” but barely half of the economists and a third of the finance scholars agree with that proposition.

In his blanket critique of sociology, Smith fails to recognise that economics stands out amongst the social sciences and humanities because women are significantly disadvantaged. The field is dominated by older, White male professor. They disproportionately produce more male graduates. Inequality is built-into economics in a way that is more entrenched than other social sciences (though as I’ve noted elsewhere, all of academia has a problem with gender inequality).

Economics as the public sees it is therefore presented through a highly gendered view of this field, by virtue of its disciplinary gender imbalance. Economics is important, which is why this is a sub-field in sociology, but economics as a discipline is not intellectually superior by virtue of how economists undertake research, much less than by who pays them and what they earn.

Not all economists are happy with the status quo. They want to challenge the representation of economic knowledge and they tackle social issues like gender inequality. Fourcade and colleagues’ research presents an opportunity to rethink gaps within the social structure of economics as a field of study, by encouraging reflection on inequalities and demonstrating room for interdisciplinary collaboration.

Nevertheless, as things stand, the data are clear. Who profits from economics careers? It is not all economists, but White male economists, by and large.

Still, Smith – himself  a White male professor, has not engaged with the social issues presented in Fourcade’s paper. Instead, he dismisses sociology because we make less money and in his eyes, because we can’t make the same impact on the economy. He writes:

If politicians want to know how to reduce cancer rates, they should go to a biologist. If they want to know how to shoot missiles at Vladimir Putin, they should go to a physicist. If they want to know how to boost productivity at U.S. companies, or increase employment, or auction off broadcast spectrum rights, whom should they ask for advice? A sociologist?

Why yes in fact politicians should and do go to sociologists to solve important problems. The economy is more than making money. It is about building social infrastructure and looking after the future wellbeing of everyone, not just the rich. Writing in 2013 in response to austerity budget discussions in Australia, Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues:

…National debt is only one side of a country’s balance sheet. We have to look at assets – investments – as well as liabilities. Cutting back on high-return investments just to reduce the deficit is misguided. If we are concerned with long-run prosperity, then focusing on debt alone is particularly foolish because the higher growth resulting from these public investments will generate more tax revenue and help to improve the long-term fiscal position… Instead of focusing mindlessly on cuts, Australia should instead seize the opportunity afforded by low global interest rates to make prudent public investments in education, infrastructure and technology that will deliver a high rate of return, stimulate private investment and allow businesses to flourish.

That’s what applied sociologists do – we look at the economy beyond material capital, even if we’re not paid as much to do it.

Applied Sociology Helping the Economy
Applied Sociology Helping the Economy

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