Sociology and economics

A few years back I was interviewing a sociology graduate for a scholarship and loudly exclaimed that it was absurd that she had a masters in sociology while not knowing much economics – she had mentioned that her courses in sociology (bachelors and masters) had no “papers” (the word used by students of certain prominent Indian universities when they mean “courses”. The choice of words possibly indicates their priorities) in economics.

It is a result of my prior – everything I know and have learnt about sociology and social behaviour is from the realm of economics and game theory (iterated prisoners’ dilemma and derivatives). I’ve learnt it from reading blogs (Marginal Revolution, Econlog, etc.) and from pop economics books written by authors such as Steven Levitt and Malcolm Gladwell. So every time I think of a sociology problem I can’t think of any method apart from economic reasoning to attack it.

However, it turns out that the use of economic reasoning for sociological analysis is rather recent, and started only with the work of Chicago economist Gary Becker, who wrote a series on love and marriage. Becker’s wife had died, and he was a single father, when he wrote his series of papers on this topic. This is supposed to be one of the first steps in the “creep” of economics into (now) related disciplines such as sociology and political science. This has been uncharitably called by Becker’s critics as “economic imperialism“.

So my exclamation that a masters program in sociology not including a course in economic reasoning being absurd would be valid only in very recent times, when syllabuses would have been updated to keep track of any such above “imperialism” and “creep”. Given the glacial pace at which Indian universities move, however, I think my remark might have actually come across as absurd!

PS: Read this excellent Lunch with FT interview of Gary Becker by Tim Harford.

6 thoughts on “Sociology and economics”

  1. There is some resistance to the idea too. Michael Sandel makes an argument against letting ‘economic reasoning’ affecting social decision making. He says that market thinking will corrupt/crowd out ‘non-market’ values.

    1. Different people have recommended Sandel to me but am yet to get to read him.

      Thing is a lot of people assume that when you say “economic” or “market thinking”, the only objective function is monetary. Once you go beyond that I think it’s easier to appreciate

    2. Agree that it is possible to look beyond monetary objectives. Becker seems to suggest just that. But in a number of contexts, economic thinking is leading to monetary incentives as opposed to other incentives.

      Here is a short video of Sandel discussing the impact of money.

  2. There was this completely absurd chapter in Superfreakonomics as to why more women arent hookers or something, which completely missed the sociological and dare I say common sense angle. So, economics should also be taught with sociology perhaps.

    1. I’m not saying economics should replace sociology completely! What I’m saying is that a knowledge of economic reasoning will make sociologists better sociologists!

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