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.

Weak ties and job hunting

As the more perceptive of you would have figured out by now, the wife is in her first year of business school, and looking for an internship. I’m at a life stage where I have friends in most companies she is interested in who are in roles that are at a level where it is possible for them to make a decision to hire her.

Yet, so far I’ve made few recommendations. I’ve made the odd connection but that’s been mostly of the “she is applying to your company and wants to get to know the company better. Can you speak to her about it?” variety. I don’t think there’s a single person to whom I’ve written saying that the wife is in the market for an internship and they should consider hiring her.

I initially thought it was some inherent meanness in me, or lack of desire to help, that prevented me from recommending my wife to potential hirers who I know well. But then a little bit of literature survey pointed out an economic rationale to my behaviour – it is the phenomenon of “weak ties”. Now I was aware of this weak ties research earlier – but I had assumed that it had only referred to the phenomenon where acquaintances are more likely to help than friends because the former’s networks are much more disjoint from yours than the latter’s.

Anyway, in a vain attempt at defence, I hit “weak ties and job hunting” into google, and that led me to this wonderful post on the social capital blog that contained exactly what I was looking for. Here is the money quote:

It turns out, that people generally don’t refer their close friends to jobs for two reasons: 1) they are more worried that it will reflect badly on them if it doesn’t work out; and 2) they are more likely to know of the warts and foibles of their close friends and believe these could interfere with being a good worker (e.g., Jim stays up late to watch sports, or Charles has too much of an attitude, or Jane is too involved with her sick father).  Weak friends one can more easily project good attributes onto and believe this will work out.

So if I were to request you to hire my wife and it doesn’t work out, it can affect the relationship between you and me, so I wouldn’t risk that. When I’m recommending someone very close to me, I’m putting my own reputation on the line and I don’t like that. I’m happy referring cousins or other slightly distant acquaintances because there I have no skin in the game and hopefully some good karma can get created.

Now, while I’m loathe to recommend my wife to people I know well,  I wouldn’t be so hesitant recommending her to people I don’t know that well! For while my tie with my wife is strong, my tie with these people is weak enough that it not working out won’t affect me, and there is little reputational risk also. The problem is when the ties on both sides are strong!