My Bloomberg article on how sociologists could close the salary and prestige gap with economists has gotten some pushback, including this post from Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber (a blogger I like a lot). Basically, I said that if sociology focused a lot more on stats and quantitative modeling, then sociologists would have much more lucrative outside options in consulting and finance and industry, and hence would be able to command higher academic salaries.
There were (at least) two big things I left out of my article, but I'll get to those at the end. First, some responses to Henry.
Harry says that I'm being "imperialist" for economics by claiming that it's natural for policymakers to ask economists - not sociologists - about the economy:
[W]hile it’s true that many sociologists have a complex about economics, the tacit imperialism is compounded by this claim:
As for economists’ “influence over the economy,” I am going to take a wild guess and say that it isn’t because of their arrogance or hierarchical insularity or “sense of authority and entitlement.” It’s probably because…drumroll…economics is the discipline that studies the economy. 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?
Heaven forfend! After all, it’s not as if there’s a large grouping in sociology devoted specifically to the study of the economy or anything. And if there were such a peculiar tribe of sociologists, economists would surely know all about them!
Sure, I knew about economic sociology - I took an undergrad class on exactly that subject from Mark Granovetter at Stanford. But to think that policymakers are abandon econ whole hog, and replace their teams of advisers with economic sociologists, is stretching the bounds of the plausible. I guess it could happen that the profession that was created to study the economy failed so utterly that they stopped being regarded as the primary experts on the economy, and were replaced by one branch of a different field, but it seems like a very extreme scenario. And it certainly doesn't seem "imperialist" to point out that this is a very extreme scenario. And it certainly doesn't seem "imperialist" to say that expecting this very extreme scenario to be the natural and right course of things is a bit silly. But YMMV.
Henry then points out, aided by numbers from Cosma Shalizi, that statisticians - who of course know more stats than economists - are paid less than economists. This is true. Why? Well, one reason might be the same reason why biostatistics profs get paid a lot more than statistics profs. Biostats is an applied field, and the skills are more transferable to industry. Also, the applied nature of the biostats field indicates that a prof would be willing to work in industry, which pure stats profs might not be willing to do. Finally, there is undergraduate demand, but this is one of the things I left out, so I'll get to it later. But the point is, the biostats/stats disparity seems unlikely to be due to "power", "social construction", "performativity", or the other stuff that Fourcade, et al. and Henry talk about.
OK, let's talk about that other stuff. Henry says that much (most?) of economists' high salary is due to politics, power, and other social factors:
I suspect that much of the assumed authority of economists (just like the authority, in certain policy roles, of international relations scholars like myself), is socially constructed. Expertise is not just a matter of raw talent, whether mathematical or otherwise. It’s a matter of legitimation – of being anointed with the proper sacraments associated with publicly acknowledged expertise in a particular topic. And that is, unquestionably the product of a certain kind of politics, a kind of politics that sociologists have a lot of experience in studying...
The underlying point of the Fourcade et al. article is that politics and power play a far larger role in determining both the success of economics and the success of economics than economists are prepared to admit in public. Or, more succinctly, sociology provides a much better account of economics’ success than economics itself does.
The last lines of each of those paragraphs are a bit funny - is this the idea that "those who cannot do, teach"? But anyway, here are the problems I have with this thesis:
1. Do political/social factors also explain the high salaries of professors in engineering, biostatistics, operations research, and accounting? If not, why should we expect that econ is substantially different from all of the above? Sure, it's possible that politics explains econ's riches, while skills explain the riches of all of those other fields. But it's not parsimonious. If we're choosing a null hypothesis, shouldn't we choose the null that all of these explanations are the same, instead of the null that econ is a unique outlier?
2. And if we choose the null that econ isn't an outlier, then we have to ask: What support - data or theory - do Fourcade, et al. present for the thesis that econ's high salary is socially constructed? Do they have a theory of how the legitimation happens or happened? Of who conferred the prestige and power upon economists, and why? I didn't see such a theory in their paper. And I certainly didn't see how any of the data they present imply any mechanism for the assigning of econ salaries. No theory, no data - why should I believe this story??
3. Also, I'd like to take the opportunity to rant about the concept of "power". This has always struck me as just another form of economic phlogiston - just another labeled residual, like "technology" or "culture" or "confidence", whose behavior we are expected to take for granted. The reasoning always seems to be something like "Economic outcomes happen because of power. How do you know who has power? Just look at who does better in the economic outcomes!" Some people have actual theories of specific kinds of power, just like some people have actual theories of how technology works instead of just using it as a label for a production-function residual. But I often see people waving their hands at a phenomenon and saying "It's power, of course!" Which doesn't seem very explanatory at all.
OK, this all having been said, I did leave some important things out of my article.
For one thing, I didn't talk about undergraduates' demand for econ teaching. If undergrads didn't want to major in econ, then universities wouldn't pay them so much. Econ is a popular major. As for why that's true, I suspect that there are many reasons, and that one is that an econ major requires just about the level of quantitative skill that most well-paying white-collar managerial jobs require of graduates. Another is probably the idea that econ majors learn more about business than other majors of comparable or greater technical skill. A third might be that econ acculturates econ majors to business culture - see Henry Farrell on the potential value of business culture. But now I am just tossing out hypotheses - the fact is, econ is a popular major.
A second thing I left out was the fact that in order to "tech up" (i.e. move in a more quantitative direction), sociology will have to raise the technical requirements for both undergrad soc majors and PhD students. There are quantitative sociologists out there, and sociologists with great technical skill, bu they would have to become the overwhelming majority if sociology were to be regarded as a technical field, like econ is. That will almost certainly mean raising the IQ bar for entering sociology at the undergrad and grad level. It will also mean closing the field to many people whose culture has taught them to fear math, to think that they are "not math people". This will change the composition of the sociology field. So a lot of the increase in the average salary of sociologists would come from a change in the background of the average sociologist. Sociologists might regard that as a pointless exercise. It would be about raising the prestige and wealth of the profession more than the people currently in the profession. That may not be something sociologists care about.
But look, salary issues aside, here's the bottom line. Sociologists are fighting what they perceive to be an intellectual battle against economists over whose description of social phenomena - discrimination, family life, etc. etc. - is going to be accepted by society. And it is asymmetric warfare. Sociologists, by (sometimes) continuing to use the tools of literary "critical theory", have brought a nerf gun to a tank fight. We live in a quantitative, data-driven age, and if sociologists want to beat the imperialist economists, they aren't going to do it by talking about "performativity", or by ranting about how arrogant economists are, or by using "power" as a catch-all explanation for unexplained phenomena. That critical theory stuff just doesn't cut a lot of mustard with most people these days.
That's not me being an imperialist. That's not me saying "econ roolz!". That's not me saying that it's a good thing that we live in a quantitative, data-driven age. That's just me delivering the facts as I see them. I might be wrong, but that's how I see the facts.