Psychology and Sociology

by Kieran Healy on April 8, 2004

A little bit of CT synergy. In his “post about bad explanation in Evolutionary Psychology”:, Daniel says in passing that “Part of the issue here is that any form of psychology makes a poor sociology.” A commenter asks that someone say more about that. Well, Brian’s post on, _inter alia_, “women in philosophy”:, provides a good example. There’s a lot of anecdotal and formally–collected evidence that women in Philosophy can have a hard time of it. There appear to be fewer of them in graduate programs and especially faculty positions than we would expect. Why?

I’ve often heard two explanations. The first — an argument from ability — is that they aren’t smart enough. They’re just not sharp enough to do technically demanding philosophy as well as men. You might think that this argument hasn’t been made since the 1970s, but I’ve heard it seriously expressed. The second — an argument from choice — is that women don’t like the often aggressive tone of debate in philosophy, and so bail out and go elsewhere. Both arguments are often backed up by appeals to the psychology of women: whether for reasons of evolution or socialization or both, women don’t have the mental facility or aggressive temperament for philosophy. Hence the lack of women. Now, I don’t think these arguments have much merit on their own terms — particularly the first one. But let’s assume that it’s true that, as a matter of psychology, women tend more than men to avoid aggressive or argumentative social interaction. Can this explain the outcomes we observe?

No. And the reason is that we have comparative evidence from closely-matched social contexts where women _are_ well represented. Linguistics is a very technical field with what we can charitably call a tradition of very robust argument. A number of its “most”: “prominent”: exponents are women. Similarly, cognitive science is a technical field that overlaps with philosophy of mind but women are better represented in the former than the latter. Examples like this show that the distribution of women (or other groups) within academic fields can’t be explained by unvarying facts about the psychological differences between women and men. Features of the social structure are _much better_ candidates for explaining what we observe. Yet in discussions of this kind, people routinely confine themselves to a particular social context (such as life within a particular profession) where stereotypes about individual psychology — themselves highly institutionalized and flexible with respect to context, by the way — have the best chance of appearing to explain things. But it’s the comparative cases that show why psychology, even good psychology, often makes for bad sociology.

*Update*: Having posted this, I notice that Brian and Jason Stanley (a philosopher at the University of MIchigan) make essentially the same point about cognate fields, in “this thread”:



Bill Carone 04.08.04 at 4:34 pm

Thanks, Kieran!


nnyhav 04.08.04 at 4:39 pm

The synergy goes well beyond what you’ve cited, whether Pinker’s or Brooks’ “Just So” stories … TBurke’s ruminations (and sensitivity to initial conditions) also seems pertinent. I happened to stumble on this in Karlinsky’s intro to the Nabokov-Wilson letters: “It so happens that while there have been major Russian women poets, some of whom were also able playwrights, there have been until very recently no novels in Russian written by women who rise above the level of the kind of women’s pulp fiction that Nabokov satirized in his story ‘The Admiralty Spire.'”


Michael Cholbi 04.08.04 at 4:50 pm

I’m not sure I see a problem internal to philosophical practice (style of argument, etc.). Rather, I suspect that many women see that the benefits of entering academia are fairly modest (salary, societal prestige, actual impact on people’s day-to-day lives) and the costs high (half a decade of postgraduate education, etc.), compared to other fields (law) that require significant amounts of education. In this regard, they might be making a wise economic choice.

Incidentally, those who sit on graduate admissions committees in philosophy departments have told me on many occasions that there is a serious dearth of qualified women candidates and that competition for these candidates can be fierce.


Barry 04.08.04 at 5:38 pm

Another factor might be the age (and growth) of the field. A younger field, with more younger professors, might have a higher proportion of women.


Kieran Healy 04.08.04 at 6:22 pm

(salary, societal prestige, actual impact on people’s day-to-day lives) … compared to other fields (law) that require significant amounts of education. In this regard, they might be making a wise economic choice.

Except a Ph.D in linguistics doesn’t strike me as scoring _that_ much higher than philosophy on the items you mention.

Another factor might be the age (and growth) of the field. A younger field, with more younger professors, might have a higher proportion of women.

That’s plausible. And also a social fact about the organization of occupations rather than a psychological fact about individual dispositions or talents.


Ray 04.08.04 at 8:19 pm

Thinking about the philosophy instructors my undergraduate female friends first encountered (at one campus a Platonist who invariably used rape as his example of a normal impulse we aren’t allowed to express, and at the other campus an inarticulate math-geek logical positivist), I’m also inclined to blame transient social factors rather than the essences of the discipline or the sex.


Kieran Setiya 04.08.04 at 9:16 pm

The comparison with linguistics suggests that technicality/agression are not sufficient to deter women; it doesn’t follow that they are not part of the cause in the case of philosophy.

I have no idea what the cause is. But it’s fair to say that those who appeal to “institutional factors” rarely specify what they have in mind. (Above remarks about young professors seem relevant here.) So this isn’t a case of good institutional explanation v. bad psychological explanation, but of incomplete/maybe bad psychological explanation v. incomplete institutional explanation.

I don’t mean to suggest confidence in any of these explanations, just that I’d like to hear more about both of them. Does anyone know of any serious research on this?


bridget 04.08.04 at 9:19 pm

Maybe because philosopy is kind of a professional sport. The fans are mostly insane, no team is perfect, it’s always changing and the new guys have no respect for the old guard. The statistics of years past have little to do with how the team’s going to turn out this year. Grab a puppy or a child and play. Any questions?


Gavin 04.08.04 at 11:52 pm

A couple of problems with the logic of all this. First,

Part of the issue here is that any form of psychology makes a poor sociology.

doesn’t make too much sense. What if I say, part of the issue here is that any form of carpentry makes a poor plumbing. Of course! It’s a different discipline.

Second, the two explanations adduced as to the limits of psychology are really just ‘individual psychology’ explanations as the post later admits. There is nothing in psychology more broadly, or indeed in economics, that necessarily neglects fine details of social structure etc. Perhaps Kieran needs to find some different psychologists to talk to? Equally, Daniel needs to find some real economists to take on over globollocks, rather than a bunch of WSJ/NYT hacks.

I think that there is a big element of old-fashioned discipline rivalry at work in CT. All the CTers have their own (usually overlapping) fields, but seem very unwilling to admit theories/evidence from rival fields, especially those that are/claim to be more scientific.

As a defence against the imperialism of economics et al that is all very well, but don’t take it too far please.

Although, to be fair, if you ever want to read a lame set of explanations about female participation in economics, just have a look at the Economic Journal symposium on the topic a couple of years ago. Complete rubbish.


John Quiggin 04.09.04 at 12:25 pm

Does the sociology/psychology distinction work?

Last time this topic came up, I argued (in relation to economics) that part of the explanation was that women came out of high school with a weaker background in maths, and a distaste for mathematical/formal reasoning. This doesn’t have much effect at the undergraduate level where verbal skills are sufficient for success, but gets more problematic in graduate school and beyond.

Is this a sociological or psychological explanation? The sociological factors pushing girls away from high school maths are more than adequate for an explanation of the observed outcomes, so I don’t think there’s any need to invoke psychological differences between girls and boys beginning high school.

On the other hand, if we are concerned with what happens at universities, this explanation is effectively identical to the “psychological” explanation criticised by Kieran.


Monica 04.09.04 at 12:26 pm

I think the lack of actual impact on day-to-day lives explanation has something to it, as that’s something that young women in particular seem very concerned with; but it needs to be combined with a theory of how job choices are conditioned on previous training, to wit: women learn languages and study biology because both of these things seem applicable to immediate human experience. (Biology has feminized in the last decade.) If you do the former, and discover you’re good at it, it sets you up to go to grad school in linguistics. If you do the latter and discover you’re good at it, it sets you up to go to grad school in cognitive science (Kieran–does CS really have a lot of women? What are the other pathways into it?). But when you’re 17 or 18, philosophy just seems like a roomful of people trying to prove how smart they are, and you think that you’re put on earth to do more important things than that. By the time you figure out that nothing you do is going to be very important, your career decisions have been made.


Visiting Lawyer 04.09.04 at 5:18 pm

Law, and particularly, litigation (my area)are high on aggression. I’ve litigated in a number of subject matter areas. It’s my (personal, non-scientific) observation that women litigators are much more prevalent in newer fields, even when those fields require scientific & mathematical expertise (e.g., environmental law). They are much less common in older fields (e.g., banking). This has always suggested to me that the obstacles women face in the latter are structural, not inherent. On good days, I hope that things will change in banking litigation as the old bulls die off & are replaced. On bad days, I notice how little has changed since I started out in banking litigation 25 years ago.


Howard 04.10.04 at 7:23 pm

Well, as I vaguely recall (was it Aristotle? Plato? Needless to say, I’m not a philospher), isn’t one of the requirements of a philosophical life sufficient leisure?

Women today may be freer to define themselves than in the past, but I don’t seriously hear “sufficient leisure” as one of the options women are privileged to explore.

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