Economics as Sociology’s Other (More Temperate Version)

by Henry Farrell on June 29, 2009

My “somewhat grumpy”: post last week has turned into a much less grumpy discussion with other parties via email, and, perhaps, an actual paper sometime not too far in the future. But in the interim, I came across a really nice piece by Marion Fourcade, which says some of what I was saying, but more temperately, and with proper analysis. Key quotes:

As mainstream economics, following the lead of Gary Becker, started to venture into a number of traditionally sociological jurisdictions (such as the family, crime, or education), intellectual exchange, if not outright competition with economics, was progressively constructed as a legitimate professional goal—thereby challenging the tacit disciplinary division in effect since the time of Talcott Parsons … Indeed, the competitive origins of the “new” economic sociology are especially clear in the _rhetoric_ of a number of foundational papers and programmatic statements, all of which motivate their own enterprise by the challenge it offers to utilitarian approaches. A few illustrations will be sufficient … White’s (1981) foundational paper … Granovetter’s seminal contribution … Hirsch, Michaels, and Friedman … both editions of the _Handbook of Economic Sociology_ … The point is clear: The orientation, generally competitive and always informed, toward the most powerful social science, was a much clearer intellectual starting point than the connection to earlier forms of economic sociology.

The piece (which has a very helpful general overview of debates in economic sociology) was published by the _American Behavioral Scientist_ and is available “here”: for those with institutional access. An ungated version should be available “here”:, but I can’t get the link to work for me (others may perhaps have better luck) – thanks to Andrei in comments for a “working link”:



Stuart 06.29.09 at 11:07 pm

The ungated version link seems to just to drop back to the default page for the Sociology dept on the Berkeley site for me.


Andrei 06.29.09 at 11:27 pm


Andrei 06.29.09 at 11:53 pm

p.s. As long as I am posting something here: as a sociologist in training, I really wish econ and soc grad students were required to take some foundational classes in the other discipline. Anyway, even if this wouldn’t make us all into better social scientists, it should at least make this squabble more informed. I find myself frequently embarrassed by how juvenile the combatants from both camps can be.

p.p.s. As my econ friend pointed out to me just last night, there’s a reason that econ and soc keep on having this squabble as opposed to, say, econ and art history (or even econ and anthro): we’re similar disciplines, damnit.


Tim Scriven 06.30.09 at 12:55 am

I don’t know if this is irrelevant to the post, probably is, but I love Crooked Timber, I really do, somehow it manages to remain both broad and deep at the same time. Something in this particular post was so profoundly warm and familiar that it triggered in me the following thought (think of this as not a parody, more like a token of affection).

The ultimate crooked timber post, the platonic form of a crooked timber post, is:

Evolutionary psychology explains why analytic philosophers appear to be aliens (organ trafficking aliens!), implications for non ideal political theory and the Obama regime’s response to the structure of humanities discourse in Belgium. Plus, we uncover the secret cave where neo-classical economists are produced “Maxima-expectoritous”.


chrismealy 06.30.09 at 1:21 am

Has Gintis’s framework for the unification of the social sciences been discussed at CT already?


Henry 06.30.09 at 2:57 am

No – and speaking for meself, I only just received and did an initial skim through a copy of it today.


chrismealy 06.30.09 at 3:14 am

Here’s the paper (with comments): A framework for the unification of the behavioral sciences. There’s a presentation too, which is better because it has jokes.


Jock Bowden 06.30.09 at 6:09 am

Henrei’s post IS much more informative than the other one. And I think Andrei’s point about some mutuality in graduate training programs for Sociology and Economics might benefit from the lessons of the 16/17th, or ‘Scientific Revolution’ if you wioll forgive the whiggishness.

The debate/conflict between Sociology and Economics seems remarkably similar to the tussles among cosmological models and astronomy methods in the 16/17th century. Like astronomy, it seems that Economics and Sociology could benefit by articulating with a consensus-derived epistemologically ‘Social’ higher equivalent of Natural Philosophy. Call it ‘Social Science’ which then enables all the ‘subordinate’ disciplines – economics, sociology, government, anthropology, and so on.

Or perhaps those sort of natural science ‘paradigm’ and enabling science/subordinate science frameworks don’t fit the social sciences.


dsquared 06.30.09 at 7:16 am

that’s the sociology presentation. You can get the experience of it as an economics presentation by pressing the pause button every couple of minutes and shouting “But your approach here is completely unrigorous!”.


Tracy W 06.30.09 at 8:26 am

Well it’s certainly not a paper written to be read by non-sociologists, an observation which I suspect would not bother the authors a bit.
But do economic sociologists really start off with such broad-based questions as:

What do we learn about ourselves from studying markets? How do analyses centered on the economy help us better understand the sociological nature of our modernity?

It seems an usual mode of operating.


magistra 06.30.09 at 10:33 am


I think everything sociologists do is ultimately about the nature of modernity: that’s what sociology was developed to discuss (while anthropology and history traditionally covered ‘non-modern’ societies).


Tracy W 06.30.09 at 11:46 am

Magistra – what puzzled me was the scale of the questions. Nothing in there about “why is Britain so rich?” or “why are diamonds more expensive than water, when water is essential for life?”, or “why do people forget what they learnt in gemoetry classes so quickly?” or “why did women win the vote in some countries before others?”
Perhaps it’s just because it’s a survey article.

Why was sociology developed to only discuss modern societies? I’ve read “Watching the English” by Kate Fox, an anthropologist who writes about English society, and it struck me as quite different from what sociologists appear to be doing. (The book is a very funny read in and of itself).


Z 06.30.09 at 12:58 pm

Tim Scrive, you forgot to supplement your ideal CT post with D^2 footnotes.


bianca steele 06.30.09 at 1:28 pm

@10: In my very brief notes for chapter 2 of The Domestication of the Savage Mind, I have: “Goody lays out the idea that, at least in some kinds of societies, knowledge is social more than individual. He follows this idea from its initiation by Durkheim through its development in Levi Strauss’s examination of mythology.” Since Durkheim is interested only in modern civilization, “some kinds of societies” means “modern societies (with division of labor and so forth).” So it sounds like he would agree that sociology developed to discuss the nature of modern society. On the other hand, for the same chapter, I also wrote, “There is apparently significant conflict among social scientists and philosophers concerning these issues.”

I’d have to go back and look at Goody and Durkheim, and I’ve never read Levi Strauss, but for the most part Goody’s book was a false trail for me, as I’d been looking for something like an anthropological discussion of binary thinking more than a discussion of binary thinking among anthropologists.


Tim Wilkinson 06.30.09 at 1:31 pm

magistra – shurely: ‘the nature of modern society‘?

Tracy – I found it wasn’t too bad once I realised I should skip the introductory waffle and go straight to the, er, ‘prologue’. The broad-based questions are I would guess not exactly typical, as you say because this is a speculative/survey/(meta-)programmatic/metasociological paper (which I assume isn’t typical). Mind you I’ve got a very low tolerance for hand-waving in sociology after ploughing through a load of verbiage from the 70s on the topic of a so-called ‘cultic milieu’, when researching attitudes to conspiracy theories. Gintis makes a similar point to yours about the strange separation of soc’gy and anth’gy in the presentation @7: highly entertaining as well as basically right – at least in its critical part. No-one wants to (or gets to) hear it from horrid philosophers of course.

Generally – I assume there will be at least one CT post on Gintis at some point?


Tracy W 06.30.09 at 2:48 pm

Bianca – what would a society with individual knowledge, not social knowledge, look like? Division of labour is far older than the 18th century.

Tim, I give you, from page 7:

Network methodologies are themselves supported
by, and constitutive of, a particular theory of society—a geometric representation of
the social world that owes much to Simmel’s call to analyze the formal invariants
beneath the surface of concrete social interactions, and to the early Durkheim’s
emphasis on the morphological features of social solidarity.

I followed this up to “formal invariants” (apart from not knowing who Simmel is). Why there would be invariants, formal or informal, below the surface of concrete social interactions is beyond me, perhaps all those maths courses in different fields are leading me astray. And I just am totally lost as to what the word “morphological” means here.
They also have some puzzling juxtapositions of natural against a result of society, which makes me wonder how they are defining “natural”.


Chris 06.30.09 at 3:18 pm

@15: Surely, forming societies is natural for many species, among which the primates are particularly notable? (And division of labor occurs even in bees, let alone chimpanzees, so using it as a characteristic of “modern society” reveals a certain lack of perspective that goes far beyond an “unrigorous” approach.)

Goody lays out the idea that, at least in some kinds of societies, knowledge is social more than individual.

I’m curious what this means. Our society knows how to fix a broken carburetor: take it to a mechanic, who has the individual knowledge to fix it, and does so. But despite the presence of individual members of society who know that creationism is a load of, er, misunderstanding, our society doesn’t really know this in any clear sense – we have *more* individual than social knowledge on this point.

Furthermore, I have difficulty envisioning the reverse point – that society has some kind of “Chinese room” gestalt-knowledge that isn’t possessed by any of its members. Even if that were true, how could any human know it without thereby invalidating it?

Or am I misunderstanding what is meant by “social knowledge”?


magistra 06.30.09 at 3:25 pm

I think a lot both of methodological differences and of attitudes towards one’s subject in anthropology versus sociology go back to the original plans of research in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Anthropology was intended to study small-scale primitive ‘societies’ in the colonies; sociology was trying to provide a scientific theory of how a previously unknown form of society (the nineteenth century west) worked, and what life in this new form of society meant. It would have been undignified to observe nineteenth century Europeans in the same quasi-zoological way you could investigate a tribe, and it was inappropriate to apply social science to small-scale societies, because they obviously weren’t complex or rational enough to be analysed in that way.


Tracy W 06.30.09 at 3:52 pm

Chris – I agree with you, which makes me wonder if sociologists are using the word “natural” in a discipline-specific way. Although admittedly many non-specialised uses of the word “natural” puzzle me for basically the same reason.

Magistra – perhaps, but it seems a bit odd that sociology would remain stuck with a 19th century definition. Perhaps we need an anthropologist to explain the sociologists.


Tim Wilkinson 06.30.09 at 4:19 pm

Tracy @15 – Fair enough. I was still on the prologue then and should have been less hasty. In fact I abandoned it altogether at ‘we experience markets as stable, patterned institutions’. And in your extract I was a bit baffled by ‘supported by and constitutive of’, but found ‘formal invariants beneath the surface’ OK, choosing an impressionistic reading along the lines of ‘constant features of the underlying reality’ (i.e. presumably of the kind you might make lawlike generalisations about). But that might be entirely wrong…

Anyway I now have to agree that it is written for sociologists (and – just possibly – the very patient). A propos not much, I have a copy of Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money (in translation) which I read rather hastily about 10 years ago – can’t remember much about it except that it was tantalising in that it kept looking as though it was going to be useful but then on closer inspection wasn’t (to me at the time, in the context of normative theory of economic value and exchange).

Chris @16 – Not sure that the ‘knowing about it would invalidate its social nature’ point wrt emergent/irreducible social knowledge. I can know that you have knowledge about the back of your hand, without myself possessing that knowledge. And the quote does say ‘social more than individual’. But also don’t know if that’s what ‘s being driven at. Popper put forward a conception of objective knowledge which IIRC consisted largely of things in books (and these days other forms of external storage). Don’t know if that’s what’s meant either.

magistra@17 – I take it the content of your last sentence is merely attributed, and not your own view.


bianca steele 06.30.09 at 4:21 pm

Tracy, Goody’s main argument is that the usual distinctions between one kind of culture or society and another are less than helpful, so I’m not sure the precise timing of the discontinuity matters much. If what I wrote wasn’t clear (as isn’t unlikely—I only wrote down a handful of sentences to remind myself later what the chapter was about), I’d have to try to articulate his point at a length that would really do him justice, and unfortunately I don’t really have time to do that right now, plus whatever stage setting it might require. I think Goody, though, considers Durkheim’s “social knowledge” as a form of technology, akin to writing, that thus like writing influences a culture’s cognitive activities, as well as its social organization. It isn’t obvious to me that that’s what Durkheim meant, but it’s been a while since I’ve read Durkheim. Also, if I remember correctly, Levi Strauss dissented from this earlier theory, and I thought Levi Strauss was at present more influential in pretty much every discipline, so it really wouldn’t be surprising if it can’t be made to hold up.


Oh why not 06.30.09 at 4:24 pm

Reading Gintis and the rest all I can see is a overworked attempt to get freedom out of determinism: “rational determinism.” The mixture of moral passivity and optimism is bizarre.

And the difference between Anthropology and Sociology is that the former is concerned not only with individual societies but individual persons. Sociology is concerned with people as a mass. The preference for the latter functions as an interest in “ideas’ but also as a preference for impersonal forms of communication and knowledge. This preference itself can be described as a product of a cultural determinism.

Anthropology and sociology as practices exist as examples of two kinds of performative ethos; each are manifestations of the moral assumptions/values that precede them. One is social one extra-social.

We want to create meaning out of the world. Some prefer crystalline forms: absolute, time independent, “immortal” designs. Others see a narrative arc: from beginning to end.
Each group responds to trauma (the traumatic interruption of their pattern) differently.
Suicide: when you feel you no longer ‘should be alive’ when the narrative arc comes crashing downward after a traumatic event. But why am a still here?

It’s the formal pattern that’s determinate for modern consciousness not Darwinism.
But of course consciousness itself is epiphenomenal.


Andrei 06.30.09 at 5:03 pm

Chris — re: social knowledge, check out It’s a broader discussion than relevant to the specific question here, but illustrates the more profound ways in which knowledge is social.


Chris 06.30.09 at 7:49 pm

It would have been undignified to observe nineteenth century Europeans in the same quasi-zoological way you could investigate a tribe, and it was inappropriate to apply social science to small-scale societies, because they obviously weren’t complex or rational enough to be analysed in that way.

But surely, if Theory is good for anything, it’s good for telling us that this distinction is self-serving and baseless. So why haven’t the two fields subsequently recognized that they are the same and merged? Bureaucratic empire building? Institutional inertia? Or is there something more?

As for Gintis, I think he has a point that several fields are groping the same elephant and reporting very different shapes, but his specific synthesis seems supported by more enthusiasm than sober consideration. Maybe that’s just a sour reaction to the ambitiousness of the undertaking, though, or a reflection of how much he is trying to do with such a short paper, I dunno. (I don’t see any attempt to tackle determinism, which seems beyond the scope of even his ambitious program.)


Jim Harrison 06.30.09 at 9:12 pm

This discussion seems to elide two very different things, the relative prestige of sociology and economics and the relative validity of the two. In ranking the two disciplines, it matters which of these races you are handicapping. In the U.S., at least, economists certainly make more money than sociologists and get more patronage from politicians; but we’re still waiting for them to demonstrate that their predictions out perform astrology. Come to think of it, the economists do win in a third contest: they are the most self important of all the social scientists, though in my experience the psychologists do give ’em a run for their money.


Tracy W 07.01.09 at 8:05 am

Bianca Steele – I think Goody, though, considers Durkheim’s “social knowledge” as a form of technology, akin to writing, that thus like writing influences a culture’s cognitive activities, as well as its social organization.

So is the Maori institution of the marae, where groups meet in a building for long discussion and speech-making, a form of social knowledge or not? How about the Ancient Athens Assembly?

Tim – thanks for the possible explanation of the “formal invariants”.


Jock Bowden 07.01.09 at 8:15 am

Hmmm…my post has been in moderation for a while, and I didn’t use the word s0c1al1sm. [Jock – while you are not banned, your comments have been put on auto-moderation because of bad behavior in other threads]


Z 07.01.09 at 10:08 am

A really excellent paper. I must confess that just about everything I have read or heard from M.Fourcade was really impressive. I am eagerly awaiting her joint book with Kieran.

Tracy, the paragraph about morphology and formal invariants is really nothing mysterious at all. It’s just a generic way to say that a social institution in which people all connect to each other (which you can represent by a very messy graph) probably behaves very differently from one where all members connect to one central node and that’s all (that one would look like a starfish). The difference in behavior between those two structures would presumably be independent of the culture, history and what-have-you of the members of the network (though as the article points, these parameters would influence how the network came to be structured like this in the first place) and can thus be called “formal”. That this is a question of morphology is simply the definition of morphology. And there you go.


Tracy W 07.01.09 at 2:07 pm

Z – I still don’t know the definition of morphology you are using here, so I’m still mystified. Especially as I didn’t even realise that the original paper was raising a question of morphology, whatever that is. I thought the bit I quoted was making a statement about network methodologies.
Otherwise thanks for your explanation. My comment that the paper had not been written to be read by non-sociologists wasn’t intended to say that it was mysterious to sociologists.


bianca steele 07.01.09 at 2:17 pm

Those are good questions, and I’d bet a sociologist would be able to rattle off an answer for you right off the bat, but this wasn’t the part I was most interested in.


Henry 07.01.09 at 2:24 pm

I hadn’t realised she was doing a book with Kieran (I did know she has done a paper, and have her book on economics on my Must Get To Really Soon shelf).


magistra 07.01.09 at 8:00 pm

On Durkheim and ‘social knowledge’, I’m very much going on what Mary Douglas says in ‘How institutions think’ (which is a very interesting book, though irritatingly short on definitions at times). Durkheim’s original interest was in how different individuals come to think the same things, i.e. why people have shared representations/beliefs, which he could see in societies of minimal technical advancement e.g. Australian Aboriginal tribes with shared religious beliefs. Douglas points out how conventions, shared beliefs, institutions etc can reduce people’s needs to process information for themselves. (As one trivial example that occurred to me, I save time first thing each morning by only having to select from appropriate breakfast type things to eat, rather than choose from all the food I have in my house).

I think the disadvantage with calling these shared norms, images etc ‘social knowledge’ is that it can make you assume that it’s actual facts that are ‘stored’ in these common ideas and institutions, whereas that’s not necessarily the case. For example, the analogy of man is to woman as right hand is to left hand can be used to ‘encode’ an entire ideology of why a gendered division of labour is justified.


peter 07.01.09 at 9:34 pm

Oh why not @ # 22:

“And the difference between Anthropology and Sociology is that the former is concerned not only with individual societies but individual persons. Sociology is concerned with people as a mass.”

The anthropologist Alfred Gell argued that anthro was concerned with what happened (and what caused it to happen, and what consequences arose, etc) in the course of a single person’s lifetime, while socio was concerned with the same questions over the course of many generations of lifetimes.


Z 07.02.09 at 2:24 am

I still don’t know the definition of morphology you are using here

Sorry, if I was confusing. Allow me to try again. First, you are right of course. The paragraph from which the excerpt is making a statement about some methodologies in sociology: it points out that representing society as networks implies that you think society somehow can be fruitfully represented as a network. Put like that, it looks like a tautology but I think this is actually a helpful paragraph, insofar as it clarifies that network analysis should not be construed strictly as an empirical tool.

Now back to morphology. Let me take a concrete example. Say you are a sociologist and you study junior high school classes. You patiently record who plays with whom, who speaks to whom, who sits next to whom in class etc. Then you draw a graph: each vertex is a pupil and each arrow represents a relation. Now, the theoretical insight that permeates network analysis (which the author attributes to Simmel and to Durkheim) is that you will learn something of interest if you study the shape, or form, of the graph you have drawn, or in fancier language, if you study its morphology (the meaning I give to the words “emphasis on the morphological features” of the author is simply “pay attention to the shape”). You could perhaps ask if the graph is connected or else how many connected components it has. Calculating mean distance and/or the incidence matrix, you could propose a formal definition of popularity inside the class. Whatever.

All this is of course really interesting, but some sociologists disagree, or rather have an alternative point of view. Continuing the example, they would say: suppose that a new kid arrives in the class. By your tools and your methods of network analysis, you will eventually be able to determine if he became popular or not, but you won’t be able to predict it, or explain it. This is how you could have done it: instead of observing directly interactions between kids, you could try to write down a list of what kids value. This “list” will in fact look more like a high-dimensional vector space, as orientation is needed because some things that some kids will value highly (say, good grades), some will dislike highly. So you get this vector space of values. Now you try (this I think is the hard part, especially in my example) to plot the kids in this space: Lea has quite good grades, is part of the drama club, doesn’t like Rihanna so much and is very talkative in class so she ends up there in my vector space. So far so good. Then, because you don’t like to represent society as high dimensional vector spaces, you project everything in one or two dimension using component analysis. The, these sociologists say, you will observe that clouds of points appear and they predict that there will be relations in the network you previously drawn between neighboring points. In particular, when that you new kid shows up, you can predict where he will end up, if you happen to know what his inclinations were. The above being a long long explanation of what (I think that) Fourcade meant when she wrote: “When the network approach emphasizes coordination and connectivity among market actors, then, field analysis reveals the topology of social differences.”

In case you read up to there, Tracy, then sorry for having bored you to death.


Tracy W 07.02.09 at 7:37 am

Z – quit your day job and take up writing popular sociology books :) Thanks!


John Quiggin 07.02.09 at 8:57 am

In economics also, I’ve noticed that there are two very distinct approaches to network analysis, one focusing on topology and the other on aggregate properties of the network.


Jim Johnson 07.02.09 at 4:08 pm

I’ve not read the entire thread here or on Henry’s earlier (“grumpy”) post. And I do not much care about the goings on professionally among sociologists and/or economists – let them squabble.

It seems to me, though, that virtually all of this discussion presumes a rather tendentious conception of what models are for – namely, for deriving predictions or hypotheses that (at least in principle) can be empirically tested. Then we – whether sociologists or economists or whatever – can talk about the truth or falsity of the model.

But if one treats models like tools – things we use to think with – then that view seems at least narrow and very possibly a category mistake. If I think of my re[eated game model as a hammer (or screwdriver or whatever) then there is no reason to think it should resemble the world or be testable against some observations. My hammer does not resemble the world but it is still pretty useful for some sorts of things (and, by implication, not for others).

So, what if we thought about rational choice models as useful for thinking about what rationality means in different sorts of circumstances? Then the models are good for conceptual analysis – for thinking in systematic ways about a class of causal mechanisms and how they work. And that is an important part of the ‘scientific’ enterprise once we give up on a naively empiricist/positivist understanding of science.

Insofar as economists and sociologists (and most of my colleagues in political science) think of model making as an empirical exercise we should say ‘a pox on both (all) your houses).

(In closing I’d like to say hello to my old friend Joe Heath if he is reading this thread too.)


Chris 07.03.09 at 6:30 pm

@37: Certainly it’s possible to create and study systems that aren’t connected to the real world (although I would question whether they really ought to be called “models” if they’re not modelling anything). But I don’t think most economists or sociologists would consider such an endeavor a legitimate part of their disciplines, since those disciplines are defined by the study of phenomena (economies and societies) that exist in the world.

What you seem to be describing is some sort of armchair philosophy – maybe you missed the recent philosophy threads?

To reverse your hammer analogy, there are a great many interesting and useful objects that will not drive a nail. But if you are employed as a carpenter, I think your employer has a legitimate right to insist that you set aside pillows, spools of thread, and butterflies, and employ only objects of proven nail-driving ability in y0ur professional activities.


Tim Wilkinson 07.03.09 at 8:28 pm

maybe you missed the recent philosophy threads?
So what did they establish?


John Quiggin 07.03.09 at 10:25 pm

It’s possible the reference is to the discussion we had about theories of justice. To oversimplify, the economists in that discussion mostly took it for granted that such a theory should provide some basis for supporting or opposing particular social structures, whereas the philosophers tended to see the primary task as clarifying conceptions of justice, with no necessary policy implications.


Jim Johnson 07.04.09 at 4:56 pm


It is not that they are not modeling “anything” but they are not modeling anything one could actuallly see or observe or test against obervations or evidence.

So, Rawls’s original position and Foucault’s panopticon are “models” – both in their own words and in the terms that, say, Thomas Schelling specifies when talking about models. But neither theorist claims that their model captures the “real world” even as it allows us to talk about things that surely are part of the world – namely justice or power. So too, game theoretic models (that also meet Schelling’s criteria) allow us to talk about something that is part of the world, namely rational action. And that sort of model thereby allows us to talk about the unobservable causal structure that generates phenomena we can observe.

You may want to dismiss that as “armchair philosophy,” but given the paltry showing of the social sciences at generating reliable empirical research I don’t see that as much of a problem. Perhaps the social scientists ought to be a bit more theoretically sophisticated? The problem is that the canonical view of models is that they allow us to deduce and predict with an eye toward testing. That is simply too narrow a view of what models can do or what science involves.

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