goodbye sociology

I had a very interesting experience yesterday. Very interesting. Perhaps life-changing. You see a couple of weeks ago, I received a call from someone in the computer science department informing me they had a visitor coming to campus from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory who wanted to meet with me. “Ah,” thought I, “finally my 250 line C++ Kaplan-Meier Product-Limit Estimator program is going to get the recognition it deserves.”* Actually, I had no idea what this guy could want, but I said yes to the appointment, out of both courtesy and curiosity.

Turns out, he was very interested in an old paper of mine which was about a diffusion model I worked up in my dissertation, lo these many years ago. How he would have even come upon this paper was beyond me, but we had a very interesting conversation about it, related work, and what further could come out of it. It was one of the more engaging intellectual discussions I’ve had in a long time.

But, here’s the most interesting part. I was conveying some of my frustration about the paper and the reception of it. I mentioned that I had never been able to publish the paper** and his eyes about popped out of his head. He said, “the computational science people would eat this stuff up!” All these years gone by and it turns out I have been in the wrong discipline the entire time!

As the conversation progressed, I had the third or fourth repetition of a realization that the overlap between sociology and other fields is growing rapidly and we don’t even know most of the time how that is happening. I’ve had the duty of attending a series of interviews and job talks for the economics department this year, and I swear about half the time, I can’t figure out the difference between what they are doing and what a sophisticated quantitative sociologist would do (and in some cases has already done). I’m not only surprised what passes for economics these days, but now I’m starting to wonder what passes for computer science, physics, and even some of the humanities these days. One starts to wonder what the unique contribution of sociology is going to be a few years from now.



* If you have any idea what that sentence means, I would like to propose marriage. 

** Efforts which included bringing another author of this blog on to the paper in an effort to make it actually readable….


15 thoughts on “goodbye sociology”

  1. I can’t figure out the difference between what they are doing and what a sophisticated quantitative sociologist would do

    One gets covered in the Times and the other doesn’t. It’s a quite straightforward distinction.


  2. I think some friends of mine have a pool started for when I will write a blog post titled “Goodbye sociology,” but it won’t have quite this content.

    Also, footnote 1 made me laugh out loud.


  3. We recently had a semi-famous economists give a talk for an interdisciplinary group. I left the talk both shocked and angered, for three reasons. First, the presenter was working on a topic that at least three of the sociologists in the room had built their entire careers on, and two of them are considered the top people in that area, and yet the economist had no idea they or their dozens of articles (and a few books) existed. Second, the economists in the room (many of whom have known the aforementioned sociologists for many years—including hearing several talks about their work) acted like this was the most amazing economic topic and were impressed that the presenter had found such unexplored territory, and therefore never pointed out that their own colleagues were experts. Third, the economist didn’t use any econometrics, but in fact broke several basic rules in quantitative research. The funny thing was that during the Q&A, one of the sociologists politely tried to point the presenter toward the decades worth of sociological literature on the subject, but was fairly quickly dismissed. After the presentation, I realized that the paper seemed very familiar, and after digging around, I found a nearly identical (although less flawed) paper from 1969 that did exactly what the presenter claimed to want to do. The silver lining of the presentation was that the speaker was very entertaining, but it was still one the worst papers I have ever seen. In the end, I guess the thing that got me so upset was not that an economist is doing “sociological” research, but that those economists who knew good, relevant sociological work existed, refused to acknowledge the work of their sociologist colleagues.

    Since economists are doing sociological work, does that mean we will finally see a sociologist win a Nobel Prize in Economics???

    On footnote one: I do and…I do?


  4. Disciplinary boundaries can be problematic. Indeed, other disciplines (and not merely economics) tend to ignore sociologists. But we are often as guilty as they.

    How many sociologists cite Franz deWaal, Robin Dunbar, Jared Diamond, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, David Washburn, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, or Spencer Wells? * How many family textbooks include a paragraph about or photo of a non-human family?

    * I’m in a happy 36 year relationship but I can always use another friend.


  5. I’ve found that the US PhD system, with its focus on methodological training, results in most disciplines being method-driven. It is therefore not surprising that those that borrow methods that were developed in other disciplines will tend to ask similar research questions – and even re-invent the wheel a few times. “Innovation” in many disciplines often means introducing “new” methods.


  6. Did the Oak Ridge guy tell you what he was working on? I’m just curious b/c I have a family member who works for them.


  7. The same thing happens even WITHIN sociology. A couple of years back, an unnamed person (unnamed only because I am too lazy to check and make sure I am saying this exactly right), famous for quantitative, positivist kinds of research, published a piece talking all about this new approach said person was using and all the brilliant insights generated thereby, both ontological and epistemological. Of course, these approaches had been around for decades and had long been discussed and debated by those with a more qualitative and interpretive approach (nary a one cited, of course).


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.