sociology should look to political science, not economics

Sociologists, online and off, spend a lot of time comparing our discipline to economics and debating how it is they managed to become so prominent. The unstated goal, of course, is to make sociology itself more important. In terms of contemporary tactics for that disciplinary project, I wonder if we shouldn’t be looking to political science instead.

For example, The Monkey Cage is a fantastic blog and a major voice for the discipline, now hosted at the Washington Post. In addition to a strong group of regular contributors, the blog also hosts short summaries of research by graduate students and faculty who might not otherwise be able to get their work seen. The result is a venue for political science research to reach a larger set of readers.

Comparing The Monkey Cage to the New York Times’ The Upshot is revealing: The Upshot seems to be run more directly by the paper and hosts content by full-time journalists covering economic issues along with columns by economists. But the number of voices is much smaller, and most of the coverage of new research is second-hand (journalists or academics writing about other people’s work). The Upshot reflects the (relative) dominance of economists in policy discussions, but The Monkey Cage might be a tool for cutting through that. Sociologists are not going to be invited to something like The Upshot any time soon. But maybe we could aim for something like The Monkey Cage.

In a more inward-facing context, the journal PS: Political Science & Politics does not have a clear parallel in Sociology. PS brings together content like discussions of the success of election forecasting models, retrospective book symposia on classic works, innovative teaching tricks, and debates over the best way to structure conferences – and that’s just the most recent issue. It’s somewhere between a section newsletter, ASA’s Footnotes, American Sociologist, and Teaching Sociology. And it’s fun! Here’s a bit from that debate on the modern academic conference, in a paper titled Defending the Federation from the Rom-ulan Empire or, If Conferences Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix Them:

Rom begins his essay with the claim that “The conventional political science conference is a dinosaur, large, lumbering, and increasingly ill-suited for its environment, although extinction does not appear imminent” (2012, 333). Is the dinosaur metaphor accurate? I have not seriously studied dinosaurs since the fourth grade, but I remember that they flourished for more than 150 million years and were well adapted to the environments of their time. They became extinct because an asteroid hit the earth, the original case of “punctuated equilibrium”—too bad dinosaurs could not have read Baumgartner and Jones (1993).

Serious conversations and serious proposals can be silly at the same time. And I admit a bit of envy at how much currency sci-fi references have in political science. PS seems to have captured that spirit well. I wonder what sociologists could do with a similar outlet. At a minimum, we could have a few laughs.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

11 thoughts on “sociology should look to political science, not economics”

  1. Hey – the Upshot has political scientist contributors too! (Lynn Vavreck and myself) I agree the Monkey Cage is a model worth emulating. On PS, it does provide a nice option for certain kinds of content, though I wish it could be faster and more nimble.
    -Brendan Nyhan

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    1. Of course! And my apologies. I loved the work you did on forecasting the Senate election. But it seems like Monkey Cage is more of a venue for disciplinary advancement, covering a wide swathe of research, while Upshot is a little more polished, less bloggy, a bit more like a collection of columns with a social science (and especially econ) bent.

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  2. Actually, I think socimages has done a lot of this work. Other gender/race blogs (feministing, crunk feminist collective, family inequality) have a great sense of the moment and a good use of a variety of soc material. I see a lot of good racial demography/criminology work being picked up in the MSM too. What kind of “disciplinary advancement” would we be doing in a hypothetical column that did not engage this work?

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  3. FYI I’ve just agreed with a local activist to try to reengage my blogging presence with a focus on the academic work that would support the #BlackLivesMatter movement with a focus on writing essays from the relevant criminology and political sociology literatures. I have not done it yet as I’m still wading through other things on the to do list and fielding the unremitting incoming work, but if you know of relevant already-existing blogs or want to be part of developing new content along these lines, drop a comment. I already know some of the players of course like Chris Uggen and the people at RacismReview. I probably won’t make a ton of progress on my own writing before May but could try to launch sooner with links and such if I have some other people who can help carry the ball.

    This is, of course, different from the broader discipline-wide issue.

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  4. Great point, Dan! I think there’s definitely something to what you say. But I wonder if this influence of political science (and in particular political science blogging) might also have to do with the fact that that it’s helped new journalists like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias in their fight against the old guard of journalism.

    Journalists like Klein will often argue, using the political science literature on polarization that, the present political alignment of the United States makes it harder to practice the “he says, she says” kind of reporting that is the hallmark of journalistic outposts like the Times and the Post. I think this also helps them mount their own internal fight with the old guard, even as the political economy of journalism is changing. I think Klein’s reply to Thomas Frank is one of the best examples of this (I also just like it personally because, well, it’s just a wonderful refutation.)

    And of course, this comes out of political scientists’ own frustration with political reporting. Nothing quite comes to mind at the moment, but I’ve read many many posts on the Monkey Cage that are unhappy with political reporting, or about the predictability of presidential elections.

    I’m not sure that explains completely why political scientists have gained some influence — but that seems to me an important factor: there’s a change of guard going on within journalism right now and the new guard finds political science useful in their own disputes with the old guard. It’s not clear to me how sociology might be able to replicate that.

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  5. Having studied some economics during my social science degree, I found myself somewhat depressed by the naivety and ignorance of my sociology profs on matters economic. For that reason, and several others that I won’t go into here, I think sociology is the architect of its own irrelevance.

    I also can’t help but compare the vigour and value of the economic blogging community with the absence of same in regards to sociology. It is kind of ironic that those economic calculating machines (I jest, of course) are such much more attuned to the social world than sociologists!

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  6. While both the Upshot and the Washington Post incarnation of the Monkey Cage are newspaper responses to ESPN’s 538, I think they are all drawing on different traditions.

    The 538 model is that smart people trained in econometrics can compute all sorts of interesting things. In my opinion, this works best when they build complex models with lots of moving pieces, like Silver’s PECOTA or election models, which can be used to produce many different, time-varying insights. Their quick hits are usually much less useful.

    In contrast, the Upshot primarily draws on the “computer-assisted reporting” tradition, and their best stuff usually involves quantitatively sophisticated beat reporters examining politics and the economy. This is especially true when they work with the superpowered Times graphics department.

    The Monkey Cage, in contrast, began life as a George Washington University centered group blog, about, well, let’s let them explain it in a 2007 post:

    To publicize political science research. Political scientists have been relatively slow in progressing to the blogosphere. Within our general area of the academy, the prevalence of economists is perhaps most noteworthy—among others, Gary Becker, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, Brad DeLong, Paul Krugman, Greg Mankiw, Dani Rodrik, andMark Thoma. The folks at Crooked Timber, including our colleague Henry Farrell, span various disciplines, including philosophy, economics, political science, and sociology. (Henry is also owed a significant debt of gratitude for his advice and guidance to us as we began to conceive and then establish this blog.)
    Among political scientists in particular, there are the aforementioned Henry Farrell, Daniel Drezner, Jim Johnson, Simon Jackman, Marc Lynch, and the folks at Polysigh. Several blogs oriented around statistical methods (including Andrew Gelman’s and the Social Science Statistics Blog) and law (Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog and the Empirical Legal Studies Blog) also deal with topics within political science.
    Of course, there are others we have not listed, but even if all of these blogs were itemized, political scientists would be under-represented. This is particularly true in our areas of study, which focus on public opinion and mass political behavior, both in American politics and in comparative perspective.
    The consequence, as Henry Farrell has written in response to a comment by Ezra Klein, is that political science research gets short shrift from the media, the policy community, and the types of people who read academically-oriented blogs. We want to extend what Henry does at his Political Science Weblog, which is post abstracts to interesting papers. Our model is Marginal Revolution, which is perhaps the most important inspiration for this blog. We will post abstracts and links to articles, papers, and books, along with comments that summarize our own reactions and/or discuss the work’s importance. We will occasionally highlight our own work, but will try to steer clear of wanton self-promotion. We will occasionally invite guest bloggers for temporary residence. Readers are always welcome to suggest new work that we might highlight. Ultimately, we hope that this blog will gain political science research greater attention and currency.
    2) To provide informed commentary on political events and issues. Don’t read anything too self-important in the word “informed.” All we mean by that is that we will draw upon extant research, as well as our own data analyses, to speak to contemporary politics. Here, we are inspired in part by Mark Blumenthal and Charles Franklin’s work at Pollster.com. The main difference is that whereas Pollster.com serves mainly to collect and aggregate polls of Americans and to comment on issues within the domain of polling, we intend a broader scope, including topics unrelated to polling or elections or American politics. We will also try to be more directly engaged in testing and perhaps contesting propositions from journalists or commentators, much as Morris Fiorina has done in his book-length take-down of the red-blue state notion and the “culture war.” Ultimately, we want contemporary discourse about politics centered as much as possible on the best kinds of evidence.

    I’m all in for someone creating a Monkey Cage blog for sociology. A couple of potential hurdles: 1. On a practical level, you need a blog entrepreneur like MonkeyCage’s John Sides to get things going and keep it going. 2. There is also the issue of what the scope of the blog would be. Sociologists cover a wide variety of topics, and finding some coherence in it can be difficult, as anyone who has taught intro knows. This is not to say this a huge problem, but some parts of the discipline might be left out. We also don’t line up cleanly with any of the existing newspaper beats, like american politics or economics do.* 3) It’s not clear to me there is a large, existing community of sociologists who regularly write/blog about contemporary events using an academic lens.* So the sociological Monkey Cage might need to create both an audience and a pool writers.

    * There’s a slightly alternate world where newspapers have a Women’s section and SocImages is a major part of the LA Times.

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    1. The scope issue is an interesting and difficult one, and it came up in Henry Farrell’s reaction to this post. He suggested an econ soc theme, but that would cut your potential writers to a very small number (and Kieran, Beth and Fabio are already blogging at full steam!). Political Science seemed to be able to take on the Monkey Cage as a disciplinary project while still maintaining enough substantive coherence to build the audience and writer base. Sociology would be a bit trickier. There’s no obvious way to bound such an endeavor that doesn’t cut out a huge swath of the field.

      In terms of point 3, my bet is that the Monkey Cage helped to create a set of writers. At least now, I see a fair number of graduate students and young faculty blogging about their work. These are people who don’t otherwise have platforms for blogging – at least not with any sizable audience – who can try it out and get their research seen at the same time. I’m not sure how they maintain that pipeline, but it seems like one of the big payoffs to building the site and it’s one of the reasons I’d love to emulate them.

      But I have no solution to the scope issue.

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    2. A couple of things that I disagree with in Neal’s take. First, I don’t see a qualitative difference in what Monkey Cage does now than what it was doing before the Washington Post took over. I actually think that the Monkey Cage helped pave the way for the Times to pick up and fund Nate Silver’s 538 project. The current incarnation of 538 on ESPN seems to be a response to the more nimble, broader scope of venues like the Monkey Cage.

      Second, John Sides deserves a lot of credit for the entrepreneurial spirit behind Monkey Cage. But the heart of the endeavor was Lee Sigelman who tragically died too young. The reason that I bring that up is that Lee Sigelman was broadly interested in what political science — and social science generally — could say about the world. He even published influential papers in sociology. I actually think that it was his breadth of interest — and by all accounts generally kind disposition — that helped make the intellectual endeavor work.

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      1. Thanks for pointing out that I missed Lee Sigelman’s critical role.

        I also agree that the current Monkey Cage is quite similar in content to the earlier version, just supersized. It is really quite impressive what they have put together. I was clumsily attempting to point out that the WP likely targeted MonkeyCage because that type of project was being developed by its peer newspapers during the summer of 2013, and din’t mean to imply a shift in mission.

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  7. One important aspect of the Monkey Cage that nobody has mentioned so far is that they stick primarily to positive analysis of any given issue. The big problem for undertaking a similar project in sociology is that the most prolific bloggers are usually motivated by activism (and let this show in their writing) rather than just a desire to show how their sociological toolbox can help folks explain lots of seemingly inexplicable issues. The Monkey Cage is great because they are able to discuss things important to many sociologists (race, gender, inequality, etc) without taking potshots at the usual suspects (Republicans, neoliberalism, corporations, etc).

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