for most people, sociology is just as authoritative as economics

Sociologists engage in a lot of hang-wringing about the perception of the field. One theory goes that sociology is not perceived as scientific enough and, as a result, sociologists are not taken as seriously. The usual comparison is to economics, which is seen as both incredibly influential in policymaking and as being endowed with more scientificity by various actors.

In contrast, Beth Popp Berman and I, along with other scholars who study economists’ influence, have argued that the political power of economics (vis-a-vis sociology) does not run primarily through general public opinion about scientificity. Rather, we argue that economists are influential because of their role in particular policymaking institutions (like the Federal Reserve) and through shaping the mindset of policymaking elites (in law schools and public policy schools, say).

A new paper by sociologists Scheitle and Guthrie (S&G) provides evidence in support of this claim through a clever survey experiment (pdf here). S&G use a vignette experiment with an MTurk sample to test whether respondents perceive the same finding as more scientific if it’s reported as coming from a different social science. The findings are clear: whether the study is reported as coming from a sociologist, anthropologist, economist, or psychologist makes no difference to respondents’ perceptions of how scientific or trustworthy the finding is. This finding isn’t that surprising – as I wrote about in a blogpost in my first year at Michigan, a decade ago!, public opinion on the scientificity economics and sociology is pretty similar, although sociology has a higher volunteered “don’t know” rate.

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In a follow-up experiment, S&G test to see whether this finding would hold for a comparison of biology, medicine, and sociology.  Again, the findings are null! Despite the significant difference in perceived scientificity of biology vs. sociology (61% rate biology as “very scientific”; just 10% rate sociology “very scientific), when it comes to believing a particular study, biology and sociology do equally well.

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The authors offer their own speculations on the significance of their findings, which you should check out. For me, one of the most important takeaways is a reminder of just how different the typical American adult’s engagement with research is from that of an academic. We spend so much of our lives making fine-grained distinctions within and between fields that it’s easy to lose track of how opaque these differences are to most people. In any event, to return to the opening theme of the post: if sociologists are keen to increase their policy influence, the route likely does not run through increasing the general perception of sociology’s science-y-ness. Rather, it runs through direct engagements with policymakers, through carving out space for sociology in think tanks and other policy research organizations, and through the curricula of programs that train future technocrats and policymakers.

Author: Dan Hirschman

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

One thought on “for most people, sociology is just as authoritative as economics”

  1. This is very interesting (and I guess unsurprising at the same time). I am not sure if the authors addressed this as I only clicked the paper to read the abstract and the vignettes, but I wonder if the findings at issue were a little more consequential politically speaking. For example if the study said something about gender pay gap or urban poverty. I would imagine the legitimacy of a source as science-y enough rest in the perception of whether the claim is legitimate on the basis of coverage by the field of expertise (are they in their “lane”?), and on the basis of some notion of objectivity (are they being political?). I guess this is just musing anyway as none of this goes against the claim you are making that the pathway for sociology to be relevant lies in the inclusion of bodies of sociologists in relevant policy arenas.

    These types of issues always make me think back to Durkheim and the anomic division of labor he described among scientists. It seems super relevant to the role of science in policy-making. Maybe the pathway to more sociological ideas in policy making lies in unification and prevention of further fragmentation of scientific disciplines.


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