What the other social sciences can learn from economics

An interesting post by Diane Coyle on the LSE Impact Blog offers a useful counterweight to those who engage in economist-bashing as a matter of reflex. Though I’m sure I’ve probably lapsed into this on occasion, it’s something which increasingly bothers me. The idea that ‘economics’ does nothing more than embrace political orthodoxy and/or sell itself as an ideological force to the powerful is simply bad sociology and it obscures a much more  complex picture which I think it’s crucial for us to understand. Coyle usefully summarises the recent public history of economics in the UK, which sociologists could learn a lot from:

In the UK, the strong presence economists have in public debate about policies ranging from public service reform to monetary policy, HS2 to the Euro crisis, arguably stems from a media initiative launched in 1997, prompted by a cover story in The Economist: “The puzzling failure of economics.” Romesh Vaitilingam started the Royal Economic Society’s media initiative after that – I was then a journalist on The Independent, and was one of the economics writers he contacted. From then on, many economic researchers came to realise that there are some simple but essential lessons for disseminating research successfully – albeit still ignored by other academics.

For example, you have to use normal English, not professional jargon, to explain research. Statistical results require particularly careful explanation as not only the readers but also the journalists are often not statistically literate. You need to be aware of the constraints under which journalists operate, working to tight deadlines (especially in broadcasting), limited to at most a few hundred words, and above all pitching their story in competition with many other candidates. So there is a knack to explaining research in a straightforward, concise but not exaggerated manner, and this is why media training is one element of achieving impact.

The landscape of public debate has changed enormously since 1997, and blogs in particular have come to play a highly influential role in economics. Some of the best-known count as important media in their own right, including Paul Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal, or Marginal Revolution run by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok. There are in addition now a number of blogs that publish columns by a range of economists presenting the findings of their academic research – as in the highly influential VoxEU – or providing academics with a platform to provide informed comment on the issues of the day – such as Project Syndicate. Many academic economists, financial market participants, practitioners and journalists now blog and tweet. The online public debate about economics is consequently extremely lively, albeit also manifesting some of the negative aspects of the online world, including a tendency to over-simplify (140 characters is not much) and polarise into opposing ‘camps’.


In the context of economics this discussion seems to lead inevitably to the question of influencing economic policy. In an important sense I think the scope of sociological engagement can and should be much wider than this. Not least of all because the concomitant complementarity (where significant amounts of research in economics logically entail certain conclusions about economic policy) is far more marginal for sociological research. But I think this is a strength rather than a weakness, in so far as that it leads quite naturally (in my mind at least) to a minimalistic criterion for public engagement – sheer interestingness or ‘making the familiar strange’ perhaps? Though I obviously think there’s more to public sociology than public engagement.

As I wrote about earlier in the week, I’m in complete agreement with David Mellor’s argument that “we don’t need to debate public sociology anymore; we need to get good at it”. Coyle’s blog post points towards how much more practically orientated the response of UK economists to a loosely homologous set of circumstances has been. One thing that particularly struck me was the alliance building she points to between academic economists and ‘economics writers’. Are there self-identified ‘sociological writers’? If not, why not? I’m certain there must be active writers with undergraduate or postgraduate degrees who for whatever reason no longer identify as sociologists despite having their sensibilities shaped by the discipline. If so then it’s important to build productive relationships with them but also to understand what patterning, if any, there is in the dissipative tendencies exhibited by the intellectual identities of those who have studied sociology but no longer do so within a university.

According to Mike Savage’s Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940 there were 1,530 academic economists within the UK system in 2003-4 of which 57% were research active. In contrast there were 1,400 sociologists of which 63.1% were research active. Yet as Savage suggests, “if the ‘social’ disciplines of social anthropology, sociology, social policy, and social worker are grouped together, they become clearly the numerically dominant part of the social sciences, with over half of the core social science staffing” (Savage 2010: 131). The lack of ‘impact’ vis-a-vis economics here is puzzling and important to understand. My objection to facile invocations of the ideological role of economics to explain it stems largely from a belief that such ‘explanations’ are an obstacle to understanding what’s really going on here. There’s an element of truth to them but they simplify in such a way as to entirely obscure the practical differences of strategy and tactics which can be identified in how academic economics, in contrast to other social sciences, negotiates the public context within which it is embedded. I think there’s an awful lot that can be learnt here but that the response should not simply be to try and copy, say, the Royal Economic Society’s media initiative. I guess what interests me is that there seem to have been people outside academic economics working towards its popularisation in a way which does not seem to have been the case with other social science disciplines – I’d like to understand why this is the case, if I’m correct that it is, as well as how this ‘communicative gap’ can be bridged.

5 responses to “What the other social sciences can learn from economics”

  1. What do you make of the critique of ‘mainstream’ economics by Critical Realists like Tony Lawson who, as I understand him, regards it as bound to both the analysis of constant conjunction and the assumption of closure. If you agree with this critique, maybe (another form) of (mainstream) economics bashing is actually called for?

  2. One reason why economists are in demand publicly is that they are good with numbers and that’s a very effective way of communicating if you can boil it down to something numerical . A second reason is that people are very interested in the economy so naturally economists are the go-to guys. A third reason is that some simple ideas like supply/demand, costs/benefits can go a long way. I don’t think other social scientists have tools like that in the cupboard.
    Nonetheless other social scientists should try harder to be part of the public debate.

  3. There is an aspect of accessibility of the two disciplines that seems to be missing in your point of view. Sociology is already better accessible to public consumption whereas economics needed to be “deconstructed” by media analysts. While you make a valid argument on the change of direction that public sociology needs – that which economics has achieved – it is a much larger debate surely but I don’t think its a fair comparison considering how distinct the two fields of studies are. Perhaps political science and economics can be suitably compared to establish a credible foundation for accessibility of disciplines to the public.

  4. yep i think this is one of those occasions when i chose an overly provocative blog title! i didn’t really mean anything more than the argument in the text – i think the practicality of how the public role of economics has been managed is something which public sociology can learn from.

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