Adventures in Ideas: Which Social Science Should Die?

Freakonomics Readers,

I’d like to enlist you in a debate that, to date, is mostly occurring within the academy.

Imagine that, in order to respond both to budgetary pressures and calls for greater relevance of the American academy, College & University Presidents are re-examining their social science disciplines. They have decided to eliminate one major discipline. In your opinion, which of the following is no longer as relevant to the mission of research and education, and should be eliminated as a consequence?

  1. Psychology
  2. Political science
  3. Economics
  4. Sociology

I welcome your answers (and rationale) in the comments, or you can visit my survey questionnaire at the link below:

P.S. I did not place “anthropology” and “history” as options because of their close links to the humanities.

P.P.S. Before you think this experiment is fanciful, I invite you to take a look at a recent article in Nature by Luk Van Langenhove, who writes that social science is becoming irrelevant.

P.P.P.S. Assume that existing faculty would be absorbed into other departments, but no new hires would be granted for the shuttered department.

I’ll post the results and some of the commentary next week.

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  1. Jen says:

    I’d say that Sociology is best covered/included among the rest.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 36 Thumb down 13
    • Devon M says:

      I would say the same. Also, though, because (at least to me) it seems that there are fewer direct useful applications for sociology. Psychology has direct effects on mental health and mental health treatment, economics has direct effects on real-world economic modeling and policy-making, and political sciences have direct impacts on how we model and structure government. While sociology does have real-world social implications and impacts, I believe that to lose one of the other three disciplines would have a more immediate and noticeable negative real-world effect.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I think I’d merge poli sci and soc. I don’t really care what you’d call the resulting entity. And then you’d need to realign a few people, e.g., moving the most econ-oriented poli sci folks off to econ, and the most psych-oriented soc people off to psych.

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      • ringo says:

        Yes, I agree, merge them and eliminate the resulting department, divide the staff between what remains…

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    • Some Random Economist says:

      The answer is to eliminate every department with “studies” in the name. They contain no content that not covered by another discipline, and they provide their majors with a degree that qualifies them to wait tables.

      Then eliminate geography and colleges of education.

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      • George says:

        I agree, especially “economic studies” departments (e.g.,, and any similar departments with slightly different names.

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      • A concerned teacher... says:

        Why would you eliminate colleges of education? Where are teachers going to be trained? You can’t simply major in your field and expect to walk into a classroom and teach to young students. Colleges of education provide valuable training to teachers, providing them with the tools to take on challenges in the classroom, and the community. Not every student we come across learns the same way or processes knowledge in the way that you (in the general meaning) do. Teacher’s require specialization in education in order to prepare them for the diversity of learners that walk into our classrooms.

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  2. Mike B says:

    I’d eliminate one or more humanities departments instead. At least social science is at least partly based on real science and quite often contributes to the field of statistics and experimental design.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 32 Thumb down 28
    • Enter your name... says:

      The task is “Imagine that you had to cut something from this division.” “Waaah, why can’t we cut from some other division?!” is not responsive. So to make it easier for you to focus, I will slightly redesign the context:

      “Imagine that every department you personally believe is worthless has already been eliminated, including the entire humanities division. Now imagine that you still had to cut something from THIS division.” Can you respond to that scenario?

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  3. Andreas Moser says:

    Why should every university abolish the same department?

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  4. j says:

    Ironically, the social sciences are so intertwined that ‘eliminating’ one seems a fruitless endeavor. As a political scientist we have long adopted economic modeling into our field. Now social network analysis from sociology is becoming integral to the study of political parties. The disciplines are so connected and the lines between each significantly blurred.

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  5. Tanja says:

    I would actually argue that all of these sciences should remain, and moreover – get more granular to attract a greater diversity of problem-solvers for the societal issues. The future of science should embrace as greater ‘cross-disciplinarity’ as possible; in fact – i even dare to say that the engineering sciences are more likely to be the ones that will get consumed by all the other sciences (trust me, i’m an engineer).

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 24 Thumb down 20
  6. Andreas Moser says:

    It strikes me as odd to see psychology included in social sciences.

    Is this how it is seen in the US? I studied in Germany, where psychology is often part of the medical or the science faculty, or sometimes teamed with pedagogics.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      There are basically two kinds of psych. One is the experiment-oriented, hard-science (kind of) psych, which cares about things like mice in mazes and brain scans. The other is the social-science psych, which is much closer to sociology than to medicine.

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    • J1 says:

      In the US, what you’re describing would be considered psychiatry (a medical specialty) rather than psychology (a behavioral science not necessarily focused a single individual).

      As for which to get rid of, it’s a pretty tight race between sociology and poli sci. My vote is to get rid of poli sci.

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      • Gt says:

        No. No it’s not. Psychiatry deals with mental chemical imbalance, psychology deals with, among other things, research into mental disorders and non-chemical treatments. You know, hard-science. If its not focused on the individual, that’s sociology.

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  7. Toby says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  8. alex in chicago says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Ryan says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • alex in chicago says:

        $ 141,904,109,000 (about .9%) is equal to all of arts/entertainment/recreation. How much of that requires one of those degrees?

        What a “huge” amount.

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    • Travis says:

      Why not just go all the way? Eliminate all humanities and art programs. While we’re at it, let’s also get rid of all of the sports programs as well. What’s the point in paying people to play games at our institutions of learning?

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      • James says:

        “Mens sana in corpore sano” – but note the distinction between phys ed courses, which actually teach the students to do the activities*, and the interscholastic teams, where all 99.9% of the students get to do is watch – and often have their tuition & fees increased to cover the costs of running these spectator sport programs.

        *Not all of which might be considered sports. Is yoga a sport? How about scuba diving or rock climbing? They’re physical activities, but it’s hard to introduce much of an element of competition.

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    • James says:

      “…whats the point of looking backward to try and find a hidden meaning?”

      None, but that shouldn’t be what is done in classics, or history, literature, and so on. Those things should be studied for themselves, and for their overt meanings. Of course, a great savings could be made by eliminating faculty & programs that study such supposed hidden meanings, which are ultimately nothing more than the product of their overworked imaginations.

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    • Cameron Summers says:

      Yes. Why bother studying culture at all?

      What use is critical thinking, or rhetoric, or historical perspective? Why understand what a narrative means, or how to employ the tools of logic and dialectic? All of the people who have a knack for understanding how language works, or for musical expression, or who feel it important to study the experiences of individuals other than white male heterosexuals, should be forced into a STEM field for which they have no aptitude, or forced to labor for the benefit of those who do have such an aptitude.

      Surely, if it can’t be counted, it must not count, right?

      Look, man, it’s not that certain things can’t be cut, but cutting out the entirety of the Liberal Arts is effectively declaring a deep-seated disapproval of creativity and humanity. It’s as antithetical to real progress as cutting out the STEM fields. There’s a simple answer: cut business programs before touching either.

      To comment on the actual topic of discussion, it would probably be best to merge sociology and economics together (dismembering sociology to make it fit into the rest.) The real difference between the two seems to be a slight difference in scope and the tools used to understand the issues being discussed.

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    • across the pond says:

      So what fields would you support, then? Seems that you think anything not closely related to your own interests should be cut. Should be interesting to know what those interests are.

      “Hidden meaning” is what you seek when you interpret statistical data or any “hard” data, so your argument also extends to economics, statistics, management, physics, chemistry and engineering. Any domain of knowledge requires interpretation and intuitive leaps.

      About African-American Studies and Women’s Studies, specifically, yes, we REALLY need those fields of research most people here discount as “area studies” or “cultural studies”. They are inherently valuable because they provide insights into power and there is significant evidence linking those fields to civil society strengthening, citizenship rights extension and a healthier democratic life.

      I do actually think social science in general is becoming less and less relevant, but that would be an argument for another day.

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