The Verdict Is in: Sociology and Political Science Deserve the Hatchet

Last week, I asked Freakonomics.com readers “Which Social Science Should Die?” The results are in. Thank you for your clear-eyed, sober judgment. Recall that some of you answered in the comments (see previous link) and others visited the on-line poll (which is still open). As of this writing, more than 1,200 votes have been registered. 

And the winner — er, “LOSER”(!) is: 

Let’s Kill Off Sociology and Political Science!

As you can see from the chart below, nearly 50 percent believed that college/university presidents should eliminate sociology. Nearly 30 percent thought poli sci should be shuttered. [Editor's note: it is perhaps not surprising that Freakonomics readers wouldn't vote to eliminate economics.]

The rationales varied. Many felt that sociology had become too insular and out of touch. Some argued that political science had become a sub-field of economics, and a good old-fashioned “M&A” could occur. Others said “market” discipline should be enforced: that is, save the departments that bring in the most cash to the university.  And many of you argued that the tradition of the disciplines was being ignored — e.g., sociology used to promote reform, but is no longer organized around such pragmatic tasks—and so it makes sense to close them for good. 

I would welcome any comments by university administrators. If only for budgetary reasons, in the coming years, they will need to assess the composition of their academic departments and the performance of their faculty. Congress is one step ahead of them: In May, the house voted to prohibit the National Science Foundation from funding political science research.

We may not agree with the amendment, nor the rationale, but we should certainly wake up to the fact that our academic institutions are not scoring high marks for accountability to the American public. Since they operate in tax-free mode, they will soon need to figure out how to answer to citizen concerns over waste and irrelevance. If they remain blind, they deserve the ire and rebuke of all who care to look inside the machine.

I encourage you to view the comments that were submitted. Here are just a few thoughtful appraisals:

Caleb B: “Poli Sci should die. It’s only a major for lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians. We need fewer of each.” (I totally agree!) 

Pat: “As fussy as sociology can be, it’s an ethically charged discipline. That’s rare and likely biased. Still, it’s beautiful that something like that can exist. Economics is twisted and ignored.” (I’m not sure I agree that econ is twisted, but sociology’s roots were in the reform of urban civilization… though on the whole, the ethical compulsion is lost today). 

Rob: “What? I only get to eliminate one?” (Is this really Mitt Romney?)

JS: “I thought we were talking about science. I see no sciences in that list.” (Touche, mon frère, touche…)

Brad: “I’d eliminate the major discipline that attracts most scholarship athletes due to ease of course work. Since communications isn’t an option, sociology will do.” (FWIW, athletes receive the highest grades in my class, next to veterans)

Chaz: “How about African-American studies and women’s studies? Just try to read a list of theses coming out of those departments without shaking your head in disbelief.” (Hmmm, have you checked out the economics dissertations lately? Incomprehensible, my friend).

Austin: “Tell every professor that if they migrate to another department at any point in the next 3 years, they’ll get a raise for every year they stay until the third is over. The departments that are superfluous will vanish overnight. Best yet, this will vary between schools. The poli-sci departments that are valuable will stay behind, those that suck will be blown away, and we’ll maintain the academic diversity that forwards society.” (This is awesome. Let’s do it. I’m heading to the b-school).

Scott from Ohio: “Of all students who major in each of these disciplines, what is the percentage who end up with academic careers in that discipline? The discipline with the highest percentage can be considered the most inbred and likely contributes the least to the rest of society. That one, whichever it is, should be eliminated.”

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  1. Enter your name... says:

    “I thought we were talking about science.”

    The word “science” used to be a near-synonym for “knowledge”. So “social science”, back when that term became common, meant “knowledge about social stuff”, not “test tubes and lab benches about social stuff”.

    This was also back when “knowledge” (science) was considered less important than “wisdom” (philosophy) — back when they decided that a PhD outranked an MD or DSc.

    The fact that commenters don’t know this suggests that we need to teach more core knowledge to my fellow STEMers.

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    • RJ Roy says:

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

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  2. LeBosch says:

    Funny experiment. Most people didn’t know what sociology really was, thinking it’s some kind of sub-discipline of psychology, or even better, that it’s not a science at all.

    In the end, I really like that because it’s a good proof of the WP’s article: don’t leave science to the polls.

    “Flake was quick to give examples of the “waste” that motivated his amendment. There was the “$700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis” and the “$600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.””

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    • Mike B says:

      I won’t dump on any social sciences as deserving not to exist at all nor as a waste of taxpayer money. I mean most of us who believe in some government want to find ways to make it accountable and effective and things like new forms of voting or systems of checks and balances require research. However the amount of social scientists we need compared to technical scientists is out of whack with the ratio of social science to technical science graduates being produced in American universities.

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  3. ariadne says:

    Chaz sounds like a straight white guy

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  4. DavidS says:

    Scott from Ohio for President!

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    • boohoo says:

      In the other post I commented that some Polysci departments went the Master of Public Administration route, which I think is a valid management degree for some sectors (its an alternative to an MBA). On top of that I think the Doctor of Public Administration (DPA) is just as valid as a DBA in some cases (NSF will fund grants to people holding DPA’s). I think the poll simply reflects the opinion of folks who took one elective polysci class and them went onto work in sectors that never deal in government contracts. Yes, the polysci undergrad does need some kind of reform to serve a more utilitarian purpose, perhaps polysci should become “public sector management” or similar with more applied aspects in the curriculum. However, the MPA, DPA and some graduate polysci programs really do have a real world application

      Also as I said before some sociology departments went the way of “Health and Human Development” which qualifies some of those graduates to pursue state licensure in social work etc. So same as above, if the department gets more into applied focus and meets the requirements for some kind of state licensure of their graduates then I think they have fulfilled their missions and justified their existence.

      So overall, not as cut and dry as some here are posting. However, shooting from the hip, I’d say full blown philosophy and classics departments are not needed anymore, just a couple of full time faculty to teach lower and upper division courses for general ed should suffice.

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      • SN says:

        “Polysci” isn’t a thing. We’re not talking about more than one sci(ence). Perhaps students who took my political science classes would know this.

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  5. Gary says:

    Here is the view from 30+ years inside an public university: As long as a discipline attracts and graduates students it will survive cutbacks. Decisions to pare programs are based primarily on the income and expense data, which includes money from external sources (grants, contracts, and designated donations by alumni). If graduates can’t get jobs it eventually will reduce the number of students enrolled in a major and soon thereafter the number of degrees conferred. When the numbers fall below the cutoff line too many years in a row, the program will be closed. The only exceptions are those in which there is some political benefit to keeping them around or elimination will have little benefit. So to does the creation of new programs respond to market forces. Sometimes it’s fad (urban-related in the 70s and ocean-related in the 80s); sometimes it’s secular change (computer and pharmacy -related currently).

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  6. DrQ says:

    The question was: Which social science should die? All of a sudden it becomes which TWO social sciences should die? Based on this it sounds like Economics is the least intellectually sound and IT should die.

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  7. Andrew says:

    I am not surprised. Even though I feel like I should be. Because every conversation about college is about their place in the workforce: the MBA programs I have looked into are accepting more students with a background in the social sciences. Because managing people has becoming more important than ever. I can apply economic knowledge toward my job but how is that going to help me maintain a productive and happy workforce? I see human resources growing in importance, not that it isn’t already significant in the modern workplace. I see a significant number of sociology majors looking to move into business and out of academia to fill these positions. Managing numbers is tedious and difficult but not as difficult as managing people.

    B.A. sociology and history

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  8. Ed says:

    I vote for behavioral economics, because it’s the bastard child of all of these disciplines.

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