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.”


A. van Roggen

All of them should disappear!

That statement is not necessarily a bias against any of the mentioned fields
because it applies to all university faculties, including those of the 'hard'
sciences. I have noted that in most cases there is competition and sometimes
envy between, for example, the schools of physics, chemistry and engineering.
The example fields are chosen because they relate to my own field, but from
what I heard of the humanity people, it is similar there: the competition has
increased over time, perhaps due to reduced funding.

Most of the progress in general occurs from advances in the areas of overlap
of the various fields and the associated more rapid applied engineering
efforts. As example, we know now vastly more about the structure of the
universe than we did even a decade ago due to things like the Hubble telescope
(to name only one). Should there be a 'school of telescopes'? I think not,
but there should definitely be research be done on telescopes and all their
parts, including computer software science (to analyze the images).

The classical schools were formed shortly after the first universities were
formed, and thus correspond to the mindset of those times: just after the
middle ages. That is the reform that university management has to worry
about: how to eliminate the school boundaries. By extrapolation, a similar
problem occurs in the lower education where clearly the high schools are not
teaching the things that match current life.

I noted in the last year or so that there are a few educational institutes
(including universities) which are trying to reform one way or the other.
These should be encouraged, and their ideas and problems discussed in a much
wider context.

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Carl

Yep - look where economics got us! The world really is a better place at the moment because all those economists found ways to identify the causes of global financial meltdown and stop it before it happened. Really guys, hubris, hubris!

Greg

I think the issue with sociology is really one of a lack of specialization. In an increasingly specialized world you sub-disciplines, such a criminology, carving out the more useful or "real-world" applications of sociology. A quick check on wikipedia revealed over 100 branches, related fields etc. Rather thank killing off the field as a whole it might be worthwhile to examine what aspects of sociology seem to provide value (an incredibly difficult decision) and reinforce those areas or at least move them into other related fields.

Theresa

Don't forget Anthropology and History (not that I am suggesting that either of these be cut but they could have taken some of the votes away from my beloved Poli Sci).

Lionel

I would have to disagree with most of the commenter s. In my opinion, Sociology, Political Science, Psychology, and Economics should be considered in the Science category. These disciplines are very important to our society! It always has and will always will. Because, without these disciplines, how are we going to have a better understanding of Society as a whole?

Sociology and Psychology are important in understanding our evolving society, past and present! Without it, how are we ever going to understand other individuals, cultures, and ethnic groups, etc...

Political Science and Economics are also important in understanding how Politics and Economics work together. How Economics influence Politics, and reverse.

I would like to add that Sociology is undervalued!!

In Conclusion,

All four disciplines are vital in our society. It is not wise to eliminate these disciplines!

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Audrey Sprenger

A very quick response to this is posted on The Sociological Imagination right here, http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/10635

Amused

This just in, people who read Economics blogs think Sociology and Poly Sci are superfluous and should be eliminated as disciplines to save money.

Yeah, and this is news how? Next up on the news: Slave owners protest the unwarranted intrusion of the government into their business. Details at 11 from Fox news.

Convenience Sampling. It tends to tell you exactly what you'd expect.

Steve Saideman

Poli Sci fails apparently to communicate to people what we do and who we are: http://saideman.blogspot.ca/2012/07/weve-got-here-is-failure-to-communicate.html

Rather than just being trainers of future lawyers/politicians, we actually are folks who try to understand politics. Not just American politics, but the politics of other countries and of international relations. Pretty important stuff where ignorance can be fatal. I do blame ourselves for doing a bad job of communicating what we do. Then again, Freakonomics has in the past provided insight--not so much here.

RUN JUMP FLY

If sociology were eliminated, then economics professors would only have philosophy from which to 'borrow' serious ideas. Even the early theorist Vilfredo Pareto turned to sociology "for an understanding of why his abstract mathematical economic theories did not work out in practice." HELLO...is anybody paying attention? Sociology or Political Science as disciplines could subsume economics and nobody would notice. It's only math people, not a religion.

Zein

Just about every discipline teaches some mode of economics. Get rid of dedicated economics departments and save money. Alternatively, stop selecting on the dependent variable for surveys (something any political scientist or sociologist would point out)

Liz

First, they came for the sociologists. . .

Gladys Orlino

if there are fewer politicians and lawyers then there will be more ignorants who just pressure the government what they want not knowing of the bigger consequences...

My name is. . .

I really thought this is some kind of "intellectual" question with an "intellectual" method conducted on a "relatively-intellectual" people. Really? They never see science at all when it comes to "social sciences"? Ignorance is really a deadly disease. No social science deserves to die. People responsible for this kind of conflicts should.

Smarter Scott from Ohio

Scott from Ohio's logic is flawed. Lets apply his principle to graduate degrees. People with PhD's in Physics tend to go on to do research in Physics (i.e., mostly academic jobs). Are they people who contribute the least to society? Contrast that with people with PhD's in statistics. You will find them everywhere in the industry. Are they the people who contribute the highest to society? Based on this, can one make an argument that Statistics PhD's are more useful to society than Physics PhD's? I personally think its naive.

khaled

personally speaking.. people who voted for this don't know anything bout what this social science really is

Chris Pieper

On what basis are we assigning value?
* "Contribution to society"?
* Return on investment?
* Practicality / utility in the market?
* Personal satisfaction / enrichment
* Alumni support
* or what?

On any of these metrics, nearly all academic disciplines could be found wanting. Economics alone, particularly in its policy-oriented and macro versions, could be seen as a significant source of social harm around the world, and its models of human nature are notoriously self-serving and partial. But I would never countenance eliminating it because it has intrinsic value that no other social science can adequately express.

Sociology offers nothing more than the ability to truly see and maybe finally understand the culture, system, and people around you. Why are things like this? How else could it be? Who is benefitting or losing from this arrangement? How do I fit in? Sociology offers proven, rigorous techniques for answering these questions within the scientific tradition. It is imperfect and often ridiculed because it is arguably the most challenging intellectual task of all: trying to make sense of humans in groups. At least atoms and equations sit still for you and generally follow rules.

God help us if Wall Street is permitted to structure univeristy departments. When market logic totally steers academic decisions, university is over. College was not designed to be preparation for marketizing your talents, but preparation to be a civilized well rounded human adult in a participatory democracy. Let a thousand non-practical majors bloom!

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David

I teach history and so get a good number of poli sci students as well. I tease them about how poli sci should be eliminated because:

1. for the most part, it doesn't tell us anything that isn't better addressed by other disciplines, such as economics, history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology (!)

2. the one thing it does better than other disciplines is determine how politicians can lie more effectively to get elected, which is a bad thing to know.

So on balance poli sci knowledge is a net detriment!

Andrew

Ahhh...the old joke...

What does an Anthropologist call a Sociologist? "Soso-olgist"

What does a Sociologist call an Anthropologist? "Unemployed"

Should have put Anthro on the list...

Jonah Levy

It's interesting how many supposed believers in markets and competition wish to make decisions in the place of consumers, in this case students. Political science is one of the biggest majors at UC Berkeley, and sociology is right up there with it. If we believe in consumer sovereignty, then money should flow to the social sciences, not away from them. Yet departments are not financed based on the number of students they teach. For all those believers in market competition, let's let the market (of student consumers) decide how departments are financed, which departments shall live and which shall die.