On the Relative Success of Economics and Sociology

While rummaging through the papers of Simon Kuznets*, I came across several references in his lectures notes and in drafts of speeches to a claim about the most important contribution of economics. Kuznets argued that economics’ most important finding was the existence of an economic system itself. That is, the fact of economic interdependence, or the existence of the economy**. It seems to me that Sociology’s single most important contribution could be framed similarly: the existence of social interdependence (“society”). That is, economists argue that individual economic behaviors, relationships, etc. cannot be understood in isolation. Similarly, but more broadly, sociologists argue that the actions of individuals in general cannot be understood in isolation from their relationships to larger groups of people, ideas, things, etc.

What’s interesting is that economics seems to have been quite successful in pushing its notion of economic interdependence while sociology has had less success in pushing its basic premise of social interdependence. Indeed, economics has pushed the former in rejection of the later – working up from some sort of ontologically prior individual and building things up into an economy. So, we take for granted the existence of the economy*** but the existence of society is still in question (e.g. Thatcher’s “There’s no such thing as society.”)****. More concretely, the existence of explanations for behavior that focus solely on individuals and their ability to choose are still very prominent.

I don’t want to ascribe too much causality to this process, but I wonder if in the current moment, economists have an easier time making some of their more radical arguments than sociologists because of the differential acceptance of the basic contributions of the fields. It also adds another reason to really fight hard for Polanyi’s thesis that the economy is not, and never can be, disembedded from society except in ideology. Cf. Krippner (2002):

But every transaction, no matter how instantaneous, is social in the broader sense of the term: congealed into every market exchange is a history of struggle and contestation that has produced actors with certain understandings of themselves and the world that predispose them to exchange under a certain set of social rules and not another. In this sense, the state, culture, and politics are contained in every market act; they do not variably exert their influence on some kinds of markets more than others.

The existence and acceptance of an economic system, and thus economic interdependence, could be the basis for an argument about the existence of deeper forms of interdependence.

Ok, this post is a bit rambly and incoherent. Just needed to get an idea on paper, so to speak. Apologies if it’s hard to follow.

* My photocopies have still not arrived, so forgive the lack of specific quotes. I believe the reference I am thinking of is from 1954.
** Alas, Kuznets did not phrase it quite that way.
*** And we better keep doing so until I finish my dissertation, or I’ll have little to say!
**** And I don’t mean “in question” in a Latour, Reassembling the Social, sort of way. That book has to follow the sociologist’s understanding of society as being ontologically prior (or equal) to the individual. I don’t know if we can skip a step and jump straight to it.

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