Why isn’t sociology funny?

Economists have it easy. Jobs in B-Schools and the private sector, not to mention the Federal Reserve, keep employment and wages high, and the CEA means that economics is the only profession with its own voice in the White House. But beyond that, economists seem to have it easy in one other key way: economics is just funny. I don’t know why it is – the overpowered jargon, the absurd simplifications, whatever it is, economics has a lot of jokes.

For example, the internet is full of funny economists. Yoram Bauman is the stand-up economist, who just released a cartoon introduction to microeconomics. Jodi Beggs runs the blog Economists Do It With Models, and was recently featured at the AEA’s humor session. Oh yeah, they had a humor session at their annual meetings! Economists are featured in jokes, such as the famous can-opener joke (featured on the cover of MacKenzie et al’s Do Economists Make Markets?). Paul Krugman even wrote a humor paper on the theory of interstellar trade. And so on.

What about sociology? There was a blog thread a few years ago on Sociology light-bulb jokes, but one blog post does not a funny discipline make. I made a bit of my own for last year’s Cabaret (an annual event in the Michigan Soc department where first-years are required to entertain the department with an evening of skits).

But still, I’m left puzzled. Why is sociology so lacking in humor? Or if it’s not, where is it? Is it just an issue of disciplinary size – economics is a bigger profession, and as Smith taught us, the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. Are we simply Too Small To Laugh?

A disturbing thought indeed. Let’s hope this year’s Cabaret proves me wrong with some enduring sociological humor that we can contribute back. Perhaps the real problem is institutional – if we had some sort of sociological humor archive, we could improve the distribution and reproduction of sociological humor. Somehow, I doubt it’ll happen. Until then, I’m left spending my mornings in econ envy. For the laughs, of course, not the money.

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  1. Michael Bishop

     /  January 19, 2010

    Andrew Abbott is pretty hilarious, see here: http://home.uchicago.edu/~aabbott/Papers/SRA.html

  2. Well, economists seem to think that sociology is funny, if you judge by the amount of chuckling as they read sociology papers… =P

    (Disclaimer: *I* happen to like sociology a lot, but I can’t resist making a joke.)

  3. mark

     /  January 19, 2010

    I would consider most influential comedy to be sociological in nature. The subject matter lends itself to being worth talking about, thought provoking, and can act as a bookmark in society. Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, George Carlin, and Woody Allen would all qualify in my definition.

    I understand this may just be a convenient classification though, stretching the term sociological further than you intended to.


    • First, I love Bill Hicks so much. He’s amazing, and sorely missed.

      Second, you are right, I really mean humor about sociology proper, not just sociologically informed humor.

      • mark

         /  January 19, 2010


        Could it just be that sociology is too focused on a human element, while some economics specifically make an attempt to abstract any hint of human element away? I don’t know enough on either topic to say for sure, but that’s my knee-jerk reaction.

  4. Humor points out flaws and contradictions that people usually try not to see. That’s what the “observational” stand-up comedians do. For sociologists to do humor about sociology, i.e., to make fun of sociology, they’d have to be pretty secure about the discipline — its premises and practices. Economists enjoy that kind of security, so they can make fun of their own ideas — exaggerate them, put them into situations where they are inappropriate, and whatever else comedy does.

    Sociologists are still on the defensive about their field. They have to be. I tell ya, we don’t get no respect (he said tugging at the knot in his necktie).

    But if Rodney Dangerfield really did get no respect, he wouldn’t be making jokes about it.

  5. CharlieMcMenamin

     /  January 22, 2010

    Ahem. The can opener joke is certainly not only told in economic circles. Indeed, as a non academic, I hadn’t even considered it might be used in that way.

    Here in Britain, in certain leftwing circles, in the 1970s and 1080s it was widely used to make petty sectarian points. (Well,yes,those leftwing circles were small even then, but ‘widely’ is a relative term so perhaps I mean I heard it three or four times from different people). Basically it was used by people in the CP to dismiss those to their left i.e.

    Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and a group of comrades are shipwrecked on a desert island. They’ve rescued a crate of baked beans from the shipwreck but have no can opener and nothing else to eat.

    Being a bright bloke Lenin sits down and furiously starts scribbling away on a master plan to build a can opener. But he faints from hunger before the plans are completed. A sigh of disappointment escapes from everyone’s lips.

    Being a very brutal man, Stalin steps forward and immediately picks up a rock and starts attacking the cans of baked beans. He bashes and crashes into them but he can’t do more than dent them before he too faints with hunger. Everyone is rather glad the violent demonstration of brute force is over – but they’re still starving.

    Then Trotsky steps forward,

    “ Comrades – the first step is to imagine we have a can opener….”

  6. I heard this as an economist joke. The punch line is that the economist says, “Assume a can opener . . .”

    About.com has this to say: “The reference comes from the stereotype that many economic models require unrealistic or absurd assumptions in order to obtain results. The phrase is often used by economists to describe research that has particularly unusual or unrealistic assumptions (by the standards of modern economic research).”

  7. Jon

     /  January 24, 2010

    As a trained sociologist on faculty in a b-school, I find both sociology and economics funny. Both are incredibly jargon laden (the pomo stuff in sociology is just as bad as the math stuff in economics) and both often take themselves waaaay too seriously.

  8. Devon

     /  February 5, 2010

    In my experience studying econ, and then working with a lot of sociology majors professional its very simple why economists have better jokes: Its the outlook on life. The vast majority of economist say “lets figure out why people do what makes ’em happy” whereas the sociologists I know(professionaly and as teachers) start with the question: “Why does everything suck? And who can we blame for it?”

    Seems simple to me.

  9. Conn

     /  March 2, 2010

    @ Devon: I agree.

    It seems that sociologists are, on average, people who are/feel on the margins of society and are thus attracted to the discipline in order to justify their own existence and then attribute the reason for their marginality to big bad “society”. Also, there is no such discipline as sociology, it is merely an assemblage of other disciplines which have consequently been dumbed down for their audience.

    Seems SIMPLE to me too Devon!

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