Herbert Gintis vs. Economic Sociology

Today’s morning links brought in an unexpected find: Herbert Gintis’s Amazon reviews. Gintis is a lefty economic thinking, often co-authoring with Samuel Bowles, and with whom I associate the phrase “post-war capital-labor accord” that described the relative tranquility and prosperity of the post-WWII pre-Reagan era (though I don’t know if he coined it). Apparently, he is also a prolific Amazon reviewer. One of the many book he reviewed was Richard Swedberg’s Principle of Economic Sociology, and he is not too pleased with it (2 of 5 stars). Here are some choice bits (full review here):

The new economic sociology began with a strong and indeed bitter critique of the standard (neoclassical) theory of market competition, and expressed the hope that its findings would not simply augment our knowledge of competition contributed by economic theory, but would actually solve problems the economic approach could not, and would eventually displace economic theory. Well, this as certainly not happened. Indeed, there is no problem that I can think of that economists care about that is impervious to economic modeling but can be effectively handled with economic sociology.

The positive research agenda of sociological economics is fairly well developed in this volume. However, the book is full of egregious pot-shots at economic theory that are almost always incorrect and indeed rather pathetic. Thus we are treated to Bourdieu’s critique of human capital theory on the grounds that “it does not move beyond economism and ignores, inter alia, the fact that the scholastic yield from educational action depends on the cultural capital previous invested by the family.” (p.243). Really? My assessment is that it moves light-years beyond economism and the role of family background is central in its development. The notion that Bourdieu can replace Becker and Mincer in analyzing education is not at all plausible. We are also told that game theory is uninteresting because “it uses a rational choice perspective, it draws heavily on mathematics, and it has strong links to standard economic theory.” (p. 289). Well! We certainly don’t want to have anything to do with game theory then! [irony intended here]

Of course, most economists could care less about these pathetic critiques, or about economic sociology as a research agenda, for that matter. I care because I cannot abide the unscientific state of modern social theory, in which different disciplines can entertain fundamental critiques of one another without there being a scientific process set in motion for adjudicating their differences.

Did Economic Sociology just get told? Oh, snap! I think there is something to Gintis’s critique, although I simultaneously disagree with some of his implications. Gintis appears wrapped up in the dream of a unified, scientific social theory (see here his review of Bourdieu’s work in “Invitation to Reflexive Sociology” and his glowing comments on Parson’s project). Many sociologists at least share part of that dream, and to the extent that we judge ourselves by such standards, we have failed (of course, so has most of economics, I would argue). The question then is, what other standards are there to judge ourselves by? What are we actually doing, if not science a la Biology or Physics? Should economic sociology be trying to replace economics, augment economics, or merely (as Goffman might say) “sneak in and watch the way the people snore.”

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3 Comments

  1. Dangger

     /  June 19, 2010

    “However, the book is full of egregious pot-shots at economic theory that are almost always incorrect and indeed rather pathetic.”

    Oh yes. If you really want embarrass yourself, read this book and then try to use it in a formal discussion with economists.

  2. I wonder if Herb, who many in the left doubt is a leftist economist anymore (whatever that means) would have preferred to see his and Bowles’ critique of human capital theory “The Problem of Human Capital Theory-A Marxist Critique” published in the AER in 1975. In terms of his concerts about Science (with a capital S) and the possibility of adjudication among competing theories, see his debate with Resnick and Wolff in a 1979 issue of the Review of Radical Political Economics.

  3. JeffL

     /  June 21, 2010

    For one, I don’t think we should be watching people snore… that’s just creepy.

    Seriously though, you ask a question I wish a whole lot of sociologists would ask: “What are we doing in this field”?

    I don’t fully agree with Gintis, but I think he’s driving at something important. I disagree with him that we need a “scientific” approach to unify economics and sociology. But where I think he’s right is in arguing that current sociological theory is unconcerned with going beyond a “fundamental critique” of economics.

    Our field is pretty weak if it devotes itself solely to critique. If we’re not positively contributing ideas that advance understanding of real-world economic issues, then this is a rather pathetic enterprise we’re up to.

    It seems to me that a lot of sociologists take Theory 101, read their Weber, and conclude that there is no such thing as knowledge (or existence for that matter, since it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think of existence in the absence of any knowledge of it).

    Reading Weber is definitely an important first step for anyone in our field, because it humbles us. The exercise forces us to realize that there’s a “leap of faith” at the very bottom of our assumptions. That leap consists of an un-provable belief: that the universe is rational (or at least semi-rational) and that it’s subject to our exploration and understanding.

    This is all good and well; however, reading Weber is just STEP ONE. We should all acknowledge that we’ve made a leap of faith when we join the social sciences. If I understand him right, though, Weber wasn’t saying: “Nothing is real, so just go around telling other people that they don’t know anything”.

    What I think he was saying is: “Don’t be a hubristic jackass that thinks they know the ‘ultimate’ reality; rather, accept that all of your assumptions are predicated on faith, and then go forth and try and explain some stuff”. This is where a lot of sociologists seem to get tripped up.

    It seems so much fun going around telling everybody “your beliefs aren’t real” (especially whatever belief the current victim holds dear). While admittedly this is kind of fun, it’s hardly the thing to base your entire career on. It’s a pretty shallow comfort to know that you can tear down any scholar, just so long as you don’t make any positive assertions yourself.

    Thus, our understanding that everything ultimately might be relative doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility to assert explanations about society. As Clifford Geertz once put it: “that is like saying that as a perfectly aseptic environment is impossible, one might as well conduct surgery in a sewer.”

    So, up to what standard should we hold ourselves? I say we SHOULD be trying to replace economics. I say we’re NOT unlike biology or physics. We’re hopefully going to do some things better than them, because we don’t hold to the silly idea that we’re going to “get to the bottom” of society. But we’re not just going to sit around critiquing either.

    There’s a reason that “-ology” is at the end of “sociology.” Our point is to explain society to provide benefit to human beings. Note that I didn’t write “explain” in scare-quotes. I’m not scared of explaining, and I wish the field wasn’t either. If all we ever do is “explain” things, than our field is never actually explaining anything.

    I’ll end this diatribe with two suggestions:

    1) When writing your published papers, stop replacing the word “explain” with “predicts” or “suggests”. Have some gumption and recognize that what you’re trying to do is to explain something. We all know reality might be some facade — so if we all agree on it, then don’t be afraid to table the issue and assume that it isn’t some big joke.

    2) Keep working on developing theories about how people trade, barter, exchange, and otherwise work together to build the material basis of humanity. However, feel free to also do some “normal science” (I’m pretty sure Kuhn didn’t mean this to be a disparaging phrase). Continue work on the theoretical basis of social-economic organization, but don’t disparage someone for studying a practical concern like “how do we stop market bubbles?” After all, it’s this practical stuff that makes economics (and NOT sociology) so appealing to a world trying to deal with pressing issues.