“Calling All Sociologists: America Needs You”

AUG 31, 2016 8:00 AM EDT

There are many more economists in the public sphere than sociologists. The president has a Council of Economic Advisers, but no Council of Sociological Advisers. Every presidential candidate has an economic team, but you never hear about a sociology team. There are government-run institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Federal Reserve banks staffed with Ph.D. economists, but no such brain-trusts of sociologists.

In the media, economists such as Paul Krugman, my Bloomberg View colleague Tyler Cowen and others command large audiences and great intellectual respect. Nor are they unusual — many economists blog, or write for important news outlets. As for sociologists, though a few do interact with the public — for example, Tressie McMillan Cottom of Virginia Commonwealth University or Fabio Rojas of Indiana University-Bloomington — most remain in the ivory tower.

That’s a shame, because, as Bloomberg reporter Brendan Greeley recently pointed out, more and more of America’s problems look sociological rather than economic.

One example is family breakdown. Two-earner families have more money and time to spend on their kids, giving those kids a lifelong boost. But a growing fraction of working-class Americans are not getting married or staying married:

As a result, the percent of poor people raised in single-parent families has climbed. That threatens to reduce social mobility , because kids who grow up with a single parent tend to earn less as adults. It’s a vicious cycle. That’s on top of whatever psychological harm it causes to kids.

Why are the country’s families disintegrating, and what might be done to reverse the process? The fundamental cause could be economic — a lack of jobs for men, some claim– but that doesn’t mean economists will have much more than that to say about the issue.

Another example is crime. Though violent crime is way down from its early-1990s peak, the U.S. still has far more than countries like Canada or Australia, including a homicide rate about three times as high. Gun ownership is one factor, but almost certainly not the only one — Canada has a fairly high gun ownership rate, but far fewer mass shootings. Also, the spike in violent crime throughout much of the U.S. in the past year defies easy explanation.

Why is America so violent? Why did violence fall so much since the ’90s, and how can that decline be built upon, to bring the U.S. in line with other advanced nations? Economists are often reduced to fishing for unlikely explanations, but these don’t have a great track record of success. Basic economic theory has not been effective in explaining crime, or how to prevent it. Sociologists, on the other hand, often study the fundamental causes of crime and may have important insights.

Drugs and suicide are two other big problems. Economists have identified a troubling rise in drug use, alcohol abuse and suicide among some subgroups of Americans over the last two decades. But the reasons for these negative trends are not clear.

Racism, and race relations, are a fourth big example. The well-known biases of police departments like Baltimore’s, and the general biases in the policing and justice systems, aren’t the kind of thing that economists really know how to explain — or to remedy. Nor do economists know much about the phenomenon of racial housing discrimination. They can model how racial discrimination might affect hiring, mobility or the economy in general, but have little to say on how it might be reduced. In fact, ethnic fault lines are probably a key factor holding back many national economies, so sociologists could conceivably give the economy a huge boost if they were to tell us how to reduce these divisions.

There are more examples, but by now the pattern should be clear — the U.S. is suffering from social dysfunction along a variety of fronts. Economists, our go-to social scientists, just don’t deal with that sort of thing very much. This is sociologists’ wheelhouse, but they are curiously absent from the public discussion.

How can we remedy this? One important step would be for sociology professors to start posting their working papers online. Most economists do this, which makes economic research easily accessible to journalists and the general public. But this isn’t standard practice in sociology. A few sociologists, such as Dan Hirschman of Brown University, are trying to change this — they are encouraging their colleagues to use SocArXiv, a website for posting free papers before publication. Hopefully their quest will succeed.

Beyond academia, government and the media need to do more to help pull sociologists out of their shell. Politicians and candidates should start hiring sociologists as advisers, and media publications should hire more of them to write columns.

In the end, though, it will be up to sociologists themselves to come out of the academy and help put American society back together. Come on, people. Your country needs you.

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