Should there be a Nobel in Sociology?

A friend of mine recently shared a piece making the case for creating a Nobel prize for the social sciences that I found interesting: see here. Or, for those who wish to be technical, this hypothetical new Nobel would be ‘A Prize in Social Science in Memorial to Alfred Nobel‘.

The general argument is that economics is not a real science, in the same manner that physics and other natural sciences are ‘real’ sciences capable of prediction and measurement. The other social sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, on the other hand are undervalued and should have greater say in the policy realm.

If economics were a social science like sociology or anthropology, practitioners would set about interviewing those committee members, scrutinising the meetings’ minutes and trying to observe as many meetings as possible. That is how the kind of fieldwork-based, “qualitative” social sciences, which economists like to discard as “soft” and unscientific, operate. It is true that this approach, too, comes with serious methodological caveats, such as verifiability, selection bias or observer bias. The difference is that other social sciences are open about these limitations, arguing that, while human knowledge about humans is fundamentally different from human knowledge about the natural world, those imperfect observations are extremely important to make.

To make his case the author points out that modern economics shies away from doing qualitative research by going out and doing case studies of the economic actors they study. Instead economists sit in their offices and theorize how economic actors behave.

The author is correct to point out that ‘blackboard economics’ is a problem in the field but he goes a bit too far. The economics field has several practitioners who go out and get their hands dirty, granted they are a minority. Ronald Coase’s infamous lighthouse paper* was written after Coase went and did research on how lighthouses actually functioned. Hernando de Soto (the economist, not the Spanish explorer!) similarly has made a name for himself by looking at how developing economies work first hand.

The article is strongest when, instead of attacking economics, it praises the other social sciences.

Karen Ho did years of fieldwork at a Wall Street bank. Her book Liquidated emphasises the pivotal role of zero job security at Wall Street (the same system governs the City of London). The financial sociologist Vincent Lépinay’s Codes of Finance, a book about the division in a French bank for complex financial products, describes in convincing detail how institutional memory suffers when people switch jobs frequently and at short notice.

Should there be nobel prizes for the other social sciences? I am certainly in favor of such a proposal if it aids promote public appreciation for the other social sciences. There is no need however to attack one another. There is room enough in the world for economists, sociologist, psychologists, and the other social sciences.

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*For context, the lighthouse is an example widely used by economists as a public good that would not be produced in the market without state intervention. The benefit of a lighthouse is enjoyed by all, but is not excludable and therefore difficult to make revenue out of. The solution, as Coase points out, is that lighthouses are bundled with other goods such as port fees.

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2 thoughts on “Should there be a Nobel in Sociology?

  1. As a sociologist, I feel compelled to come to the defense of my colleagues who are economists 😉 Although it is still too common for some to assume away any relationship to reality in order to make the math work, things have changed a great deal in the last few decades. In my opinion the big changes are associated with the rise of experimental economics. I’m a big fan of field work but ultimately the random assignment in experiments is really hard to beat.

  2. Expanding the Nobel prize to Sociology is quite interesting. Lately, I’ve actually been thinking about exactly the opposite: abolishing the Nobel prize all together. It is great if one’s work is acknowledged as outstanding by the Nobel Committee, but then again… I also agree with Richard Feynman’s statements about ‘honours’:

Please keep it civil

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