Bryan Caplan  

In a Perfect World, I'd Call Myself a Sociologist

Motives and Outcomes... McCraw's Marginal Mistake...
I've studied economics for over twenty years.  The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that I don't know what "economics" means anymore. 

Textbooks may say that economics is about "incentives" or "trade-offs."  But you can publish papers in econ journals about the effect of birth weight on educational attainment.  I don't see any incentives or trade-offs there.  Or take Emily Oster's early research arguing that hepatitis, not infanticide or selective abortion, explained a lot of Asia's gender imbalance.  Some economists asked, "How is this economics?"  But if some economists argue that the gender imbalance is driven by incentives, how can you object if other economists say that the real explanation is medical?  Or consider happiness research.  Economists like Justin Wolfers are in the vanguard; but the connection to incentives or trade-offs is unclear.

You could deplore all this as a loss of focus.  But I see massive progress.  Economics has grown hard to define because we now focus primarily on real-world problems, not "literatures."  If we want to understand income determination, we don't waste time with topological proofs.  We still think about supply and demand, but we also think about policy, psychology, behavioral genetics, and much more.  As a result, we come to understand the world, instead of solving unusually difficult homework problems.

What, though, is the common essence behind everything that economists now do?  The only answer that works, I think, is that economics is the all-encompassing study of the social world.  In the words of the Roman poet Terence, "Homo sum, humani a me nihil alienum puto" - "I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."

Unfortunately, this puts me in an awkward position.  There's another field that already sounds like "the all-encompassing study of the social world": sociology.  Not only does sociology have lower status than economics; with honorable exceptions, it's also well-stocked with academics who aren't fond of economics.  Tactically, then, it would be foolish to start calling ourselves "sociologists."  If we were picking names from scratch, though, "sociologists" is exactly what modern economists ought to proudly call ourselves.

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The author at in a related article titled economists are just sociologists with good math skills? welcome to the club! writes:
    Over at Econlog, Bryan Caplan finds it hard to say what is “economics” when economists produce research that has little direct connection to classical economic questions about incentives and trade-offs. These days, you’ll find economi... [Tracked on June 11, 2009 7:02 PM]
The author at Enemy of der Staat in a related article titled Empirical Studies and Controversies writes:
    [Tracked on June 12, 2009 1:14 AM]
COMMENTS (38 to date)
maybe writes:

Isn't it really that many people who call themselves "economists" are actually just good "applied statisticians" working with data from the social world?

Robin Hanson writes:

I'll join you in saying I'd call myself a sociologist too, if not for the accident of history whereby doing so would offend some folks who've used that name and created a brand around it.

Peter Twieg writes:

Well, you could always call yourself a praxeologist... but that has certain connotations as well.

kashof writes:

Actually, Brian, what economists haven’t figured out yet is that they are biologists. The fundamentals of economics are that humans are rational and self-interested (I know, with lots of caveats). But all living things are rational and self-interested, those are the distinguishing characteristics of elements and molecules that make up living organisms and non-living matter.

Just yesterday I read an interesting piece in The Economist: Animal Personalities: Unnatural Selection (link: Here is one quote that could sound just like a critique of selection bias in an economic/sociological study:
The results are worrying, however, because ecologists conduct thousands of studies each year that involve analysing animals caught in traps. These analyses are based on the assumption that the animals collected represent a randomly selected and thus representative sample of the population. Yet among collared flycatchers this does not appear to be the case. Instead it looks as if such trapping studies are selecting the bravest individuals. If that is true more widely, decades of ecological research will have to be re-examined. For this is one case where fortune most definitely does not favour the bold.

Just because an economist can use money as a measure and speak with their subjects, doesn’t mean they are doing something different than the staff in the biology department. And to think, other animals are true libertarians.

Greg Ransom writes:

Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith made it easy.

They defined economics in terms of the problem to be explained, not in terms of the techniques used to provide that explanation.

The problem that Hayek and Smith identified was design-like global economic order (e.g. division of labor and coordinated plans) WITHOUT an organizing mind who created that order.

The problem here is similar to the one identified by Darwin -- design without a designer.

The explanatory causes are different -- the mechanism of selection is different than the mechanism of price signals and entrepreneurial learning.

But the explanatory problem and rival solutions form is identical.

Economists were mislead by Robbins & Mises into adopting a false understanding of the object of study in economics.

It's time economists got it right again.

ryan yin writes:

How are you using the term "rational"? Either I radically misunderstand biology (and should stop laughing at this article) or I'm misunderstanding how you're using the term. "Rationality" as economists use the term isn't analogous to darwinian evolution; the "selfish gene" doesn't have rational expectations.

Unless Douglas Adams was right about mice ...

Greg Ransom writes:

A world were "natural scientists" studied anything and everything in the natural world using only the statistics of econometrics -- call it "natureology", with no paradigm problem raising patters / causal explanation sets, just statistical patterns all the way up and all the way down.

"Natural science" would then be as much of a scientific embarrassment as is so much of economics today.

JH writes:

I don't remember which GMU econ professor or in which GMU econ class I attended said: "We use the word 'utility' because if we said 'happiness' we'd be sociologists."

Dr. Caplan,

Thank you for your thought provoking post. I've recently been defining economics as the study of the causes and consequences of actions and outcomes as they pertain to humanity, society, and its institutions. Or, even more simply, the study of causes and consequences as they relate to human endeavors (to distinguish it from the causes and consequences studied by, say, physicists).

Do these definitions miss anything? To they include too much?

Nascent Grasp writes:

If leftists can call themselves liberals then you can surely call yourself a sociologist.

David writes:

"You could deplore all this as a loss of focus. But I see massive progress."

I would agree with you if economists had actually made any significant headway in figuring out, you know, how the "economy" works, which presuambly is job one. The current crisis makes clear that economists do not really yet understand (in the sense of forming some reasonably accurate consensus) money, monetary policy, the macro impact of fiscal stimulus, the microeconomic/productivity impacts of fiscal stimulus and bailouts, the impact of moral hazard in the banking and financial system, asset bubbles, the business cycle, etc. etc..

Now to be fair to the researchers you have mentioned, I would note that, for example, the birth weight issue looks to me to be related to the question of human capital and productivity. In addition, I can see that policies to improve birthweight would generally have the potential to be far less economically harmful than most conventional government interventions.

conchis writes:

I agree with your conclusion, but this strikes me as wrong:

Or consider happiness research. Economists like Justin Wolfers are in the vanguard; but the connection to incentives or trade-offs is unclear.
A lot of happiness research is fundamentally concerned with figuring out what trade-offs we face in promoting happiness. To this end, people use the results to calculate money equivalents of kids, marriage, friends, jobs, and all sorts of other stuff. If that's not about trade-offs, I don't know what is.
John writes:

Couldn't you also say that the difference between economics and sociology is that economics largely deals with resource allocation while sociology largely deals with all sorts of non-economic human interaction? Economics need not involve incentives or trade-offs to explain resource allocation if different forces are at work.

Pietro Poggi-Corradini writes:

I thought Economics was about trying to indentify and explain instances of scarcity and abundance.

Norman writes:

I hesitate to define economics as "whatever economists do," since economists may do work with mathematicians, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, etc, and the nature of the work changes to fit this interaction. I am equally hesitant to define economics as "whatever is published in economics journals" for similar reasons. I think it is appropriate to provide a (perhaps general or vague) definition of what economics is, fully recognizing that economists can and will venture beyond the boundaries of this definition in their work, as is true of most scientists in complex fields (do meteorologists never venture into the realm of physics?.

For my upper division students I define economics as "the science of choice." So economists consider both the influences (incentives, sometimes motives and "happiness") on choice, as well as the consequences of those choices (such as whether gender imbalance is a consequence of selective abortion or simply an effect of disease). It still puts the focus on the more traditional economic issues that most economists still deal with, but is broader and more ethereal than just that.

And I would have no problem calling you and Robin both "sociologists" in the sense that you like to work more in those ethereal regions of economic study. I would still prefer to call myself "economist," though, due to the subject matter of my own research.

Although I do kind of like "applied statistician working with economic data."

Snark writes:

The triumph of Economics is that it is defined not so much by the end product as by the process through which it is created. As a discourse upon the contexts, frames of reference, and points of observation which would determine the origin, nature, and meaning of social data, economics has become a matter of public convenience.

Robert Speirs writes:

Perhaps it's all just blather.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"Couldn't you also say that the difference between economics and sociology is that economics largely deals with resource allocation while sociology largely deals with all sorts of non-economic human interaction? Economics need not involve incentives or trade-offs to explain resource allocation if different forces are at work." -John

Can you name a "non-economic" human interaction without defining economics more narrowly than the economists Bryan is talking about do?

"Although I do kind of like "applied statistician working with economic data." -Norman

You just used the word you are trying to define in the definition. This is almost entirely useless.

Greg Rnaosm writes:

Isn't "economics" pretty much whatever Harvard, MIT and Chicago, etc. say it is -- basically a dancing target of ever changing mathematical and statistical fashion applied to every changing targets?

Kuhn identified the nature of science by contrasting that nature with how the economists and other social scientists proceed and produce.

He wasn't too far off.

Nikolaj Baer writes:

Perhaps borrow a bit from Asimov and call yourself Psychohistorians? I know Krugman would be amenable to this reference...

SeanSafford writes:

You've sparked a discussion on

My take: as a sociologist, I'm happy to have you go ahead and call yourself whatever you like and sociologist seems to fit. But given that I study the production, distribution, reproduction and consumption of goods and services--if from a distinctly sociological perspective--I'd say that gives me the right to be called an economist.

Dr. T writes:

"You could deplore all this as a loss of focus. But I see massive progress. Economics has grown hard to define because we..."

study any aspect of individual behavior or human interactions and claim that it's economics. Get a grip. If you aren't directly studying the production or exchange of goods and services, financial institutions, or government effects on the above, then you aren't studying economics.

Economists now resemble politicians: both groups believe that everything falls under their purview. There must have be some legal opinion about economics that is akin to the interstate commerce exceptions: anything that can have an impact on the economy lies within the field of economics. Astronony is therefore economics, because the discovery of an asteroid that has a 1 in 100,000 chance of striking the earth would affect the economy.

Troy Camplin writes:

How about "catallaxologists"? Leave sociology to the socialists. Even people completely wrong about the nature of humanity need a home (and I don't want any more in the English and philosophy departments than we already have).

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"If you aren't directly studying the production or exchange of goods and services, financial institutions, or government effects on the above, then you aren't studying economics." -Dr. T

You use terms like "goods" and "services" like everyone will agree on what you are talking about. Are children "goods"? Is parenting a "service"?

Depending on how you define these terms economics could be just one social science among may, or might include biology, ecology, law, sociology, and psychology as fields within economics.

Jason Reader writes:

As a doctoral student researching the relationship between economics, conflict, and society, I have come to understand economics as a system. Inconnected systems, like the economy, political order, religion, etc., comprise and construct society. The interconnection within a societal framework means that economics will invariably be influenced by politics, religion, etc. I think economics like other systems is governed by paradigms, schools of thought, and ideologies. For the most part, economics is governed involuntarily without much conscious input from the society. That being said, economics like other social systems is socially constructed, even if it is accidental, therefore the economy with change through widely adopted changes in ideologies and accepted paradigms. I think that if we as society are unhappy with our current economic system then consensus should be built to change the system.

RL writes:

Humorously (or is it just me?), I initially thought from the title this was going to be one of the continuing arguments of what libertarians should call themselves.

Since the pro-government types had taken the liberty out of liberal and confused society with government (early 19th century libertarians calling themselves "socialist" before it was stolen from them), I assumed Bryan was going to argue for taking "socialist" back, but with a twist.

David Jinkins writes:

This post is creating such a good volume of healthy debate that I am surprised the most hackneyed one-line response hasn't come up yet:

"Economics is what economists do."

Anyway, there has been a debate about the place of mathematics in economics going on for over a century. We all agree that marginally changing assumptions and seeing what happens and topological proofs of the existence of solutions to particular differential equations are not useful social research. However, formalization can also help us understand our claims better. Formalization (at its best) is just making your assumptions clear.

Norman writes:

Jayson Virissimo, perhaps I should clarify. I was referring to "applied statistician working with economic data" as a label for myself, as opposed to "economist"; this labeling thus makes the term to be defined a property of the kind of data I work with (GDP, employment levels, interest rates, etc) rather than a property of the individual. In that sense, I hardly think it is "almost entirely useless," although you could probably work that into the definition provided it represents a well behaved function over a compact set ;)

David Jinkins, the phrase hasn't been used directly in full, but the idea seems to have been implied, which is one of the main things my previous comment objected to. And I say three cheers for making assumptions clearer!

Lance writes:

How prevalent are the papers which deal strictly with issues that do not deal with the traditional principles of economics? A day is not a trend, nor are a few papers representative of where the field of economics is headed.

Certainly, there are economic research issues with implications for sociological research, or in any other field, but that hardly makes those economists--such as Becker--sociologists. Just as biologists who apply evolutionary theory to psychology are not really psychologists. They are interested in psychology insofar as it is connected to their areas of specialty.

Just as Becker was interested in the more sociological aspects of crime, addiction, family, etc insofar as his economic research was connected to those issues.

Do we call econometricians who publish papers that mainly deal with, say, control techniques or highly "mathy" papers mathematicians or statisticians? No. Because they are interested in statistics and math only insofar as it helps economics progress as a science.

bbb writes:

"the science of choice." -norman

That is just fine when considering indivudal choices. however, there is not much that economic science can contribute to improve individual choices (subjective preferences?).

Much worse, when you consider "social choices", i.e. what government does or should do, the term leads you astray into the domain of welfare economics. Society isn't a collectivistic entity which "chooses" based on "social" preferences. The application of the analytical tool of utility maximization to the social realm is just the misapplication of this analytical device on an subject on which it doesn't fit. J.M. Buchanan repeatedly stressed this point.
However, economists usually don't notice this because they are too immersed into their mathematical calculations.

"the science of human exchange" avoids this collectivistic fallacy. (Buchanan preferred a term like "symbiotics"). Broadly considered, "exchange" also emcompasses interactions in the realm of politics and society, and distinguishes economics from "physical-computational" sciences.

Snark writes:

I've studied economics for over twenty years. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that I don't know what "economics" means anymore.

I sense Dr. Caplan is troubled by this. It’s as though he feels economics has lost its identity. But there’s really nothing to worry about. Economics has simply expanded its domain. The late Jack Hirshleifer explained it best:

I will emphasize two central themes. First, that it is ultimately impossible to carve off a distinct territory for economics, bordering upon but separated from other social disciplines. Economics interpenetrates them all, and is reciprocally penetrated by them. There is only one social science. What gives economics its imperialist invasive power is that our analytical categories - scarcity cost, preferences, opportunties, etc. - are truly universal in applicability. Even more important is our structured organization of these concepts into the distinct yet intertwined processes of optimization on the individual decision level and equilibrium on the social level of analysis. Thus economics really does constitute the universal grammar of social science. But there is a flip side to this. While scientific work in anthropology and sociology and political science and the like will become increasingly indistinguishable from economics, economists will reciprocally have to become aware of how constraining has been their tunnel vision about the nature of man and social interactions. Ultimately, good economics will also have to be good anthropology and sociology and political science and psychology (The Dark Side of the Force – Economic Foundations of Conflict Theory).

You, sir, are a free agent.

Norman writes:

Although it is possible to misconstrue "choice" in my definition, I think the fact that this can also apply to the use of the public choice model, in many ways the precise opposite of a misguided social utility function, is actually a feature of the definition rather than a detriment.

That said, I kind of like "the science of human exchange." My only concern here is that this suggests the term 'exchange' connotes, to me at least, that economics has much to say about what happens in markets, but has nothing to add to discussions such as how firms arrange themselves internally, which may be taken as disallowing intra-firm research such as principle-agent problems. Taking the terms broadly enough, though, I think it captures the idea well.

Peter Boettke writes:


I actually taught Economic Sociology at NYU for several years. The Sociology Department was on the 4th Floor, Economics at the time was located on either 3rd Floor or 7th Floor. My course was open to PhD students in Economics and in Sociology. EVERYTIME I got off on the 4th floor to attend a seminar or talk to a colleague in sociology, the economists who were riding with me would also point out I was getting off at the wrong floor.

BTW, next fall we are holding a conference to honor the lifetime achievements of Peter Berger in the field of sociology at the Arlington Campus.


Dr. T writes:

"You use terms like "goods" and "services" like everyone will agree on what you are talking about. Are children "goods"? Is parenting a "service"?"

Children are people, and people are not goods except in slave-owning societies.

Parenting is not a service, but baby-sitting is. Breathing is not a service, but being connected to a mechanical ventilator is.

None of these concepts are difficult.

Brian Pitt writes:

Excellent Post!

Hey, just jettison the academic departments so that we can all learn from each other. People ought to earn PhDs in social science.

bbb writes:

"which may be taken as disallowing intra-firm research such as principle-agent problems" - norman

don't principal-agent-problems also arise because of an exchange? the principal exchanges a reward for the work of the agent to act on his behalf.

DDI writes:

This is similar to the overlap between physics and chemistry and other sciences. Physicists look at problems that chemists, nuclear engineers and others also study. A physicist and a nuclear engineer study the effects of nuclear decay on a material and still refer to themselves differently.

My view is that labels like "economist", "sociologist", "physicist", etc. can reflect training and degrees more than what you actually do.

Angela writes:

It is a shame that we are so committed to labeling ourselves by the confines of what a discipline "should" be (although, that being said, I am irked that we sociologists still tend to get the low end of the status pole).

Any sociologist worth his or her salt would tell you that examining--and solving--real world problems demands a healthy sociological imagination, regardless of discipline. And that is precisely what I see in the examples you give of recent economics research. Bravo.

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