Sociologists key in fixing America’s issues

If we want to tackle problems such as gun violence, we need sociologists to explain their causes and remedies.
If we want to tackle problems such as gun violence, we need sociologists to explain their causes and remedies. AP

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. There are government-run institutions like the World Bank staffed with Ph.D. economists, but no such brain-trusts of sociologists.

In the media, economists such as Paul Krugman command large audiences and great intellectual respect. Most sociologists 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 the kids a lifelong boost. But more and more 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.

Why are the country’s families disintegrating, and what could reverse it? The cause could be economic, 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. 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? 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.

Racism, and race relations, are another example. Economists don’t know how to explain – or remedy – the biases in the policing and justice systems. They can model how racial discrimination might affect hiring, mobility or the economy, 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 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. Economists just don’t deal with that sort of thing very much. This is sociologists’ wheelhouse, but they are curiously absent from the public discussion.

One important step in remedying this would be for sociology professors to start posting their working papers online. Most economists do this, which makes their research accessible to journalists and the public. But this isn’t standard practice in sociology. A few sociologists 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 shells. 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.

Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University and a freelance writer.