Waiting for the Call

Sociologists confront “economist envy” and consider their relative lack of influence in Washington.
August 13, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO – For sociologists who want to see social science influence public policy, these should be heady times. The president of the United States is someone who isn’t afraid of being called an intellectual and who worked at and lived near a top university for years. His late mother was an anthropologist. He likes to talk to experts.

But the mood in many sessions here at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association was one of just a bit of hurt and disappointment. With a few exceptions, sociologists aren’t getting called by the White House -- and if many imagined that calls from Washington in the last administration might land them in Guantanamo Bay, this time around, they want to be called.

Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, described watching the news in December, as the economy was in a free fall and Barack Obama, as president-elect, was naming people to key positions in his administration. From the social sciences, he said, it was “the same old cast of characters,” and that means economists.

Obama’s election had brought “a sense of possibility,” but “as a sociologist I was pissed off,” he said.

"I have economist envy on a good day and worse things on a bad day,” he said.

Based on his frustrations, he circulated an e-mail to fellow sociologists that led to discussion here of a proposal to create a “council of social science advisers” as a new federal board to conduct research and provide perspectives that are missing from policy circles. The ASA's Council discussed the idea Wednesday and "affirmed the general principle behind the proposal and authorized the ASA executive office to explore the feasibility of this or other initiatives to broaden social science input into U.S. Policy development," according to an association spokesman.

As sociologists here noted, there is a already a Council of Economic Advisers. And there is the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a group that could theoretically include social scientists, but the only one on the council now is, you guessed it, an economist (and he may be on the board as much for being president of Yale University as for his economics work).

Jerry Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, said “on the one hand, the president can ask anyone for advice" -- criminologists, public health experts and others. "It's not that the president is short of advice, but there is a lack of legitimized and organized social science at the highest levels of policy formation.”

“Even in a tremendously sympathetic administration,” Jacobs said, “it is hard to ignore” that within the social sciences, economists have the access. “For me, the agenda [of pushing for a new social science council in the White House] “is figuring out what we need to do to get ourselves a seat at the table.”

Sociologists speaking here stressed that their concern was not ego or a desire to work in Washington, but a sense that key issues related to the economy, health care, education and other subjects would benefit from some of their ideas to balance out those of the economists.

Maggie Anderson of the University of Delaware said that many kinds of information aren’t getting attention “when the discourse is so controlled by economists.”

For example, she said, most of the public discussion of the economy takes place “as if the economy were race, class and gender neutral.” While men and white men are facing economic difficulties, Anderson said that the experience of women -- as being vulnerable to job loss, as facing life without health insurance, as shouldering burdens for caring for low-income children, and so forth -- is not getting enough attention. Sociologists know how to do research to point out the different impacts of economic policy on different groups and why group differences matter, she said.

Women are more likely than men to hold subprime mortgages and to be at risk of losing homes, she said, but you wouldn’t know this from listening to the talk about housing in Washington.

One audience member said that she noticed her economist colleagues getting named to this or that federal panel and that they were very smart people who in many respects shared her politics. “But their supply and demand curves don’t deal with these questions," she added.

While there was a consensus in the audience about the need for sociology’s ideas to get more attention, there were some concerns about pushing the idea of a new federal panel. Some doubted it would ever happen. One sociologist mentioned that while she would like such a panel in an Obama administration, she might not approve of the sociologists who would end up there during a conservative administration.

Others said that it was more important to focus on getting the right social science ideas in play politically than to worry about who is presenting them. Peter Dreier of Occidental College said, “I don't care if there are more economists running the major policy instruments, but I'd like it to be economists I agree with.” He added that “there are a lot of sociologists I wouldn't want in the administration.”

He suggested that the sociology association think more about working from outside government, befitting the discipline’s historic role as social critic. So one project might be to compile an annual resource on the state of the country, from a sociological perspective, pointing out social inequalities, pressing social problems, and so forth, with lots of statistics, evidence and perspective. This resource could be used by politicians, reporters and others, he said, and could provide sociology’s public voice on issues -- without any pressure to conform to politics.

Many in the audience -- include those in favor of pushing the council idea -- embraced that idea.

Dreier’s other ideas were more controversial. He recounted how, during the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once met with a group of labor leaders and ended the meeting not by inviting them to join his administration, but by urging them to organize a movement, saying “I agree with you 100 percent. Now go out there and make me do it.”

Said Dreier: “Just gathering the facts doesn’t always work.”

He then asked audience members how many of them have sent an e-mail to a member of Congress, attended a rally or engaged in other political activism to draw attention to societal inequities, the need for health care reform and other topics. About a third of the audience members had, but Dreier said that “if more of us don’t do this, we’re not going to get health care reform.”

Jacobs of Penn responded by saying that while he also valued the role of active political participation, it was important to remember their roles as scholars, and that their discipline -- based on research -- has unique things to offer.

“We need to be doing research” and getting it attention, Jacobs said. The reason a council or some other structure is needed, he said, is “that the political climate changed and we weren’t able to take advantage of that.”

Asserting a role for sociology, he said: “The right economists are still not as good as the right sociologists.”


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top