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Common sense

November 16th, 2004

Over at Crooked Timber, Kieran Healy complains that

When you’re a Sociologist like me, and your field has no credibility, people just assume you’re stupid and don’t bother sending you their Final and Completely True Theory of X in the first place. On the other hand, it does invite people to assume the answer to any problem you are studying is simply obvious common sense.

But sociology is a victim of its own success here. All of the big insights of sociology, from its beginnings in the 19th century up to 1950s work like that of Erving Goffman are indeed common sense, not because they were already known, but because they have been incorporated into the intellectual baggage of everyone in Western societies, educated or not. No one, for example, would be accused of talking academic jargon if they raised the problem of “peer group pressure” at their local school, or made a reference to ‘social status’.

By contrast, almost nothing in economics has managed to become common sense. Something as basic as comparative advantage, a concept developed nearly 200 years ago, remains as counter-intuitive as quantum physics to most people. Opportunity cost also at least a century old, similarly requires years of intensive training before it becomes common sense rather than a memorised definition.

Yet it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the basic analysis associated with these concepts is universally accepted by economists. Opponents of free trade would want to point out dangers in the uncritical use of comparative advantage as a guide to policy, and behavioral economists might observe that, in practice, people worry about sunk costs as well as, or instead of opportunity costs, but these qualifications do not affect the validity of the underlying analysis.

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  1. November 16th, 2004 at 21:09 | #1

    Hah! Talk about an inverted pyramid of piffle! You guys complain! Luxury! Try being a historian for a while and having Piers Ackerman and Andrew Bolt and Gerard Henderson and every other tabloid nong pontificating on the whole and only truth about your discipline in 700 words every other week!

  2. November 16th, 2004 at 21:22 | #2

    JQ – I think the single most important economic concept that people can learn is opportunity cost and its surrounding issues. And perhaps the difference between economics and finance. I have for some time taken to instructing middle managers on both as a basic management / problem solving skill.

    cs – bah – try working in health and have every idiot on the street knowing more. Including historians who know what to do but can’t study the history of good health or health systems. Sociologists who know what to do but can’t offer anything on the sociology of say a shortage of anaesthetists or more importantly shroud waving. Or economists who….

  3. November 16th, 2004 at 22:58 | #3

    Stop frothing Mr Holden.

    Try being a writer. Hack for hire. No substance beneath the style, fed irregularly on the porch..

    ah self pity. Tom Coates is a fine antidote to that.

  4. November 16th, 2004 at 23:03 | #4

    Well I can understand the problem with comparative advantage, after all, what does Hong Kong have an advantage in? Opportunity cost is easy by comparison – just think about the other things you could do with your time or your money.

    There wasn’t much commonsense in the sociology that we were doing at the Uni of NSW circa 1975, the theme of the unit was “Society begins with the negative” and the text was Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”. I wonder why some of the brightest students either dropped out or had nervous breakdowns?

    Getting back to economics, can the opponents of free trade tell us what is their objection to voluntary exchanges of goods and services between consenting parties? Don’t be slow, I have to give a talk about globalization next week!

  5. James Farrell
    November 17th, 2004 at 07:01 | #5

    An understanding of comparative advantage was Krugman’s criterion for an economist. It eludes even those who study it. Three in four third-year students in my annual informal survey know that the principle is vitally important, but only one in four can state it.

    As for most of the journalists and political commentaters, if they’ve heard of comparative advantage at all, they think it’s been superseded by the superior concept of competitive advantage.

  6. Uncle Milton
    November 17th, 2004 at 07:11 | #6

    Comparative advantage is just a structured application of opportunity cost.

    Rafe, there are few valid objectiions to the voluntary exchange of goods and services between consenting parties. One might be that this exchange causes harm to third parties, but it’s hard to see how trade, as such, between countries would do this.

    The valid objections to a policy of free trade are that the adjustment costs of moving to free trade from non-free trade may exceed the benefits of moving, and that a country may be better off by restricting trade and so forcing up the price of its exports, which it is good for it, but not any other country (but that’s just tough luck for them). It’s a bit like the way the AMA forces up the price of doctors’ incomes by restricting their supply.

  7. November 17th, 2004 at 10:26 | #7

    Thanks Uncle, I see that constraints on trade work in the short term for interest groups with a monopoly over some essential service like the doctors.

    However I don’t see how it helps in the long term to force up the cost of exports because other nations will use less or find substitutes or other providers.

    The same will happen to doctors as well unless the monopoly is state-protected.

  8. November 17th, 2004 at 12:05 | #8

    Economics deals with objective existence.
    Sociology deals with subjective experience.

  9. November 17th, 2004 at 12:38 | #9

    What about the Austrian subjective theory of value?

  10. November 17th, 2004 at 13:11 | #10

    What about the Weberian theory of objective sociology?

  11. November 17th, 2004 at 13:32 | #11

    But the “success” of sociological concepts at entering the mainstream isn’t a measure of the success of sociology in any but a marketing sense, which sort of comes with the territory. It doesn’t mean that what is being said is true, just that it is a meme (to use another bit of jargon). Of course, sometimes the appearance is the thing, as when an adverising agency succeeds it getting a client; if it can sell itself it ipso facto has some skills at selling – but that only matters because it is in the business of selling.

    Is economics to be measured and assessed merely on whether it sells itself? To achieve its further role it must do that, just as any human usable tool must have a handle that matches the hand, but that only serves as a means to an end.

    It may be worth considering an ingenious apologia I once heard for philosophy as a discipline. Whenever philosophy achieves anything “useful”, in whatever sense, that area grows, splits off and becomes a distinct discipline – as indeed economics once did. Thus, philosophy can never be useful, for if it were it would move on and leave its fertile droppings – like economics. Discuss (it took me a little while to spot the gap in the reasoning.)

  12. November 17th, 2004 at 13:43 | #12

    Taking up the theme or meme of Weber’s objective sociology. He was a major conduit of “Austrian” social and economic thinking, though he lacked the epistemology and the metaphysics required to do justice to the parallel worlds of objectivity and subjectivity. These elements have subsequently been provided by Karl Popper (well, that is my story anyway).

  13. November 17th, 2004 at 13:49 | #13

    cs: i actually laughed out loud, ‘tabloid nong’ indeed.

    jack: sociology deals with subjective experience? i never studied sociology but my niave view would be that it’s the study of society?

  14. Mike Pepperday
    November 17th, 2004 at 13:54 | #14

    Ah, the self-pitying sociologists, economists and historians! What about the poor political scientists? Every knucklehead with three beers is wiser.

    It does seem sociology is in strife. It’s either hit a dead end: functionalism, structuralism, symbolic interactionism… or else it’s gone off the deep end: Habermas, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan…

    Weber was not an Austrian conduit.

  15. Bill O’Slatter
    November 17th, 2004 at 14:27 | #15

    Stroccers best to stick the irony tags in your postings .Quiggers how’s this definition from Brad De Long

  16. November 17th, 2004 at 14:59 | #16

    As to Weber and the Austrians, it is my understanding that Weber attempted to move on from the brawl between Menger and the historical school. He was a link between the early Austrians and Mises who became the dominant ‘Austrian’ until Hayek became better known.

    This is not generally known because it is possible to pass through Sociology courses (and economics courses as well) without ever hearing about the Austrians. They launched a revival in 1974 and are now well established on the fringe of mainstream economics.

  17. Mark Bahnisch
    November 17th, 2004 at 15:33 | #17

    Speaking as a Sociologist, I suspect the profession is dying out. The sad thing is that a lot of what should be analysed rigorously in our culture now is done in a most slapdash and vacuous fashion by so-called “cultural studies”. Which is a great pity, in my book.

  18. John Quiggin
    November 18th, 2004 at 08:09 | #18


  19. November 18th, 2004 at 08:13 | #19

    Mark is correct to bemoan the decline of sociology into cultural studies, although the parentage of cultural studies is probably literary theory and media studies as much as sociology. However Sociology contained the seeds of its own destruction on two counts, the first being pervasive economic illiteracy, usually expressed in the form of Marxism and the second being the politicisation of the field so that scholars of conservative tendencies were isolated and alienated. This goes back to the seventies which of course is before most of the people at uni now were even born, so there is a problem of getting historical perspective.

    Cultural studies can be done to a high intellectual standard of course, as demonstrated by the efforts of Jacques Barzun (1907 – ). He is also the best writer on the topic of education from primary to tertiary, but who reads him?

  20. November 18th, 2004 at 13:51 | #20

    The golden age of social theory was the 19th C and most of what Marx, Weber, Toqueville, Mill, Durkheim, Michels, Pareto, and Freud discovered is good enough to get a handle on the anxieties and conflcts attending the transition from Pre-Moderntiy to Post-Modernity. The problem of Saudi Arabia could have walked right off Webers essays on legitimate authority ie from theocratic (SA) to bureaucratic (CENTCOM) with a digression towards charismatic (OBL).
    Sociology’s main problem is that it is stagnating at the subjective common sense level of abstraction [sic.] It lacks a deep theory of human nature, which needs to account for:
    special-nomothetic universalities
    racial-idiomatic diversities
    Darwinian evolutionary biology provides such an intellectual framework. But some combination of ideological obtuseness and intellectual ignorance seems to be preventing the Left-dominated ranks of sociologists from “getting it”.
    The sociologists should familiarise themselves with Darwinism or they will eventually wind up as being put into a living museum of 19th C intellectual curiosities, along with the purveyors of phlogiston, aether and phrenology.

  21. James Farrell
    November 18th, 2004 at 15:24 | #21

    Since Jack didn’t explicity answer Scot’s question, here’s my simplistic and naive version. On the one hand there are universal, biological needs, drives, emotions and so on, best understood by psychologists. On the other hand, there are the formal institutions and rules that govern social interactions, which could in principle be described by an objective observer. But in the middle there is the vast realm of informal institutions, meaning systems and so on. These are subjective in the sense that you have to be a participant to really understand them. But they also have an objective dimension, existing independently of any individual’s experience.

    Jack’s criticism rings true for me. My sociology teachers were far too quick to dismiss psychobiological accounts as ‘biologistic reductionism’. This was disconcerting. I don’t think it had anything to with being left wing, though. I suppose Jack has in mind that the left want people to be maleable so they can be trained to be altruistic. But altruism has its own biological foundations.

    I doubt that sociologists are as hostile to biology as they were twenty years ago. It’s not as though psychobiology pretends that eveything worth knowing about social systems can be extrapolated from the wiring of the human individual.

  22. Mike Pepperday
    November 18th, 2004 at 18:25 | #22

    “I don’t think it had anything to with being left wing, though. I suppose Jack has in mind that the left want people to be maleable so they can be trained to be altruistic.”

    Actually, the left think people are naturally altruistic; they are corrupted by messages of greed and privilege. That does mean they say people are malleable (a blank slate).

    The left hate socio/psychobiology. Can’t stand it.

    Bad enough that it implies people are selfish (it implies that plants are selfish) but worse is that it says males make a very different investment in procreation from females and hence male and female have different procreation strategies. Countless animals are cited as examples.

    If this applies to humans, it is incompatible with the egalitarianism which is at the core of the left. It logically seems to mean that to maximise the number of her grandchildren a woman’s optimal strategy is to marry the rich high status man but bear the children of a handsome philanderer. Thus do her kids get both social position and charm. A man’s optimal strategy is apparently to have it off with as many fertile females as he can while making sure no one gets at his wife.

    Jack sees ideological obtuseness and intellectual ignorance but this is a worldview-destroying depiction the left can never agree with. Counter argument is difficult so biology is swept aside.

  23. James Farrell
    November 18th, 2004 at 19:51 | #23

    “A man’s optimal strategy is apparently to have it off with as many fertile females as he can…”

    Family values? I see it now.

    By the way, Jack, why reach for such an exotic example of charismatic authority, when in JWH we have the very paradigm here at home?

  24. November 18th, 2004 at 22:03 | #24

    Rafe at November 17, 2004 12:38 PM

    What about the Austrian subjective theory of value?

    Austrian economics proposes an objective theory of the subjective experience of value. But the Austrians are completely silent on the quality of that experience. Poetry is as good as push-pin, in the words of a famous Austrian precursor.
    The subjectivity of value is itself an objective existential fact.

    Emptor ergo Sum

  25. November 18th, 2004 at 22:10 | #25

    cs at November 17, 2004 01:11 PM

    What about the Weberian theory of objective sociology?

    Aha, I was wondering when someone was going to bring up the most famous practioner of the method known as Verstehen.

  26. November 18th, 2004 at 22:20 | #26

    We have, in the person of JWH, a text book example of an ideal-typical routine bureaucratic operator who has, by virtue of the grace conferred on his office by the legitimating institution of popular sovereignty and the conjunction of several threats to such sovereignty, managed to elevate the practice of authority from the profane to the sacred.

  27. Tony Healy
    November 18th, 2004 at 22:34 | #27

    Lack of credibility for academics seems to be having dire effects. A professor in Texas took eight months off to become a garbage scrounger.

    “The idea seemed obvious, if risky,” he writes. “I’d try to survive as an urban scrounger, adopting a way of life that was both field research and free-form survival. As an academic criminologist, I’ve spent much of my adult life inside illicit subcultures, researching life on the margins, so the plan appealed. I resigned from my position as a university professor and my wife and I moved back to my home town of Fort Worth, Texas. (The Times 18 Nov 2004)

  28. Mark Bahnisch
    November 19th, 2004 at 00:30 | #28

    James, I suspect you’re right about sociology’s reduced suspicion of psychobiology. But I’m not sure what Jack means by “Darwinism” which is a very loaded term, so I maintain some suspicion of that at least!

    But I thoroughly agree with your general point about the intersection between the collective and the individual. There are of course sophisticated methodological approaches (many deriving originally from anthropology) which can make meaning of this micro-interaction, if you like, as well as theoretical perspectives from phenomenological sociology and theorists such as Castoriadis who can link the macro and micro superbly. The work of the late Harvey Sacks, who died much too young, is exemplary in this regard. But I suspect from your comment, you’re aware of such approaches. I have nothing to add to your remarks – I think you’ve made the point at issue superbly. The benefits of a Griffith education obviously!

    I also strongly agree with your comment about the basis in biology for altruism in human behaviour. The 19th century work of Kropotkin, particularly in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution was pathbreaking.

    I would also disagree with Rafe that contemporary sociology has no understanding of economics – the tradition of institutional economics and the “new economic sociology” are closely linked. And I think it’s unfair to suggest that Weber was epistemologically unsophisticated. Oh, and I’ve read Jacques Barzun with enjoyment!

    Nor, Mike, do I think left and right is at issue here. Durkheim was certainly a deeply conservative thinker, and sociology still contains conservative spirits such as John Carroll. And the general thrust of American as opposed to British or Australian sociology – particularly in its structural-functionalist incarnation – is conservative. And it would be very wrong to rope Habermas in with Derrida et al – he is an extremely strong critic of French post-structuralism and the severe differences between Derrida and Foucault should not be minimised. Contrary, perhaps, to popular perception, Derrida and Lacan have had very little impact on sociological theory and research – Foucault quite a lot. Sociology, by nature of its rationale as a discipline, tends to be quite unfriendly to a postmodernist approach (not that Derrida was a postmodernist) whereas Foucault’s historical method and the level of his analyses fits very nicely with sociological concerns both in terms of objects of study and methodological orientations. The notion that the social sciences are hotbeds of po/mo thought is really quite wrong – look instead to Cultural Studies and Literature departments.

    As to the future of sociology, its big risk is that it’s squeezed by its success as well as its failures, as John notes. A big story is the migration of most organisational sociologists to Business Schools. The areas where there is growth are in sub-disciplines like Sociology of Health and Criminology but Sociology has a tendency to split off into relatively specialised sub-fields (as a meta-discipline perhaps inevitable and certainly sociologically explicable) and the thrust is towards a relative independence from central sociological concerns and theory, which is also often embedded institutionally.

    Like every discipline broadly residing in the Arts Faculties, sociology also stands or falls on how it is taught and the degree to which it attracts students, and that is greatly variant at different Australian universities and within different departments (in terms of quality of teaching).

    In the long term though, I think there are some powerful secular trends which operate strongly against sociology’s ability to reproduce itself successfully as a discipline.

  29. November 19th, 2004 at 06:37 | #29

    In reply to Jack on the alleged philistinism of the Austrian economists, Mises was prepared to violate his anti-interventionist principles to allow state subsidies to the opera, which he loved.

  30. James Farrell
    November 19th, 2004 at 09:47 | #30

    The Sacks book looks like just my cup of tea, Mark. Do you get points if I order it? The Captain is on to some such scheme.

    On the Darwin thing, I can’t see how evolutionary biology is relevant to sociology, given that discipline’s timeframe. Inate human behaviour is what it is: whether it evolved or was created by God on the sixth day is neither here nor there. Evolutionary theories of economic and social insitutions, i.e. those emphasising survival, reproduction and adaptation to ‘environment’ are indispensible of course, but they are darwinian only by inspiration, and have nothing to do with biology. Nor is there any counterpart in social science for random genetic mutation, as far as I know.

  31. Paul Norton
    November 19th, 2004 at 10:16 | #31

    The discussion of socio/psychobiology reminds me of a review I once read of a book called “Brainsex” which tried to argue the case that the brains of women and men are wired differently and that this is the biological basis of different gender roles and differences in skills between the sexes (e.g. superior spatial and numatistic skills in men). The feminist scientist who reviewed the book pointed out, amongst other things, that the stereotypically feminine activity of dressmaking requires very well-developed spatial and numerical abilities.

    The book also included the quip “Would you fly on an equal opportunity airline?” Australia’s airlines have been equal opportunity since the Deborah Wardley case in 1979, and are the safest in the world. Of course, it could be argued that the safety of Australia’s airlines is due to factors other than the gender balance of the pilots and air traffic controllers, but this leads obliquely to my next point.

    On the general issue of the validity of socio/psychobiological theories, I am prepared to acknowledge the possibility in principle, but there remains the methodological problem of finding a scientifically sound (and ethical) way of identifying and measuring the effect of biological determinants on human abilities and behaviour amidst the plethora of confounding socio-cultural, economic and environmental variables. It is therefore in the interests of advocates of such theories to join the struggle for a society free of institutionalised gender inequalities and discrimination, gender stereotyping, sexist socialisation and conditioning, etc., etc., so that we can find out if there remain differences in what men and women are good at and/or choose to do in the absence of non-biological patriarchal influences, which we can then plausibly explain and theorise as the result of biological determinants. Likewise for race/ethnicity, class, etc.

  32. November 19th, 2004 at 11:26 | #32

    Would you fly on an equal opportunity airline?

    Equal Opportunity, in America, is a code word for the DEMs racial and gender affirmative action based on identity politics spoils system. The ALP is currently attempting to force this through their party structure.
    I am extremely skeptical of the Lefts ability to manage diversity. Just as I am extremely skeptical of the Rights ability to manage equity.
    This is why I favour machiavellian cross-wired politics ie the ALP managing econmic rationalist issue, the L/NP managing political correctness issues.

  33. November 19th, 2004 at 12:14 | #33

    Evolutionary theories of economic and social insitutions, i.e. those emphasising survival, reproduction and adaptation to ‘environment’ are indispensible of course, but they are darwinian only by inspiration, and have nothing to do with biology.

    Socio-biology is biological in instantiation and inspiration. Smith and Hamilton were population biologists. Wilson was an entomologist. Humans are animals, human society is an organisation of more or less thinking animals.
    Evolution is a fundamentally important theory in both natural and social sciences. It is the only theory than seriously attempts to marry historical experience with ontological existence. Thats why Darwin styled himself as a Natural Historian.
    We already have an evolutionary theory of Cosmological History and Biological History. But an evolutionary theory of Sociological History remains elusive. (No doubt because the objects of such a study, humans, are capable of being active agents. The human invention of technology means that this History will not have a pre-determined End.)
    I am not advocating the ditching of Marx and Weber, merely the hitching of Darwin and Galton. Marx tried to integrate evolutionary theory into Sociological History, but lacked a background in Mendelian genetics.
    Bio-demographic differentials are not a decisive factor in states where demography is largely uniform (eg AUS is 90% Caucasian).More social factors, eg Class, become decisive explainers of stratification and orientation. Even here it seems that demography is relevant, going by the large fertility differentials between high-income and low-income females.
    In bio-diverse states demography may not be destiny but it is certainly origin. Where you start from, in terms of ethnological & gyencological identity, appears to partly condition where you are heading and how far you will go. The division of the US into Red/Blue states, and the associated debates over emerging Republican or Democrat majorities, is partly based on the bio-demographic diffentials in partisan voter alignments between Hispanic/Afric-/Asiatic-/Judaic-Minority, and Caucasiatic-Majority, groups.
    Whether ethnic and gender stratification patterns and disparities are historical hangovers from entrenched institutions of discrimination or “just part of human nature” is matter for empirical analysis not ideological fiat. I hope that it is the former, I fear that it may be the latter. Either way it is clear that Darwinian evolutionary biology will be critical in shedding theoretical light on the empirical evidence.

    Anyone who does not think that ethnicity is of fundamental importance in the analysis of a globalising multi-national society…does not think.

  34. James Farrell
    November 19th, 2004 at 13:01 | #34


    I agree that many differences between individuals and between genders can be explained by genetic factors; it was my main point. The other point, which is not even that important, was that social change happens in too short a timeframe to be explained in terms of human biological evolution. I don’t imagine you would disagree, but your original comment about Darwin could have been understood that way.

    We are in total agreement that the social sciences have much to learn from Darwin. But I still can’t see what Marx, or any other social scientist, could learn from Mendel, since that’s the bit where the analogy between an institution and an organism breaks down.

    The rest of your last comment seems to have been written in excessive haste, and is rather hard to respond to. It mixes up several quite distinct propositions: that social harmony often fractures on ethnic lines (obviously true); that social conflict has a biological element (probably true); that this biological element itself can be explained in terms of natural genetic selection (true but irrelevant); that humans are innately prone to specifically ethnic rivalry (dubious); that ethnic differences themselves have a biological basis (false).

  35. November 19th, 2004 at 15:13 | #35

    On the Darwin thing, I can’t see how evolutionary biology is relevant to sociology, given that discipline’s timeframe.

    Sociology operates on a individual timeframe whilst biology tends towards special timeframes.
    Biology can tell us little about the immediate formation of associations and direction of change. It can tell us about what kinds of associations are possible and what changes will “go with the grain of human nature”.
    One surprising result is that cultural forms that are good for human “individuals” may be unnatural for human “specials”. Modernity entails the abaondment of barbaric nature for civilised culture. Patriarchic families, autarchic economies and autocratic polities are all natural for the species. But they are also bad for individuals, since they constrain the flow and use of information.
    This is why so many narrow-minded souls are appalled by the spectacle of modernity. All this change, and so fast, its too much for their poor little heads to bear.

  36. November 19th, 2004 at 15:52 | #36

    JS, did you mean “autarchic economies” or “autarkic economies”? Because I don’t see an economic problem with what you put.

  37. Mark Bahnisch
    November 20th, 2004 at 10:13 | #37

    James, nope – no points for the book recommendation – purely altruistic!

  38. kyan gadac
    November 20th, 2004 at 12:49 | #38

    Patriarchic families – morally dubious and factually incorrect, Jack.

  39. Gaby
    November 22nd, 2004 at 14:14 | #39


    I’ve looked at the Harvey Sacks reference you gave. It looks fascinating.

    You don’t happen to feel a post on Sacks coming on?

  40. Mark Bahnisch
    November 22nd, 2004 at 14:27 | #40

    Maybe, Gaby, maybe…

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