The danger of devaluing sociology

This post was first published in the British Sociological Association’s Sociology and the Cuts blog on the 13th December under the title The danger of devaluing sociology. Three comments have been made on the original post.

Commenting on the economics profession’s mystification at its failure to foresee the current financial crisis, former chief economic advisor to the US government, Thomas Palley, attributed it to “the economics profession’s complete inability to come to grips with its sociological failure which produced massive intellectual failure with huge costs for society” ( The economic theory presumed to explain and predict the workings of financial markets is based on complicated mathematical theorems and equations that empirically bear no relationship to the reality of economic life embedded as it is in the combinatorial multilayered complexities of society. The advanced mathematical basis of this sociologically inadequate theory has led to the employment, by the casino bankers and traders, of bright mathematics and physics graduates and computerised algorithmic systems for buying and selling shares, financial derivatives and commoditised risk. (For a readable account see John Cassidy’s How Markets Fail: the logic of economic calamities Penguin 2009). Physics and mathematics will continue to have their teaching funded. Economics, like sociology, is having teaching funding withdrawn but economics has largely been reduced to mathematical fantasies and political doctrine. The consequences of withdrawing funding from other social science subjects, including sociology, may be disastrous however.

Economics is not the only discipline that is impoverished by a lack of sociological perspective, for instance climate change science and policy. Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate Change at the UEA, advisor to the UK Government, the European Commission and the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), in his recent book Why We Disagree About Climate Change CUP 2009, identifies three areas of uncertainty in climate science and what the implications are for policy. The first two relate to the uncertainties of climate science itself: uncertainties due to our incomplete understanding of the interlocking physical systems involved and to the inherent unpredictability of large, complex and chaotic systems. The third source of uncertainty and unpredictability “originates as a consequence of humans being part of the future being predicted. Individual and collective human choices five, twenty and fifty years into the future are not predictable in any scientific sense”. He goes on to bemoan the “elite judgements” that lead to social scientists being “poorly represented among the nominated experts”. A strong implication of Hulme’s account of mainstream climate policy discourse is that, rather than prioritising ever more climate science to refine the calculation of ‘climate sensitivity’ – the global temperature increase in the event of the doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide – we desperately need a considerably more sophisticated understanding of the sociological aspects of anthropospheric impacts on the climate.

We need a continued investment in teaching and research in sociology. It is a sad irony that the neoliberal economic doctrine that informs (or rather deforms) the government’s policy for higher education (and much else), its assumptions about the efficiency of markets, the one dimensional calculative and self interested economic rationality of student ‘consumers’, and the devaluing of the social sciences, demonstrates its own, destructive, sociological inadequacy.