Economics 0, Sociology 1?

crumbling world

Are sociologists too smug about the financial crash? Economics students in Manchester are revolting. In the wake of the global financial crisis and the inability of mainstream economics to spot, let alone explain, the crisis, economics students in the UK’s University of Manchester are demanding change to their curriculum. Their disquiet about what is taught in the discipline is spreading to other countries. Part of the problem is that econometrics has become an end rather than a means. Too few economists now understand the real economy, being more concerned with prescriptive modelling. Perhaps more worrying, economists didn’t just fail to see the crash of 2007-08 coming, some were culpable for it. As economist-turned-sociologist Juliet Schor says in a new edition of Sociologists in Action about her disillusionment with economics, it has become ‘more oriented to supporting corporations and their interests, and less tolerant of diverse opinions’.

The feeling is that the teaching of economics is no longer fit for purpose. Students at Manchester have established a Post-Crash Economics Societyas an attempt to expand their education beyond neo-classical economic theory. Other similar societies have been set up by students at Cambridge and the LSE. When even the Queen in the UK raises questions about why economists failed to see crisis coming, you know it’s time for a change. The Manchester students want classes that draw on the social sciences and humanities. I’d have thought that a compulsory core class in socio-economics would be a good start, with an option to study the sociology of finance.

It would be easy for sociologists, who are more tolerant of diversity, to settle into a Keynesian smugness about the ‘dismal science’ of economics. That smugness would be misplaced: sociological tolerance only stretches so far. Being sociological starts in the classroom with what is taught. In the UK too few sociology departments include programmes of study on work and employment. Analysis of work and employment has been pushed and pulled out of these departments, replaced by cultural and gender studies, both of which are important but have resulted in a marginalisation, even exclusion, of the sociology of work and employment. The situation in Australia is the same. The new edition of the leading textbook for under-graduate sociology students in Australia, Sociology: Themes and Perspectives by Robert van Krieken, shunts work into a chapter on leisure, tourism and sport. There’s no point in anything more substantial because there’s little teaching of the sociology of work and employment in Australia’s top universities.

The situation is less dismal for sociology in the US, where the breadth of sub-disciplines is more inclusive. Work still matters. And whilst sociological enquiry rightly changes, it can widen without discarding work, as Giddens et al.’s US textbook exemplifies. It’s that inclusiveness that lured Schor away from economics. It’s always a joy to attend US sociology conferences and see a huge array of new ethnographic monographs on work and employment authored by both young and established sociologists.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t be complacent. It’s worrying that some of the best accounts of the reasons behind the crash – and I’ll put this euphemistically: poor governance, bad management and organisational misbehaviour in financial services – have come from insiders. Cityboy and Citygirl are good examples. The first appeared before the crash and was already flagging the dysfunctions of the system from the workplace out – a Rivethead for traders in the City of London. Being sociological continues with how we research. Here the issue is not theory but methodology.

Ethnographies are doable when the work being studied is visible and relatively unskilled (in the sense of qualification level). Hence, in the past, studies on men bashing bits of metal in factories or, more recently, women serving drinks and food in restaurants. Moreover, for these workers, being studied was often a way of progressing their interests – for example by having their invisible skills recognised.

But what about work that is very complex technically, done in the heads of workers who are highly educated and with a vested interest in not being studied: investment bankers for example? Given what we know about the reasons for the crash, these workers are important. What they do – or did – brought the world close to financial meltdown, and could do so again. It’s important that we understand what they do at work and the context in which they do it. How do we gain access to these workers? Are ethnographies and even surveys, both important sources of data for sociologists, still relevant in the study of these workers? Just like the economists, maybe it’s time for a stock-take of sociological pedagogy too. We need to ensure that what we teach and how we generate the material that we teach is still fit for purpose.

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