What’s the Difference Between an Economist and a Sociologist?

Question from a follower on my Tumblr:

What’s the difference between an economist and a sociologist? Are economists just sociologists who use more maths?

Hi thanks for your question. No is the short answer. Sociology was founded as a quantitative discipline, meaning we used a lot of maths for much of our history. For example, Durkheim conducted statistical analyses of suicide data from around the world in 1897. It was more during the 1970s with the advent of feminism that sociology had a methodological shift towards qualitative methods (interviews, ethnography and so on). In some parts of the world, sociology is still largely about mathematics and statistics. Economics and sociology differ in our theories, the principles and ethics of our research, and our interests. Simplifying things, economics study human behaviour as the outcome of wealth production, while sociology studies behaviour as the outcome of history, culture and other social institutions. Our topics overlap sometimes, but the way we define our key concepts, as well as the politics of our research, are often different. Sociologists are interested in social critique of power and social change. Economists want to improve the market (though not all of them agree on how this should be done).

Here’s an example. Someone (who is not an economist) posted to Science on Google+, which is a community I help to moderate. He linked to an economic model of racial segregation. If you scroll to the bottom and read my comments, I show how sociology would explain things differently. Rather than observing that racial groups like to “stick together,” sociology shows that external forces such as the law, institutional racism, and economic disadvantage make it harder for non-White groups to move out of racially segregated areas.

If you’re further interested in mathematical sociology, start by reading James Coleman’s Introduction to Mathematical Sociology, or check out the Journal of Mathematical Sociology.

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