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.

Japan’s Disposable Workforce: Alienation, Suicide and Social Responsibility

By Zuleyka Zevallos

Shiho Fukada’s Pulitzer Centre project on Japan’s “disposable workers” focuses on people who are precariously employed in casual and “dead end” jobs. They are underpaid, working long hours but without any of the benefits or sense of stability of full time employment. This affects people who are homeless as well as white collar workers who are driven to suicide due to mental and physical exhaustion. I see that Fukada’s photo essay offers an insightful visual critique of economic progress and the rapid increase of an “underclass” in one of the world’s most advanced societies. I argue that Fukada’s work might be understood through the sociological concept of anomie, a term that describes the social alienation that follows a society’s shift in morals and values. In this case, I explore how a cultural change in attitude means that workers are less valued in Japan, leading to socio-economic and mental health problems. I draw a comparison between the Japanese and the Australian workforce. I conclude by showing how sociologists seek to help governments, employers, developers and community organisations work together to better support a sustainable and ethical economic future.

Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre
Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre

Continue reading Japan’s Disposable Workforce: Alienation, Suicide and Social Responsibility

Sociology of Altrusim

The Bad Chemicals, Sharing is Caring

In a vexing new twist on the established theories of altruism, a neurologist, an engineer and a veterinarian argue that ‘selflessness’ can be ‘pathological’. They’re talking about human behaviour, even though they are not social scientists who are trained to study the social consequences of human behaviour. Natalie Angier’s New York Times article interviews the researchers about their upcoming book, ‘Pathological Altruism’, which will explore the hazardous and self-destructive extremes of ‘helpful behaviour’. The research used to exemplify ‘pathological altruism’ includes:

  • highly empathetic nurses who ‘burn out’ because they care too much for their patients
  • anorexic patients in hospitals,
  • victims of abuse,
  • so-called ‘animal hoarders’ (people who take care of too many animals they cannot afford to keep).

There are several individual and institutional causes for stress, mental illness and abuse that are not easily explained by altruism-gone-wrong. It seems especially problematic to suggest that a victim of abuse is being altruistic through their experiences of violence. Provocative, yes. Helpful? Probably not. The sociological study of altruism reveals why this is the case.

Continue reading Sociology of Altrusim