Hey, Sociologists! Speak Up!

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Sociologists Matthew Desmond of Princeton University and Nathan Wilmers of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have written what by all appearances is going to be a blockbuster paper. I can tell you what it’s called: “Do the Poor Pay More for Housing? Exploitation, Profit, and Risk in Rental Markets.” I can also tell you that their answer is “yes.”

I could tell you a bit more than that, based on the notes I took when Desmond presented the results at the American Sociological Association annual meeting in Philadelphia last Monday. But that feels like it would be bad form, given that when I approached Desmond afterwards he said he wasn’t ready to share the paper or discuss it with the media, and hadn’t really thought yet about when he would be (he later passed on an estimate: January).

Now, Desmond is among the most brilliant and acclaimed scholars studying poverty in the U.S. He received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2015, and his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. He and Wilmers (who just got his Ph.D. from Harvard this year) won’t have any trouble getting media attention for their study when the time comes, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t get to choose when that time is. But as somebody who has spent decades writing about economic research, the notion that researchers have completed a paper on a topic of economic interest — according to Wilmers’ website, it’s already been accepted for publication in the American Journal of Sociology — and I can’t get my hands on it is novel, and more than a little aggravating.

Economists, you see, put draft versions of their papers online seemingly as soon as they’ve finished typing. Attend their big annual meeting, as I have several times, and virtually every paper discussed is available beforehand for download and perusal. In fact, they’re available even if you don’t go to the meeting. I wrote a column two years ago arguing that this openness had given economists a big leg up over the other social sciences in media attention and political influence, and noting that a few sociologists agreed and were trying to nudge their discipline — which disseminates its research mainly through paywalled academic journals and university-press books — in that direction with a new open repository for papers called SocArxiv. Now that I’ve experienced the ASA annual meeting for the first time, I can report that (1) things haven’t progressed much since 2016, and (2) I have a bit more sympathy for sociologists’ reticence to act like economists, although I continue to think it’s holding them back.

SocArxiv’s collection of open-access papers is growing steadily if not spectacularly, and Sociological Science, an open-access journal founded in 2014, is carving out a respected role as, among other things, a place to quickly publish articles of public interest. “Unions and Nonunion Pay in the United States, 1977-2015” by Patrick Denice of the University of Western Ontario and Jake Rosenfeld of Washington University in St. Louis, for example, was submitted June 12, accepted July 10 and published on Wednesday, the day after it was presented at the ASA meeting. These dissemination tools are used by only a small minority of sociologists, though, and the most sparsely attended session I attended in three-plus days at their annual meeting was the one on “Open Scholarship in Sociology” organized by the University of Maryland’s Philip Cohen, the founder of SocArxiv and one of the discipline’s most prominent social-media voices. This despite the fact that it was great, featuring compelling presentations by Cohen, Sociological Science deputy editor Kim Weeden of Cornell University and higher-education expert Elizabeth Popp Berman of the State University of New York at Albany, and free SocArxiv pens for all.

As I made the rounds of other sessions, I did come to a better understanding of why sociologists might be more reticent than economists to put their drafts online. The ASA welcomes journalists to its annual meeting and says they can attend all sessions where research is presented, but few reporters show up and it’s clear that most of those presenting research don’t consider themselves to be speaking in public. The most dramatic example of this in Philadelphia came about halfway through a presentation involving a particular corporation. The speaker paused, then asked the 50-plus people in the room not to mention the name of said corporation to anybody because she was about to return to an undercover job there. That was a bit ridiculous, given that there were sociologists live-tweeting some of the sessions. But there was something charming and probably healthy about the willingness of the sociologists at the ASA meeting to discuss still-far-from-complete work with their peers. When a paper is presented at an economics conference, many of the discussant’s comments and audience questions are attempts to poke holes in the reasoning or methodology. At the ASA meeting, it was usually, “This is great. Have you thought about adding …?” Also charming and probably healthy was the high number of graduate students presenting research alongside the professors, which you don’t see so much at the economists’ equivalent gathering.

All in all — and I’m sure there are sociological terms to describe this, but I’m not familiar with them — sociology seems more focused on internal cohesion than economics is. This may be partly because it’s what Popp Berman calls a “low-consensus discipline,” with lots of different methodological approaches and greatly varying standards of quality and rigor. Economists can be mean to each other in public yet still present a semi-united face to the world because they use a widely shared set of tools to arrive at answers. Sociologists may feel that they don’t have that luxury.

They also may not have the luxury, though, of continuing as they have. Economics, physics and other fields with more open publishing cultures have been able to partially crowdsource quality control by letting anybody who wants take potshots at research findings rather than relying on the increasingly creaky institution of peer review. If sociology sticks with its behind-closed-paywalls approach, it risks falling even farther behind not only in visibility but in quality. In an era when higher education is under increasing economic and political pressure to justify its existence, that seems dangerous.

Meanwhile, the world actually is clamoring for more input from sociologists. At least, economics journalists (myself and my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith included) occasionally clamor for it. As Neil Irwin put it in the New York Times last year:

Sociologists spend their careers trying to understand how societies work. And some of the most pressing problems in big chunks of the United States may show up in economic data as low employment levels and stagnant wages but are also evident in elevated rates of depressiondrug addiction and premature death. In other words, economics is only a piece of a broader, societal problem. So maybe the people who study just that could be worth listening to.

To this I would add that the sub-discipline of economic sociology has evolved in recent decades from complaining about how simplistic economics is to doing original research into economic topics such as the two papers cited above, and that a slew of sociologists in and outside of business schools do important research into how organizations function and how work-life is evolving. Also, it was apparent at the ASA meeting that academic sociology is much less male-dominated and has a different racial and ethnic mix than economics, which presumably leads to usefully different ways of seeing the world. (For better or worse, academic sociology is also much more overtly left-leaning than economics.)

Sociologists surely don’t have all the answers, but they at least have different ones than economists do. If only they’d be willing to share more of them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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