On the problem of normative sociology

Last week I did a post complaining about how journalists tend to use the undifferentiated term “political correctness” to describe a complex group of behaviours that one can find in contemporary academia. I was trying to make the case that “classic” political correctness – such as language policing – has been on the decline, but that there were other worrisome trends that continue. This week I would like to pursue the discussion, by talking about another slightly pernicious habit, which those of us who like to classify these things refer to as the problem of “normative sociology.”

The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one. Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B. This can lead to a situation in which denying that A is the cause of B becomes morally stigmatized, and so people affirm the connection primarily because they feel obliged to, not because they’ve been persuaded by any evidence.

Let me give just one example, to get the juices flowing. I routinely hear extraordinary causal powers being ascribed to “racism” — claims that far outstrip available evidence. Some of these claims may well be true, but there is a clear moral stigma associated with questioning the causal connection being posited – which is perverse, since the question of what causes what should be a purely empirical one. Questioning the connection, however, is likely to attract charges of seeking to “minimize racism.” (Indeed, many people, just reading the previous two sentences, will already be thinking to themselves “Oh my God, this guy is seeking to minimize racism.”) There also seems to be a sense that, because racism is an incredibly bad thing, it must also cause a lot of other bad things. But what is at work here is basically an intuition about how the moral order is organized, not one about the causal order. It’s always possible for something to be extremely bad (intrinsically, as it were), or extremely common, and yet causally not all that significant.

I actually think this sort of confusion between the moral and the causal order happens a lot. Furthermore, despite having a lot of sympathy for “qualitative” social science, I think the problem is much worse in these areas. Indeed, one of the major advantages of quantitative approaches to social science is that it makes it pretty much impossible to get away with doing normative sociology.

Incidentally, “normative sociology” doesn’t necessarily have a left-wing bias. There are lots of examples of conservatives doing it as well (e.g. rising divorce rates must be due to tolerance of homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births must be caused by the welfare system etc.) The difference is that people on the left are often more keen on solving various social problems, and so they have a set of pragmatic interests at play that can strongly bias judgement. The latter case is particularly frustrating, because if the plan is to solve some social problem by attacking its causal antecedents, then it is really important to get the causal connections right – otherwise your intervention is going to prove useless, and quite possibly counterproductive.

This is something I had been thinking about a lot when writing about consumerism, in The Rebel Sell. One of the things that Andrew and I tried to show in that book is how the left had latched on a particular theory of what caused consumerism, basically buying into Marx’s old idea that capitalism is subject to crises of overproduction, then seeking to explain the various phenomena associated with consumerism (advertising, planned obsolescence, perpetual dissatisfaction, etc.) as an attempt to manage the problem of overproduction. Over time, an elaborate edifice was constructed on the basis of this one, slender claim, which not only had never been tested empirically, but didn’t even make sense upon closer analysis. People just really wanted to believe that capitalism had this built-in ‘contradiction’. As a consequence, an enormous amount of energy was being wasted by activists, trying to change things that in fact bore no relationship to the problem they were trying to solve – or in the case of consumerism, promoting “solutions” that were in fact exacerbating the problem.

Because of this, I was really struck by this passage in Robert Frank’s book, Choosing the Right Pond, in which he complains about precisely this tendency on the left:

Critics on the left see the market system through a much less flattering lens. In the marketplace, they see first a system in which the strong exploit the weak. Firms with market power take unfair advantage of workers whose opportunities are limited… Critics from the left also see the market system as promoting, indeed almost depending on, the sale of products that serve no social need. They see manipulative advertisements that cajole people into spending their incomes on gas guzzling cars with retractable headlights, while the environment decays and children lack good books to read. These critics see, finally, that the market system’s rewards are no in proportion to need or even to merit. People whose talents and abilities differ only slightly often earn dramatically different incomes. And reward bears almost no relation to the social value of the work that is done: The lawyer who helps his corporate client exploit tax loopholes takes home several hundred thousand dollars annually, while the person who struggles to teach our eight graders algebra is paid a pittance. (162)

So far so familiar. Then it starts to get more interesting:

Most people, of course, are at neither extreme of the political spectrum. Those in the middle presumably see the real truth about the market system as lying somewhere between the views offered by the extreme camps. In this chapter, I argue that the most fruitful interpretation is not to think of the marketplace as being some convenient middle ground between these two extremes. The marketplace I portray here has both the positive qualities put forth by its defenders as well as the catalogue of ills for which it has been attacked. I will argue, however, that the left has in almost every instance offered the wrong reasons for why market outcomes go awry. (162-3)

He concludes the chapter with a triumph of masterful understatement:

Having identified real problems, but having ascribed them to spurious causes, the left has found it difficult to formulate policy remedies. (177)

I recall marvelling at how seldom I had heard this idea expressed: that the left consistently gets it right when it comes to identifying problems, but then gets the explanations wrong (and often clings to those explanations long after they have proven problematic), and so is practically ineffective.

I think that “normative sociology” has a lot to do with this. From casual observation (by which I mean having spent hundreds of hours listening to people criticize various sorts of social problems), I can see four major variants of normative sociology.

1. Wanting a policy lever. Many of our outstanding social problems remain outstanding because they occur in areas that are outside the immediate jurisdiction of the state: either because they occur in the private sphere (e.g. the gendered division of labour within the family), or because they involve an exercise of individual autonomy, (e.g. students dropping out of high school). As a result, there is no obvious “policy lever” than can be pulled to solve the problem, because the state simply lacks the authority (and sometimes even the power) to intervene directly in these areas.

As a result, when people who would like to see these problems solved analyze them, there can be an enormous temptation to believe that they are causally connected to some other area, in which the state does have an effective policy lever. The case in which I have seen this most clearly is the tendency to overestimate the causal effects of inequality – because the distribution of wealth is something that the state does have the ability to control. So if “intractable social problem A” can be shown to be caused by “poverty of group B,” then that gives the state leverage over the intractable social problem, because it can always redistribute wealth to B.

To take a concrete example, one hears a lot these days about the “social health gradient” — basically, the strong correlation between various health outcomes and SES (“socio-economic status”), which remains surprisingly strong despite the relatively egalitarian distribution of health care resources. Now SES is an explicitly hybrid concept, designed to represent relative inequality of wealth and social status. But of course, while the state can quite easily redistribute wealth, social status is a much trickier thing, and the state’s ability to intervene, much less modify, these status hierarchies is pretty close to zero (except perhaps indirectly, by redistributing wealth, but even then that often backfires, as the recipients of those transfers find themselves losing status precisely for being in receipt of those transfers). So to the extent that the social health gradient is related to inequalities of status, there is practically nothing the state can do about it. As a result, I can’t count the number of presentations on public health I’ve heard that start out talking about SES and then just subtly shift toward talking about wealth inequality, in order then to recommend some form of income redistribution.

2. Worrying about “blaming the victim.” The most common confusion between the moral and the causal order occurs when people start thinking about responsibility. There is an enormous tendency to think that if person X caused A to occur, then X is responsible for A. As a result, when people don’t want to hold X responsible for A, they feel a powerful impulse to resist any suggestion that X’s choices or actions might have caused A. This is, of course, a confusion, since whether or not X caused A is just a factual question, which doesn’t really decide the question of responsibility. And yet I’ve often heard academics being challenged, after having made an entirely empirical claim about the source of a particular social problem, by people saying “aren’t you just blaming the victim?” One can see here a moral concern intruding where it does not belong. If we follow this line of reasoning, we wind up talking about what we would like the cause of problems to be, rather than what they actually are.

Just to explain this a bit: A causal relationship to an outcome is typically a necessary but not sufficient condition for an attribution of responsibility. That is because of the phenomenon of “too many causes.” If I throw a beer bottle out my window, and it strikes a pedestrian below, it is clear that I have caused an injury to this person. But that person also caused the injury, by deciding to take a walk and to pass by my house at that precise moment. And who knows, many others may have contributed as well, by allowing that person to go for the walk, or by selling me the beer, and so on. Thus the question of who is responsible is really a separate question from the question of causation. So it should be possible to have a conversation about what causes what that is completely separate from the question of who is to blame for what – it is perhaps a prelude to the latter conversation, but definitely concerns that arise in the latter should not be allowed to intrude into the former.

To pick just one obvious example of this, there is an enormous reluctance to believe that underdevelopment could be largely due to domestic conditions within poor countries. There is a pressing need to treat this poverty as some kind of harm inflicted upon the poor by rich countries, or else a consequence of past harms (e.g. a “legacy of colonialism”) — not so much because any of the mechanisms being posited seem all that persuasive, but rather that doing anything other involves “blaming the victim,” or treating the poor as somehow responsible for their condition.

3. Picking one side of a correlation. This is a more subtle one. Statistical analysis often reveals a correlation between two things, but as we all know, correlation does not imply causation. If A tends to go hand-in-hand with B, it could be that 1) A causes B, or 2) B causes A, or 3) A and B are mutually reinforcing, or 4) there is some third thing, C, that causes both A and B. It is, however, very very common for statistical correlations to be reported as causal ones. (This is, for instance, a huge problem in health care reporting. Growing up, my mother was afraid to cook with aluminium pots or use anti-perspirant, because of studies reporting the presence of aluminium in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. But even if true, there was no reason to think that exposure to aluminium was causing the disease, could be that the disease caused the accumulation of aluminium, or that some other thing caused both.) Because this sort of sloppy thinking happens all the time, it’s not so difficult for people who would like to believe that A causes B to respond to evidence of correlation between the two as confirmation of their view.

The debate over the so-called “culture of poverty” provides some great examples of all three of these tendencies. It has certainly not escaped anyone’s notice that poverty is (statistically) associated with a large number of behaviour patterns that are, shall we say, self-undermining (petty crime, teenage pregnancy, broken families, drug addiction, domestic violence, etc.) The stereotypical conservative looks at this and says “see, no wonder they’re poor, it’s because of all the bad choices they are making.” The stereotypical liberal looks at it and says, “no wonder they’re making such bad choices, it’s because they’re so poor.” In many of these cases, some kind of mutual reinforcement story seems like the most likely account, but the more common ideological response is to pick out one direction of causation and to focus on that.

(One can see as well in the liberal response the desire to have a policy lever. The thing about “culture of poverty” explanations is that no one has any idea how to change this culture – the idea that listening to Christians moralize about it is going to change anything being not very persuasive. Money, however, can be redistributed. And finally, there is an obvious desire to avoid “blaming the victim” — for some reason positing a pernicious cultural trend is somehow seen as compatible with individual blame, in a way that the actions of anonymous economic forces is not.)

4. Metaphysical views. I mentioned this above, but often there is a sense that the moral awfulness of some action or episode requires that it have enormous consequences. This can easily lead to the view that anyone who denies the causal effects is in some way minimizing or downplaying the moral awfulness. (Now if everyone were a moral consequentialist, then this would all make sense, since the awfulness of an action would be determined entirely by its effects, and so minimizing the effects would be minimizing the awfulness. But most people are not consequentialists.)

A good example of this in contemporary debates involves attitudes towards rising inequality. Many people think this is very bad. And yet, there is also a desire to believe that, if it is very bad, then it must also cause a lot of other bad things. (Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book The Spirit Level is an example of this tendency, as is Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality.) There is also a common desire to think that political unrest and revolutions are caused by poverty and inequality, whereas the preponderance of evidence suggests that they are not (rising expectations are more important). And yet, anyone who denies that inequality has these effects is liable to stand accused of seeking to makes excuses for it (notice, for example, how Paul Krugman, in this interesting comment on Stiglitz, goes out of his way to emphasize that he is still condemning inequality).

Edit: Thanks for all the eyeballs, Alex. Two things: First, some sociologists have been getting all tetchy about this. Just to clarify — this has nothing to do with how actual sociology is practiced. The “sociology” thing is just part of the joke: “Sociologists are people who study the causes of social problems [i.e. funny stereotype], so normative sociologists are people who study what the causes should be [even funnier].” When I use the term, it’s primarily applied to people in philosophy and political theory, not to actual social scientists. Second, for all those who are saying “he doesn’t provide any evidence to support his claims,” all I can say is “dude, it’s a blog post.” If you’ve never seen anyone doing normative sociology, then congratulations — you must attend better conferences than I do.


On the problem of normative sociology — 20 Comments

  1. This post has a lot of interesting ideas, but I would like to suggest a fifth explanation for “normative sociology” by quibbling with one statement in the post, namely:

    “[P]eople on the left are often more keen on solving various social problems…”

    I have no idea whether or not this is true in aggregate, but I’m pretty sure that some left-wing academics actually have next-to-no interest in actually solving social problems. There is a significant constituency of people who basically just want to be part of an “outrage machine”, and nothing more. This is even more true on social media.

    Here is why it matters: one thing we can learn from cognitive neuroscience is how much people “get off on” the feeling of righteous anger. So if you think that something is bad you do not always have a sole interest in getting rid of that thing. You also have an interest in stoking your own outrage over that thing, because that outrage is actually gratifying to you. If the problem was ever fixed, you would be less happy. So it seems like there are whole branches of sociology which are devoted to satisfying this kind of desire that people have.

    • Well, that’s fine and all, but nonetheless there’s a fairly clear distinction to be drawn. In theory at least, leftists want to solve social problems, whereas in theory at least, conservatives want to leave social problems the way they are, since they feel the status quo is the best of all possible worlds. In those cases where right-wingers are not in fact in the conserving business, they still generally aren’t out to solve any social problems other than perhaps the social problem that those making out best aren’t making out best enough.

      • I am not a conservative, but I would suggest you just failed the test of describing their views. I think it would be more fair to state that they want more emphasis on decentralized problem solving, rather than no emphasis on problem solving.

        • I agree with this response. If conservatives think that e.g. declining moral values cause poverty, then their moralizing and railing against this decline represents an effort to redress the problem, thereby helping the poor. You can say that they are pursuing the wrong course, and of course you could say this of liberals as well, but to say conservatives don’t want to solve these problems seems to be your trying to stake a moral high ground, rather than your trying to represent accurately the motives of conservatives.

  2. Maybe I am missing something obvious, but doesn’t your point about spurious correlations (no 3. above) undermine your claim for quantitative methods -” Indeed, one of the major advantages of quantitative approaches to social science is that it makes it pretty much impossible to get a way with doing normative sociology.”

    I think there is a great deal of normative sociology in the quantitative world, though it might express itself differently than it does through its qualitative cousin. Do you mean the mistakes are easier to see? I am not so sure, comparing average literacy levels with average numeracy.

    • Good point. I guess “impossible” is too strong. Harder perhaps… at least there is more attention paid to what disconfirmation would look like.

    • I don’t disagree that there is “a great deal of normative sociology in the quantitative world”, and it seems right to say that in a way those mistakes will be less widely recognized due to the math issue. But I still think it’s plausible that quantitative mistakes of this kind are both less prevalent and easier to debunk.

      The reason is that precisely because quantitative research requires a highly specialized skill set, the people who conduct that research are more likely to have a stake in upholding the integrity of their methodologies over-and-above their commitment to producing results that are preferred on normative grounds.

      There is a recent example of this in political science. A widely-publicized story purporting to show that opposition to gay marriage could be changed through brief conversations with a gay person was debunked on methodological grounds. However, the researchers who debunked the study are themselves very pro-gay marriage (one is gay himself), so they really liked the original study on normative grounds. But they also have an over-riding commitment to the integrity of the methodologies involved. I think that one concern with qualitative methods is that their is no such over-riding commitment; in fact, I’m pretty sure that some qualitative scholars choose their methods precisely because those methods are associated with certain normative commitments.

      So, for those reasons, I would still be more confident in the ability of quantitative research to check its own biases.

      • Thanks for these replies. I would only say that I am better – personally, and due to my training – at unpacking an argument than understanding what went into an equation, so I am stronger ground arguing with the qualitative work. And that, again in my limited experience, because those who are rooted in quantitative work within the academy are inclined to presume normative bias in any qualitative work, they miss out on a huge and important part of human knowledge, and create something of a ghetto where none need exist (I don’t deny that a lot of what we are calling normative sociology seems to like the ghetto).

        Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis is a very engaging push for how to get – say – a politically committed undergraduate to do scientific work, going back to basic but powerful ideas like falsifiability – what kind of evidence would prove me wrong? Quantitative training, especially now it has become so technical, invites a certain confidence in the methods that can lead to very blind analysis because the researcher was scared (or discouraged) from actually going to look at the place and talk to the people they are studying. There is a lot of interesting soul-searching among econometricians and such on these issues.It may be that the data, number crunching and conclusions are all valid in their own lights, but utterly useless or misleading because the researcher had no context for the study. We don’t call that bias, but I would say it’s a normative blindness of a different kind (the numbers don’t lie – oh yes they do.) And in the real world it has caused real harm. Structural adjustment programme, anyone?

        • Applied econometric research today is concerned both with identifying causality as well as understanding the mechanisms through which X causes Y. Papers reporting simple correlations in observational data are not published in prestigious journals and are not taken seriously by most academics in the field.

          As John Forrest mentioned, quantitative researchers care more about the integrity of their methodology and less about defending any particular policy position. In fact, for many academic quantitative researchers, a finding that contradicts theoretical predictions is more likely to be a boon to their careers (e.g., Card and Krueger’s paper on the effects of the minimum wage). Another example: randomized evaluations of microfinance (which may be viewed as a right-wing policy) have found it to be ineffective at reducing poverty, whereas recent evaluations of programs that transfer assets and provide training to the poor have shown that these programs (a traditional development intervention if ever there was one) have significant positive effects.

          I would argue that quantitative researchers are much more willing to revise their prior beliefs in light of new evidence. This isn’t to say that there aren’t ideologically-motivated researchers who use numbers to justify their priors (you can see this in any report from the Fraser Institute or the CCPA), but if you are trained in quantitative methodologies it’s pretty easy to separate the honest studies from the ideologically-motivated ones.

          Lastly, a distinction needs to be made between quantitative empirical research and something like macroeconomics, which for all of its mathematical sophistication is not scientific per se — most macroeconomics involves solving complicated equations on computers and only uses observational data to calibrate the parameters in the computer program. If you don’t like Structural Adjustment Policies, then blame the macroeconomic theories of the 1970s and 1980s, not quantitative research.

  3. I find myself in the odd position of finding your general thesis very persuasive and then losing confidence in it every time you give an example.

    Take the “culture of poverty”–generally, that notion gets disconfirmed every time there’s a recession or a strong, job-creating phase of economic growth, unless we’re willing to believe that economic cycles are caused by masses of people periodically changing what culture they participate in. So I don’t think there’s much point in worrying about what direction causes are going, there.

    I was nodding sagely to myself about the “no levers” thesis until you said the stuff about the state being unable to affect status, and how the poor would be stigmatized by receiving wealth redistribution. Of course the state can have an impact on status hierarchies. Promoting unionization and, in general, strong labour laws, high minimum wages and so forth flattens status hierarchies. Wealth redistribution that makes the rich less so flattens status hierarchies. Easier access to education flattens status hierarchies. And while the poor are to some extent stigmatized by receiving redistributed wealth, if you compare places with more such redistribution to places (and times) with less, it seems clear that the stigma from receiving redistributed wealth is quite a bit smaller than the stigma from simply being poorer due to not receiving it. Homeless people, for instance, are stigmatized way more than people living in subsidized co-op housing. The former would be a good deal further down a status hierarchy than the latter. Panhandlers, similarly, are stigmatized much more than people collecting decent-sized welfare checks used to be. I can remember thirty, forty years ago we didn’t have beggars all over the streets in Vancouver, and the poor were less stigmatized. The “no levers” thesis is no doubt still sound, but if your flagship example is that bad it makes me wonder where the good examples are hiding.

    And so on and so forth. In the “Metaphysical Views” section, OK, I buy the idea of that motivation existing. But then you claim that, basically, all arguments that inequality has terrible consequences must be an example of this phenomenon, without actually making an argument that the arguments are bad. I’ve seen a fair number of arguments I found fairly compelling that indeed, high inequality has various pretty bad consequences. Further, these arguments do not exist in a vacuum–to the contrary, they are part of an ongoing argument with certain right wing claims that high inequality actually has very good consequences, is for various reasons economically necessary (and so we should all shut up and tug forelock). These right wingers have not gone away or ceased to argue. So people arguing the “inequality is bad for things” group of theses cannot, in fact, expect everyone to just be cowed into agreeing on the basis of morality; they know that there is an organized group which will do their best to debunk anti-inequality arguments. Between my own assessment of the arguments involved, and the lack of the conditions you define as allowing for this kind of thing, I’d want some kind of evidence that this kind of moral magical thinking is at work in arguments for the ill effects of inequality before I buy it.

    Indeed, it almost seems as if there’s a meta-example at work of your thesis itself: There are various beliefs you disagree with, which you WANT to be caused by the kind of wrongheaded thinking you define because then they will be more readily dismissable.

    On a side note, you’re awfully breezy about the causes of revolutions, as if that’s simple and well understood. It seems to me that there are an awful lot of counterexamples to the notion that revolutions are caused by rising expectations. No doubt sometimes, perhaps even often, that’s involved, but pretty definitely it often is not. For instance, I don’t think post-WWII China was in the midst of improvements causing rising expectations. Or Vietnam-war-era Cambodia. Or Haiti, either in the Duvalier era or the original slave revolution. Or Argentina either when the dictatorship got turfed or in the “que se vayan todos” political crisis. I could go on.

    • An excellent article and thoughtful comments.

      > Take the “culture of poverty”–generally, that notion gets disconfirmed every time there’s a recession or a strong, job-creating phase of economic growth, unless we’re willing to believe that economic cycles are caused by masses of people periodically changing what culture they participate in.

      I’m not in sociology but as an engineer with an interest in public policy. However I think there is a concept of a culture of poverty, qualified explicitly or implicitly as permanent and even hereditary poverty, that is not disconfirmed with the economic cycle.

      Instead you’re talking about temporary, monetary poverty. A college student, or someone who is living well but spending every paycheck and suddenly unemployed, may literally be five- or six- digits in debt in no time at all, and yet has good prospects in a year or two or four of gaining or regaining employment at median salary levels or better. In contrast, an illiterate high-school dropout, perhaps with a teenage birth and/or a felony record, has no chance of landing such a job. In fact they may not be in a position to aspire to gain and keep minimum wage work. They may even be hard-pressed to avoid passing on their poverty to their offspring thanks to poor pre-natal health and nutrition; infancy health and nutrition; poor understanding of child-rearing such as nursing until age 1, talking with the infant, reading to the infant, or bringing up in a two-parent household.

      • Nonetheless, when there are jobs, people will become employed. Flint, Michigan and Detroit did not become quasi-disaster areas because they suddenly acquired a culture of poverty. It was because the car companies stopped hiring. Venezuela did not cut poverty in half and nearly eliminate illiteracy in ten years because the poor of Venezuela shook off their culture of poverty, it was because government started social and educational programs.
        My own city does not have beggars on the streets today where there were none when I was young because the culture changed (or at least, not the culture of the beggars); it’s because we cut social programs, government housing etc. and accepted more structural unemployment.

  4. Normative philosophy = bad sociology. The critic of qualitative sociology bases his critique on “casual observation”; presents a complex analysis of cause in his bottle-throwing example, then uses a discredited single variable explanation of revolutions; doesn’t understand that SES is measured using the average education and income of occupations, and thus has nothing to do with government transfers; ignores the analysis of the structural and cultural explanations of urban poverty presented by ‘liberal’ sociologists such as William Julius Wilson. This is an effort worthy of Margaret Wente. There, that should get the juices flowing!

  5. On policy levers: I would add that the absence of an initially obvious policy lever does not mean that the absence of one will persist. By dismissing causal factors that lack policy levers, an individual is essentially assuming that if they can’t identify a relevant policy lever, no one else can. The unfortunate thing about this is that identifying causal factors that have no policy levers provides opportunity for others to figure out clever ways of making use of them to solve the problem.

  6. > Many of our outstanding social problems remain outstanding because they occur in areas that are outside the immediate jurisdiction of the state: … because they involve an exercise of individual autonomy, (e.g. students dropping out of high school).

    While I like and and agree with your analysis, I felt this one example might be off mark.

    This can in fact be put in the remit of the state. Brasil and Mexico have had notable results with their Bolsa Familia and Progresa-Oportunidades aid programs, that give almost ridiculously small cash payments to parents for immunization and school attendance. The Economist mentioned, I believe, that 50 countries have copied these in some form. My suggestion for school attendance in the US is that they be super-sized. Pay the parent say $200/month for 12 months every time the kid advances a level of literacy and numeracy while maintaining excellent attendance. This could allow the parent to reduce MW employment by five hours a week, allowing them to give some oversight to homework and attendance. It also serves to rectify the fact that humans massively discount benefits in the far future, and more-so as you move to less-successful strata of society. The idea of full 12th-grade literacy landing a good solid job is so far in the future that parents may despair of seeing it. But getting $200 this month (or $50 this week) if and only if your kid’s attendance is perfect should be near-enough a benefit to command attention.

    Naturally this type of govt prompting hasn’t been shown to work in this country, on this issue, in this size. However it strikes me that there’s enough of a chance that it can’t be said out of hand that there’s no way for govt to affect a youth’s continued attendance in school.



  7. “The difference is that people on the left are often more keen on solving various social problems” – I think you mean: “…people on the left are often more keen on [using the state to] solv[e] various social problems.”

  8. The phrase “normative sociology” is, I think, almost redundant if by sociology we mean the field of sociology as currently practiced. Some examples:

    * Sociologists’ explanations of global inequality in recent decades have been oriented around dependency theory and world systems theory (with notable exceptions, i.e. the work of Glenn Firebaugh and of Francois Nielsen), the empirical basis of which is quite limited. Social stratification textbooks in sociology make little or no mention of the work of leading economists on the subject, i.e. Acemoglu and Robinson. Even Jeffrey Sachs’ approach may be suspect to many sociologists given his focus on market-based solutions.

    * My sense is that most sociologists believe strongly in the power of neighborhood effects on academic performance, even after the Moving to Opportunity experiment provided persuasive evidence to shift our priors on this.

    * The evidence from innumerable twin studies about genetic effects on outcomes of sociological significance seems to have had little impact on much of the discipline for precisely the reasons you mention.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t paint with such a broad brush. There are probably a good number of sociologists who are moved by evidence, but with a few prominent exceptions, they aren’t as vocal as the normative sociologists.

    There is a book about this by one of the heretics in the Christian Smith: The Sacred Project of American Sociology.

    There are certainly exceptions, but I think much of the field

  9. Some people, wherever they look, see injustice and suffering — this garden of eden, which we have a brief time upon, is lost upon them. You can’t appease that mind set. Their righteous indignation is insatiable, that’s their MO.

  10. Great post in general, but:

    “I actually think this sort of confusion between the moral and the causal order happens a lot. Furthermore, despite having a lot of sympathy for “qualitative” social science, I think the problem is much worse in these areas. Indeed, one of the major advantages of quantitative approaches to social science is that it makes it pretty much impossible to get away with doing normative sociology.”

    Seems like you’ve never heard of macroeconomics. Or, more generally, p-hacking and the numerous other techniques available to impose one’s “shoulds” on quantitative social science. Quantitive approaches certainly bring things from should-based reasoning” towards is-based reasoning, but “pretty much impossible” is going way, way too far. There is tons of normative quantitative analysis in the social sciences.

  11. Really enjoyed this. I’m interested to know whether you think scapegoatism (finding an entity that is apparently different to you to blame for something so you can feel less personal responsibility for it) is a special case of one of the variants above (e.g. #1) or an additional/different one. When I’ve observed activists expressing their thoughts on climate change I’ve come to the conclusion that they “want” to see large corporations as the main culprits. Blaming corporations is certainly a very practical step as it makes the ‘enemy’ clear and allows activists to unite and take action (policy levers). But I have a feeling there may be something more sinister behind this than the expediency of finding a course of action.