Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Language of Economists

For the past few days I've been brushing up on econometrics (i.e., statistical methods used and developed by economists) and I've run across a number of curious terms used by economists (at least in the examples mentioned in the particular textbook). What I find fascinating is how economists and sociologists can examine similar phenomenon yet use different terminology, reflecting differences in training, theories, and political opinions. Here is an abbreviated dictionary of my favorite terms from economics, with my (cheeky?) translations into sociology:

Equilibrium:  A condition in which (economic) forces are balanced and, in the absence of an external force, the values of variables do not change; according to many sociologists, an outdated concept from either the 19th Century (see, for example, Charles Tilly's view on equilibrium as conceptual baggage) or mid-20th century structural functionalism (see, for instance, the work by Talcott Parsons and his followers) that is either (a) generally not useful for understanding actually existing social conditions or (b) somehow used to justify the status quo.

Utility function: A mathematical equation showing people's total satisfaction equivalent to a set of variables, often reflecting a combination of consumption of goods and work performance. According to sociologists, a radical abstraction, obscuring the fact that people's preferences (on which utility is usually based) are often incoherent, ill-formed, and even non-existent until they are asked about them.

Revealed preference: The idea that what you truly want is revealed by what you do rather than what you say; according to many sociologists, patterns of behavior independent of what you really want, influenced by social structures, norms, and governments, and even ideology. Regarding the latter, see Steven Lukes' classic work on power, in which he contends that what you think what you want may not be what you really want if you were in a society free of ideology.

Flexibility: A condition in the labor market in which workers shift from one economic activity to another very quickly; according to many sociologists, pervasive job insecurity (see, for example, the recent work by the sociologist Arne Kalleberg). Among sociologists and public health researchers, research has generally demonstrated the negative effects of job insecurity, which leads to lower levels of physical health, higher rates of depression, and disruptions over the life course.

Free market: A system of transactions based on supply and demand with extremely little government involvement; according to many sociologists, an impossible fiction. As the late sociologist Charles Tilly put it, the market is run not by an "invisible hand" (which is capable and in control) but by an "invisible elbow" (which clumsily knocks things over without realizing it). Or to refer to another sociologist, Karl Polyani, the free market is at most a temporary phase of systemic social disruptions pushed through by the heavy hand of the state, which if left unchecked leads to mass unemployment, financial chaos, and violent social movements.

Ever wonder why economists and sociologists have trouble agreeing?