Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Top 5 Unsolved Sociological Questions

Physicists and other natural scientists often spend time specifying and focusing attention on unsolved questions, such as how particles obtain mass, the origins of dark matter, and how time is related to entropy. In general, I think it's a good practice for any field of endeavor to revisit the questions that are stubbornly and perplexing unsolved, including sociology. Thus, in this spirit of refining our ignorance (and clarifying our sociological "known unknowns"), here is my list of the top unsolved sociological questions of the early 21st century:
  • What is causing the unprecedented, nearly-monotonic drop in crime rates across the developed world over the last several decades? As the NYT mentions, this question has been perplexing criminologists and sociologists, and everything from changing demographics to the legalization of abortion has been cited (although the latter cause is most probably incorrect, pace Steven Levitt).
  • Why are various forms of inequality increasing across the developed world, from Sweden to the United States, since the early 1970s? Although many sociologists and economists have focused on technological change, immigration rates, and de-unionization, deeper causes (such as those related to political institutions or social structures) remain largely unexplored.
  • Why do so many cultural and social phenomena (such as the frequency of words in the English language, size of cities across the globe, and amount of wealth across individuals) follow power-law distributions when plotted by size (or frequency) and rank? Explanations have focused on preferential attachment (popularly articulated by Herbert Simon) and information efficiency costs (as outlined by Benoit Mandelbrot), but thus far we have no conclusive evidence for favoring any particular mechanism over others.
  • How does culture (defined as values, norms, attitudes, and beliefs) result in different economic and political outcomes across groups? Since the time of Max Weber, the causal effect of culture on human behavior has baffled sociologists and other social scientists, in part because of the apparent intractability of measuring culture and clearly linking it to economic and political outcomes. As a result, answering this question is an open, fertile area of empirical and theoretical exploration.
  • Why is the United States unusually politically conservative and religious compared to other developed countries? At least since Tocqueville sociologists, including the late Seymour Martin Lipset, have puzzled over why the United States has exhibited a kind of cultural "exceptionalism" (in the non-normative sense), with relatively high levels of religiosity and political conservatism. Although many explanations have been offered, a satisfactory account has remained stubbornly elusive.