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Can/should an Economic major apply for a PhD program in Sociology?


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Hello everyone. I am currently completing an MA in Economics. I know that I want to pursue a PhD, and now I am thinking about going for a PhD in Sociology. 

 

My question is: is it possible for me to get into a PhD in Sociology program with a background in solely Economics?

 

I took only Intro to Sociology when I was an undergrad but I've always had a great interest in economic, urban, and mathematical sociology. I have extensive training in statistics, probability theory, and computational methods. Is a background in Economics and Statistics as well as an interest in Sociology enough to get me into a reasonably good PhD program in Sociology? 

 

Thank you and let me know if you need any more info from me. I've tried to keep it brief. 

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Econ soc is roughly split into "try to prove economics is wrong" Marxian econ soc and "enrich and amend economic thinking with sociology" econ soc.  For the former: Berkeley, Wisconsin (others?).  For the latter: Duke, Cornell.  There are pockets elsewhere.  If you can land in the top 10, do that regardless your specialty because you'll be able to branch out and be enterprising.  Computational soc is a tiny field.  Math soc is almost dead.  Proving theorems, even creative theorems, will get you nowhere in sociology.  Clever applied rational choice models can gain traction with empirical validation; nobody is interested really in the "look what else I can show is rational" kind of stuff that's popular in sociological and behavioral economics.  Statistics are welcome in just about every subfield of sociology. 

 

Don't focus on topics and applications, just say you love statistics, are really good at it, and want to apply to other general fields in sociology.  Research people in various fields who are working on a (relatively broad) sample of topics you're interested in, and express an interest in learning more.  Aim at the top 20 at a statistical generalist and you should be ok, with a relatively strong possibility of top 10 if your letters are good or you have sociological research you've done, is in R&R, etc.

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I have a background in economics and so for a long time I assumed I "came in knowing" a lot about economic sociology. Boy was I wrong. It's a quite unique field. It's also a sub-field that seems to be on the up-and-up in terms of prestige, publish-ability, and hire-ability. 

 

@gilbertrollins is partly right, I think, about the split between Marxist political economy and economic sociology. The former is tackling traditional economic questions (e.g. growth, underdevelopment, etc.) with a (usually historical) political economic approach (i.e. throwing class power and politics into the mix with ideas of trade imbalance, productivity growth, and other "traditional" economic foci). I wouldn't say the Marxists are explicitly trying to prove neo-classical economists wrong, per se. They've got a long historical tradition (longer even than the neo-classicals) of questions and methods that still interest them. In fact, I'd prefer it if the Marxists did more proving neo-classical economists wrong, rather than insulating themselves so much. But a lot of the starting assumptions are the same in Marxist economics and neo-classical economics (i.e. rational choice), and some Marxists continue to use formal models a la econ. But this is definitely a marginal sub-field in sociology.

 

The latter ("enrich and amend economic thinking with sociology" as gilbertrollins said) is what I think we call "economic sociology". People like Viviana Zelizer (Princeton) and Neil Fligstein (Berkeley) come to mind (even though those two do very different things). These folks generally try to bring sociology to bear on economics (e.g. the social construction of markets or value). The students of these types of folks have been doing very well on the job market recently. A Fligstein student doing work on finance, Adam Goldstein, got hired at Princeton this year I think. 

 

But I think @gilbertrollins overlooked that huge swaths of sociology are interested in economics without calling it "economic sociology". The study of inequality is absolutely central to sociology. Sociologists study inequality in earnings, in job opportunities, in educational outcomes, in health, in political participation, in neighborhoods, in prison recidivism, etc. Almost all of these imply economic inequality one way or another (poor people vote less; black ex-cons are less likely to get a job out of prison than white ex-cons; kids in poor neighborhoods more likely to be obese; immigrants have more intergenerational social mobility than blacks; so on). Sociology is obsessed with economics (the ontological thing, not the discipline). And since the econometric turn in the economics discipline (and sociology a few years after), I think more and more folks with econometrics training can do solid work relevant to sociology. So, right, don't bother selling your mathematical wizardry with formal models. That's gobbly gook to 9/10 sociologists. But most sociologists can get behind using nice, clean econometric techniques on our traditional areas of interest.

 

And finally, I would strongly disagree with the strategy of selling yourself as a statistical generalist for a few reasons. For one, the admissions committee isn't going to be all quants. There might be a couple quants on there, but you'll also need to impress ethnographers, interviewers, etc. Two, the program will have to match you with one or more faculty who you could work with. Most programs don't have a "statistical generalist" on staff. Maybe Kenneth Bollen at UNC and Chris Winship at Harvard, for example, but they're exceptions and they still do substantive work on top of their stats development. And the students they advise do substantive work. You're more likely to get matched with a faculty on substantive interests than methodological interests (unless maybe you're a pure ethnographer). Three, you'll need to publish in sociology journals. ASA/AJS will not publish something that isn't substantively and theoretically important-- no matter how fancy the stats (and ad-comms will anticipate this). And finally, pure force of habit (call it habitus and you'll fit right in). At every step of the say from admissions, to open house, to pro-seminar, to job talks, you'll have to introduce yourself as "Hi, my name is gradientvector and I work on ......". If you say "Developing a new test for overfitting in factor analysis" or some pure stats thing, no one will  identify you as a sociologist. You can't just be in the program; you have to perform the role of a sociologist. 

 

So @gradientvector, to answer your question, "Is a background in Economics and Statistics as well as an interest in Sociology enough...?" My short answer is "No", only because that interest in sociology needs to be articulated as a (quite general) sociological question you want to answer and a justification for why sociology is the right place to answer it. If you can do that, then you'll do fine in sociology. There are several folks in my program who came over from econ. 

 

And for urban soc friendly toward economics, I would look at Harvard (Wilson, Sampson), Princeton (Pager, Massey), and NYU (Sharkey, Molotch, Conley) as a start. 

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Thank you, everyone, for your answers. I have some followup questions:

 

@gilbertrollins:

 

 

 

"enrich and amend economic thinking with sociology" econ soc. 

I am partial to this type of econ soc since I would sort of describe myself as driven from econ to soc due to a few issues I have with how econ is done (e.g., often assuming away institutions, elegant theorems, little focus on the history of econ thought and econ history). What sort of research should I do now or what sort of things should I be saying in my SOP to prove my worth?

 

*****

 

@RefurbedScientist:

 

 

because that interest in sociology needs to be articulated as a (quite general) sociological question you want to answer and a justification for why sociology is the right place to answer it. If you can do that, then you'll do fine in sociology. There are several folks in my program who came over from econ. 

Any advice for how I can find this general sociological question? I'm quite new to the field but I'm reading up on econ soc these days. Do you know what your econ convert friends did to prove themselves?

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Well, the ASA section on economic sociology is a good place to start:

http://www.asanet.org/sectionecon/econ.cfm

 

Check out the recent book and paper award winners to get a sense of what's seen as high quality work by economic sociologists. 

 

Then you could read some stuff by Granovetter, Zelizer, Fligstein, and other big names (I hesitate to mention Gary Becker, but it's worth reading him as well). Maybe start with some reviews of their books, then read some stuff that cites them heavily. 

 

And poke around the Annual Review of Sociology: http://www.annualreviews.org/journal/soc

 

Can you tell us a little more about what interests you? It doesn't have to be a research question per se, but what kinds of topics would you like to research? Just identifying what set of things piques your interest is step one toward having a target SOP. 

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@RefurbedScientist:

 

I've been spending the last few days reading up on the big names. Useful info all around. And yes, I'm familiar with Gary Becker and I love his work. 

 

When I study economics I'm interested in urban econ, prostitution, sprawl, wage gaps, and transportation. So far I see econ soc as being very theoretical and general. Embeddedness, for instance, seems like it's just a critique of neoclassical economics. What kind of empirical studies are done in econ soc? 

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Most empirical studies in economic sociology that I've read concentrate on art, legal, and financial markets.  Economic sociologists usually look for situations where the assumptions of neoclassical economics break down, and art and financial markets are nice expositions of that (changing tastes, lots of persuasion, network effects, difficult or impossible to measure and pay marginal product, etc).  

 

I think given your interests in cities (assuming that transportation falls under that rubric too), you should focus on learning about urban sociology.  You will find that a lot of the methods are not quantitative, but a lot has been learned with the qualitative methods used, and you will probably find the theories about cities and neighborhoods a lot more novel and interesting than the criticisms of neoclassical economics in economic sociology, which since most of them have been done by heterodox and institutional economists, you're likely familiar with.  

 

Work like Mark Granovetter's and Richard Swedberg's is considered seminal in economic sociology, but so far as I understand it, this kind of (mostly) arm chair theory is just not salable on the academic job market anymore, so you're right to look for more applied stuff.  Viviana Zelizer's work provides an outstanding example.  James Montgomery comes to mind.  

 

@RefurbedScientist: I should have been clearer that, like you recommended, I was saying that she should find fields and faculty in sociology to which she'd like to apply statistical estimation ("[applied] statistical generalist").  

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