Stories like this one from the NYT (“Maybe Money Does Buy Happiness”) and articles like this one from Teaching Sociology (sorry, non-university peoples) often get me thinking about what precisely the point of social science is. Or should be.
I really enjoyed the NYT one: here were two generations of researchers bringing evidence to bear on a relevant social question – what makes people happy? – and debating the results. Easterlin claims that money only goes so far, while Stevenson and Wolfers present compelling evidence that that may not be the case. I thought Easterlin’s response, at least as presented in the article, was somewhat overly defensive: “He said he liked Ms. Stevenson and Mr. Wolfers personally, but he thought they had put out “a very rough draft without sufficient evidence.” Frankly, I have no room to really make a argument about whether or not the Easterlin paradox is true, but it’s certainly an interesting debate.
But I did find this statement from the author’s article striking: “Recent research* has also found that some of the things that make people happiest — short commutes, time spent with friends — have little to do with higher incomes.” Uh – short commutes and time spent with friends have little to do with higher incomes? I’m not so sure. Stratification systems don’t just determine how much money we get – they have many other rewards and punishments. Your position in the social hierarchy determines how much you get paid and laid. And, I’m willing to wager, how short your commute is and how much free time you have. I know many high-earners work insane hours – but so do lots of working class people, and without the ability to hire help. The latter certainly don’t get to take time off to fly their family to Barbados, either.
In part, that’s what my thesis is supposed to be about (it was also supposed to be about laying the groundwork for my Fulbright, but I’m a mere alternate). I’m looking to see how job security, employment security, and economic security (if they are indeed noticeably different things) interact with on-the-job autonomy and job satisfaction. My basic hypothesis is that (some form of) security and autonomy are both requisites for happiness. I could be wrong; there are certainly people who are perfectly happy with a secure job (the slaves), and there are a lot of people who could care less about being secure as long as they get to do whatever they want (the madmen). But I suspect that autonomy and security both go to the people further up the hierarchy – the same ones who are happier and getting more money in Stevenson and Wolfers’ study. Because of that, I can see the Easterlin paradox holding in the face of S&W’s study; it may be that money only provides happiness up to a certain point, while increases in security and autonomy (and God knows what else) step in to provide happiness beyond that point. It’s just that in most Western economies, you don’t get high levels of security and autonomy without getting a big paycheck, too. The real test, I think, is among the oddballs: small business owners, government employees, professors. If professors making $60k a year are just as happy as executives making $300k, then I think there’s probably something to my hypothesis.
But what, exactly, is the point of all this? I know that for many sociologists, it’s to make the world a better place – by, say, creating policies that increase those things that have been shown to contribute to happiness. In fact, my department’s slogan is “Making the world a better place starts here.” Ugh. I am all about making the world a better place – I think about it a lot, and I actually think that my ideas are both sound and system-oriented enough to make a real difference. But I think that holding sociology out as something that makes the world a better place muddles the difference between science and technology. Physicists (yeah, I’m one of those positivists with physics envy) don’t head into the lab thinking, “Gee whiz! I can’t wait to discover a new particle that will make life better for poor people in Africa!” They do basic research. Granted, I’m sure many of them feel – as I do – that research does make the world a better place. Knowledge, even obscure and seemingly useless knowledge, makes humanity stronger. And the products of sociological research can certainly be adapted to make the world happy and shiny; but they can also be used to make it a fascist hell (criminologists, I’m looking at you!)
But a lot of sociology’s public image is basically that we’re a bunch of do-gooder liberals who were too dumb to be economists or psychologists. After attending my first conference, I’m not so sure that’s a totally false accusation – throughout the social sciences, I see people who are just there to shill for what they think would make a better world. It’s not like I don’t have those thoughts myself – and while they certainly guide my research interests, the ultimate point of social science is to explain why society exists, why it takes the forms it does, and how that impacts individuals.
But above all, my beliefs aren’t something I teach. That’s why I was profoundly disturbed to see point #8 in the Teaching Sociology article referenced above. The researchers asked a bunch of sociological “leaders” (read as:winners of ASA honors and grant-earners) what they thought was important to teach students. Most of it was nice, if boring: sociological imagination, sociology as science, critical thinking, social construction of ideas, the important social institutions in society. Super.
But what gave me pause was #8: “The importance of trying to improve the world”. What the hell? Quote from a “leader”: “I take as a starting assumption the premise from the International Declaration of Human Rights that all people have equal rights…” How the hell is that assumption even remotely sociological? If anything, that is anti-factual. The International Declaration of Human Rights is a blindingly-social construction. You can take equality as a starting assumption if you want – but that makes the arguments you build on that assumption philosophical, not sociological. Nothing wrong with that, unless you’re teaching it as sociology. Here is my (sociological) starting assumption: “People exist and may on occasion interact.”
Other “leaders” used service-learning to “instill [in the students] the idea that we can be engaged as citizens and have our voices heard and use our knowledge… [to] help improve the world.” Jesus. Let’s cut the high-school civics bullshit, please. I have a degree in political science and am wrapping up a Master’s in sociology, and I think it is far more factual to tell students that their opinions don’t mean shit to the way the government is run – unless they have money or mobs. Do young people need to learn to engage in the power systems that will influence their life? Hell yes. Is that my job as a sociologist? No. My job is to demonstrate to them with empirical evidence that those power structures exist and impact their lives. If they’re smart, they’ll engage those systems; but that is not for me to tell them.
Let me put it this way: how many sociologists would be mortified if an economist told students, “Because I have clearly demonstrated to you that government interference reduces the output of economies, it is your job to go out there and advocate for reduced taxes and less regulation. 10% of your grade will come from volunteering with anti-tax citizens’ groups…” I would go batshit on that economist. If he has empirical proof to back up his claim, great (but markets don’t really exist without- okay, okay, I’ll save it for another post). It still doesn’t give him the authority to tell students what is normative for them to do with that information – and he definitely cannot grade them for doing something that he feels is normative, rather than economic… economicsological… um… something that actually has to do with real, empirical economics.
Eh, I’m being melodramatic. But I just feel like a number of sociologists (and, god knows, other social scientists) are getting their morality into my science, and the result is not delicious Reese’s peanut butter cups. If somebody uses social science to make the world a better place, groovy. If that person happens to be a sociologist, that’s peachy. But when that person is acting as a sociologist – e.g. when they’re teaching students – they need to lay off the moralizing. The point of sociology is to study society. THE END. Dammit.
Oh – hat tip to Backstage for the NYT article. Right up my alley.