Why French High Schools Should Teach Sociology and Economics Together

This is my rough summary / interpretation of Denis Colombi‘s blog post on the topic. Both my French fellow socbloggers Pierre Maura and Denis Colombi have been on strike and have demonstrated against a proposed reform of high school curriculum that would butcher the SES (Economic and Social Sciences) track. It is also in the context of a report advocating the separation of economics from the other social sciences that Colombi writes his post.

For him, to separate sociology and economics, in the context of general education in high schools, would be a serious mistake. There are sound educational reasons for their joining not only for the sake of social scientific education or general education, but especially for the development of critical thinking skills as necessary component of citizenship.

So why, then, teach sociology and economics together?

  • A similar apprehension of the social world

Sociology and economics are both social sciences… This should be obvious but quite often, in the media and common discourse, only one discipline is treated as a science, guess which one. What economists do is clear, what sociologists do, well, not so clear. At worst, sociology is seen as the discipline of hippies or worse, just seen as a variant of social work. Actually, analysts such as Thomas Frank have aptly demonstrated that orthodox economics can also be seen as a religion with its high priests, rituals and dogma.

However, whether recognized or not, both disciplines strive to objectively analyze social life and human activities in their social context. The social scientist applies the scientific method, which involves some distanciation from its object. This cognitive effort is the necessary preamble to any empirical study but it is actually harder to accomplish in the social sciences than in the natural sciences. This mental discipline is the first prerequisite of the social scientist (as I often tell my students, being a sociologist will make your life miserable).

From this perspective, sociology and economics are complementary: both require such objectivation, but they also have their distinctive approach to their objects of study although there is some overlap, Freakanomics showed that social objects can be studied economically, and we already know that economic sociology is a fertile field. The Durkheimian precept of eschewing commonsense and preconceptions remains valid for both disciplines, treat social facts as things. Leave ideologies behind, except as objects of study.

  • Sociology and Economics Share a Long History

The problem that arises then, for Colombi, is a familiar one for sociologists: economics, history and psychology have easy subject matters to identify and some degree of scientific respectability. What of sociology? Colombi argues that there is actually greater affinity between sociology and economics than with the disciplines listed above.

Indeed, the founding fathers of sociology, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Pareto, or Simmel positioned their work with respect to economics and they certainly did not eschewed economic topics: division of labor, sociological explanations of economic behaviors and socio-economic changes, money. Colombi argues that sociology was born as reaction to economics. Since then, the relationships between the disciplines have not stopped, for better and for worse. Neither discipline can ignore the other as Colombi mentions the work of sociologists James Coleman or Jon Elster (the rational choice approach) as integration of economics into sociological analysis through their conceptualizations of social capital, for instance. And then, again, there is the entire field of economic sociology (but no sociological economics that I know of… the directionality is revealing… I would argue that sociologists are less reluctant to borrow insights from other social sciences in general and economics in particular, than the other way around even though economists borrow easily from psychology or history).

Now, from a strict institutional point of view, considering the disciplinary organization of academia both in terms of teaching and research, it makes sense to have separate departments even though there are constant academic discussions of interdisciplinarity and academic structures. But, for Colombi, at the high school level, we are talking about introductory courses where it makes sense to present both disciplines together to impart a minimum corpus of social scientific knowledge, outlining similarities and differences.

  • A Partially Common Epistemological Project

Both disciplines look for "laws" of society that govern behavior. This may seem like an old-fashioned and positivist way of putting it and early sociologists clearly saw the problems with putting things that way when it comes to human societies. Nevertheless, both disciplines look for predictive properties of social conditions and contexts (historical, social and economic). Now, no doubt here that economics tends to be more formal (in the sense of producing formal models) whereas sociology might be a more "historical" science (heck, just dig up Mill’s Sociological Imagination). These differences constitute a great learning oppotunity for students.

  • Points of Convergences and Dialogues

Why deprive students of the lively debates between the two disciplines through their proximity on certain topics rather than just present it to them as a cold canon "This is what sociology does, this is what economics does… it will be on the test, see you all next week."? For Colombi, it is such debates, doubts and uncertainties that make the social sciences come to life as interesting disciplines (I particularly love the way Denis describes these points of convergence: "heuristically fruitful… pedagogically useful"… I could never write like that!). For instance, Colombi uses examples from the study of collective action or the market as illustrations of topics where both disciplines contribute to illuminating different aspects of a given phenomenon.

  • Complementary Approaches to Understand Current Events

The point of the French system of secondary education is to produce citizens (and not just to cram for the bac!… no… really?), that is, to given students the critical thinking tools to understand the world in which they live. In this context, the pairing of sociology and economics makes sense as they help make sense of current events as they occur. Two tool boxes are better than one. It should be obvious to anyone, for instance, that understanding the current economic crisis requires the tools of both social sciences (but not limited to them). And how can we not discuss unemployment without discussing the socializing and integrating role of work and its importance in the development of networks (and the marginalization that results from the lack of such networks, as powerfully illustrated by Lapeyronnie’s study of the urban ghetto).

Students are constantly faced with media discourse that uses social scientific concepts and knowledge (not as much as I would like though). To understand and to be critical of such discourse requires knowing "the language" and the approaches. A one-sided education (limited to economics, for instance) would truncate students’ capacities to fully grasp and critically examine such discourse.

Finally, for Colombi, social-scientific education is one of the great education successes of the past fifty years. Why break it if it works?

2 thoughts on “Why French High Schools Should Teach Sociology and Economics Together

  1. Hey, the bac might be the last rite of passage we have in France… and rites of passage always involve some degree of suffering, blood and mutilation, and leaving part of oneself behind (even if only one’s sanity!) don’t they? :-)

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