There are other closely related disciplines that really go into very different matters. These include such pairs as history and sociology; comparative literature and English literature; American studies and American history. But let us consider only the profound difference between an economic and sociological approach to social problems.
There was a time when the major advisors to political leaders on various social problems were social workers and sociologists. The tradition reaches back to when Jane Addams advised the Governor of Illinois at the turn into the Twentieth Century about how to deal with problems of urban poverty. FDR was served by Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins, although Hopkins eventually was given much broader responsibilities. That tradition perhaps reached its apex during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty where the major influence was Frances Piven, and the team of Richard Cloward and LLoyd Ohlin, as well as other students of the sociologist Robert Merton, many of whom were social workers, and who offered up one program after another that was designed to make a difference to people in poverty by offering them one service piled up upon another. These programs were largely unsuccessful because they were to be measured by their outcomes but the input, like school lunch programs, while laudable in themselves, were never enough to make a difference in the overall condition of poverty, while the civil rights legislation Johnson also passed did make a difference because they changed the status of black citizens, making them into an ethnic group rather than a caste.
Despite the failures of the War on Poverty, even Republican administrations understood the division of labor between sociologists, on the one hand, and economists, on the other, the latter of which were supposed to guide the economy while the former dealt with those who fell through the cracks of the economy. There was a lively debate between the economist George Shultz, serving as Secretary of the Treasury in the Nixon Administration, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the sociologist who crossed party lines for a time to serve as Domestic Affairs Advisor in that same administration.
But times have changed. There are no major sociologists currently holding positions in the White House or in the Cabinet, and there haven’t been for a generation now, while at the same time economists are the go to people for policy recommendations about what to do about old sociological issues like poverty or how to handle the inner city. The main liberal newspaper columnist on social problems is Paul Krugman of the New York Times, a Nobel Prize winning economist. This change may be the result of the decline of sociology as a field in that it is a discipline presently more concerned with advocacy than either theory building or groundbreaking empirical studies. But the change has resulted in a very profound difference in the way people think about social problems. It isn’t that economists are slaves to the idea that the market is always right, and so conservative, while sociologists are liberal defenders of the poor. It is that the two disciplines consult very different sets of factors in their analyses and so draw very different conclusions about how to deal with deficiencies in American social structure.
Consider how analysts now go about dealing with the economic problem of income inequality, when what a sociologist might say the real problem is the availability of opportunity structures whereby people all up and down the occupational ladder can be upwardly mobile, never mind whether the people at the top of the income pyramid are getting more than their fair share of the wealth the nation produces. The economic approach is to debate the merits of a mandatory minimum wage. Conservative economic analysis will focus on whether that drives up the labor costs of a fast food business and so MacDonald’s or its competitors will hire fewer entry level workers, therefore depriving teenagers of their first jobs, those jobs ways for teenagers to have some disposable income but hardly jobs they need to support a family. Liberal economic analysis will focus on the fact that fast food will automate its jobs as quickly as it can anyway because there is always money to be saved in replacing live workers with machines, and so a minimum wage will not deprive workers of jobs, and those workers are not just teenagers but adults trying to support a family, in which case Bernie Sanders’ phrase that a minimum wage should be a living wage makes sense. Notice that both liberal and conservative economic analysis focus on the monetary incentives for employment, though the distinction between entry level work and adult work is one sociologists would also consider relevant.
Sociological analysis looks at demographic and other characteristics of groups rather than the operation of market forces so as to understand a social problem. William Julius Wilson supplied in The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), a still relevant characterization of Black inner city life. He said that there were not enough available men to go around to serve as anchors for families because young men were in jail or dead from gang violence. He thought that this and many other features of ghetto communities, like the dominance of gangs, were the result of residential segregation. Blacks did not wander up from the Southside. Their community was not serviced by supermarkets nor movie theatres or by a number of middle class people in their midst who would serve as models for upward mobility and so the schools were ineffective at overcoming the barriers that existed for inspiring youth to make something of themselves.
This consideration of a very different set of variables than economic incentives leads to a very different set of solutions to the problem of extreme urban poverty. A Wilsonian would want summer camps, after school programs, and other measures to provide young people with more adult supervision and therefore an antidote to the lure of the streets. That may seem soft and long term but it may be the only thing that will work. After all, it is what the New Deal did with white youth when it launched the Civilian Conservation Corps to give those young people some experience with organized work through cleaning up forest preserves as well as developing skills in living in groups. And these Wilsonian solutions are not much different than the ones that were provided over a century ago by Jane Addams at Chicago’s Hull House. The kind of advisors you have dictates the kinds of solutions you come up with. It’s not in the details; it’s in the outlook.