Bringing Sociology Back

Who’s your favorite sociologist? Unless you majored in sociology, chances are that this question leaves you at a loss. Meanwhile, behavioral economists and psychologists are becoming household names, dominating editorial pages and best-seller lists, and exerting significant influence on policy. As a recent article from The New York Times points out, sociologists’ insights are often left out of these high-profile conversations. This is unfortunate. Both fields—and society at large—stand to gain if behavioral scientists and sociologists understand how each approach is complemented by the other.

Consider school choice. Children are sometimes assigned by default to the closest public school, but in many districts parents are allowed (or required) to select a school. Such choices are subject to unconscious influences, like the way that each school provides information in written materials, the order in which parents visit schools, or the complexity of the selection. Psychologists and behavioral economists are well-equipped to identify and address these biases and heuristics.

How does a parent’s socioeconomic status affect the information available to him, and thus constrain his child’s school choices? How does he use his social network to learn about schools?

But there are aspects of school choice that psychologists and behavioral economists are not traditionally prepared to tackle. How does a parent’s socioeconomic status affect the information available to him, and thus constrain the schools that populate his choice set? How does he use his social network to learn about schools? How might his race shape his perceptions of a school? These are sociological questions. Their answers may reveal variations in the decision process, outcomes, or effectiveness of a policy.

Imagine that Victoria and Derek are trying to find an elementary school for their oldest child. By the time of the selection deadline, they’ve narrowed their choice set down to two candidates, School A and School B. In the end, they choose School A, even though B has a higher academic rating. So why did they choose A? A behavioral economist might point to recency bias (Victoria and Derek visited School A the day before they made their final choice) or the affect heuristic (they got a better “vibe” during their visit). Meanwhile, a sociologist would be more likely to ask how they constructed their choice set in the first place (why were the equally good Schools C and D excluded from their selection?). Perhaps Victoria and Derek limited their search to schools accessible via public transportation. Maybe they were unaware of online resources for comparing schools and only considered those they knew personally. Their material constraints and access to information likely shaped their decision process from beginning to end.

While sociologists, psychologists, and behavioral economists all care about context, they define it somewhat differently. Psychologists and behavioral economists are fond of invoking the slogan “context matters” as shorthand for the idea that humans don’t make decisions in a vacuum. Instead, we are influenced by a wide range of situational factors, including the order in which options are presented, our perception of which behaviors are acceptable, or our most recent or vivid experience. Much of the academic research in behavioral economics and psychology, and especially social psychology, seeks to explain whether, how, and why a particular contextual feature alters the choices a person makes.

Sociologists tend to agree that context matters, though they understand it to mean something different and may call it by another name, such as “structure.” A central sociological tenet is that the social environments an individual is embedded in (a family, a neighborhood, a school community) and the demographic groups she belongs to (female, African-American, immigrant) strongly influence her opportunities. Sociologists often ask whether, how, and why one’s social, demographic, or physical context affects health, wealth, or other measures of well-being. They tackle questions like, why are parents’ incomes correlated with their children’s incomes as adults? How does growing up in a poor neighborhood impact physical or mental health?

My point is not that one approach is better than the other. For research that aims to answer a specific sociological, psychological, or behavioral economics question, it makes sense to focus on one level of context. Nevertheless, as the school choice example illustrates, some of the questions each discipline already asks could be better answered via a collaborative approach, or one that integrates conceptual or methodological elements from multiple fields.

What might a more inclusive future hold for behavioral science? A growing cohort of sociologists, such as Elizabeth Bruch and Fred Feinberg, whose ideas have heavily influenced my own, recognize that tools from psychology and behavioral economics have the potential to answer sociological questions. Likewise, prominent psychologists and behavioral economists are increasingly open to learning from and working with their sociologist colleagues.

Regardless of the subject matter, anyone under the umbrella of behavioral science can increase their chances of accurately evaluating and effectively designing programs by considering how the context of the immediate decision interacts with the broader social environment. Context certainly matters—it’s just a matter of those in the behavioral sciences working together to select the appropriate level (or levels) of context for the problem at hand.