In studies of occupational prestige from the 1960s and 70s, the title ‘Sociologist’ was accorded a level of respect comparable to that of Astronaut or Judge. The discipline of sociology enjoyed a kind of renaissance during that tumultuous period of rapid social transformation in Western societies. Sociology promised to solve social problems through the clever application of scientific principles. Public confidence in science was strong, and so people were eager to apply the same talent that took us to the Moon to work on social issues like poverty, crime, racism, and inequality.
In the 1980s and 90s, the image of sociology began to slip and a more cynical disenchantment set in not only among the public but among many sociologists as well. Part of this was due to a failure to deliver: urban planning efforts were a disaster, poverty and crime worsened, the quality of education plummeted, and people were losing confidence that science could improve the social condition. The image crisis that affected sociology was partially due to internal fragmentation as well. The field is incredibly diverse, and while that diversity increases the relevance of sociology, it makes it difficult for everyone to agree on a set of core principles. This leads to a kind of identity crisis.
Another factor involved in the perceived decline of sociology is the assault on science that began with arch-conservative demagogues who lambasted anything that even remotely challenged the inalienable wisdom of the free market. Any field of study whose explicit intent was anything other than improving corporate profit margins was obviously a communist plot to take away people’s guns. The semi-homonymic resemblance between ‘sociologist’ and ‘socialist’ was certainly too close for many small minds to grasp and thus it was easy to paint sociology and social science in general in an ideological light that defeats any and all attempts at reasonable debate.
For all these reasons, the star of sociology was clearly fading in recent decades. I recall a job interview I took in 1998 as the tech bubble was heating up and my quantitative skills were suddenly in high demand. I was still in graduate school at the time and enthusiastically described the research I was doing and courses I was teaching to my interviewer. He was unimpressed and casually referred to sociology as “just a boring class I couldn’t wait to get out of so I could go back to programming.” When I turned down the offer I told the recruiter that I thought the hiring manager lacked both vision and imagination.
Yet this has been a common bias throughout the tech boom: computer nerds can be incredibly dismissive of non-technical degrees. Ironically, when I compare the work that I’ve been lucky enough to do against the jobs of many of my friends who pursued engineering degrees, I’ve been having way more fun. For all their technical enthusiasm, Computer Science graduates are rewarded with corporate jobs writing accounting software or customer service support applications. Meanwhile, I only got a “soft” degree but I spend my time solving difficult problems with rich complex datasets, a never-ending supply of various cutting-edge tools, hardware, software, and algorithmic, and time to research and develop predictive models on a dizzying array of various topics. And all of this is made possible by the training I received in sociology.
In the last few years it has become clear that data is the key driver of innovation. This shift is based on a profound realization that all of these systems we’ve been building over the last 30 years have generated so much data that we now have to invent new techniques to understand it. What is interesting is that CS and Engineering do not provide us with the framework for understanding data. They tell us how to organize, store, and efficiently retrieve data, but they cannot give us insight into why or what. Understanding data and how to bring it to bear on a particular problem is the province of sociology and other quantitatively oriented social sciences. Data analysis is a fundamental skill of these disciplines, and this skill is gaining increasing prominence in today’s market.
Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, famously predicted in 2009 that the sexiest job of the next ten years will be statisticians, and argues “The ability to take data - to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades.” The skill-set he is describing is exactly what training in sociology provides. Methods classes teach you how to think about and interpret data, how to use data to understand social processes, and importantly how to properly collect the right data.
In a recent interview, the head of the Data Science team at Facebook describes himself as an ‘in-house sociologist’. Many of the team members have research backgrounds originating in the social sciences, not necessarily engineering. This recognition of the value of sociology in today’s data-driven world is a clear signal that the field is entering another renaissance.