There has been very little research on the relationship between economics and sociology. But even if many single pieces of knowledge are still missing, the main structure of the relationship can be discerned without too much difficulty. There
are only a few different ways in which economics and sociology can be related to each other. One of the two disciplines can try to take over the subject matter of the other, which would constitute a case of “economic imperialism” or “sociological imperialism.” Alternatively, they can each have their own distinct subject areas and ignore the other, as has been the case during the twentieth century. And finally there can be open borders and free communication between economics and sociology, which it is hoped represents the direction in which things are currently moving.
The early economists, such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill, are generally considered to have struck a happy balance between economics and sociology. They wrote about economic theory as well as social institutions with both ease and insight. It is true that “economics” and “sociology” did not exist as two distinct academic disciplines at that time, but it was of course perfectly clear to these economists when they were dealing with economic topics as opposed to social topics.
What distinguished Smith, Marx, and Mill from many later sociologists and economists was their ambition to define economics in a broad manner and to be interested in the insights of the other social sciences. Mill said, “A person is not likely to be a good economist who is nothing else. Social phenomena acting and reacting on one another, they cannot rightly be understood apart.”
Mill’s pragmatic attitude toward economic science was not popular in all circles, least of all with his colleague and one-time friend Auguste Comte. The thrust of Comte’s argument was that knowledge and society are going through an evolutionary development from lower to higher stages, and that “sociology” represents the highest stage of human knowledge. He considered economics a thoroughly useless and metaphysical enterprise. The best one could do was give it up and replace it with sociology, the “queen of all sciences.”