Those concerned with general problems of philosophy of science and its methodology may find modern economics of considerable interest....Economics is by its nature a softer and less exact science than, say, conventional physics. Now in a hard, exact science a practitioner does not really have to know much about methodology. Indeed, even if he is definitely a misguided methodologist, the subject itself has a self-cleaning property which renders harmless his aberrations. By contrast, a scholar in economics who is fundamentally confused concerning the relationship of definition, tautology, logical implication, empirical hypothesis, and factual refutation may spend a lifetime shadow-boxing with reality. In a sense, therefore, in order to earn his daily bread as a fruitful contributor to knowledge, the practitioner of an intermediately hard science like economics must come to terms with methodological problems. I stress the importance of intermediate hardness because when one descends lower still, say to certain areas of sociology that are almost completely without substantive content, it may not matter much one way or the other what truths or errors about scientific method are involved—for the reason that nothing matters.”--Paul Samuelson (1964) (new) Foreword to Foundations of Economic Analysis, ix
We philosophers are known to look down (mistakenly) on English literature professors (you can count on Alex Rosenberg to express what others think), so I am going to be restrained in what follows. Recent sociological work has explored the sense of superiority of economists.* Even so, I was unaware that Samuelson had expressed his contempt for (bits of) sociology in the paradigm-setting text of mathematical economics. (Serves me right for only looking at the first, 1947 edition.)
Later in Foundations, Samuelson mentions (without comment) that "many economists, well within the academic fold, would separate economics from sociology upon the basis of rational [homo economicus] or irrational behavior, where terms are defined in the penumbra of utility theory," (91; introducing Chapter V 'the pure theory of consumer's behavior.') While the study of irrational behavior may be significant, it does not have high status (then and now).
One might think that the Samuelson's put-down of (bits of) sociology is evidence of a kind of professional rivalry on what discipline gets to be the pre-eminent policy science. Now, it's true that folk like Parsons were promoting sociology and systems theory as the most general social (and even management) science, but by the mid sixties the context had already been decided. Economics was the paradigmatic social science. (In fact, Samuelson's forward is very triumphant: "serious economics has become mathematical and technical" (xii), which produced a "renaissance in economic theory" (xii) while coming close to comparing himself to Newton (xi). Don't trust me; here is Thomas Kuhn's judgment in Structure (1960):
“To a very great extent the ‘term’ science is reserved for fields that do progress in obvious ways. Nowhere does this show more clearly than in the recurrent debates about where one or another of the contemporary social sciences is really science….they will cease to be source of concern not when a definition is found, when the groups that now doubt their own status achieve consensus about their past and present accomplishments. It may, for example, be significant that economists argue less about whether their field is a science than do practitioners of some other fields of social science. (160-1)
So why is Samuelson dissing sociology? And, moreover, why do so in context of stressing that even the practitioner of economics (and not just the philosopher of science) should be concerned with methodology of economics?
As it happens in 1952 Samuelson addressed himself explicitly to methodology and philosophy of science (those were the days!) in the pages of the American Economic Review, happily reporting that "mathematical economics is flying high" (56).** Along the way he remarks, "I find Max Weber or Talcott Parsons difficult to understand in any tongue." (62) There is little evidence, I think, that Samuelson was much interested in either Weber or Parsons (although I would be surprised if he never bumped into Parsons while writing his dissertation at Harvard). Neither Weber nor Parsons is mentioned in the Foundations.
Even so, Samuelson's (1952) remark is a helpful clue. In the period, the Chicago economist, Frank Knight, was the great advocate of Weber, while his student, George Stigler, was the great advocate of Parsons (himself an important Weber scholar). In fact, Stigler had a tendency to introduce Parsons in the context of his own methodological musings (in his textbook and in his high profile, 1948 LSE lectures) that, in turn, set the stage of Friedman's still famous methodological reflections (I have traced some of the details here; this is part of a larger story about debates over economic imperialism and general sociology of knowledgein the 1930s). One such instance was his blistering attack on Samuelson and the so-called new welfare economics in the American Economic Review; Samuelson responded in kind (recall here and here for details on the debate between the two future Nobel laureates).
And, in fact, Samuelson's only mention of Stigler in Foundations is near the very end of his long treatment (and history) of welfare economics (chapter viii), where he reminds his reader of the debate: "Whether Kaldor and Hicks are open to the criticism along the lines which Stigler has recently advanced, the reader must decide." (252) As is well known, Samuelson's readers, the next generation of the economics profession, decided to agree with him (but see here and here).
So, the moral of my story is that sociology got dissed in the front pages of the most influential work of professional economics of the twentieth century because important rival economists that had to be discredited*** were appealing to sociological insights in criticizing central achievements of the new mathematical economics. These Samuelson understands as "internal problems of economic research" (viii), that is, immune from external criticism. If I am right about this, then there is a further historical irony lurking here. As I have recounted Stigler appealed, while drawing on Parsons and Merton, to that very internal/external distinction to let Thomas Kuhn know in a series of letters that economists (like Samuelson and himself) had anticipated most of Kuhn's philosophy of science because they had been engaged with the sociology of knowledge and methodology for much of the previous generation(s).
*See also this important article by Erik Angner.
** The Balloonist in me also notes with pleasure Samuelson's interest in Le Chatelier's Principle (Foundations, x).
On Samuelson on Knight some other time; the story is more complex, in fact.