Should Comparative Historical Sociology Save the World?

Monica PrasadMonica Prasad
Northwestern University

As part of the “Can Comparative Historical Sociology Save the World” initiative, in the recent issue of the CHS newsletter George Steinmetz, Mathieu Deflem, Greta Krippner, and Monica Prasad debate whether a policy orientation is a good idea.




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17 thoughts on “Should Comparative Historical Sociology Save the World?

  1. Arguing about what positive contribution sociology makes to knowledge or to making a better world – is like Lewis Carroll’s ” The Caucus Race”.

    “Everyone has won and everyone must have prizes.”

    Does sociology that refuses to be blinded by the trendy issues de jour have the potential to see deeper themes obscured by people twittering this hour’s hot question?


    Is the maintenance of the intellectual independence of sociologists from outside partisans desirable?


    Are there fundamental issues of the present day for which historical sociologists offer a unique perspective that can see the way to profound solutions?


    Which is better – to uncover profound fundamental truths – or to eliminate human suffering on the planet?


    1. There’s no contradiction–you can’t eliminate suffering *without* uncovering a fundamental truth or two. I’d argue that attempting to eliminate suffering is moreover the best way to uncover fundamental truths, as in the human trafficking example in the essay.

      1. Change/Understand the world; they go hand in hand. Its an old question going back to the 60s, if not before. Twas concern over colonialism that helped birth Wallerstein’s world-system theory; twas concern over estimating it’s effects that birthed quantitative cross-national studies of dependency; twas civil rights, students, women’s movements that helped birth social movement sociology. All of these areas now semi-neutralist areas of study but all born in the heat of concern for “saving the world”.

        Now, in our time, in the midst of the great transition from globalization to geopolitics it is the growing unraveling of the large tectonic plates of Eurasian social forms, the EU, Russia/Ukraine, China, South China Sea, East Asia, and the US that, because of size and historical depth to their social forms, brings CHS to the fore as a, if not the, analytic tool to try and grasp the essence of our times.

        On with the analysis; and with saving the world.

  2. I doubt sociology can save the world. I worry that the world, or at least the large parts of it that are ecologically endangered and their inhabitants, no longer can be saved. I suspect Monica Prasad posed this question with at least part of her tongue in cheek. A more accurate and modest way of phrasing the question would be: what, if anything, can sociology contribute to public policy debates.

    George Steinmetz recalls some of the many instances when sociologists did intervene in public policy but in ways designed to support rather than challenge ruling groups and state power. His review is a needed caution. Mathieu Deflem notes that much of criminology is designed to aid the police. However, sociology need not serve as a helper to ruling classes and officials. George Steinmetz highlighted sociology’s capacity at “unmasking…There is nothing more political than reveling the truth about social relations and social institutions.” Such unmasking can empower challengers to the interests and policies of state officials and ruling classes. Political partisans of all stripes make claims about history, the ‘lessons’ of history, and present-day empirical reality. To the extent that our research and writing can expose the inaccuracies and lies in those claims we contribute to public knowledge and to the quality of policy debates even when, or especially when, we don’t participate directly as partisans.

    The crux of this debate in Trajectories lies in the question of whether we should choose topics and treatments of those topics in an attempt to speak directly to ongoing policy debates, and if we should go further and develop policy proposals that we would want political actors (whether in the state or civil society) to take up and push toward enactment. Steinmetz, Krippner and Deflem each say no, while Prasad says yes, provided “we adopt a problem-solving rather than an activist focus in our scholarship.” She rightly argues that if we begin by advocating a desired outcome, or asserting that one policy is better than another, we will lose the attention of our audience or their confidence in the objectivity or rigor of our research findings. Instead, if we focus our research on the most effective way to attain a goal we can actually contribute new knowledge.

    I think Prasad is correct about the best way to draw the attention and respect of non-sociologist audiences. The key differences between her approach and that of the academics who work hand in glove with police or imperialists (and whom Steinmetz and Deflem rightly denounce) is that Prasad wants us to retain control over our research agendas and to select topics that can develop knowledge that develops solutions to the problems of those out of power rather than in power, and those who are exploited rather than exploiting. One of the privileges we enjoy as academics is the freedom to pick our own topics. We don’t need to do contract work for the police, or hustle for grants from government agencies that want to develop material useful for the nation’s imperial project. Especially as historical sociologists, we don’t need research teams, labs, or equipment and can build fruitful our careers without ever receiving grant monies.

    Where I disagree with Prasad is that I don’t think lack of knowledge is the main, or even a major, impediment to effective policies or to policies that benefit the many rather than the few. In my own research on hegemonic decline (in the contemporary US, and in 19th century Britain, 18th century Netherlands, and militarily dominant Habsburg Spain and France under Louis XIV and again under Napoleon) I found that there was no shortage of intellectuals or even political actors who were able to correctly diagnose their society’s problems and to figure out what would have been (or for the US today are) effective at maintaining hegemony, reducing inequality, or preventing further global warming. Rather, effective and humane policies were blocked by self-interest elites with the power to ensure that their particular interests took precedence over the needs of broader publics. Sociology, or at least the sociology I do, can’t save the world, but it can explain why the world won’t be saved, and in so doing it can serve the unmasking purpose Steinmetz describes. To the extent that we can bring our understanding of how elites block reform before broader audiences we can shift public debate and in that way perhaps influence policy.

    The main way we have of bringing our analyses to non-specialists is in our role as teachers. Millions of Americans take sociology courses each year. We have enormous leeway in what we teach. Prasad’s warning about research applies even more emphatically to teaching. If we come before our students as activists we will lose their attention and respect. If instead we address the concerns they have we can inform them and widen their perspectives. Thus, rather than denouncing inequality, we can inform them of the degree of inequality and its causes. Rather than condemning US imperialism, we can teach them how American foreign policy is made and its effects. Rather than presenting our policy preferences, we can explain how domestic and foreign policy is made and by whom. Our main influence comes from reaching a deeper understanding of how governments and civil societies operate and presenting those understandings to our colleagues and to our students.

  3. Richard, if the problem is that elites block change, then that is the problem to solve with your research! Think hard about how and when the grip of elites is broken, what we can learn from past moments when elites have been overcome, etc.


  4. This is an engaging and important debate and I thank Monica Prasad for initiating it. I want to make three points related to the exchange above.

    (1) Critical disposition. All parties (myself included) agree that a CHS paper is not the place to advocate for a specific policy. At the same time, there are policy-relevant inferences that we can make from the “unmasking” that Steinmetz calls for in CHS research. Drawing out those inferences and articulating them for purposes of broader social impact is emphatically compatible with a critical intellectual disposition.

    (2) Means. Missing from the discussion is the actual process of making policy. Krippner refers to Weber’s thesis of means and ends; and yet the “means” to policy remain frustratingly opaque across the responses. Note the ongoing conflation of policy evaluation with activism or – worse – “instrumentality.” This conflation intensifies the concern for protecting our science from meddling. In fact, policy work also strives for impartial inquiry. The goal of policy evaluation is to say, “Doing x makes y happen,” using qualitative and quantitative analytical methods to make sense of the observed outcomes. The idea that impartial research and analysis somehow stops with policy work is wrong.

    (3) Disengagement is not a solution to the problem of protecting the subfield from political cooptation. In fact, one can argue the reverse: that isolating the subfield from policy activity heightens its susceptibility to political ideologies. Such isolation can be seen (as Prasad points out) as a tacit endorsement of prevailing political trends. To give an example of this, not only sociology but also archaeology and anthropology were forced into the normative framework of Fascism in the 1930s and ‘40s. Many brave individuals risked their lives resisting ideological takeover. On the whole, however, the refusal or inability of social scientists in Spain, Italy, and Germany to respond forcefully to political cooptation proved disastrous for their disciplines.

    Perhaps a fruitful continuation of this discussion would be to identify more examples of the problem-solving sociology advocated by Prasad. We’re not really debating so much as speaking at each other with quite different understandings of what “policy orientation” and “policy relevance” mean. It is counterproductive to gloss “policy” as a dark world of managers. Policy is a scholarly pursuit, and our subfield is strongly positioned to inform and improve that pursuit with historical and comparative methods and theories.

    1. Yes, I do think at least some of the disagreement is coming down to semantics, and a bette way forward might be to identify good examples of well-conducted problem solving sociology.

      In the last newsletter I mentioned a couple of examples at the ASA meetings that I admired very much: Robert Braun’s work and Aliza Luft’s work on genocide. Robert asks, when do communities protect potential victims of genocide? Aliza asks, when are perpetrators perpetrators, and when are they simply bystanders? No, neither of them “solves” genocide, but that’s not the test. The test is, did you get us one step closer to solving it.

    2. One correction:

      Isolating Sociology from Nazism, as Alfred and Marianne Weber did, while remaining in Nazi Germany, saved a small part of the Sociology field from being caught up in those criminal activities and never heightened their susceptibility to political ideologies — it saved them. They were heroes, of a sort, if not the same as those actually fought Nazis openly. Alfred Weber was able to continue working and his main book was published overseas, and it bears no trace of Nazi cooptation. But those Sociologists who continued to teach and to do research — i.e. those Sociologists who did not isolate themselves from the Nazis — a different thing from “disengaging from politics” – were for the most part increasingly caught up in Nazism. Engaging in actual political or military resistance to fascism is obviously preferable to “inner exile” but is not a form of Sociology — it is political action. Solving the problem of Nazism required military action, not sociology. This discussion is mixing apples and oranges. Read Carsten Klingemann on the sociologists.

  5. Yes, but examining why Germany was susceptible to Nazism *is* a form of Sociology, indeed, that is precisely what re-launched our field mid-century.

  6. Monica:
    As in the published exchange, you misunderstand me here. From the paragraph above you can see that I am referring to solving the problem of Nazism WITHIN Nazi Germany. And sociologists or anthropologists outside Germany such as Talcott Parsons and Robert Lowie, who tried to explain the origins of Nazism before it was actually defeated (or right afterwards) offered totally absurd accounts that no serious historian would ever accept. As for Sociology in the US, France, the UK, or Germany, it was not “re-launched” by the defeat of Nazism but, in Europe at least, crawled back to life. So how can you claim that Nazism, or its defeat, or attempts to explain it, relaunched sociology? This could only be correct in a very indirect way, through the causal impact of reconstruction efforts after WWII. But even then — take a look at the actual historical literature. The really huge expansion of European universities in the UK and the continent, which led to the solid establishment of sociology, did not happen until the 1960s. Hence the “relaunch” could only be very, very indirectly related to Nazism and WWII. Even in the US it is important to look at statistics on the numbers of students and sociology degrees — the 1960s, not the 1945-1960 period, marked the relaunching boom in sociology. So there are very few real connections between the “re-launching of our field” and Nazism. As for serious historical research by sociologists on Nazism (that is, on anything other than sociology under the Nazis) – almost no actual Sociologist, in Germany or outside, has done any serious historical research on it to this day. So what, exactly, are you trying to say?

    1. I think Monica was talking about Barrington Moore (1966), and all that.
      As for sociologists who have seriously studied the Nazis, I think Ivan Ermakoff counts, at least. But maybe I’m not understanding your point.

  7. I said “almost” no actual Sociologist, in Germany or outside, has done any serious historical research on it to this day. You need to read prose carefully. The word “almost” does not mean the same thing as “all” or “every.” Ivan Ermakoff is indeed one of those few non-German sociologists who has done serious research on Nazism. Can you name any others?
    In a lecture to the first postwar meeting of the German Sociological Association in 1946, the head of that association, Leopold von Wiese, argued that Nazism was a “metaphysical secret that sociology may not touch” (von Wiese 1948: 29). (Von Wiese also described the Nazi era as a “pest” that had “descended on the people, who were unprepared for it, from the outside, like a sneak attack.”) Of course von Wiese himself had been active as a sociologist during the Nazi period, supervising theses and research projects and spending eleven months in Paris in 1941 as part of a Foreign Office “archival commission” that evaluated seized French documents and wrote a report arguing that President Roosevelt had started the Second World War under pressure from American Jews (Klingemann 1996: 69; Archivkommission 1943: 39).

    Archivkommission (Auswärtiges Amt). 1944. Roosevelts Weg in den Krieg; Geheimdokumente zur Kriegspolitik des Präsidenten der Vereinigten Staaten. Berlin: Im Deutschen Verlag.

    Klingemann, Carsten. 1996. Soziologie im Dritten Reich. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft.

    Wiese, L. Von. 1948. “Erster Vortrag. Die gegenwärtige Situation, soziologisch betrachtet,” in Verhandlungen des Achten Deutschen Soziologentages vom 19. bis 21. September 1946 in Frankfurt a.M. Tübingen: Verlag J.C.B. Mohr: 20-41.

  8. And by the way, Moore’s account of Nazism corresponds to the massive “German exceptionalism” (Sonderweg) account of the rise of Nazism that has been discredited by serious historical research (especially in the simplistic social class version proffered by Moore). Ermakoff’s excellent account has absolutely nothing in common with this exceptionalism/Sonderweg account– and how could it, given his philosophy of science (Ermakoff 2015)?

    Blackbourn, David and Geoff Eley. 1985. The Peculiarities of German History. New York: Oxford University Press.
    Ermakoff, Ivan. 2015. “The Structure of Contingency.” AJS Volume 121 Number 1 (July 2015): 64–125
    Steinmetz, George. 1997. “German Exceptionalism and the Origins of Nazism: The Career of a Concept.” In Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin, eds., Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 251-284.

  9. One of the more surprising features of this debate is the position taken by Mathieu Deflem. Deflem is a prominent translator of Jurgen Habermas, who remains the leading representative of Critical Theory, a tradition of scholarship motivated by something like “saving the world” (Deflem, 1996; Habermas, 1996). The work of Habermas is often assumed to be difficult and abstract and thus distant from current political and policy questions, but these assumptions are only partially justified. Habermas has also produced a large body of political writing which is informed by his larger historical and philosophical perspective (Verovsek 2012). Indeed, Habermas’ most notable comparative-historical work, ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’, was motivated by a concern about the structure and promise of democracy and it undergirds his more recent interventions in political debates about the prospects of a European public sphere. Deflem is an expert on this scholarship and so it is intriguing that he rejects its aims (and accomplishments) and that he didn’t mention its relation to the current debate, one he oddly concludes is “distinctly American”.

    On a different note, the problem of normative perfectionism is probably not a hard problem in this context. Most of the normative questions which might motivate comparative-historical sociology can be articulated in terms of widely acknowledged human rights, or uncontroversial ideals such as democracy and the rule of law. The justification for exploring these notions need not be elaborate. An important exception is where they are treated as objects of critique.

    Deflem, M. (ed.) 1996. Habermas, Modernity, and Law. Sage, London.

    Habermas, J. 1996. George Simmel on Philosophy and Culture: Postscript to a Series of Essays (Trans. Mathieu Deflem). Critical Inquiry. Vol.22, No.2, pp.403-414.

    Verovsek, P. 2012. Meeting Principles and Lifeworlds Halfway: Jurgen Habermas and the Future of Europe. Political Studies. Vol.60, No.2, 363-380.

    1. “On a different note, the problem of normative perfectionism is probably not a hard problem in this context.”

      Agreed–in many cases, the problems we study don’t *require* much effort devoted to understanding “what is good.” Meanwhile, the more complex issues such as the ones Steinmetz brings up don’t *reward* effort devoted to understanding what is good. The more complex issues are never really resolved no matter how much you study them.

      Ergo it might be worthwhile to study ethics for its own sake, but it’s probably not necessary in order to move forward with empirical social science focused on solving problems. There are some issues that you can’t resolve theoretically, only transcend empirically.

  10. The more complex issues but the ones that are often most important, such as war, do reward effort devoted to understanding what is good, since they prevent some people from advocating torture, war, genocide, declaration of states of emergency. The more complex issues are often resolved by hard ethical thinking. But if you think we should not work on problems that are never fully solve, you should give up on the career as a scientist, since there is never a true “correspondence” of knowledge with its objects, as all philosophers of knowledge agree. It is bad philosophy of science to believe in some final epistemic closure. So if you agree with Monica that we should only work on “issues” that can be quickly and finally “resolved,” you should really stop being a social scientist.

    1. George, you know full well I do not advocate “that we should only work on “issues” that can be quickly and finally “resolved.”” In fact, in the essay I give detailed suggestions for how to move forward on conducting research on issues that are ethically complex; see p. 19 of the “Problem-Solving Sociology” essay above, and p.29 of my reply.


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