Can Saving the World Save Comparative Historical Sociology?

Monica PrasadMonica Prasad
Northwestern University

After a year of discussions on the issue, the main conclusion I’ve drawn is that many scholars do want to conduct comparative historical research that is more relevant to contemporary concerns, but they see a distinction between policy- relevant work and “the kind of stuff that gets in the journals.” They therefore develop strategies of separating their policy work and their academic work, or plan to devote themselves to policy only after tenure.

[Monica Prasad’s essay “Can Saving the World Save Comparative Historical Sociology?” (Trajectories, Summer 2016) can be accessed here]

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6 thoughts on “Can Saving the World Save Comparative Historical Sociology?

  1. Thanks for this Monica.
    As I communicated to you separately beforehand, I agree with most of what you say here.
    I would go slightly further on one issue, though: From a *public/policy influence* point of view, I think it is not just “perhaps” but definitely the case that it can be valuable to continue saying things that sociologists already know but which might otherwise not stay “in the eyes of outside publics”.
    I’m thinking here of work like, say, Devah Pager’s field experiments, which basically conclude: “African-Americans are discriminated against in the U.S. today.” I read the work, and can almost hear the collective response of the sociology community: “well duh…”. But the scientific/methodological power behind her conclusions is such that they put those who would deny that conclusion on the defensive (if they are willing to engage the debate in an at least vaguely scientific way).
    Or, just today I was reading Eduardo Porter’s column in the NY Times, where he referred (positively) to a book authored by, among others, our sociological colleague Lane Kenworthy. I haven’t yet read the book, but judging by Porter’s column, its thesis is basically “small government is not always better”.
    Given that this argument is unlikely to ignite any heated debates at the ASA (prove me wrong somebody), was Lane wasting his time?
    I have to hope not, on the grounds that public life is to *some* extent a rational, evidence-based debate (not just a pure competition of power and resources). Insofar as it is, bringing to bear new forms of evidence and reasoning in support of “things that are already known” (by sociologists) must have value.

    1. I agree that work like Pager’s is important, but I am not as sanguine as you that “the scientific/methodological power behind her conclusions is such that they put those who would deny that conclusion on the defensive”–mainly because I think that people who deny racism exists in America are not going to be convinced by any evidence, no matter how careful or reasoned. Nor do I think they feel put on the defensive.

      The real question to ask is: why *does* Pager’s work, and the mountain of other work, not convince some people that racism stlll exists? And how do you actually reduce those rates of discrimination she finds? Those are problem-solving questions! If we had the answer to those questions, we’d be a lot closer to figuring out why racism persists, and what to do about it.

      So why not build on Pager’s work to do experiments to see what factors might *change* whether employers are racist? Is someone doing this? Forgive me, I don’t know the experimental literature as well as I should, but perhaps if people are aware of such studies they can add them in the comments. Pager has given us a brilliant tool for measuring discrimination. The next step is to use it to reduce discrimination. Laws and regulations such as “ban the box” type efforts are one way, but actually figuring out what causes discrimination and then getting rid of it would be another route, and one that would teach us a lot about society.

  2. Thanks for writing this up, Monica. I’m so glad you’ve taken up this issue all year.

    I really like how you draw the parallel between problems of activism and apolitical scholarship in that both often say the same thing over and over again. It might be worth mentioning that, for the latter, its crucial to make sure you’re not wedded to some theoretical approach going into a problem solving project. When you have a (power resource, historical institutional, Marxist, public choice, or strong program) hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is not conducive to actual problem solving. Real problem solving means going in there admitting that you probably have no idea what the answer might be – which can be pretty daunting when there’s pressure to make a novel theoretical contribution and do so relatively quickly. Of course, the upside is that the CHS approach lends itself perfectly to this sort of open conversation between theory and evidence.

    While I have faith that the problem-solving approach will eventually result in novel contributions, do you have any advice for folks worried about diving into a project not knowing whether it will result in *publications* relatively quickly?

    1. Ah, I guess that’s the million dollar question. If anyone has insights on this, please chime in!

      I do think that talking to others is key (that’s why we’ve set up the working groups–I won’t post the address here but it’s in the essay above).

      And I do think that comparison is the secret weapon. Start with a project that compares a set of people who have solved the problem with a set of people who have not. E.g. to continue the example above–identify, using Pager’s method, employers that discriminate more and employers that discriminate less, and then compare them using qualitative and historical methods to identify what might be causing the difference. Obviously that’s just a starting point (and there are many other ways to start). But it is a *good* starting point if you don’t otherwise know how to begin, because it’s flexible and allows room for creativity, points out a path forward, and yet is recognizable to journals.

      I actually don’t know if publication is going to be any harder for a problem-solving project than any other kind of project. I think it’s just always hard.

  3. I’m more comfortable with a comparative-historical sociology oriented towards “problems” than one oriented towards “solving”. That’s assuming that the success of any given policy “solution” is strongly conditioned by the facts of political feasibility. The “best” solution to a problem is not only one that could prospectively solve the problem, on technical grounds, but one that could win support in the relevant policy community and among the people affected by the policy in question. But how can we (reliably) know any of this? In this respect, the aspiration to a high modern science of policy, where comparative-historical sociologists deliver single best solutions from afar, seems likely to disappoint. Indeed, the routine failure of policies delivered in this way has been explained via comparative-historical research. That said, revealing how a problem emerged, or why it persists, could go a long way to solving it, or at very least explaining why certain prospective solutions will likely not hit their mark. Likewise, revealing that a particular problem emerged and persists in different contexts for different reasons would also represent a useful policy contribution, for it would allow for prudent choice in the use of pre-existing policy instruments. So, I’m inclined to leave “solving” to politicians, bureaucrats, and citizens, since they’re the true experts in the art of the possible. But I’d much prefer them to be well-informed, that is, informed by comparative-historical sociologists, among others.

    1. Why do we need to know “reliably” what’s feasible? Why can’t that–the question of which policies are likely to gain political traction–be part of the problem-solving effort?

      As to outsourcing responsibility for the state of the world to politicians and bureaucrats–that’s precisely what’s gotten us into the mess we’re in now! (I don’t just mean that flippantly, either–that’s a big part of the story of the rise of neoliberalism. Academics had no solutions to offer to the economic crisis of the 1970s, so politicians invented their own.)

      I agree with you that we should leave problem-solving to citizens. That’s us, folks.

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