Policy and Sociology in Context (Part 1)

face1face2Linda Gusia
University of Prishtina

Michael Kennedy
Brown University

We might clarify recent debates in these pages about the relationship between comparative historical sociology and policy if we were to consider both the variety of sociologies and policy engagements discussed as well as the contexts of their address. In part 1 of our contribution, we focus on the variety of sociologies and policy engagements invoked; in part 2, we will focus our remarks on the contexts in which these policies are discussed and the publics that might be engaged.

The Articulations of Policy and Sociology 1

Lane Kenworthy illustrates that first variety with a range of questions sociology might address when it comes to policy (“Do social policies reduce poverty? What kind of healthcare system yields better health? Will reforming schools improve education? Do gun control regulations reduce crime? Do high taxes impede economic growth? How can government boost happiness?”). Elisabeth Pearson speaks of tax policyPeter Evans on computer policy making in Brazil, Fred Wherry on household finance and credit policy. We might structure that variety by orders of significance, as Monica Prasad does by suggesting different measures of world historical importance (climate change and poverty being “big” questions). So, the first order of variation: the kinds of policy experts might address.

Sometimes, when sociologists speak of policy, they move beyond the matters that might be taught in schools of policy, however, as Isaac Martin does when he speaks of DuBois accounting for the slave trade’s decline. Likewise, when Ho-fung Hung writes about movements, revolutions and development, when Vivek Chibber contrasts the rise of democracy (good) or of racialized states (bad), or when Michele Lamont discusses her work on successful societies, we are back to more familiar comparative and historical sociological territory. We are back to big processes and huge comparisons.

Liz Clemens summarizes this variety neatly. By addressing “variations across interventions; the relation of outcomes to more encompassing policy regimes; or they may theorize alternative models of social organization and process”, comparative and historical sociologists can engage policy. We think this variation can be made even more clear by specifying differences with a 2X2 table.

In the Kenworthy paragraph, policy is conceived in relatively narrow terms, where policies have pride of place in explaining short term outcomes; in the following paragraph, broader conjunctural features, historical processes, and intersecting arenas explain outcomes. We simplify that distinction in Table 1 across rows.

Table 1: Variations in Imagining Policy among Comparative and Historical Sociologists

Specific Domain Societal Ordering
Intervention-Centric Most Policy Work More Political Work
Contextual Emphasis Bounded CHS Grand CHS

Contrasting the two rows of Table 1, we can see the top row elevating the importance of the intervention itself. Policy analysts typically evaluate that intervention in terms of efficacy or consequence; that focus is itself more typically part of the policy scholarship domain. Sometimes, of course, focus may be less on the intervention’s efficacy, and rather on how the distribution of power shapes the policy or its outcomes. That, then, tends to veer more into a political more than policy sociology.

Sometimes, however, the intervention itself becomes less significant, and melts before the context in which it takes place. In that circumstance, whether in more bounded analysis of a specific policy or its regime, or in the analysis of grander transformations like those of democratization, revolution, or reform, we are far more likely to find comparative and historical sociology at work and policy schools missing. But before we generalize too readily, we ought think not only about the variety of policy we discuss, but also the context of its application or explanation.

Policy Work in Transition and After War

The distance between policy-oriented work and comparative historical and ethnographic sociologies can appear great, but for those living in and analyzing the region once ruled by communists, that distance is unfamiliar because the dialogue has been so intense.

One of the most transformative transnational policy regimes at the turn of the 20th century was what Kennedy (2002) called “transition culture”: the making of more democratic and more market-driven societies out of communist-ruled countries. In this domain, we see incredible dialogue among comparative and historical sociologists and other kinds of social scientists informing policy makers about how to make private property, electoral systems, regional governance, and a host of other matters. 2 There is much work analyzing innovation and diffusion of policies and practices.

For example, in an eloquent comparison of places and issues, Wade Jacoby 3 found that to explain variations in policy embrace and contextually motivated innovation, one should compare the density of recipient actors and of international organizational rules in particular issue areas. When domestic actors and foreign rules are both sparse, as in consumer protection, there are relatively few policy innovations and outcomes. When those rules are few but those actors are many, more indigenously driven continuous learning tends to take place, as in health care. When there are more foreign rules than existing domestic actors organized to care about them, he notes a kind of scaffolding, as when EU regional policy helped to make domestic regional interests and actors. Open struggle between transnational and national actors emerges, however, when there are both lots of rules and many previously constituted actors, evident in the reform of agriculture for the EU and of the military as those nations formerly ruled by communists moved into NATO. We summarize his argument in Table 2.

Table 2: Variations in Transnational Postcommunist Policy

Many International Rules Few International Rules
Dense network of recipients Contest over Agriculture & Military Reform Health Care Reform: innovation by existing actors in light of new rules
Sparse network of recipients Adoption of Regional Policies and Constitution of Regional Interests Consumer Protection: Light transformation of rules and little constitution of actors

This is but one of many comparative, historical, and ethnographic analyses 4 of policies and practices in transition culture, lending itself nicely to thinking about how different kinds of policies, authorities, and publics interact with one another to predict different kinds of policy outcomes. With this example, it is obvious that policy work and CHS can go well together. In fact they need each other even more than what Jacoby presented.

His work and much other work in transition culture make many assumptions that a comparative and historical sociologist more distant from transition culture’s assumptions might want to interrogate. Above all, it pays little heed to the broader context in which those policies are transferred, treating the overall embrace of transition as, itself, something intrinsically desirable. 5 That assumption was relatively easy to hold onto when the European Union looked like an obviously superior destination to a world defined by Russian hegemony with an inferior economy and less substantial assurance of human rights. Kennedy (2002) expressed it in this diagram. 6

Figure 1: The Knowledge Structure of Transition Culture

Plan Dictatorship Russia Past Particularistic Bureaucrat Dependency Ukraine
Market Democracy West Future Comparative Entrepreneur Opportunity Estonia

This knowledge culture is not so secure today, but even in its heyday many of its practitioners also overlooked a critical element assuring transition culture’s desirability. The Wars of Yugoslav Succession were co-present in transition culture’s first decade, and an implicit warning for what could happen if transition failed. Therefore, for those nations whose ends to communism were also wrapped up in war and extreme violence, transition culture had different meanings. Even without that trauma, most postcommunist democracies depended on overlooking publics who had been “damaged” by communist rule and needed to be reeducated through transition culture’s shining light.

With this decade’s reaction against the European Union and transition culture’s guiding assumptions in much of the postcommunist world we can now appreciate the dangers of that public ignorance. But that ignorance is not exclusive to eastern and central Europe.

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  1. Articulations of context is a major theme in Michael D. Kennedy, Globalizing Knowledge: Intellectuals, Universities and Publics in Transformation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.
  2. Consider most recently the work of this European transnational team working to figure how to minimize the distance between formal and informal institutions in the Balkans: http://www.formal-informal.eu/en/home.html
  3. Wade Jacoby, The Enlargement of the European Union and NATO: Ordering from the Menu in Central Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  4. As those who participated in the CHS debate, we do not differentiate strongly between comparative/historical and ethnographic methodologies, finding at least in the latter two a necessary concern for the worlds of meaning of those whose lives are addressed in policy as a kind of vernacular and public scholarship. Jan Kubik and Amy Linch Postcommunism from Within: Social Justice, Mobilization and Hegemony (New York: NYU Press, 2013) exemplify that combination with their focus on vernacular scholarship, what Kubik calls “contextual holism”.
  5. The following draws on Michael D. Kennedy, (2008) “From Transition to Hegemony: Extending the Cultural Politics of Military Alliances and Energy Security” pp. 188-212 in Mitchell Orenstein, Steven Bloom, and Nicole Lindstrom (eds.) Transnational Actors in Central and East European Transitions. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  6. In that volume, Kennedy used the concept to rethink the artifacts produced by the World Bank and others to map transition, the negotiated revolutions of 1989, business practice, and interpretations of freedom, nationalism, environmental problems, civility and loss in the first decade of postcommunist life. He focused especially on Poland, Hungary, Estonia, and Ukraine, with the penultimate in that list becoming transition culture’s exemplar, and the last, its exemplary warning, as the diagram above suggests.

4 thoughts on “Policy and Sociology in Context (Part 1)

  1. Thank you for these fascinating thoughts. In addition to the ways you show policy work and CHS complementing each other, or even being the same thing, I would add that I don’t think it needs to be clear to a researcher which of the cells in the 2×2 their work falls into, at least at the outset.

    E.g. “do social policies reduce poverty” can quickly become “under what contexts is a welfare state sustainable,” which requires a broader historical investigation. Or a foray into contemporary credit policy can lead straight to a history of the origins of the Great Depression. And conversely, “the rise of democracy” can narrow into a study of whether village-level elections make people more or less likely to oppose an authoritarian regime, or whether an educational intervention of some kind raises the demand for democracy.

    1. Thanks Monica! The danger of 2X2 tables is readily apparent here. Just as Calhoun critiqued Burawoy for the apparent rigidity of his public sociology scheme, so you are right to caution the researcher to wonder where she fits in such a static representation.

      I do see the heuristic here mainly in how policy knowledge cultures pull scholarship toward evaluating the efficacies of the intervention, while diminishing the relative salience of forces beyond policy in shaping outcomes, and even shaping the policy regimes themselves.

      Thus, policy scholarship would be enhanced by having more comparative and historical sociology as part of its repertoire. At the same time, comparative and historical sociologists might want to think about how their work could improve the focus on policy efficacy, and not only how various historical and spatial contexts shape the viability of certain policy regimes.

      This is why I am so interested in the kind of work my coauthor does — both historical and ethnographic, it is not only about finding justice for the survivors of sexual violence during war, but redefining who counts in the elaborations of security and democracy that more readily than justice find centrality in policy discussions.

  2. Agreed–there is a real danger in focusing only on what is narrow and fixable, as it can lead researchers to lose sight of the broader socio-economic context, or to ignore less fixable problems like widespread poverty (for example, always blaming public schools and trying to figure out how teachers can teach better, and ignoring the wider socio-economic disparities in education). That’s a very important point to always keep in mind with any kind of “problem-solving” effort, and that critical edge is where CHS scholars have always excelled.

    That said, simply noting the wider socio-economic disparities–again and again and again–is not enough, either. Even just in intellectual terms, it doesn’t get us beyond what we already know. That’s exactly why the dialogue *between* policy and CHS is so important. Each makes the other better.

    Look forward to reading part 2!

    1. Exactly Monica!!! I’m so pleased that you initiated this dialogue among those who focus on the efficacy of interventions and those who look at broader contexts and longer term views.

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