Putting Sociology to Work in Development Policy and Practice

By Dr. Michael Woolcock

Most social science researchers, I suspect, harbor some hope that their work will be taken seriously in scholarly circles but will also, somehow, help to ‘make the world a better place’. In the field of global development, realizing this aspiration can be sought actively or passively. If the latter, one’s theory of change is likely to be some version of: “I’ll do the best research I can and hopefully get it published somewhere good, but leave it to others to discern and promote any ‘policy implications’ that may emerge from it. I don’t want to get too close to the ‘policy world’; after all, the integrity of my work might be compromised by those with an overt political agenda. Better to just write a stinging critique of prevailing ways of doing things.” Taking such an approach has its place. 

If one pursues a more active mode of engagement, however, one’s theory of change begins, not ends, with a salient development policy problem; the research agenda stemming from this theory seeks to disentangle the analytical, structural, political and administrative factors that shape how (and by whom) the policy problem is defined, how support for certain solutions (over others) are mobilized and consolidated, how (and by whom) claims regarding the relative effectiveness of these solutions are made, and – crucially – how credible alternatives might be enacted, implemented and evaluated. Holding all these pieces together requires useable theory. But if it’s actual change one wants to bring about, conducting such an analysis is just the start; taking a sociological approach to one’s theory of change surely entails recognizing that “policymakers” aren’t exactly sitting around waiting for the latest issue of Social Problems. To the extent such a group even exists, “policymakers” are but one group among many needing to be intentionally engaged and persuaded in terms readily amenable to them – which are not likely to be those of the seminar room or journal articles. If they somehow come across your research and show interest in it, you will then have to work hard to sustain that interest and build a constituency large enough to get any proposed solution authorized and funded. 

Whatever emerges from the proverbial policy-making “sausage machine” then has to be implemented, perhaps initially as a ‘pilot’ and then at scale, by a designated administrative unit that may or may not have the necessary willingness and capability; and finally, after perhaps two or three years, you will have to brace for a robust debate in the cauldron of contestation that will accompany evaluations of your “policy” – supporters will love it even if it’s a clear failure, critics will hate it even if it’s a spectacular success. But if it’s a social development intervention, your theory of change will likely anticipate that its impact will be conspicuously and inherently “mixed”: benefiting some groups and places but not others, unfolding over a non-linear, non-uniform trajectory, its impact heavily shaped by “context”, certain key aspects of which may not be readily expected, measurable, or manageable (e.g., leadership quality). Compared to those promoting infrastructure, nutrition supplements or cash transfers, your impact claims will sound weak and indecisive. If you stick with things for a decade or two, despite numerous setbacks and disappointments, maybe, perhaps, something somewhere will actually have changed ‘for the better’ – only for that very ‘improvement’ to have put in motion a whole new round of challenges (e.g., migration). Welcome to the nexus of social research and development policy!

Doing any of this requires a multitude of different skills and sensibilities, few of which are taught – or could possibly be taught – in graduate school: the relentlessly intense pressure of such work is impossible to simulate, few professors have such experience, and their core incentives are to prepare students for academic careers (just as it was their professors’ incentives that successfully produced them!). One person is unlikely to have this full array of skills and sensibilities, but if you’re serious about actively contributing to – not just passively “calling for” – change in development policy and practice, you at least need to know that such diverse attributes are required, and that they need to be appreciated by, and coherently integrated into, your team. Crucially, there are things you learn about your policy problem and the tribulations of enacting a solution to it that you can only learn by active engagement; reading another dozen books on the subject, or crunching yet more data, only gets you so far. That was the primary reason why, nearly 25 years ago, I accepted the opportunity to become the first (and only) sociologist hired by the World Bank’s Development Research Group: namely, to more viscerally understand what multilateralism is and does, and to be vastly closer to the actual people and places where development ‘policy’ is debated, decided, funded, enacted, and assessed. I simply could not have done the type of research I have done – which has won both a best-book (2012) and best-article (2014) prize from this ASA section – had I been based exclusively in academia. 

I have too much respect for actual development practitioners to ever call myself one – indeed, I strongly suspect I wouldn’t be a very good practitioner at all – but any career choice comes with trade-offs, and for me it wasn’t a hard call to give up a small slice of academic ‘freedom’ to gain much closer proximity to “the room where it happens.” This approach too, I like to think, has it place. To paraphrase what L. P. Hartley famously said of history, the world of policy “is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Like those respectfully visiting a foreign country, development sociologists seeking to connect the worlds of research and policy need to make the time and effort to understand how these different worlds function; sociologists, of all people, should surely be attuned to the reality that these are different ‘epistemic communities’, often with very different understandings of what counts as a question and what counts as an answer. For development sociologists wanting to ‘make the world a better place’, this means one’s theory of change must also recognize that you beat something by doing the hard work of finding and offering up something better – not just by doing the relatively easy work of writing acerbic criticism that remains firmly within academic forums and sociological framings. 

I hasten to add that, with sufficient effort, one can do excellent applied work from an academic base. Erin McDonnell’s research on understanding why some administrative units in poor countries function so much better than others, for example, is an exemplary case of how to be both rigorous and relevant; recent related work in political science – Yuen Yuen Ang’s explanations of how local-level Chinese officials implemented history’s most sustained period of poverty reduction, or Dan Honig’s large-scale analysis of why, in vexingly difficult contexts, some development projects function so much better than others – also shows how this can be done. Unless and until we sociologists can actively demonstrate how our theories and methods can decisively and pragmatically ‘make the world a better place’, which they surely can, I fear we will only affirm the maxim that the worst thing in the policy world is not to be wrong, but to be ignored.