Samuel Cohn is a Professor of Sociology at Texas A and M University. He is the
Founder and First President of the American Sociological Association Section on
Development. He received the American Sociological Association’s
Jessie Barnard Award for the best book on gender. (Process of Occupational
Sex-Typing. Philadelphia, Temple, 1985.) He received another prize from the
American Sociological Association for his book on Brazilian Development.
(Employment and Development Under Globalization. London, Palgrave
He specializes in the historical and economic determinants of societal and
personal prosperity. Early work involved the determinants of women’s economic
well being in Victorian Britain, the determinants of workers' well being in nineteenth
century France and the determinants of black access to jobs in contemporary
The early work was scientifically correct. However, it offered little in the way of hope. All of the books involved conflict – conflict between men and women over jobs, conflict between workers and management over pay, conflict between blacks and whites over employment. The only way to improve one’s life was through winning; if Person A was to win, Person B had to lose. Figuring out a strategy for one faction to win was easy. Figuring out a strategy where everyone could win was significantly, significantly, significantly harder.
The later work turned to the question of eliminating global poverty. How does one create enough economic growth in the world to make everybody better off, even people in the poorest nations? The first economic development book was about creating jobs for slumdwellers in Brazil. Cohn looked at hotels, restaurants, barber and beauty shops in Brazil. The surprise finding was how amazingly effective governments were in creating private sector jobs and economic growth, even if those governments had issues of corruption and incompetence.
Having seen what government could do in Brazil, Cohn began to look at the role of government in the rise and fall of societies as a whole. A dismaying finding was that societies have short lives. It is entirely normal for societies to fall. It is entirely normal for economies to collapse. No society lives forever.
The most recent work takes that sobering insight seriously. It considers the role of government, culture and the ideas of everyday people in insuring the perpetuation and long life of societies. What do governments and people do that create societies with economic growth, low levels of crime, high levels of scientific advance and the capacity to deal with ecological challenges? The last two thousand years of history have a lot to say about these questions.
Not everything is doom, destruction and despair. The work on historical economic development suggests some surprising strategies for creating hope in modern society. Obscure historical cases such as nineteenth century Norwegian fishermen and Danish butter makers, and arcane statistical sources on modern economies are suggesting new strategies for creating economic growth. There are meaningful strategies for creating enduring growth, even in economies showing all of the natural symptoms of old age.