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Andrew Schrank and Contrarian Development


Andrew Schrank at Brown University is one of the most original and stimulating sociologists writing about development today. His scholarship is encyclopaedic, with incredibly detailed knowledge not only of the social development of most of the countries in the global South, but of most of the books that have been written about the same. His lectures contain more ideas than other people’s whole lecture series. He gives them at a mile a minute pace that would put a North Carolina tobacco auctioneer to shame. He is no fool about exploitation, corruption and abuse of power. Yet, among development sociologists, he is the most idealistic – finding stories of genuine hope in settings where other authors would only see room for despair. The “evil” capitalists and “venal power-hungry” government bureaucrats end up doing the right thing, not only for themselves but for the country as a whole. Andrew Schrank stories tend to have happy endings.

Schrank has recently published a general theory book on development, The Economic Sociology of Development (Polity, 2023). It is not an easy read. Schrank does not like simple answers to anything. He thinks no theory is right 100% of the time, and no theory is wrong 100% of the time. As a result, you hear about the good points and the bad points of every author he discusses, and he discusses an entire busload of authors. Nothing is ever caused by just one thing, no social cause has just one effect, and everything and everyone are related to everyone and everything else. All social and economic laws crash and burn after someone points out the exceptions.

But underneath the Jackson Pollack complexity are some very important and humanistic ideas. Cruder versions have been made of some of the arguments by more naïve earlier writers, who were not as well aware of the dark side of development as Schrank is. Idealistic platitudes are sterile when they come from your Sunday School teacher; they hit a profound nerve when they come from a combat veteran who has seen a lot of people die. Schrank knows all about global class exploitation, mass poverty, the underdevelopment of poor nations by rich nations and the self-interested behavior of local elites who would rather rake in money from a government-subsidized do-nothing monopoly than actually have to solve problems and take risks. But he has actually seen these self-interested elites do some amazing and impressive things that make a lot of people, rich and poor, economically better off in the long run. The people he studies often defy expectations.

His great – and justified – belief in the capacity of people to surprise leads him to an interesting conclusion for the sociology of development.

Economic and Social Development Comes from Contrarian People 

Who Insist on Thinking Differently and Doing Things Differently

He is not making a Great Man or a Great Woman argument. This is not a call for the slavish worship of James Watt or Thomas Edison or Adam Smith. He is talking about the armies of quirky individuals who do things differently to great effect. People who migrate from here to there because they can’t stand the way things are done in their home country. People who start elementary schools that are different from the ones in the rest of their country, because they think the regular schools are terrible. Heads of government agencies who create wacky programs that no one else has ever tried – which turn out to work incredibly well.

Contrarians think differently from everyone else. Contrarians break rules. Lots and lots of contrarians go down in smoke, failing miserably. But the contrarians who make it, pull off something no one else has ever pulled off. Their success changes the rules of the game for everyone else who follows.

Contrarians are tied to all sorts of stories of successful economic development. The nineteenth century higher education reformers in the United States who felt that state governments ought to fund inexpensive universities that any local resident could attend. The Chinese acrobats who started the Hong Kong film industry by making up stories where nimble good guys would fight nimble bad guys using a lot of stunts. The Japanese government officials who seeing Tokyo harbor invaded by Americans, decided to restructure all of Japanese society along German lines since the Germans were the best defense against the British and Americans. Brazilian doctors who institute programs to lower national mortality rates by eliminating infectious disease within the poorer populations. Schrank could probably list over a hundred successful contrarians if he was pushed on the matter. You, the reader, could probably think of fifty or sixty yourself.

Note that these are not “great men” or “great women”. They are groups of people. They are aggregates of reformers who might be inspired by one or more people who are particularly creative or inspirational. But they work together as a collectivity. They bring the power of numbers to the task. They are based (dare I say embedded?) in workplaces, organizations, and social networks where they have access to the resources that all of those provide. Social change is a team sport.

They have a healthy contempt for the status quo. Social inertia does not stop them because they can’t stand social inertia. Sociological theories get shipwrecked by them, because these people decide that the same old sociological laws will simply become null and void here.

Contrarians do not appear randomly. There are social conditions that increase or decrease the number of contrarians.

Increasing education levels helps contrarians. Both the street and schooling can give people new and innovative ideas. But education gives reformers the skills they need to pull off their project.

Reducing the power of agrarian elites helps contrarians. Agrarian elites like to bind people to the land to lower their cost of labor. Contrarians have to move around to realize their visions. Agrarian elites are wary of putting money into non-agriculture. Innovators need seed money for non-farming projects. Agrarian elites favor authoritarian governments. Authoritarian governments stomp on new ideas if they represent threats to the powers that be.

Migration promotes contrarianism. Karl Mannheim in Ideology and Utopia (Martino, 2015 originally 1929) argued that the experience of moving from one place to another makes the migrant see everything that is wrong with the new place, but he or she also sees everything that is wrong with the old place. This stimulates a search for a third way that leads to genuine creativity.

Improvements in mass communication and social media have facilitated contrarianism by simply exposing people to new information that causes them to do a re-think.

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Is contrarianism the sole or even the most important determinant of development? Both Andrew Schrank and I would answer that question with a resounding “NO”.

But its presence in the mix confounds a lot of other more well-established theories that implicitly rely on some sort of inertia, some sort of historicism or some sort of slow steady advantage of the rich always getting richer at the expense of the poor.

If rich countries could always use their powers to make themselves even richer at the expense of everyone else, then the richest nation in the world today would be Spain. In 1550, Spain was by far the richest nation in the world. Spain controlled the silver mines of Mexico and the silver mines of Peru. The monetary stimulus of all that silver allowed Spain to have more farming than anyone else in the world, and more manufacture than anyone else in the world. However, Spain systematically declined from 1600 up through 1975. By 1900, it was poorer than Argentina and Venezuela, two former colonies.

Schrank reminds us that both that nations can do both far better than one would expect just from sociology, and far worse than one would expect just from sociology. GNP and development are shaped by the human factor. Brilliant innovators provide brilliant breakthroughs. World-class idiots make a hash of everything around them. Never underestimate a nation’s ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – and defeat from the jaws of victory.

The presence of contrarian thinkers – the networks that those contrarians participate in – the firms that those contrarians work in – the governments that control the nations that the contrarians live in – the world that creates the global constraints that contrarian actors are forced to navigate – these all interact in complicated and unpredictable ways to lead to development outcomes that nobody ever could have possibly expected.

Andrew Schrank’s sociology of development is a sociology of hope.

We don’t see a lot of that in sociology.

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