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Monica Prasad and Problem-Solving Sociology


Monica Prasad is a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. She is arguably the greatest living macrosociologist in the discipline. If one wants to tone that down, one of the top 20 macrosociologists in the discipline. She is known for pathbreaking original work on at least three separate problems: a) the rise of the conservative assault on the state, b) why America’s government policies are unlike those of any other nation in the world, and c) why most “solutions” to corruption don’t work.

She has recently taken on the greatest challenge of her career: getting sociologists to actually try to solve social problems. 

Her book Problem-Solving Sociology (Oxford 2021) is an attempt to take sociologists who talk the talk but do not walk the walk, and induce them to do studies that would actually suggest realistic steps for producing positive social change.

Sociologists are incredibly inhibited about actually trying to solve a social problem.

Economists have no problem making recommendations about how to make the economy grow faster.

Political scientists have policy suggestions for every political problem imaginable – as well as aspirations of being put in some sort of job in Washington that would let them actually solve those problems.

Sociologists choke when actually challenged to come up with a practical solution for anything.

They love documenting the horrible terrible suffering that is experienced by the victims of social problems.

If all they had to do was to create sympathy for the underdogs of the world, they would be made in the shade.

They love attributing the evils of the world to grand cosmic historical structures that have existed ever since way back in history and will be very difficult to change.

Capitalism is the “underlying” cause of many ills. Racism is another popular “underlying cause”. If we move to the sociology of gender, “patriarchy” is an often invoked cause.

Sociologists are very good at what they do. Most of the books that I have read and most of the results of my own studies show that capitalism, racism and patriarchy have nearly all of the bad effects that are discussed by sociologists of a critical persuasion. From an intellectual point of view, these sociological analyses are correct.

The pragmatic problem is that neither capitalism, racism nor patriarchy are going to go away soon. Prasad argues compellingly that just showing everything that is wrong with them is not going to produce some widespread disgust that will make everyone decide to do away with all of these tomorrow. By choosing to decry and do nothing more, sociologists become complicit in the reproduction and continuation of the problem. Wringing hands and doing nothing more means that a sociologist who could have done something helpful in fact chose not to be helpful.

Problem-Solving Sociology does two things.

1) It argues with the sociologists who have very fancy sophisticated reasons for why they should not solve social problems. These discourses sound deep, well-considered and wise. But their effect of these is to scare graduate students off of starting any project that might make a positive contribution to the world.

Prasad takes on these fancy rationalizations for paralysis one at a time and basically destroys them. The general reader who wants to see a bunch of pompous asses deflated should have a look at Chapter 10 where she takes on the various mandarins of passivity.

Bring popcorn. This is entertaining.

She is like a martial arts heroine fighting her way into the center of enemy headquarters. Bring popcorn. This is entertaining.

This is also meant to make graduate students a little less terrified of their professors, and a little more willing to take on a courageous project that might actually make a difference.

2) She makes various methodological suggestions to graduate students about how they can design their dissertations and research to actually maximize the chance that they will find something that could have practical applications. This is of more interest to academics than to the general public. But her recommendations are well conceived.

[A word to the wise from Monica Prasad. Studying sympathetic victims can backfire badly. When you study anybody, you will catch some of them in the act of doing something unwise, immoral or counterproductive. This is because human beings do things that are unwise, immoral or counterproductive. This is who we are.

However, in a politicized situation, there will be defenders of the status quo who will take these stories of misbehavior by the victims and throw those stories back in their face. “So and so did WHAT to their OWN KID? So and so TURNED DOWN an excellent source or assistance? WELL NO WONDER THESE PEOPLE HAVE PROBLEMS!” Those comments may be correct, but they completely deflect attention away from the bad guys who are making the problems for the victims in the first place. Studying the victim can have the unintended consequence of giving true villains a free pass.]

*  *  *

I am going to push Monica Prasad a little farther than she wants to go in the book.

Prasad writes Problem-Solving Sociologyunder the general framework that if you study society with an eye to actually solving problems, you will uncover fresh new findings that could lead to bold and original solutions.

This is absolutely and positively true.

I have lived my life that way.

But note that you can “uncover fresh new findings that could lead to bold and original solutions”.

“Could” and “Will” are not the same word.

A doctor can make a brilliant diagnosis of what is making a patient sick. That doctor can identify a very specific etiology of how the disease operates. This does not necessary provide the patient with a cure. There are many diseases where a doctor with full and extensive medical information can provide only mild palliative treatment while the patient degenerates and dies.

To fully deliver on the prospect of a true problem-solving sociology, there needs to be a discussion of how one moves from diagnosis to concrete therapy.

Sociologists are terrible at doing that. Economists and political scientists often crash and burn on that issue as well.

No one has ever completely solved this problem. But here is a passkey to at least get some students through one door.

There is no law that says that the sociologist who uncovers the diagnosis has to develop the therapy him or herself.

Solving large scale social problems is a team sport.A particular doctor may make an excellent diagnosis. But the cure may come not from that doctor, but from a surgeon who designs a new procedure.

Prasad talks about studying victims which she thinks is a bad idea. She also talks about studying villains which she thinks is an excellent idea.

There is a third category of people who are relevant. Powerful friends. There are people who do not particularly profit from the victims of the world being victimized. Some of them would actually be better off if a particular set of victims were better off.

A social scientist doing a fresh analysis of a social setting may not realize who the powerful friends really are. They may not realize who the hidden allies are. But once a diagnosis is in place, doing some hard thinking about who the powerful friends might be can be the key to getting a solution in place.

Personal example. My team did an analysis of what countries get more “spin-off” economic growth if they are lucky enough to have a boom in one industry. Strangely, countries like Brazil, South Africa and Australia outperform the U.S. and much of Europe in this particular form of growth. (You can read about this in the article “Special Reveal” on the first page of this website.)

We found that imports hurt spin-off growth. We found that having a physically large country helps spin-off growth because physical size is good for the trucking industry. We found that two industries, construction and government, had unexpected and unusual spin-off benefits.

This list suggests a lot of “powerful friends” who could create jobs and lower poverty because what they do naturally spontaneously reduces poverty. Industrial groups that petition the government for protection from foreign competition increase multiplier based growth. Such groups would be very happy to find the results of a study such as the one we did, and they would use it to advance their cause. Trucking companies get no respect in discussions of positive social policy. But since we found benefits that occur when trucking does well – the trucking employers’ associations become natural allies. The same applies for construction industries and for the unions that defend the pay and conditions of government workers.

For readers interested in a more social-justice oriented approach, consider Matthew Desmond’s famous finding that evictions increase poverty – because it is hard to get and keep a job without a real address. Obviously, real estate interests favor evictions, both because they like high rent, and they like throwing residents out of old buildings so they can be rebuilt as more lucrative structures. Who doesn’t like real estate developers? NIMBY’s. Who else doesn’t like real estate developers? Urban ecologists who want low density neighborhoods. Who doesn’t like evictors? Local politicians who could count on the votes of the old familiar residents. The politicians might face opposition from new richer neighborhood residents who would be ethnically different or more conservative.

All three of these groups have a vested interest in limiting evictions. As it happened in this example, Matthew Desmond himself had many excellent practical suggestions as to how to reduce the number of evictions nationally. But let’s imagine an alt-Matthew-Desmond who did a fine study of the effects of eviction on poverty – but doesn’t have the slightest idea how to stop evictions in rapidly gentrifying cities with rapid real estate development.

This less imaginative alt-Matthew-Desmond could turn to his three sets of powerful friends even if they are not his friends right now. At the time this alt-Desmond finishes his study, no one in those three powerful groups know of alt-Matthew-Desmond’s existence, let alone the results of his study. His study however provides moral and ideological support for what they would like to do anyway. Furthermore, there will be smart and perceptive individuals within each set of powerful friends who might have some very useful and relevant ideas of steps that could be taken to reduce evictions.

Teaming up with powerful friends greatly increases the chances that something will be really be done to provide concrete solutions for victims.

Sociologist just starting to study a problem will generally have no idea who their powerful friends are. However, if they do their job right, by the end of their project, they should have an excellent idea of who their powerful friends are.

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Monica Prasad deserves massive applause for knocking sociologists out of a fey manufactured passivity. Goading them to move down the corridor towards doorways that lead to real solutions of real problems is a serious accomplishment.

However, never underestimate either the inertia or the laziness of elder sociologists well set in their ways.

The real hope for change comes with the young.

Prasad wrote the book as a textbook for graduate students, because there are the people with both the energy and the flexibility to follow a clarion call if they were to hear one.

Monica Prasad is blowing her trumpet loud from the turrets.

Let’s hope an army of people show up to follow her.

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