Lecture examines role of sociology
Megan Valley | Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Jocelyn Viterna, associate professor of sociology at Harvard University, delivered a lecture on the interdisciplinary field of development, sponsored by the Kellogg Institute on Tuesday afternoon. She spoke about the history and “identity crisis” of the field and on how a renewed interest in the field is allowing development to once again gain prominence in sociology.
“At the close of World War II, everybody was asking these questions: Why are some countries poorer than others and what can be done to raise the standards of living for everyone?” Viterna said. “Answering these questions was thought to be necessary by both scholars of academic institutions as well as by politicians.”
Viterna said the dependency and world system theory started losing credit during the 1980s, causing many sociologists in that field to become less welcoming to interdisciplinary work and research. A lot of people who were researching related disciplines described themselves as working with another subfield.
“Development sociology had a sort of identity crisis within its own discipline,” Viterna said. “Sociologists like to complain that we have practically zero presence in a lot of development institutions, but I think sociologists have to own up to the fact that although we have very important things to say, we didn’t exactly make ourselves easy to find.”
The discrediting of the dependency and world system theory also gave way to what some scholars call “the new consensus.”
“‘The new consensus’ is that there’s not a grand new theory, there’s not a grand new explanation of ‘what is development,’” she said. “Now what we’re finding is there is consistent relevance of certain factors — these are these are institutions, social divisions human capital and targeted interventions affected.”
“The new consensus” is multidisciplinary, but, according to Viterna, it draws heavily from sociological concepts, such as institutions, mobilization and transnationalism.
“If you look at the scholarship on institutes and sociology, institutions themselves are fundamentally cultural,” she said. “But the idea of institutions is that they are these durable structures of knowledge. They embody norms and practices and because we have these institutions that reduce the uncertainty of human interaction and problems of coordination.”
Viterna also said many scholars are concerned with how the mobilization of resources function, specifically with how they encourage competition between developing areas and are used by institutions to coerce participation.
She mentioned one agency that would only provide resources if enough women held positions on a local council.
“There’s this idea that we’re empowering women by ensuring that 50 percent of the positions are filled by women, but we have to acknowledge that this is coerced participation and we don’t know what the consequences of that are,” she said. “Coerced participants are never as ideologically committed as those who do it for more intellectual, more philosophical reasons.”