Interview with SASE President Nitsan Chorev

Nitsan Chorev, President of SASE for the 2019-2020 year, is the Harmon Family Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Her research focuses predominantly on global political economy, development, and transnational sociology. Her most recent book, Give and Take (Princeton University Press, 2019), looks at the impact of foreign aid on industrial development, focusing on the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry in East Africa. In this interview, editor Erik Peinert discusses her intellectual background and most recent research, her plans for diversity and inclusion initiatives and greater North-South connections within SASE, and the unique role of SASE in conversations about development, in relation to this summer’s conference in Amsterdam.

Can you tell us about yourself and your intellectual background?

Nitsan Chorev: I’m a sociologist by training, but I was always interested in questions that are mostly discussed by political scientists. Development is one of my central interests. I have a joint appointment at Brown University, with the sociology department and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. I was the Director of an undergraduate program in development, and I’m currently the Director of our Graduate Program in Development. In addition to development, some of my other sub-disciplinary interests include global political economy (in sociology it’s sometimes seen as part of global and transnational sociology), comparative historical sociology, and political sociology.

Development was not something I was thinking much about when I started, but retrospectively, it was in the background all along. My first book—based on my dissertation—was on trade policy in the U.S. It was really about the political struggles leading to the liberalization of trade and, by extension, to the current global economic order. I looked at political struggles in the U.S. but also at international trade negotiations. When I was analyzing international negotiations, I think I just assumed that the U.S. was getting more or less what it wanted, but already then I saw that even countries with less political or economic resources had ways of manipulating the rules, including rules that they haven’t chosen themselves. One example I was particularly fascinated by at the time was the use of the judicial rules at the World Trade Organization to challenge American and European trade practices.

My second large project—a book on the World Health Organization—put the relations between the global North and the global South much more at the center of my analysis. I was particularly interested at the time in how North-South relations are mediated by international bureaucracies that, of course, have their own interests to pursue. (In general, I’m a historical institutionalist—something that comes out very strongly in both books, as both show that the institutional context, and those who make the rules, are indispensable to the eventual outcome.)

My third book, which came out in early December, again looks at the relations between North and South. But if the first book was about explicit conflicts (trade) and the second book was about implicit conflicts (because who doesn’t claim to want to improve global health?), this book is about a site that is supposed to be based on and lead to constructive relations: foreign aid. In this book, then, I’m not interested so much in what happens when countries in the global North are explicitly defending their interests but in what happens when countries in the global North are allegedly trying to help out. So, in this book I’m looking at international assistance—specifically, aid in support of local pharmaceutical production in East Africa—to see what happens.

That was actually my next question. Your new book, Give and Take, looks at the role of foreign aid in the creation and development of local markets, technology diffusion, and industrialization in East Africa. Could you go into a bit more detail about this project?

Chorev: Scholars love to hate foreign aid and I can see why. Many economists emphasize the very many failures and inefficiencies of aid. Anthropologists identify the ways by which, from its inception, foreign aid aims to serve the interests of donors rather than the recipients. Of course, these claims are often accurate. But I came to this question from a sociological perspective, which made me look at foreign aid quite differently. My perspective was informed by the literature on the developmental state in sociology and political science. At a time when many doubted the ability of the state to create economic growth and, more generally, improve people’s quality of life, the literature on the developmental state showed that there are at least some states that get it right, and identified what these states do. I wanted to do the same with foreign aid. Are there certain types of foreign aid that “get it right”?

It turns out that effective policies utilized by foreign aid are not necessarily different than effective policies utilized by a developmental state. (This is why in the book I call it “developmental foreign aid.”) Scholars of the developmental state emphasized the importance of reserved markets, conditioned subsidies, and learning. Similarly, I found that foreign aid was quite effective when it came with the promise of markets, the conditioning of access to these markets on certain performance standards, and technology transfer.

But, of course, foreign aid is not the state and aid cannot replace effective state policies. So, the book also looks carefully at the interplay between foreign aid and three domestic factors: state policies, the presence of local entrepreneurs with technical and managerial capabilities, and foreign direct investment. (I don’t take the presence or absence of local conditions for granted. The book looks at colonial legacies and the years following independence to explain the presence and absence of these conditions in all three countries.)

Finally, and in line with my previous projects, I find that recipient countries are hardly passive recipients of aid that is imposed on them. My analysis of the roots of the interest in local pharmaceutical production in the 1980s and then again in the 2000s reveals that in both times this was an outcome not of imposition but of negotiations between North and South.

Now I want to turn to SASE itself. Do you have any particular projects or plans for your time as President of SASE?

Chorev: As the current President of SASE, there are two issues that I would like to focus on and that happen to be quite compatible with each other. One is to make issues that are relevant to the global South—including “development”—more central. This is one motivation for this year’s conference theme, Development Today: Accumulation, Surveillance, Redistribution. The other is to make SASE more diverse and inclusive.

SASE is a vibrant, open, and welcoming association. If you look at the networks that make SASE what it is, you will see an impressively broad set of issues. Networks focus on industrial relations, welfare, governance, finance, markets, digital economies, and professions; networks also focus on civil society, gender, and alternatives to capitalism, as well as on globalization and socio-economic development, knowledge/technology, Asian capitalisms, and Islamic economies. So clearly, while many of our members are fruitfully studying the global North, many others also study the global South. Similarly, if you look at the SASE conference themes in the last ten years or so, all of them (I think without exception) have a global orientation. When considering different themes for the upcoming conference in Amsterdam, I wanted to take this global orientation one step further and highlight scholarship that deals specifically with the experience of development. Now, I define “development” broadly, so I want our conversation to go beyond the narrower issue of economic well-being and be about a wide array of capabilities and rights. And I want the conversation to focus not only on the global South, but the global North as well. And, to be clear, talking about development or the global South doesn’t assume, of course, an analytical isolation of the global South from the global North or from global-historical transformations more generally.

So, one motivation for this year’s conference theme was simply to celebrate the scholarship on development among SASE members. Another motivation was that the uniqueness of SASE—specifically, its members’ international and inter-disciplinary orientation to socio-economics and related issues—makes it a place where, I believe, novel ways of thinking about development can emerge. Global transformations change the experience of development as we study it, and SASE members are uniquely positioned to address the new questions that emerge as a result. The theme for the conference in Amsterdam highlights three issues that I believe require our attention in particular, in regard to accumulation, surveillance, and redistribution. We are familiar with all three. “Accumulation” stands for the extremely unsettled global order that we are experiencing at the moment, in which competitive practices of global and regional powers, both political and economic, necessarily affects the global South. “Surveillance” stands for the “smart” global order that is currently being created. Social scientists should be part of the conversation regarding the impact smart technologies are likely to have, including on inequities. “Redistribution,” in turn, stands for the fact that the current global order is unapologetically unequal but there are also attempts being made to reverse that trend. Of course, the three issues are intimately connected, and I hope that the SASE sessions and panels that follow the logic of the theme will analyze those interactions. By pursuing these themes, I hope to move the scholarly conversation about development and the global South forward. Of course, there are many other equally important issues that will be discussed in Amsterdam.

As for the second issue, of diversity and inclusion: Last year, I was the co-chair of an ad-hoc SASE Working Group on Diversity. (The other co-chair was Sigrid Quack, who was just elected president for 2020-2021; Ginny Doellgast was the third member). This has been a step forward in SASE’s commitment to make our association more welcoming both for under-represented groups in the global North and for scholars from the global South. SASE is an international and inter-disciplinary association—and it is these features that makes it so attractive to so many of us—but we have to make sure that by international we don’t mean only the U.S. and Europe, and we have to make sure that our community involves scholars from different backgrounds, institutional affiliations, and locations. We’ve already made some effort in that direction. SASE’s Women and Gender Forum, which was established in 2017, now hosts one of the Featured Speakers at the annual conference and is involved in many other important initiatives. All SASE programs and announcements include commitment to diverse participation. The Executive Council last year passed a number of related resolutions. In that context, of course I hope that a conference with a theme related to development would create interest among scholars from the global South, and would also encourage the participation of scholars who work on issues related to diversity and inclusion.

To someone who knows nothing about SASE, what is unique that can be gained by attending the SASE conference or getting involved in SASE that other academic associations and conferences don’t provide?

Chorev: I’ve mentioned some of the unique features of SASE already, but there are many others. Intellectually, we are quite unique in focusing on issues that relate to “socio-economics” (very broadly defined) with an entirely open-ended approach to the disciplines, methods, orientations, and questions that stem from one’s inquiry. But, really, what makes SASE unique in addition to intellectual focus is its organizational features. SASE is not very small any longer, but with around 1,000 members it is much smaller than the main (disciplinary) associations that most of us belong to, and it is impressively decentralized and open, which provides members a sense of intimate experience (through the research networks, that are responsible for the selection of papers for the conference) as well as space for intellectual and organizational innovation.

As I oversee the conference in Amsterdam, I get to observe the very many initiatives that make the conference what it is—including, for example, the Early Career Workshop and the Social Sciences for the Real World, to name only two. Incredibly, these initiatives do not come from “the top,” but rather they are the making of enthusiastic individuals who rely on SASE as a welcoming platform. Of course, the experience of openness is not shared by everyone equally—this is one of the issues that the Women and Gender Group, this year’s Membership and Diversity Committee, and the nominations committee, among others, attempt to address—but SASE’s amazing staff (Martha, Pat, and Jacob) are enthusiastically receptive to all ideas, as long as they hear about them. Recently, to improve our receptiveness to members, the President before me, Akos Rona-Tas, initiated a members’ survey, and we’re now hard at work to address some of the ideas and concerns expressed in that survey.

I will give you one last, but particularly important, example of a members-driven initiative. Last year, members of SASE started a discussion regarding the environment and how to make sure that SASE is more environmentally-friendly. In response to members’ suggestions, the Executive Council established a Greening Working Group, which will consider various ways by which SASE can be more environmentally-responsible.

You’ve already touched on this a bit, but with the theme for this summer’s annual conference in Amsterdam being “Development Today: Accumulation, Surveillance, Redistribution,” can you speak a bit about why these issues are so important at this moment in time? Likewise, could you say a bit more about what SASE has to contribute to these conversations?

Chorev: In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, you raise the question: Of course, development is important to study, but why by SASE members in particular? I mentioned inter-disciplinarity before, as one of the special characteristics of SASE, but we need to concern ourselves not only with inter- but also intra-disciplinary divides. In most of the social sciences, the questions, theoretical approaches, and even methodologies that are used to study the global South are different than the ones used to study the global North. That makes no sense to me. The conversation instead needs to cross geographical boundaries in a way that would enrich all inquiries. Those who study cities in the global South, for example, would benefit from talking with urban scholars studying cities in the global North, just the way that those who study innovation in industrialized countries can learn from scholars who study innovation in industrializing settings. Just as an example, at the moment I’m studying the pharmacy profession in Kenya and Tanzania and it’s very clear to me that the sociology of professions could greatly benefit from looking at professions in the global South. And SASE is one great venue for such intra- and inter-disciplinary, cross-geographical conversations. More broadly, SASE offers its members intellectual (and social) bridges: across geographies, disciplines, methods, and research agendas. I really do believe that it is one of the most attractive features of SASE. It allows for small communities without intellectual isolation from broader conversations.


Interview conducted by Erik Peinert

This article is taken from the SASE Winter Newsletter 2019 – 2020. Click here to go back to the contents.