Meet Your Council: Elizabeth Popp Berman

Popp-Berman1b(1)Elizabeth Popp Berman is currently serving on the OOW Council.  Berman is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Albany, SUNY.  Her current book project, Thinking Like an Economist: How Economics Became the Language of U.S. Public Policy (Princeton University Press), examines the role of economics in the development of science, antitrust and antipoverty policy in the U.S. from 1960 to 1985.  Her first book, Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine (Princeton University Press, 2012) earned the OOW’s Max Weber Book Award in 2013.  Below, Berman expands upon her research and teaching, as well as her thoughts on the state of the subfield. 

  1. Much of your research examines public policy in recent American history, specifically the 1960s through the 1990s.  What is it about this time period that draws your attention?

When I started graduate school in the late 1990s, people saw the 1970s as the decade where “nothing happened” – a best-forgotten interlude between the 1960s, when social upheavals were transforming the U.S., and the 1980s, when the Reagan Revolution was fundamentally reshaping American politics. But gradually, people have started to see the 1970s as a decade when “something happened,” to borrow historian Edward Berkowitz’s phrase—something big. So over the last decade or so you have major attempts within sociology to explain various angles of that change by scholars like Greta Krippner, Mark Mizruchi, and Monica Prasad. For me, understanding the 1970s is key to explaining the political and economic changes that led to the present era of inequality and diverging fortunes. On the surface, it seems so uneventful – what could be less dramatic than the Gerald Ford administration? But so many changes that are more associated with the 1980s – from the conservative turn to financialization to deregulation – were already well underway before Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington.

2. In your upcoming book, you trace the entrance into and trajectory of economic ideas and people within the American policy arena.  You argue that the language and logic of economics dominate this arena, effectively shaping the “terms of the debate” when it comes to thinking about policy in the U.S.  Can you describe, broadly, what the language and logic of economics look like? In considering potential counterfactuals, what are the other languages/logics that could have potentially dominated American social policy (i.e., psychology, sociology), and how might these have led to different implications?

When I talk about the language of economics, I’m basically referring to the kinds of things you might learn in an introduction to microeconomics class. Learning to think in terms of tradeoffs, incentives, costs and benefits, efficiency, choice within constraints. The big change is not just that economists themselves moved into new roles in Washington and became active in new types of policy conversations, although they did. It’s also that this basic training in economic reasoning has been incorporated into legal education and public policy programs, so that it’s become a familiar way of thinking about policy problems for a much larger group of professionals.

I don’t see any other social or behavioral science as having been a serious competitor for influencing such a wide swath of policy domains, although they’ve influenced specific policy debates. The most important competing framework for thinking about policy is probably law, with its case-based reasoning and attention to rules. You see the conflict between economic and legal reasoning play out very clearly in environmental policy, because much of the early 1970s environmental legislation set absolute standards. The Clean Water Act, for example, prohibited the discharge of toxic pollutants and set a goal of eliminating the discharge of any pollutants into navigable waters. From an economic perspective, this makes no sense: the marginal cost of reducing pollution will rise as waters get cleaner, and there should be some weighing of costs against benefits. This set up a conflict between legal reasoning, which focused on the letter of the law, and economic reasoning, which wanted to identify an efficient solution.

3. You teach a graduate-level research methods course focused on comparative, historical, and case study methods. What have you found to be the greatest challenge when teaching and mentoring graduate students using these methods, and what advice might you offer others advising students engaging in this type of research?  

I love teaching that class, because I always learn so much in the process. Moving from a puzzling case or research site or type of social phenomenon to a well-defined research project is often challenging for students doing this kind of research. Because these kinds of projects tend to be less hypothesis-driven, and because the most interesting findings are often totally unanticipated at the outset of data collection, it takes a certain willingness to allow some ambiguity early in a project without allowing it to remain totally unstructured. Lots of my students have found Kristen Luker’s Salsa Dancing through the Social Sciences useful for thinking about this kind of project (as have I), and more recently, Iddo Tavory and Stefan Timmermans’ Abductive Analysis has helped students think about how logically to move back and forth from theory to data over the course of a project.

4. Where did your interests in organizations, occupations, and work originate? How have you found concepts and theories from this scholarship useful in your work?

It’s hard to say where my interest in these fields originated, but I was drawn to them pretty early on. I don’t think I took a class in either area as an undergraduate, but my master’s thesis was on the 19th-century English medical profession, and I took comprehensive exams in both organizations and work. Even though my current project isn’t framed primarily in terms of the work or organizations literature, it’s essentially a story about a profession and its impact, and a large part of my account is about how organizational change—in both government and academia—created stable locations for a particular type of expert and a distinctive style of reasoning. So I find that my explanations tend to center organizations even when I don’t expect them to.

5. What current debates within organizations, occupations and work do you find most intriguing, and where do you see the Section heading in the years to come?

I’m glad there’s been a resurgence of work at the intersection of organizations and higher education by scholars like Elizabeth Armstrong, Amy Binder, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Wendy Espeland and Mike Sauder, Laura Hamilton, Mitchell Stevens, and Melissa Wooten, and I hope there’s lots more to come. I think there is room for plenty of good work to be done on how technology continues to change labor markets, both by creating new kinds of work relationships (Uber, Mechanical Turk) and by exerting ever higher levels of control over workers. On the latter, I am looking forward to Karen Levy’s forthcoming book on how truckers experience new forms of surveillance. Based on membership numbers, the Section seems healthy to me, and while I don’t know where it will go next, I see little evidence that organizations, occupations, and work are going to become topics of any less interest to sociologists in the future.

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