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Philippe Fontaine and Jefferson D. Pooley, Society on the Edge: Social Science and Public Policy in the Postwar United States

Erwin Dekker
p. 715-719
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Philippe Fontaine and Jefferson D. Pooley, Society on the Edge: Social Science and Public Policy in the Postwar United States, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021, 280 pages, 978-110873219-2

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1Once upon a time, somewhere between 1910 and 1960, American sociology textbooks were organized around social problems: crime, mental disorders, poverty, family, sometimes war or the ghetto. The volume edited by Philippe Fontaine and Jefferson D. Pooley Society at the Edge harks back to this tradition, by exploring the fate of nine social problems in the postwar period at the intersection of social science and public policy. It gives the contributions a coherence that is often missing in edited volumes. With one exception the chapters all follow the same pattern by tracing how the perception of the social problem at hand changed over time, and how proposed solutions and policies were influenced by developments in the social sciences. This set-up secures a refreshing look at postwar social science because it forces all of the contributors to discuss how problems were perceived across disciplines and how these disciplines gained or lost grip on these problems in the policy arena.

2The chapter on addiction by Nancy D. Campbell is a wonderful illustration of the power of this approach. She shows how at first changes within the discipline of sociology led to a different understanding of addiction. Initially addiction was understood as a learned behavior and hence the focus was on social groups of addicts. Interest in this learning process, and deviant behaviors more generally, led to increased identification of the sociologists with the ‘addicts’, who were studied through an ethnographic lens in Chicago and New York. During the 1960s psychologists became more influential in the study of addiction and their clinical perspective, as well as new policy priorities, gave rise to the perspective of a heroin epidemic, and later a crack epidemic. She details how economists failed to get a grip on the problem, in part because the rational addiction approach provided no clear guidance for policy, but also because there were no reliable large datasets on illegal substance use. It is one of the few social problems in the book which escaped the influential economic perspective. One of the underlying themes in the book is economics imperialism and the chapters demonstrate that the influence of economists was often facilitated by the quantitative skills which they brought to the table.

3The chapter on discrimination by Leah N. Gordon and the black ghetto by George C. Galster demonstrate how institutionally organized solutions of segregation, increasingly came to be perceived as social problems, without however reflecting a lot on this process. It is a significant weakness of the book that with very few exceptions the contributors do not addresses how social movements, unions or communities managed to get their concerns on the political and academic agenda as ‘social problems’. Even the civil rights movement remains in the background in the chapters where one would expect to see it front and center. The introduction makes mention of W.E.B. Du Bois’ vivid descriptions of “how it feels to be a problem” (19), but the subsequent chapters shed no light on the social actors and groups that are ‘problematized’ by the scientists and policymakers.

4The volume also rediscovers why the social problems approach did not, and could not, last. It never becomes clear what a social problem actually is. Few would perhaps dispute that crime is a social problem, but what is problematic about the family, the social problem analyzed by Savina Balasubramanian and Charles Camic? And why are family dynamics a social problem and not mostly a private problem, as both a liberal and a confessional perspective would suggest? If ever there was a ‘social problem’, in the sense of a phenomenon almost purely unique to modern society and with widespread social effects, it is unemployment, but there is no chapter on it in the book. This is perhaps caused by the fact that the editors in the introduction highlight that they are particularly interested in how sociology lost intellectual ground and policy influence to economists and psychologists. Even so, unemployment is anything but a purely technical economic problem and has certainly been widely studied by sociologists. The desire to explain how sociology lost ground also causes them to make (too) much of the economic imperialism Gary Becker and Anthony Downs, while they insufficiently realize how influential both the New Deal and Keynesian macro-management was for the increased influence of economists over government policy (34-37).

5The pre-occupation with the imperialism of some disciplines into the terrain of others, also leads various contributors to downplay the fact that there is good reason to find the social problems approach unsatisfactory from the perspective of sociology. There are numerous cross-references in the book, a nice feature, but they lay bare that one of the crucial methodological and disciplinary questions is the extent to which various social problems are the symptoms of underlying causes, or really one and the same problem. Is the ‘black ghetto’ a direct result of the social problem ‘discrimination’? Is ‘poverty’, treated by Alice O’Connor, itself a social problem, or a result of unemployment, underdevelopment, or is the real problem, perhaps, inequality? What a theoretical perspective allows the social scientist to do is order the social problems: which belong together, which problems are symptoms, and which are fundamental causes, and which are most deserving of our attention.

6Fundamentally the social problems approach is at odds with social theory. It demands that social problems can be explained and to some extent solved, but never demands a full theory that can explain social harmony or development as well as conflict or undesirable outcomes. Social theory as some of the pioneers of twentieth century thought like Max Weber, Vilfredo Pareto or Émile Durkheim practiced it sought to provide a comprehensive perspective that could make sense of problems, but also of progress. The social problems approach as presented in this book has something inherently one-sided to it, because questions of progress, order or harmony never come to the fore. The editors briefly note the fact that the pantheon of postwar U.S. sociology was soon filled with these European pioneers (8), but provide little clues as to why this happened. The great migration of European social scientists to the U.S. around World War II is not even mentioned.

7The practical orientation of the social problems approach does allow the contributors to examine the influence of the various presidential administrations on how problems were perceived and tackled. Jean-Baptiste Fleury in his contribution on ‘crime’ has a keen eye for the active role that politicians played in framing ‘social problems’. He demonstrates that policymakers in the 1970s turned away from disciplinary approaches and focused increasingly on relatively practical and policy-oriented knowledge facilitated by grand statistical programs such as the Federal Criminal Justice Statistics. In their desire to control crime levels policymakers exhibited little interest in fundamental causes and all the more interest in methods to reduce crime. But even his excellent chapter struggles with the social problems approach, for what is the reader to make of the statement that Johnson’s second administration “conflated” the wars on crime and poverty. Did the conflation make sense? From which perspective should we even attempt to answer that question, from the perspective of policy-makers or from that of the social scientists? Earlier Fleury argued that conservative politicians in the 1970s “seized” the uptick in crime and the racialized visibility of riots to “discredit Great Society welfare policies” and treat crime “as a standalone problem”. Apparently wrongly so, but why? Taken at face value the claim that crime was treated as an isolated problem is also undermined by the analysis in the chapter on the ‘black ghetto’ which demonstrates that during this period social scientists emphasized “neighborhood effects” and “concentrated poverty” which gave rise to policies targeted at particular urban spaces.

8Intentionally, or unintentionally, the lack of a clear theoretical perspective on the problems does prove to be the book’s greatest strength. As the editors set out in the introduction the panorama of different social problems sheds an interesting light on how the ‘social’ (not sociological!) dimension of problems faded to the background in favor of individualistic and psychological dimensions and solutions. This favored some social science disciplines over others, but more importantly reflected changes within the disciplines themselves. Within psychology it reflects the transformation from the social and political psychology macro-approaches of mid-century to the cognitivist and neuroscientific psychology approaches of later decades, within economics from Keynesian macroeconomics to Gary Becker’s micro-economic approach based on individual rationality and the subsequent rise of behavioral economics and within sociology the increased influence of behavioral approaches and attitudinal studies in sociology. The introduction suggests that this shift was caused by the fact that politically the overarching goal of the Great Society—the set of programs against poverty and racial discriminations launched under Johnson’s administration—morphed in that of the “strong economy”. But, the national-Keynesian policies of the postwar decades aimed at full employment were already a “strong economy” program.

9It is more likely that as postwar American society developed and grew more affluent, individuals started pursuing more heterogenous goals and that different groups, for whom the Great Society was not no so great after all, emancipated themselves. As WWII faded more into the background, while new wars like those in Korea and Vietnam created more opposition than unity, the ideal of a national project aimed at a unified Great Society became less tenable. The social problems approach that the volume looks back to with a good dose of nostalgia was itself a reflection of a stable society within which a broad consensus existed about the relevant social problems. The introduction acknowledges that the notion of a ‘social problem’ changed from objective to an increasingly subjective one in which whatever was perceived as a social problem was one (16-19). This process itself, properly historicized, probably reflects the growing pluralism of the American postwar society.

10Through the examination of the evolution of policies and perspectives aimed at social problems the volume demonstrates that the social science disciplines were anything but autonomous. But it also suggests that social science as a whole was not either. In his blurb on the back of the book Ted Porter describes the book as being organized around the ‘practical anxieties and ambitions’ of U.S. society rather than academic themes. If these concerns of the moment come to dominate social science, the social scientist is in acute danger of becoming a slave to the passions of society. The various chapters demonstrate that matters are not as simple, disciplines are more solid, or slow to adapt if you like. But this history of the interaction between social science and the world of policy demonstrates that in cases in which desired solutions cannot be found in one discipline, policymakers are glad to shop around in neighboring disciplines. Therefore, the volume made me nostalgic not for a ‘social problems’ driven science, but for a social science with a somewhat autonomous agenda of emancipation, or with an ear for the concerns of disadvantaged groups in society. In that sense there is much to learn from the book and the insightful reflections it offers on what makes something a ‘social problem’, both academically and in policy circles. The moral of that story is not that social science should seek to be ‘social-problem-driven’, but that ‘social-problem-agenda-setting’ is much more important than we, social scientists, typically realize.

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Erwin Dekker, « Philippe Fontaine and Jefferson D. Pooley, Society on the Edge: Social Science and Public Policy in the Postwar United States »Œconomia, 11-4 | 2021, 715-719.

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Erwin Dekker, « Philippe Fontaine and Jefferson D. Pooley, Society on the Edge: Social Science and Public Policy in the Postwar United States »Œconomia [En ligne], 11-4 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2021, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Erwin Dekker

Mercatus Center, George Mason University.

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