Xavier Rambla Sociologia

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febr. 10 2012

Political projects and human development

The assignments written by students for Social Change and Globalisation (2011-12) highlight the influence of political projects on education, economic conditions and health. These are the three main dimensions of human development as defined by the United Nations Development Project.
Apparently, political consensus makes a difference. Remember to what extent the complex interplay between political and religious actors seems to shape gender inequalities in Brazil, India and Turkey. Furthermore, the observation that some sorts of political consensus may reduce mortality even in poor countries certainly constitutes a second, very relevant illustration. Actually, Preston’s curve finding that the income- health correlation weakens at high levels of income is also significant.
The literature on welfare regimes has also widely shown that social-democratic political dominance reduces poverty and inequality, and fosters social mobility, in Scandinavian countries compared to Central European and Anglo-Saxon countries. For the last decade, the publication of OECD PISA reports has added a further piece of evidence, since the levels and gaps in academic performance vary according to the geographic distribution of two key political decisions. One of them affects the comprehensive or stratified pattern of secondary education, depending on the latter or earlier division of students in academic and vocational schools. The other decision impinges on the regulation of school admission, which may either foster or counteract the segregation of school intakes depending on the socio-economic status of students’ families. School systems with many comprehensive and socially heterogeneous schools not only guarantee higher equity but also higher effectiveness.
How do the main theoretical approaches account for these variations? Modernisation theories think that structural mis/matches are the main cause of human development (Inglehart). However, despite the general correlation between economic (firstly), political (secondly) and cultural (thirdly) changes, case studies show that political modernisation advances economic modernisation in a significant number of circumstances.
In the view of some neoinstitutionalists, the key mechanisms of change are enacted in open access societies (North). Tocqueville’s social mobility, Pareto’s circulation of elites or Schumpeter’s creative destruction would be some of these mechanisms. All of them assume that individual rational choosers eventually create improved societal aggregates if they are allowed to act with minimal restrictions. In Sztompka’s terms, this theory relies on an agential coefficient of social change. However, most raational-choice neoinstitutionalists cannot explain why these aggregations of “homo economicus” strategies do not always lead men to maintain sexism, the rich to hoard opportunities in poor countries, Scandinavian middle-classes to fly away from public social services, and some professional parents to prevent their gifted offspring from socialising with low-achieving mates as soon as possible.
The political economy approach seems to provide a third answer. Basically, it argues that political projects prevail depending on the power resources of their supporters. Since some of them are friendlier to the needy than other ones, they are likely to reduce inequalities if they become hegemonic. Thus, there is no general rule because there are many possibilities of political equilibrium, and each of them is a transitory state that may be challenged and transformed. In Sztompka’s terms, this theory highlights both an agential (i.e. people are salient actors) and a historical (i.e. collective projects may make a difference) coefficient of social change.
You can sophisticate your arguments by reading “Diverse Paths to Progress” (UNDP HDR 2010, chapter 3). It provides an overview of the available evidence, and confirms that this data contradicts the expectations associated with modernisation. Although the HDR analysis draws on institutionalist theories, it also adds some qualifications inspired in the ‘political economy dilemma’. So, read it!