Some Thoughts on Somers and Block 2005, “From Poverty to Perversity”

After pausing for a week to focus on class work, I just today finished an excellent article by sociologists Peggy Somers and Fred Block. The 2005 ASR article, From Poverty to Perversity: Ideas, Markets, and Institutions Over Two Centuries of Welfare Debate focuses on two historical moments where national debates on poverty and welfare led to severe curtailings of welfare benefits. The two moments are 1830s England and 1990s America, and thus very different in almost all respects. The unifying feature was a change in the understanding of the link between poverty and welfare, in particular, the acceptance of the ‘perversity thesis’ – the idea that welfare makes poverty, not the other way around. Somers and Block trace the argument back to Thomas Malthus’ famous 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population, where Malthus argued (amongst other things) that welfare encourages the poor to reproduce beyond their means in order to receive more welfare funds, and encouraged the poor not to work (thus turning the poor into the perverse). In the 1990s, this same idea was repackaged under the heading of ‘welfare queens’ and similar ideas.

The most interesting, and I think controversial, part of the article’s claims relate to the notion of ideational embeddedness. Ideational embeddedness* refers to “the power of such ideas to shape, structure, and change market regimes.” Somers and Block argue that some ideas are more powerful than others, and in particular, that ideas and ideational regimes are causal mechanisms by which social change occur. In essence, S&B argue that without the sets of ideas taken up in 1830s England or 1990s America, dramatic welfare policy changes could not or would not have been implemented. While rejecting outright idealism, S&B seek to move away from the trend in the sociology of knowledge of seeing ideas as mere reflections of the contemporary trends (e.g. Marx’s ‘ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class’) and to focus our attention on how certain ideas in certain moments actually shaped the world, not just reflected it. This emphasis on the importance of ideas in shaping the world can also be seen in the recent literature on the “performativity” of economics, that is, how economists actually make the economy work, and create markets, rather than simply trying to understand an already existing phenomenon. (For a lot more on this, see MacKenzie et al. An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets.)

Somers and Block focus on “market fundamentalism”, a belief derived from classical political economy (or modern economics) but much more radical than it, which consists of believing “in the moral superiority of organizing all dimensions of social life according to the market principle.” S&B argue that this fundamentalism took hold of 1830s England and 1990s USA and capitalized on existing financial and social crises to make possible a dramatic reduction in welfare benefits (particularly in the mode of “welfare to work”).For example, the US cut welfare spending in half after the enactment of the 1996 welfare reform. S&B argue that market fundamentalism holds a privileged place in the ideational battlefield, apart even from such intellectual heavyweights as Freudian theory or Marxism, in part because “it is the only one that lays claims to being an empirical science.” (265) This claim interests me, though I am not sure I agree 100%. Various Marxisms have, at points in time, claimed to be sciences, although perhaps not empirical sciences in the mold of physics (I certainly do not know enough about Marx and Marxists to know for sure). What makes economics different is not that it claimed empirical validity, but rather that people believed it to be an empirical science. But this belief itself must be interrogated – why was market fundamentalism based on economics in the 1990s or on political economy in the 1830s accepted as a the theoretical conclusion of an empirical science, rather than as political philosophy or something else? While I do not disagree with the overall thrust of S&B, that ideas matter, that some ideas matter more than others, and that market fundamentalist ideas matter a whole lot in part because they are founded in science(!), I believe that that status of scientificity is itself historically contingent and interesting.

S&B focus on three dimensions of “epistemological infrastructure” that they see empowering market fundamentalist ideas: “social naturalism”, “theoretical realism” and a “conversation narrative”. Social naturalism argues that society can be understood using the same laws that govern nature, “Society is not like, but is a biological entity.” This conflation of society and nature allows for strong claims of science, parasitic on the advances in physics and biology made in the 18th-20th centuries.

Theoretical realism argues for an underlying, hidden order that can be uncovered through careful thought experiments (basically). Oddly, this methodology would seem to discredit market fundamentalism as being based on empirical science – how can something be both based primarily on abstract logic and careful observation? Yet physics provided this model, with Einstein and Newton thinking through the world. Observation only gets you so far. Interestingly, to me at least, many contemporary sociologists express some version of this line of thinking – from Hedstrom and Swedberg’s focus on causal mechanisms in social theory, to McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly’s focus on causal mechanisms in “contentious politics”, to George Steinmetz’s critical realist approach to case studies and historical research more generally. I can’t tell if Somers and Block are critical of theoretical realism as a proposition, or merely pointing out its importance in market fundamentalism’s rise to embedded status.

Lastly, the conversion narrative provides the explanation for why everyone else has gotten it wrong for so long. It explains why previous intellectuals misunderstood the problem, and how new understandings, derived from science(!), can reveal to us the inner truths of society, etc.

These three together are a recipe for ideational strength, in the model of Somers and Block. I wonder though, why did market fundamentalism not take hold in 1800 or 1750 in England? Why in the 1830s were its effects felt? Similarly, what happened in the 1990s in America (or perhaps earlier, with the rise of the think tanks) that made it so market fundamentalism came to the fore then, and not in 1950 or 1910?

Last week I had the opportunity to see a presentation by historian Naomi Oreskes. In 2004, she published a paper showing how climate change was no longer a debate amongst academics, and had not been for years. She went through hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and found basically complete consensus on the presence of anthropogenic warming. Scientists disagreed about the exact impacts, but not about the basic premise. Her newest work, which she was presenting on, tried to dig into how and why this consensus is perceived by the public at large as disagreement. Indeed, Oreskes cited a 2007 poll showing that something like 40% of people believed that scientists disagreed about whether or not climate change was happening (even though a very large percentage believed themselves that climate change was occurring). Oreskes traced the active efforts of various coal companies, amongst others, to fight climate change science using methods tried and tested in the tobacco disputes, and honed through focus groups, and other modern marketing tools. In sum, the ideas themselves were fought tooth and nail with money and other, much crappier, ideas. The money hasn’t won out, but it has fought a long delaying tactic that has helped prevent the US from taking serious action. So, to return to the story told by Somers and Block, where’s the money? While they acknowledge that other, more concrete factors (like class and inequality and changes in the labor market, etc.) are factors, they do not explicitly work those factors into their story. Who exactly propounded the perversity thesis, and why? Who, if anyone, opposed it? How were these ideas popularized? I know S&B were not trying to dispute the relevance of other factors, but merely assert the relevance of this particular one (ideational change), but I feel like the argument comes up slightly short of completely convincing me without a fuller connection to other forces at play in the disputes. But then again, how much can you ask from a single journal article?

Overall, an excellent article, and well worth the read if you are at all interested in economic sociology, the sociology of ideas, welfare reform, or simply how to argue that ideas matter.

* As a side note, I am really curious about the connection between Somers and Blocks’ notion of “ideational embeddedness” or “epistemic privilege” and the notion of frame resonance in the social movements literature. As far as I can tell (and I am by no means an expert in social movements), the two concepts feel extremely similar. Is this a case of sociologists reinventing the conceptual wheel?



  1. You should read, at least, the introduction (62 pages) to Harvard Sociologist Theda Skocpol’s book Protecting Solders and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Harvard, 1992).

    In the introduction she surveys the various schools of explanation for why this or that country did or did not develop social welfare/regulation. She finds them all lacking and provides evidence and examples for why each fails to explain. She offers a “‘structured polity’ approach to explaining the origins and transformations of national systems of social provision. This approach views the polity as the primary locus of action, yet understands political activities, whether carried on by politicians or by social groups, as conditioned by the institutional configurations of governments and political parties systems.” (p.41)

    Her approach highlights four processes to which we must attend for a thorough explanation of social policy changes: “(1) the establishment and transformation of state and party organizations through which politicians pursue policy initiatives; (2) the effects of political institutions and procedures on the identities, goals, and capacities of social groups that become involved in the politics of social policymaking; (3) the ‘fit’ — or lack thereof — between the goals and capacities of various politically active groups, and the historically changing points of access and leverage allowed by a nation’s political institutions; and (4) the ways in which previously established social polices affect subsequent politics. (p.41)

  2. June Gin

     /  January 13, 2009

    Hi Dan,
    thanks for this post. I was just reading Peggy Somers’ excellent book Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness and the Right to Have Rights. I think this work is really quite brilliant in its analysis of ideational regimes and conversion narratives.
    I’m using it in the paper I am writing for ASA.
    Anyway, hope you are enjoying the sound of snow plows out there on State Street. I have left beautiful Ann Arbor and now in warm sunny California,

    • Dear June,

      Thanks for your reply! That book is high on my list to read, after I finish this dratted ASA paper. Enjoy sunny California – I am happy to have abandoned it to return to my home and native land.

      • June Gin

         /  June 8, 2009


        I will be presenting at ASA too, and also at the Symbolic Interaction conference (that is occurring at the same time as ASA). I’ve revised the paper, focusing more on this Peggy Somers notion of contested citizenship. If we spot each other’s name tags, maybe we should sit and have a coffee at ASA?

        I’d like to talk about this further

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