Sociologist Focuses On Intersection of Politics, Development in Africa

Author: Aaron Smith

Erin Metz McDonnell

As a college student, Erin Metz McDonnell wanted “to experience a world view as completely different from my own as possible, a way of life that would take me out of my Midwestern comfort zone.” She chose Ghana and fell in love with the country.

McDonnell’s time in Ghana as a study-abroad student and Fulbright scholar led her to “appreciate how important the intersection of governance and development are for the daily lives of so many people in the so-called developing world.”

Now as Kellogg Assistant Professor of Sociology at Notre Dame, McDonnell is continuing to explore this multi-faceted subject in her research and teaching.

“Although we often talk about governments in places like Ghana as being uniformly weak or corrupt, within those large sprawling organizations there are small niches in sometimes unexpected places, that are functioning remarkably well,” says McDonnell, a faculty fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. “I wanted to understand and explain how those niches worked and why they sprung up where they did.”

Pockets of Productivity

Ghana features a much more chaotic, unpredictable environment than industrialized, bureaucratized Western countries. In the “pockets of productivity” McDonnell studies, workers have been able to adapt to those challenges by making adjustments to the conventional organizational model.

One of the big issues in Ghana, she says, is personnel uncertainty. “They work embedded in larger administrative, social and epidemiological systems, which can disrupt personnel availability without warning, threatening the predictability that is the hallmark of rational bureaucratic administration.”

There are also a variety of tropical illnesses that can strike suddenly and cause prolonged absences. And socially, Ghanaians value an extended kinship system that puts a high premium on funeral rites, which can take weeks away from work.

Because these “pockets of productivity” are so unusually effective, she adds, their workers are also frequently subject to “secondment”—a temporary assignment to another unit or another ministry that needs to borrow some of their effectiveness and expertise for a project.

“For these reasons,” McDonnell says, “the most effective units display a very high level of redundancy; each worker has one or two others who possess an identical skill set and are up to speed on the progress on all projects at any time, so that if someone is suddenly absent it doesn’t terribly disrupt the functioning of the group.”

Classroom Connections

This year, McDonnell is teaching courses on Development and Human Well-Being and The Sociology of Money. When relevant, she uses examples from her research and fieldwork experience to bring to life different themes. For example, in her development class, the students debated the pros and cons of using qualitative or quantitative research to understand and measure development.

She also helps students learn about how sociological research approaches questions in general, “putting students in the driver’s seat and challenging them to think through how they might research a topic that comes up in class.”

McDonnell is working on a book manuscript on “subcultures of effectiveness” — niches within larger organizations or domains that work particularly well, even in unsupportive environments. The book is an expansion of her dissertation research, which itself arose out of her observations and conversations with Ghanaians.

In addition to her work on development and governance, McDonnell also studies economic sociology and consumption. Her work on how people organize socially to consume goods together was recently published in the American Journal of Sociology.

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Originally published by Aaron Smith at on April 21, 2014.