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Sociologist wins European book award for research on how pockets of government in developing countries thrive 

Author: Beth Staples

Erin McDonnell
Erin McDonnell

The European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS) has presented Notre Dame sociologist Erin Metz McDonnell with its 2022 Book Award for her original contribution to the knowledge about organizations, organizing, and the organized.

The worldwide association — with nearly 3,000 members in 60 countries — is an active voice in key policy debates.

In her award-winning book, Patchwork Leviathan: Pockets of Bureaucratic Effectiveness in Developing States, McDonnell argues that while corruption and ineffectiveness may be expected of public servants in developing countries, “some spectacularly effective state organizations thrive amid institutional weakness and succeed against impressive odds.” 

McDonnell — who is also concurrent faculty in the Department of Africana Studies and a fellow of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and the Pulte Institute for Global Development — researches organizational, political, cultural, and economic sociology.

Patchwork Leviathan’s focus is on how small group culture affects organizational performance. It argues that a sufficient concentration of resources clustered within particular pockets of a state can be transformative, enabling distinctively effective organizations to emerge from a sea of ineffectiveness. The book analyzes cases from contemporary Ghana and Nigeria, mid-20th-century Kenya and Brazil, and early 20-century China as examples.

“We should be more interested in lauding the achievements of Ghanaians and Africans and recognizing their expertise and effort.”

By detailing how these effective pockets differ from Western bureaucracies — on which so much state and organizational theory is based — McDonnell gives insights into why well-funded global capacity-building reforms fail. As well as how they can do better.

In early July, when McDonnell was in Vienna to take part in a panel at the 38th EGOS Colloquium, she was notified that her book had been shortlisted for the honor. While she was excited Patchwork Leviathan was being considered for the award, she wondered if “shortlisted” might be the European way of saying “honorable mention.”

“When they announced I had won, honestly it took me a second, and then I sort of startled in my seat and leapt up to go on stage to receive the award,” she said.

Now, McDonnell is in Ghana doing fieldwork for her next large project, a five-year study funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, to examine efforts to spread lessons learned from these “pockets of effectiveness” in the public sector. 

For her book, McDonnell studied Ghana’s commercial court system around 2008, and she is now reconstructing the history of what has happened with the courts since then. During a recent day of research, she learned about the spread of the practice of alternative dispute resolution to courts countrywide.

“I feel so incredibly grateful for the guidance, participation, and insightful experiences from the various Ghanaian public servants I have encountered here,” she said, adding that the West doesn’t hear enough about what works well in Africa, such as the death rate from COVID-19 in Ghana, adjusted for population size, being roughly one-tenth of what it is in the United States. 

The state, she said, brought back a Ghanaian from the World Health Organization to head its effort, which has included masking, contact tracing, enforced lockdowns, and organized food distributions. 

“We should be more interested in lauding the achievements of Ghanaians and Africans,” she said, “and recognizing their expertise and effort.”