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An Interview with Professor Sandrine Kott

Interviewed by Myriam Piguet (U of Geneva) | 2 February 2023 | EUI, Florence

The Cold War, international organisations, economic history and being a woman historian: An Interview with Professor Sandrine Kott


Prof. Sandrine Kott is a labor historian focusing on international organizations as social spaces, the development of production spaces, and the social aspects of economic history. She is a professor of European history at the University of Geneva, and invited professor at New York University. Her latest book, Organiser le monde. Une autre histoire de la guerre froide (2020), is soon to be published in its English version. 

On the 2nd of February 2023, Sandrine Kott visited EUI. She presented her current research and upcoming publication in the context of a workshop organized by the ECOINT project. We took the opportunity to interview her on her interpretation of the Cold War through the lenses of international organizations and her definition of economic history. We also discussed her experience as a woman historian. 

Myriam Piguet: You are an historian specialized in the social history of production spaces, would you consider yourself an economic historian?

Sandrine Kott: I consider myself a social historian or rather a socio-historian (a very French label), that is to say that I look at historical realities from the perspective of historical actors and by using the analytical frameworks of historical sociology. 

Thematically, I have been working on labour, labour relations as well as private and public social policies. In my opinion, these two themes belong to a broad history of the economy if one considers, as I do, that the economic is embedded in the social and vice versa. It goes without saying that it is impossible to do a history of labour and social protection without taking into account the economic structures within which this history is embedded. On the other side most of my colleagues -but not all- who do economic and business history would not consider me as one of them. I regret that one can still do economic history and even more so business history without studying the people who work in the companies and enterprises, without taking into account the social relations that exist between employers and employees. More generally all economic actors and not only the most economically and socially powerful should have their place in economic history, otherwise there is a danger to reproduce the power asymmetries of the past and actual society. I am convinced that social history and economic history must be studied together and more generally I am faithful to the idea that in order to study and solve a historical problem, the historian must use all the tools that are at his or her disposal. 


Myriam Piguet: How does it feel to study economics from a social angle? Do you think you were considered differently in your career because you were looking at the social point of view of economic history?

Sandrine Kott: Currently, most economists tend to see their field as part of exact sciences and therefore isolated from the social sciences. Some economic historians have followed the same path. This has created an artificial divide between economic and social history. I have the feeling that this division came from the Anglo-Saxon world, but it is not universal by any means. For example, Thomas Piketty, a well-known economist, sees himself as a social scientist and he works closely with sociologists and social historians, he also abundantly uses and quotes their work (including mine!). 

For my part, I have worked a lot with economic historians. One cannot study the balance of power within GDR enterprises as I did without knowing how planning is working in the GDR. Together with Alexander Nützenadel (Humboldt University, Berlin), we looked at the Nazi labor ministry and in particular the forced labour issue from a political, social, and economic perspective. More recently, I exchanged a lot with Patricia Clavin (Oxford), Thomas David, Pierre Eichenberger (Université de Lausanne) and other colleagues which would define themselves as economic historians. I have indeed been working on international organizations sources which are often written by economists or framed by economic considerations in particular in relation to development and productivity. This has naturally led me to acquaint myself with what is called International political economy. Without this economic perspective it is impossible to make sense of what is going on in the world since 1919. 

Myriam Piguet: Your book, “Organiser le monde” will soon be published in English, could you tell us what is the book about? and what it brings to the Anglo-American or international historiography?

Sandrine Kott: My book studies the history of the Cold War period from the point of view of international organizations and in particular the secretariats of these international organizations. This include the UN system but I also looked at the sources of the Ford foundation, or of the large trade union confederations.

What my book shows is that the period cannot be reduced to what was called the Cold War. The point of view of international organizations, or of the sources which their secretariats has produced has allowed me to shift the focus of this period in three ways: 

(1) Although the period has so far been defined primarily by conflicts (something I do not deny), I argue that it is also a period of strong internationalism. In a way we are seeing now how conflict also produce internationalism. Putin is creating an internationalist discourse around his war by claiming to be attacking not only Ukraine, but also the decadent West.  And the West rallies again around its liberal democratic values. During the 1950s and 1960s, internationalist discourses -although antagonistic to each other- were also very powerful. They were strongly expressed within international organizations. These organizations were able to survive because all these actors believed in the virtue of internationalism, even if it was not the same one. 

(2) International organizations exist to establish or maintain links between actors who believe or claim to have nothing in common. My book argues that international organizations have made it possible to leave open spaces for discussion, and above all they were able to reveal that these actors had more in common than they thought. During the period they all shared the same belief in the virtues of modernity and development. International organizations were thus able to be bridges between what I call the three worlds of the Cold War and the international models they promoted liberal, socialist-communist internationalism and Third Worldism. As I show in my book, these three worlds are not totally coherent, but they organized themselves in international organizations. Moreover, I have discovered in the archives that up to the 1970s anti-fascism still infused the UN system and could act as a bridge between these Cold War blocs. 

(3) Finally, working on the IOs sources led me to rethink the period through the prism of global inequality. More than the Cold War, this global inequality structured the world and made it unstable. The preservation of peace, which is one of the raisons d'être of international organizations, was, until the 1970s, above all directed at reducing this global inequality by promoting development programs. 

Myriam Piguet: During the writing of Organizer le monde, how was your experience with the archives of international organizations?

Sandrine Kott: The archives and printed documents produced by the international organizations are complicated and can be misleading. One might be tempted to think that they give an easy access to the large world. It is true that as they become truly international they provide access to an incredible diversity of realities and actors. Nevertheless, to use them correctly, it is essential to understand how the organizations that produce them function and, above all, to be able to contextualize the actors which are present. This contextualization is the most difficult part. Finally, the highly euphemistic language which is spoken by most of the international civil servants (what has been called the coton language) often obscures the reality of the conflicts and the division on the ground. The archives of international organizations are certainly the most complicated archives I have ever worked on. 

Myriam Piguet: Your book politicizing action and providing agency to international organizations’ very varied actors. What is the role of the economy, between the states, the international organizations and the civil society? Do you think that economy becomes an actor in this narrative, or can be understood as a space where the three spheres of the UN collaborate?

Sandrine Kott: In the period I studied, economics is a central concern of international organizations that are obsessed with issues of global economic inequality. From the 1940s until the 1970s, economic development was a key objective in international organizations. Indeed, international organizations are recruiting more and more economists. This is particularly true for the regional commissions: ECLA, UNECE, etc.

Myriam Piguet: Yet, in your book you argue that it is not because the three worlds interact that international organizations become depoliticized, rather the opposite. Recently, you have been using the UN Centre on Transnational Corporation (UNCTC) as an example of how politics are made within the walls of international organizations. Can you tell us more on this?

Sandrine Kott: It depends on what we mean by the term "political". The production and sharing of technical knowledge, which is an essential part of the work of the IOS secretariats, is an extremely political task because it involves selecting and disseminating solutions. 

More directly, IOs are not isolated from the world in which they evolve, and they are penetrated by the political conflicts of this world.

In this respect, the example of the UNCTC is indeed revealing. Gradually, business actors provided most of the documentation used by the agency. Subsequently, the US and British governments questioned the possibility of establishing a code of conduct that would regulate the social and political affairs of multinational enterprises. This led to the blockage of the code. This story is of course highly political.

By the way we should not reduce to politics to the role of governments, economic interests have always had a seat in international organizations, such as the OECD, the ILO, the UNCTAD. In the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) capitalist and socialist companies are represented in the specialized committees on electricity and coal. 

Recently it is the lobbying of private interests and the bribery of the government of Qatar that explain why the ILO has agreed to endorse the so-called social progress that was supposed to take place in this country.

Myriam Piguet: As a woman in academia, what has been you experience? Did you reflect on your condition early on? Do you remember what you thought about being a woman when you were a young historian? If so, what did you think? 

Sandrine Kott: As a person, I have always considered myself to be a feminist, in the sense that for me equality between men and women which should be a given but alas remains a constant struggle. 

As a historian, I don't remember having being aware or conscious of being at a disadvantage as a woman until I applied for a professorship. 

Then I discovered that my male colleagues had all developed networks that allowed them to get good positions before me. On paper, they were not better than me, or even less good, but they had developed contacts that allowed them to succeed. For my part, I think that as a woman, in a position of ascension within the institution, I probably believed what the institution said about itself, and that excellence was the only criterion. Of course I was wrong. I also witnessed cases of harassment of female students by male colleagues many times since 1991 (when I got my fist position). In every cases I felt powerless. Men always  cowardly protected each other. Most of the time I fought but I could achieve nothing… It was and still is very distressful. 

Myriam Piguet: You completed your PhD in 1991, where you studied the welfare states, in France and in Germany, through the lenses of the Haute-Alsace region. Now, you mostly study the international sphere, including international organizations and multinationals. How do you explain this shift? 

Sandrine Kott: My arrival at the University of Geneva, some twenty years ago, coincided with the development of transnational history. My concern was: would it possible to do a transnational social history? 

When I arrived in Geneva, I looked for an international space from which I could observe social relations transnationally. I wanted to understand if it was possible to use international organizations as these international spaces. I first turned to the International Labor Organization (ILO) for three reasons. First, it is the oldest IO in the multilateral system, and it has wonderful archives. Secondly the tripartite composition of the organization would give me access to a wide range of actors. Third, through this organization I hoped that I could build on my previous work on labour and social welfare and in a way “internationalize” it. 

As I had done in my previous works on the German social state or East German enterprises, I tried to approach these IOs as social spaces. My starting question was: "What social relations can I observe through them?" I quickly realized that I would not find what I was looking for by focusing on what happens in the most visible political arenas: the big conferences and I looked at the sources produced by the secretariat. From these spaces I could observe experts, civil servants, and various other actors who enter into relationships, exchange information and expertise. It became my way to continue social history transnationally.


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