Development Knowledge and the Social Sciences
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The last fifty years have witnessed the transformation of the political geography of the globe, as vast areas that were once known as "colonies" became "less developed countries" or "the third world." People in the declining empires, in the rival earlier claims of Europe to inherent superiority or to the superpowers that now dominated international affairs, in the countries born of earlier decolonizations, and in the new nations of Africa and Asia had to rethink how the world was constituted. The idea of development-and the relationship it implied between industrialized, affluent nations and poor, emerging nations-became the key to the new conceptual framework. Unlike the importance of its "civilizing mission," the notion of development appealed as much to leaders of "underdeveloped" societies as to the people of developed countries, and it gave citizens in both categories a share in the intellectual universe and in the moral community that grew up around the world-wide development initiative of the post-World War II era.
The International Institute of the University of Michigan hosted in May of 1994 a workshop that is part of a series intended to locate the development initiative in its historical, intellectual, and political context. The overall series is entitled "Development Knowledge and the Social Sciences." It originated with the Joint Committee on African Studies of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies. After initial discussions supported by the SSRC-ACLS, a proposal for the workshop series was drafted by Frederick Cooper of the University of Michigan and Randall Packard of Emory University, with the assistance of Priscilla Stone of the SSRC. The project won funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and began in December 1993 with a workshop on "Historicizing Development," held at Emory University. The second workshop, "The Production and Transmission of Development Knowledge," is taking place in Ann Arbor in May, and the third, "Languages of Development," will be held at University of California, Berkeley, in October. Scholars and people with development experience, from a variety of disciplines and organizations and with experience in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, as well as with American and European institutions, are attending the workshops.
Development implies a progressive view of history, which is hardly new; governments have long intervened in a variety of ways to foster economic and social change. The word "development," however, acquired its particular saliency and its importance in framing a complex set of actions during a period in which empires in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies were coming under increasing challenge. British and French officials sought both to contain the root causes of anger and opposition in their colonies and to provide a coherent rationale for colonial rule in an era when national "self-determination" was an increasingly compelling idea in global discussions.
But the development idea itself was quickly seized by the very movements colonial rulers sought to contain: they argued that true development required national sovereignty, even if it could entail international cooperation. In the end, the development idea did less to shore up the material or ideological foundations of colonial rule than to allow the empires to convince themselves that they could safely allow their colonies to become independent without giving up the idea that Western models would guide the colonies' futures and that a continued relationship between newly independent countries and Western states would remain possible. Even that was soon subject to contestation, as Latin American economists in the late 1940s queried the idea of mutual benefit from trade between "developed" and "underdeveloped" countries and when non-aligned states met as a body in Bandung in 1955 to issue a "third world" challenge over the meaning of development.
The problem of development soon gave rise to a veritable industry in the academic social sciences, with a complex and often ambiguous relationship to governmental, international, and private agencies actively engaged in promoting economic growth, alleviating poverty, and fostering beneficial social change in "developing" regions of the world. From Oxfam to the United States Agency for International Development to the World Bank to rice research institutes in India to the World Health Organization, a diverse and complex set of institutions-funded with billions of dollars-have focused on development issues. Meanwhile people from developing countries have studied economics or public health in European or American universities, done stints in international organizations, attended international conferences, and staffed government and nongovernmental organizations in their home countries. Missions go out from agencies in the United States or Europe to investigate problems and set up projects and work with experts, bureaucrats, and politicians in what are called "target" countries.
Such processes have created overlapping networks of communication. The problem of devising a vocabulary for understanding a changing world was fundamental to specialists, to political leaders, and to ordinary citizens-from Washington to Dakar. The theoretical and applied social sciences needed a new rhetoric to pose questions and define problems. All this creates a difficult set of questions which the workshops, including the one at the University of Michigan, are addressing.
The project builds on a growing body of research which has employed insights and analytical techniques drawn from the fields of literary criticism, philosophy, and history to illuminate the constructed nature of social science knowledge. The project seeks to employ these tools to understand better the ways in which ideas and categories of social science knowledge have become enmeshed in the theory and practice of development.
Of all the social sciences, anthropology has worried the most over how it constitutes the object of its analysis, debating what constitutes "ethnographic authority" and how that authority is related to the structure of power in colonial and post-colonial societies. Similarly, students of development can ask how apparently natural categories and value neutral concepts-"developed," "underdeveloped," "overpopulated," "overgrazing," "underemployed," "undernourished"-arose and what kinds of images they inscribe on "target" populations.
At first glance, economics-the most self-consciously "hard" of the social sciences and the one which has tended the most to claim "development" as its territory-seems the least likely territory for such explorations. Yet Donald McCloskey, in The Rhetoric of Economics (1985), has opened up such a possibility. This conservative, Chicago-school economist shows elegantly that an economic argument-even a quantitative one-is fundamentally an exercise in persuasion. He presents his argument as an attack on "modernism," on the claim to present a singular and scientific truth. Instead, he argues, economists-like anyone trying to make a case-use a series of tropes which convey authority within their professional milieu. Economists don't prove, they convince; and his central metaphor for how a social science proceeds is that of the "conversation."
The "conversation" about development is an extraordinarily extensive one, taking place all over the world, involving people from numerous cultural backgrounds, and it came into being very rapidly in the decade after World War II. Development experts are a very cosmopolitan community, a kind of "new tribe," involving the specialists of diverse nationalities who staff institutions like the World Bank and giving rise to linkages-cemented by the languages of expertise-between developed and developing countries. Development language is simultaneously universalistic and pliable. Yet this phenomenon gives rise to a series of questions not fully developed by McCloskey and his colleagues: who is excluded from a conversation, and on what grounds? How are rhetorics defined historically and what are the processes within communities of experts that determine which rhetorics are deemed convincing and which are not? We need to take equally seriously the institutional and discursive mechanisms which made the transnational conversation possible and those which produced inequality within it. This calls for the kind of careful examination that puts institutions and ideas in the same frame, that looks not only at rhetoric but at the historical and social processes which open up new conversations and set limits on them.
This perspective leads to questions of how discourses and practices are bounded: is there a clearly definable "mainstream" of meanings and representations and an established repertoire of actions-from the report of the visiting mission to "strategic planning" to technical assistance-that developers consistently draw on? If that is so, how did these forms and norms evolve? How do "mainstream" and "counter-hegemonic" ideas about development relate to one another and how does the "mainstream" change-as it undeniably has repeatedly done over the past fifty years?
Development economics, to take one field, came into being at a specific moment in time, and organized and transmits its knowledge through particular institutions: universities, journals, transnational organizations, government ministries, agricultural research organizations, non-governmental organizations. These institutions have their own complex organizational imperatives, equally complex linkages to states and transnational institutions, and a variety of practices which define whose voices are given professional status and what kinds of languages and practices are given credence. There has been considerable diversity in conceptions of what a sound development policy was-sometimes focusing on industrialization, sometimes on agriculture, sometimes on state mobilization of resources, sometimes against state control of the economy-but the mechanisms which allowed certain new ideas in and kept others out is not clearly understood.
What widening the cross-disciplinary approach promises is a view of development as a contingent, contextualized, and changing phenomenon. The rise and fall of particular fashions within the development apparatus can be seen as part of a larger history of rethinking and reshaping the relations of different parts of the world. The pressing human problems that are at issue remind us that we are trying to appreciate the complexity of social processes and the elusiveness of our categories for understanding them without becoming incapable of participating in any form of action.
This project has emerged at an important moment. Just as in the years after World War II, when the concept of development emerged in global politics, we are in the midst of a fundamental realignment of political geography. The idea of development-and the intervention of development organizations-is being extended from the "third world" to the "second," and the mix of market mechanisms and state or international interventions is hotly debated. There is great theoretical uncertainty in the development field, and the very idea of development economics has been challenged from one side by those who charge that the market will do a better job than the developers and from the other that development represents Euro-American domination in new clothing. And yet the world has fifty years of experience with development initiatives in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is not clear that the lessons of this experience have been assimilated, that we understand how intellectuals, government advisors, and policy-makers define the economic and social problems on which they work.
The relationship of different forms of intellectual inquiry-and different ways of using knowledge-is very much open for discussion. The workshops are expected to lead to the publication of a volume with selections from their proceedings. More importantly, they will hopefully encourage more research by students and faculty members, for the very institutions which self-consciously intervene in other people's lives are strikingly in need of systematic and multifaceted analysis.