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Anthropology and Development
Understanding Contemporary Social Change
By Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, Antoinette Tidjani Alou
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2005 Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan
All rights reserved.
The Three Approaches in the Anthropology of Development
This work was originally published in France in 1995 and had several objectives. Its primary aim was to develop a specific perspective, in the form of a non-normative approach to the complex social phenomena linked to development actions, grounded in a resolutely empirical (nonspeculative and based on enquiry) and 'fundamental' (situated upstream of 'applied' anthropology) practice of anthropology. A secondary objective was to take simultaneous account of works in English and in French dealing with the anthropology of development.
It is remarkable, on one hand, that the works published in English that approach the anthropology of development from one angle or another are, as a rule, completely oblivious of the works that exist in French, despite the fact that French-speaking Africa is as much a region where development policies and operations prevail as Anglophone Africa. Conversely, most of the works published in French bear witness to a very unequal and impressionistic knowledge of the literature in English. Thus, in France, the present work provided a linkage between two frequently disconnected scholarly universes. Its translation into English now offers the same opportunity to readers from English-speaking countries.
However, the main aim of this book is more general. I wish to propose a point of view on development that reintegrates development into mainstream anthropology as an object worthy of attention, a perspective that engages in a minute exploration of the various types of interactions which take place in the world of development, bringing into play conceptions and practices, strategies and structures, actors and contexts. This is therefore a project that intends to steer clear of both apology and denunciation, to avoid both prophecies and caricatures. However, another characteristic of the literature on development, in English and French alike, is that it is permeated with normative judgements arising from a variety of ideologies and meta-ideologies (see Chapter 5). The literature is the source of an endless stream of value judgements on development. Anthropologists are no exception to this rule: despite the fact that they readily denounce the ideologies in other people's work (especially those that are popular among development professionals), they fail to recognize those that abound in their own work – populism, for instance (see below and Chapter 7), or post-modernism and the 'politically correct' (see below). Contrary to this, my conception of anthropology is that it is an empirical social science, but of course not a positivist one like the classic natural sciences. Social sciences have nothing to do with Popper's notion of falsification: their logic is based on plausibility on a basis of natural reasoning. But they are not hermeneutic sciences in the sense that epistemological relativism or radical subjectivism give to this term. Their hands are tied by the search for an empirical foundation.
As far as this is concerned, my interest in development does not aim either at saving or condemning, deconstructing or reforming. It is rather a question of understanding, through development, a set of complex social practices: from this point of view, development is simply a set of actions of various types which define themselves as constituting development in one way or another (whether in the ranks of 'developers' or of 'developees'), notwithstanding the variations in their definitions, meanings and practices. The very existence of a 'developmentalist configuration' (see Chapter 2) – that is, a complex set of institutions, flows and actors, for whom development constitutes a resource, a profession, a market, a stake, or a strategy – is enough to justify the existence of a socio-anthropology which takes development as an object of study or as a 'pathway'.
In fact, anthropology of development is merely a way of going about anthropology and sociology, that is, a way of carrying out empirical field enquiries leading to new ways of understanding social phenomena, based on contemporary objects. Development is just one of a range of topics, but one that presents some specific characteristics: in countries of the South, and in African countries in particular, it is omnipresent and inevitable. It comprises considerable social stakes at the local and national levels, and is interwoven with interactions between actors originating in particularly heterogeneous social and professional worlds (see Chapter 9).
Anthropology of development is not an autonomous or independent discipline. Moreover, it is not necessarily 'applied' anthropology: the question of the relationship between research and action, whether in terms of the relevance of research to action, which is one thing, or of the integration of research into action, which is another, constitutes a different problem, which is certainly important, but different (I will make brief mention of this in Chapter 13). Anthropology 'applied' to development stands in need of what we may call fundamental anthropology of development, which provides it with problematics, concepts, methods and results. Our first step is to take into account some social realities of great importance to Africa such as development projects, the financing of development, development brokerage, and development associations, all of which intervene on a daily basis in even the smallest village, and to use these realities as pathways into political, economic, social and cultural anthropology, by making investigations into the practices and conceptions of the actors concerned, the interplay of the pragmatic and cognitive relationships, and the structural and institutional contexts in which all this occurs. If this type of research objective is pursued appropriately, we might be able to play a role in possible action, whether the role in question be operational, reformatory or critical, depending on the situation in question or on the options available. Hence, this work makes the appeal that development should be embraced by fundamental anthropology as an object that deserves scientific attention, methodological vigilance, and conceptual innovation.
This perspective implies a break from or discrepancy with certain works dealing with the relationship between anthropology and development (especially the 'deconstructionist business'; see below), and with a certain type of populist ideology encountered in the works of anthropologists and of development specialists alike (see below and Chapter 7). But I have also encountered many convergent viewpoints, not only during the writing of this book, but also in the years following its publication in French. Independently of my own work, various authors, mostly from English-speaking countries, have developed research positions similar to mine in many regards, despite some differences of opinion. Other authors, mainly writing in French, have gone further afield or have opened up new perspectives. Consequently, I believe it will be useful to review the works in English and French that have appeared since the publication of the French version of the present work.
Three main sets of writings can be distinguished: discursive approaches, populist approaches and entangled social logic approaches to development.
The discourse of development
The fact that the social sciences observe a certain reserve regarding the vocabulary, ideologies and conceptions that are the order of the day within the developmentalist configuration is normal: on one hand there are deciders, politicians, technicians, idealists, managers, militants and prophets, who have their own particular type of rhetoric, while on the other there are professional researchers who conceptualize on a routine basis and make rational use of language. Hence all anthropologists inevitably arrive at a point when they turn a critical eye to the 'development discourse', or at least to its most prominent forms (often symbolized by the neo-liberal orientation of International Monetary Fund economists). This criticism can also take a more systematic or diversified form (see my own, in Chapter 5). Even anthropologists, such as Horowitz or Cernea, for example, who have collaborated on a continual, long-term basis with development institutions have no qualms about attacking developers' unjustified dogmas.
Two elements no doubt explain this situation.
First, in the development universe, there is a wide gap between discourses and practices: what is said about a development project when it is a matter of conception, establishment, formatting, shaping, financing, or justifying the project has little in common with the project itself as it exists in practice, once it gets into the hands of the people to whom it is destined. Thus anthropologists play a permanent role which consists in 'calling people back to reality': 'you announced that, but this is what is happening, which is quite another matter ...'. They diagnose and describe sidetracking (see Chapters 9 and 13), which gives the lie to official declarations.
Second, the development universe is one of 'political' action, in the broad sense, that is, in the sense of an intention of transforming reality by voluntarist means. This is therefore a universe which, just like the political universe in the strict sense of the word, resorts to the use of clichés (see Chapter 11). Furthermore, development institutions are input-oriented: they must convince donors of their capacity to furnish resources. To obtain this effect, rhetoric is of vital importance. But this required stereotyped language mobilizes an enormous amount of set expressions. It would appear that the transformation of reality calls for thinking based on simple notions. This is one thing to which the anthropologist has a professional allergy (which, to my mind, is perfectly normal). The anthropologist's competence has to do, precisely, with a subtle knowledge of complex situations. This is why he so readily pinpoints the clichés and stereotypes of development professionals as signs of their ignorance of what is going on.
But anthropologists' criticism of development rhetoric has several limitations. One is that development professionals are not equally naive (though it is true that they have neither the possibility nor the competence to carry out serious enquiries on their own). For example, there is a great difference between the public discourses of development officials and deciders in Northern countries and the private conversations of experts and operators in the field, who are aware of the complexity of real-life situations. Another is that the social sciences themselves are not immune to clichés (they have their own, while making vigorous criticisms of other people's) or to stereotypes, especially scholarly stereotypes (hence, in Chapter 5, my analysis of various common stereotypes includes those of the social sciences as well as those of development professionals). The last is that there is a particular social science ideology, commonly referred to as 'post-modernism', 'post-structuralism' or 'deconstructionism', which, having taken on the theme of development, itself has specialized in the analysis of the 'development discourse' and has even proclaimed itself as the only form of 'anthropology of development'.
In recent years a series of works has appeared (Escobar, 1984, 1991, 1997; Ferguson, 1990; Roe, 1991, 1995; Sachs, 1992; Hobart, 1993a; Crush, 1995; Moore and Schmitz, 1995; Gardner and Lewis, 1996; Rahnema and Bawtree, 1997; Marcussen and Arnfred, 1998; Mills, 1999; Fairhead, 2000) which attack the 'development discourse' in one way or another, with the aim of 'deconstructing' it. They tend to produce a caricature or reductio ad absurdum of the developmentalist configuration, which they present as a 'narrative' of Western hegemony bent on denying or destroying popular practices and knowledge. Grillo (1997: 20) rightly pinpointed that 'there is a tendency, illustrated for example, by Hobart, Escobar and to a lesser degree Ferguson, to see development as a monolithic enterprise, heavily controlled from the top, convinced of the superiority of its own wisdom and impervious to local knowledge, or indeed commonsense experience, a single gaze or voice which is all powerful and beyond influence'. This diabolical image of the development world pays little attention to incoherences, uncertainty and contradictions, which are nonetheless structurally inscribed in development institutions. Moreover, these works do not take continuous shifts in strategy and policy into account (thus the 1990s saw a generalization of so-called 'participatory' or 'grassroots' approaches, and not only in alternative non-governmental organizations). In other words, these works seem to adopt an ideological approach to development, perceived a priori as an entity in itself, and, to be precise, as a negative entity at that. Their approach is not based on unbiased empirical enquiry into the real processes of various types of development action.
Approaching development through 'discourse' leaves the door open to this type of risk-free generalization. Moreover, authors tend to choose only those aspects of the 'discourse' that support their theses. Conflation is a common practice, which is moreover facilitated by the fact that terms like 'discourse' and 'narrative' are vague and have hardly benefited from any empirical mapping. In fact, it suffices to select one public rhetoric or another, one type of cliché or another, and to proceed to its deconstruction. Escobar's book is an obvious example of this type of procedure. The reader will not be surprised to find the recurrent use of terms such as 'discursive regimes', 'regimes of discourse', 'discursive formations', 'language of development', 'discursive analysis', 'regimes of representation', 'discursive field', 'development discourse' ... Escobar's endless references to Said and Foucault (and occasionally to Derrida) are, moreover, the touchstones of the deconstructionist enterprise, as far as development (see Escobar, 1984, 1997) and other topics are concerned.
The political correctness that this work exudes is unsurprising too: for example, Escobar's placing of positive value on Sachs's Development Dictionary (1992), because it is 'a dictionary of toxic words in the development discourse' (Escobar, 1995: 227). Moreover, Escobar calls for 'the needed liberation of anthropology from the space mapped by the development encounter' (ibid.: 17). By dint of 'toxic words' and damaging discursive constructions, development is made out to be a fundamentally perverse Western creation (the West having 'created' the Third World in the same way it 'created' orientalism), whose aim is to enslave the people, destroy their competences and prevent them from taking their destinies into their own hands. Fairhead (2000) considers development to be a triple process of 'decivilisation', 'depoliticisation' and 'depossession', in support of which viewpoint he quotes Hobart, Ferguson and Roe respectively. Arnfred, having maintained without reservation that 'imperialism has been renamed "development"' (1998: 77), presents the 'five characteristics of development discourse' as follows: (1) its '"they-have-the-problem-we-have-the-solution" approach'; (2) 'immunity to adverse facts'; (3) 'the development expert as the agent'; (4) 'the development agent as male'; (5) 'the exclusion of indigenous experience and knowledge' (ibid.: 81–4). These categorical statements are presented without qualification, and without paying the slightest attention to possible counterexamples.
Of course, there is power behind aid (when it is not overt), and, of course, development aid came into existence in the Cold War period, which was a favourable context for all kinds of hypocrisy. It is also true that dependence on subsidies from the North is a reality and that the high-and-mighty attitudes of Western experts combined with their ignorance of the field is an endless source of exasperation for Africa's civil servants. But it is also true that the latter are experts in the use of double speak, while manoeuvres, intrigues, power struggles, appropriations, rhetoric and manipulations are initiated from all sides. Actors of the South, like those of the North, are on the hunt for power and advantages; moreover, all the actors concerned have elbow room at their disposal and are therefore never reduced to the state of simple agents or of mere victims of a totalitarian system. For example, 'dissuasion' of the strong by the weak is apparent in the development universe, both at the governmental and at the peasant levels ...
Excerpted from Anthropology and Development by Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, Antoinette Tidjani Alou. Copyright © 2005 Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
- Introduction: The three approaches in the anthropology of development
- 1. The discourse of development
- 2. Socio-anthropology of Development: some preliminary statements
- 3. Anthropology, Sociology, Africa and Development: a brief historical overview
- 4. A renewal of anthropology ?
- 5. Stereotypes, ideologies and conceptions
- 6. Is an anthropology of innovation possible ?
- 7. Developmentist populism and social science populism: ideology, action, knowledge
- 8. Relations of production and modes of economic action
- 9. Development projects and social logic
- 10. Popular knowledge and scientific and technical knowledge
- 11. Mediations and brokerage
- 12. Arenas and strategic games
- Conclusion : The dialogue between social scientists and developers