October 9, 2009

Development: definitions, histories, meanings

Development is an elusive topic, process, word, concept, idea discourse, or philosophy. I hear people talk about development often, and I read about it constantly, but a singular meaning is difficult to track down. Does development mean any one thing? Or is it a concept, like many other human concepts, that has a life of its own? Even today, various people—whether academics, development professionals, volunteers, or politicians—use the term in a myriad of ways. Defining development is no easy task. However, since the term is loaded with so many social and political undertones and meanings, exploring what it means today—and what it has meant historically—is a vital endeavor. This paper is one step toward trying to gain a better understanding of one seemingly simple, yet incredibly unwieldy, concept.

I have worked on development projects, or at least projects that played a role in what many call “development.” But this had nothing to do with the “Third World,” or international aid, or the global North vs. the global South. I worked for about four years in an industry called Cultural Resource Management (CRM). I found myself staying in hotels all across the state of California for the purpose of completing “projects.” CRM is, in many ways, applied archaeology. Developers call CRM archaeologists not out of interest in history or archaeology, but to adhere to state and federally mandated guidelines. Working as a CRM archaeologist, I was often on the front lines of development, helping to document, catalogue, and analyze archaeological sites in a timely manner so that the development process could proceed.

We mapped sites, excavated units, collected 6,000 year-old fragments of shell, wrote up site reports, and archived artifacts so that power lines, houses, roads, and golf courses could be constructed. Development, in that sense, meant overtly changing landscapes that had been used in certain ways for a few thousand years and re-shaping them for new public and private uses. Land that was once a village site in the late prehistoric period was “developed” into a golf course in the early 21st century. That is just one aspect of development, and it has given me a very specific and personal definition of what development means. There are, of course, many more meanings.

In a very rough and inexact sense, development can be defined as change, whether social, political, or economic. As Roderick P. Neumann writes, “Development, among other connotations, means transformation, embracing a new way of being and thinking and leaving the old ways behind” (2005: 81). These connotations often involve transformations of landscapes, institutions, and social structures. According to one perspective, the ‘age of development’ began on a specific date: January 20, 1949. This was when Harry S. Truman, then President of the United States, declared that over two billion people in the global South were “under-developed” (Ferguson 1999: 246; Neumann 2005: 82). From that perspective, development was something that was created, almost out of thin air, in the mid 20th century. It was a new veil that was cast over history and reality.

Neumann argues, however, that while Truman’s proclamation may have announced “the global post-war order of American hegemony, it did not mark the beginning of the North’s attempts to carry development to the South (2005: 82). Development, as James Ferguson points out, did not create anything new; instead it provided a means for organizing, managing, and legitimating global inequalities that were already in place (1999: 248). This is a key point. Development is not a 20th century invention. Instead, it is the progeny of centuries of social, political, and economic thinking that stems back to the European Enlightenment, if not further. Development is also deeply tied to conceptions about social evolution that pervaded the 19th century, as well as European colonialism (Gardner and Lewis 1996: 4-6).

Progress, for one, continues to play a role that underpins contemporary development discourse. This is an idea that has considerable roots in Western thought, as Stephen Jay Gould has noted (1996: 189). Human progress was one of the foundational ideas of the Enlightenment; it was attained by the application of scientific reason toward social problems (Erickson and Murphy 2006: 9). Progress was also pervasive in the thinking of 19th century social scientists such as Karl Marx, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Herbert Spencer, among others. As Adams writes, “By the start of the nineteenth century, development had become a linear theory of progress, bound up with capitalism and Western cultural hegemony, and advanced through mercantilism and colonial imperialism” (2007: 6-7). Contemporary manifestations of the idea of progress can be seen, for instance, in the World Tourism Organization’s 2008 report, which states that international tourism development is “turning modern tourism into a key driver for socio-economic progress” (World Tourism Organization 2008). Narratives such as this persist, despite the actual results of development projects throughout the past five decades.

Development plans in the mid 20th century often resulted in frustration and outright disaster because the expected “progress” never materialized the way it was supposed to (Adams 2007: 8; Gardner and Lewis 1996: 7, 11). In fact, in many cases, progress never really came about at all (Ferguson 1999). Regardless of massive investment, international aid, and optimistic narratives about impending success, the expected progress of modernity was not as easily attained as Truman and his contemporaries had imagined. What happened? First of all, modernist ideas about development were based upon the assumption that all countries would be able to experience economic growth, and that such a process would be relatively straightforward (Gardner and Lewis 1996: 13). Progress was measured in economic terms, which were in many cases highly reductive. This means that the “success” of so-called underdeveloped countries was based upon systems of evaluation and measurement that came from the global North. As Adams explains,

Developmentalism suggested that countries developed through different stages, on ‘a linear path towards modernization’…and that progress down that path could be measured in terms of growth of the economy, or some economic abstraction such as per capita gross domestic product (2007: 7).

Early development thinking assumed that following the basic formula of the Marshall Plan would result in the same success that occurred in post-war Europe (Adams 2007: 7). Of course, foreign aid and capital investment came along with an associated “hegemony of values,” whether they were welcomed or not (ibid). Non-Western people, who were the under- or undeveloped traditional “others” of the world, were not seen as collaborators, but instead as targets or subjects to be acted upon. The modernist hope was that a collection of newly labeled Third World nations would suddenly respond to investment and rational planning, as if the previous centuries of colonial domination and conflict had simply lost their meaning. The power dynamics, despite a plethora of independence movements, had changed little between North and South. The wars and struggles over resources were not distant memories. Yet, development was supposed to erase all inequality with a rhetorical twist of meaning. It did not happen. Maybe, as some argue, development never was about challenging inequality or assisting non-Western nations toward the path to progress.

There are several ways of looking at what development is. Mainstream literature characterizes development as an attempt to solve international social and political problems, not create them (Neumann 2005: 92). Development, for some, is cast as an almost heroic international effort that seeks to bring about equality and progress for the impoverished. Other scholars, following approaches taken by Foucault, see development as little more than a discourse designed to subjugate, control, and exploit Third World populations. The latter approach is infused with discussions about power and politics, and presents a radical challenge to the economically focused narratives that are promulgated by many development organizations. Arturo Escobar argues that “development can best be described as an apparatus that links forms of knowledge about the Third World with the deployment of forms of power and intervention, resulting in the mapping and production of Third World societies” (Escobar 2007: 342). From this perspective, “development” is little more than a thinly disguised version of the older colonial order, with a few modern adjustments and alterations.

Scholars such as Escobar insist that the concept of development is something that needs to be abandoned, and that we should find a way to imagine a post-development era (Escobar 2007). Others, such as Gardner and Lewis, argue that anthropologists should find ways to critique development yet still work within its frameworks (1996: 153). The latter point is that the radical deconstruction of the discourses and meanings of development will not simply erase all of the projects, NGOs, institutions, and agencies that are part of the larger process. Escobar’s argument, as I understand it, is that there is no need to accept development as a reality that cannot be avoided. His point is that development is an imposed set of realities, and one that can be either avoided or rejected outright. For Escobar, the possibilities for resistance within “social movements,” which might be able to lead the way to a post-development world (Escobar 2007: 349).

In the end, the concept of development continues to present challenges for anyone who seeks to understand what it entails. It is, as Adams concludes, a “political and indeed moral minefield (2007: 6). Yet another difficulty is the fact that development discourses, at least certain versions of them, have been supported and disseminated through powerful scientific discourses. Such discourses play an immense role in shaping and influencing society by legitimizing certain ways of thinking (Fairhead and Leach 2003). Development discourse seems to obscure as much as it explains, and the wide semantic and conceptual meanings that are attached to it only complicate matters further. Sustainable development, a term that gained wider use in the early 1970s, is one of the “new” development discourses that has achieved widespread acceptance and praise (Adams 2007: 1, 54).

While the term “sustainable development” sounds scientific, rational, and straightforward, it is a concept, like development itself, that has seemingly created as many questions as answers (Stone 2003). If the whole idea of development itself has not been defined, then exactly what is being sustained? As Fratkin argues, “sustainable development” has in fact become firmly entrenched in development discourses, “but it offers little practical guidance for tackling diverse problems in specific places” (2003: 112). While the 1987 Brundtland Report did provide a reasonable explanation of what sustainability is, it was still vague enough to engender of whole series of conceptual and methodological issues for anthropologists who engage with sustainable development. One of the main questions was exactly what different communities were trying to sustain in the first place (Stone 2003). But are discourses about “sustainable development” actually useful and viable, or are they merely another rhetorical sleight of hand that recasts development in more positive and scientific terms? These questions remain unanswered at present, and are part of the vigorous debates that development discourses are currently enmeshed in.

This short investigation only covers a superficial reflection of how development has been used, constructed, acted upon, and understood by a broad cadre of individuals over time. I have a great deal of work ahead in trying to pull apart and understand where ideas about development have come from, how they have changed over time, and where they are heading in the future. Development is one part modernist dream, one part colonialist narrative, one part Enlightenment survival, and one part imperialist nightmare. While many ideas about development are bound up in notions of progress, there is no guarantee that any sort of real progress will actually come to fruition. Development is as much a guess and a prediction as it is anything. It is an absolute failure, and at the same time, a vast international industry. It is something we should cast aside into the colonial fires of history, and it is something that we cannot avoid. It is all about progress, and disaster. Development is 17th century philosophy, and 21st century reality. Can development be defined? Or is it yet another concept, like culture, that has run wild despite all attempts to control its meaning?


Adams, W.M., 2007. Green Development, 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge.

Erickson, Paul A., and Liam D. Murphy, 2006. Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Escobar, Arturo, 2007. “Imagining a Post-Development Era,” in The Anthropology of Development and Globalization, Marc Edelman and Angelique Haugerud, eds. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Ferguson, James, 1999. Expectations of Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fratkin, Elliot, 2003. Sustainability and pastoral livelihoods: Lessons from East African Maasai and Mongolia. Human Organization, Vol. 62(2): 112-122.

Gardner, Katy, and David Lewis, 1996. Anthropology, Development, and the Post-Modern Challenge. Chicago: Pluto Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay, 1996. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Leach, Melissa, and James Fairhead, 2003. Sciency, Society, and Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Neumann, Roderick P, 2005. Making Political Ecology. London: Hodder Education.

Stone, M. Priscilla, 2003. Is sustainability for development anthropologists? Human Organization, Vol. 62 (2): 93-99.

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