May 9, 2009

What, exactly, is "development" anyway?

Development abounds, and there is no stopping it, whether domestic or international. Whether in your own backyard (this one was in the town where I grew up) or on the so-called other side of the world. But do you ever wonder exactly what the term "development" really means? I have found myself accepting as if it is something that naturally exists out there in the world, free of human politics and such.

"Pads," Photo by R.A. 2006.

According to Arturo Escobar, 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” (From Edelman and Haugerud's The Anthropology of Development and Globalization, pp. 342).

That is an interesting start, although development is not something that is limited to the "Third World," of course. But thinking of development as something that links forms of power and intervention is an interesting way of looking at it. Development is, in some ways, just a termsthat glosses over the actual process and puts it in a normative and everyday sounding term that seems quite benign, if not safely bureaucratic. Development is change, but that doesn't mean it's progess. Development is transformation, but not necessarily for the better.

"Development, " Photo by Michael Petri 2007.

Somewhere along the way I became enmeshed in development. I think it must have happened when I was, in a small way, privy to a behind the scenes view of development when I worked for a few years in Cultural Resource Management here in California. That was an interesting and often frustrating experience that was equal parts applied anthropology and pure business. In fact, there were many times when I felt that CRM archaeology would be better described as Business Archaeology, since there were many cases when standard archaeological methods took a very distant backseat to the pressing needs of a client's timeline.

"Tracts," Photo by R.A. 2006.

In those days, "development" just meant that somebody wanted to take a piece of land and change it in a certain way, and they had the money to do it. The money, and the power. Many project proposals sounded very nice and well-rounded in the usual stilted report manner, but in the end it was all about investing money and trying to make more. I worked on projects for power lines, golf courses, houses, and hotels. More often than not I felt as if I was helping the process of development, as opposed to doing either archaeology or anthropology.

These days, development is something that I study via cultural anthropology. Along with its close cousin Tourism, it is one of the subjects that I am drawn to trying to understand. It seems to be everywhere, and so well accepted as "how we do things." Is it how we do things? Or is it how some people do things?

Is development something that we should all work with and try to improve? Or is it something that we should completely abandon, as Escobar argues?

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