Anthropologists and Development
Development conventionally refers to
the political relations between rich and poor countries in the half century
since the collapse of European empire after the second world war. But it would
be misleading to isolate that half-century from the two centuries or more when
capitalism, linked to a machine revolution, transformed the relationship between
human society and life on this planet. Anthropology in turn, the aspiration
to place knowledge of humanity as a whole on a systematic footing, originates
in the eighteenth century enlightenment and has been evolving through quite
distinct phases ever since.
The question of anthropologists and development
1. Placing what they have done in the specific
context of development since the second world war.
2. Placing that within a historical context
of more than two centuries of capitalist development and paradigm shifts within
3. Presumably there is also a forward-looking
aspect to the enquiry. What might anthropologists contribute to a process of
development in this new century?
This last is the strongest case for taking the
long view, since progress depends on reversing some of the deeply entrenched
patterns of the modern era as a whole. Cowen and Shenton (1996), in Doctrines
of Development, argue that ‘development’ is a unifying theme of the last
two centuries: how to account for the extraordinary economic growth generated
by capitalism in some places and how to make good the damage that it causes
in repeated cycles of creation and destruction?
According to them, attempts to transform the Third World since the
second world war and to make good the damage there of both commission and neglect
need to be placed within that longer-term perspective. I agree. In what follows,
I will address the second topic above, then the first, leaving the last for
Anthropology arose out of the eighteenth century
enlightenment’s desire to replace the old regime of agrarian civilization with
a democracy based on what people have in common, their human nature. Philosophers
from Locke to Kant sought a way of transcending the systems of inequality that
rested on historically arbitrary premises of social distinction. Rousseau, especially
in his Discourse on Inequality (1754), laid the foundations for the modern
anthropological project. Morgan (1877) and Engels (1884) used his argument as
a template a century later and the former’s example is seen as the origin of
the modern discipline. But Kant (1974) gave the project its name as part of
his search for the principles of universal citizenship in a world society committed
to peace and justice.
The political and economic
revolutions of France and Britain in the decades around 1800 unleashed
a new universalism which found its counterpart in the international
movement to abolish slavery (and especially the Haitian revolution,
James 1938). Society was on the move everywhere, propelled by
Napoleon’s proletarian armies and by British industry undermining craft
production in traditional societies. But it also provoked a reactionary
backlash: nationalism and reinforcement of the security state.
Nationalism appeals to the impulse ‘Stop the world, I want to get off’.
Eventually, the capitalists, who began the nineteenth century seeking
to displace the landlord class in alliance with the workers, made an
alliance with the traditional ruling class to keep down the workers now
being concentrated in cities by machine industry (Hart 2001b). The
result was a series of linked revolutions in the 1860s inaugurating
national capitalism, the attempt to manage markets and accumulation
through centralized bureaucracies. This in turn opened the way to mass
production and consumption organized within a national frame. But the
formation of a world society of nation-states had to wait until after
the first world war. Before then the leading western powers embarked on
a drive to control the world’s territories and peoples through colonial
The last 200 years of mechanization
have brought about a deterioration in the global vision of the western middle-class’s
intellectual representatives. Victorian anthropology
put the eighteenth century’s spirit of democratic revolution firmly
behind itself and addressed a world brought into being by imperialism, an imperialism
powered by machines. The question Victorians asked was how they were able to
conquer the planet with so little resistance. They concluded that their culture
was superior, being based on reason rather than superstition, and that this
superiority was owed to nature, to the biology of racial difference. The object
of anthropology in the nineteenth century was thus to explain the origin of
the racial hierarchy they found in the world; and its method was evolutionary
history. The assumption of human psychic unity supported the notion that ‘they’
could eventually become like ‘us’, once they submitted to an appropriate form
of government and education by us.
The prevailing ideology
of anthropologists since the first world war has been one of cultural relativism,
the notion that every place has a right to its own customs, however barbaric.
This reflects a dominant worldview which has the whole of humanity pigeonholed
as separate tribes, each the owner (or would-be owner) of a hybrid entity, the
nation-state. Nationalism was an escape from modern history, from the
realities of urban commercial life, into the timeless rural past of the Volk,
the people conceived of as a homogeneous peasantry, living in villages near
to nature, the very archetype of a community bound together by ties of family,
location and shared culture. Before we began to think of ourselves as nations,
western intellectuals compared their societies with the city-states of the ancient
world (Thom 1995). Now they fabricated myths of their own illiterate ethnic
origins in primeval forests. The Polish adventurer, Malinowski (1922), reinvented
romantic nationalism in the form of vivid narratives about the everyday life
of South Sea islanders whose autonomous, ‘primitive’ culture mirrored the self-image
of contemporary nationalities. If the nation-state is a living contradiction,
the anthropology of the last century did its best to convince western readers
that society everywhere, even the most primitive and microscopic, is constructed
along similar lines.
The method adopted by twentieth
century anthropologists was scientific ethnography, participant observation,
relatively long-term immersion in small-scale exotic societies taken to be homogeneous,
bounded cultural entities. In African Political Systems, Fortes and Evans-Pritchard
(1940) suggested that ethnographic fieldwork in exotic places made the history
of western political philosophy redundant, while they disguised their own theoretical
debt to Morgan and Durkheim (1893). They set out self-consciously to attack
the perspective of mainstream academic disciplines, claiming that the accumulated
literary achievements stored in libraries should be scrapped in favour of discovering
what society is really like on the ground. This impulse to join the people where
they live, even if under the special political auspices of colonial rule, is
unique in the western academy. Most other disciplines are content with the laboratories,
libraries and seminar rooms of the university itself. The results of fieldwork
had to be written up in the seclusion of the academy and the neophyte profession
desperately needed a base there in order to reproduce itself. But the anthropologists
developed a unique genre of writing in which ideas were drawn from life (Grimshaw
and Hart 1995).
Kant (1949) believed that
we encounter the world through two faculties: the mind whose ideas are formed
as cultural traditions before our experience of the world and the senses which
supply us with empirical information about the world that we can organise afterwards
by means of analytical categories. The founders of modern social anthropology,
most of whom were well-schooled in western intellectual traditions, chose to
deny their debt to those traditions and instead represented their ideas as the
empirical outcome of encounters with particular field situations. Concepts became
attached to empirical ethnographies, such as the Trobrianders and the Nuer,
to words like kula and potlatch (Mauss 1925), which became the
particular vehicles of generalising or comparative discourse. The professional
speciality became kinship, on the grounds that small-scale societies lacking
the state privileged family relations and no other discipline made its study
a special concern (Radcliffe-Brown and Forde 1950). This was in turn formalized
into an intimidating algebra sufficient to make indoctrination difficult and
the field repelling to outsiders. (Economists know how this works).
The relationship of anthropologists
to colonialism is moot (Asad 1973). On the one hand, they served the purposes
of indirect rule by documenting the indigenous institutions on which limited
self-government might be based. On the other hand, many of them reacted violently
against the racism of colonial societies. They were in any case deeply involved
in the development project, not called that then, but more often ‘culture contact’
(Malinowski 1945). The British school was largely funded by a Rockefeller grant
to study Africa in social change. But their static models of organically homogeneous
societies corresponded to the self-image of the corporate state that flourished
between the wars and thus served to reproduce the hegemonic discourse of home
society. With the collapse of European empire after the war, anthropologists
inevitably sought to confront the historical changes brought about by independence.
Before asking how they entered the development process as practitioners, it
is necessary to periodize the short version of the development era.
After the second world war
there were two decades of general economic growth and relatively strong states
(50s and 60s), followed later by two decades of economic stagnation and weakened
states (80s and 90s) with the 70s as the hinge between them.
Apart from the decisive effects of two OPEC oil price rises in that
decade, 1975 serves as a convenient marker of the shift, a year which saw the
American defeat in Vietnam and the collapse of the last European empire in Africa,
the Portuguese. I would argue that the development effort of the first period
was genuinely concerned with reducing the gap between rich and poor countries,
even if the methods chosen were inappropriate. By around 1970 it became apparent
that development in this sense was failing and critical perspectives coming
out of the other side in the cold war (Marxism from France, the Middle East
and Latin America) became prevalent in the subsequent decade (Hart 1983). By
the beginning of the 80s, in the aftermath of the oil shocks and inflation of
the 70s and the advent of neo-conservative liberals to power, I would argue
that development was no longer seriously on the agenda, being replaced by the
drive to open up the world’s economies to capital flows (structural adjustment),
if necessary at the expense of the ability of states to govern and with the
consequence of a huge income drain from the poor countries in the form of debt
interest payments. Under these circumstances, the post-development critique
suggesting that development was a sham discourse with no real achievements to
its credit is understandable (Rahnema and Bawtree 1996).
I suppose I ought to insert
some notes on my own history as an anthropologist in development which was mainly
in four programmes of the 70s involving the West Indies, Papua New Guinea, Hong
Kong and West Africa (Hart 2002). I accepted from the beginning that this would
involve a dialogue with the economists. I taught myself to write and speak like
an economist by working for The Economist Intelligence Unit as a journalist
for three years. I only participated in development policy programmes, never
in projects where most anthropologists work. By coining the term ‘the informal
sector’ (Hart 1973), I was able to pass as a sort of economist much of the time.
I learned not to describe myself as an anthropologist. I was interested in finding
out more about states and international agencies by participating in them and
I discovered that I could exercise some minor influence through the documents
that I wrote. I got out after 1979 when it seemed obvious to me that development
as it was originally conceived had been abandoned in all but name. I wrote a
book on West African political economy (Hart 1982) as a retrospective on two
decades of involvement in Africans’ failed post-colonial drive to achieve independence.
Above all I saw no point in reifying the division of labour between anthropology
and economics. I sought instead to influence the economists on their own terms,
by showing that I could produce better arguments, based on wider historical
and ethnographic knowledge. I can’t say if this was a strategy adopted by many
anthropologists. I think not.
So, when we look at how
most anthropologists related to all this, it is important to keep in mind the
sequence of decades, since their role changed as the world changed. In the 50s,
development was still largely in the hands of engineers. The question was how
big a hole to blow in the rock to make a suitable dam. Then the economists made
inroads in the 60s, largely in the role of accountants: we can’t afford to be
indifferent to the costs of all this. From this point of entry they took over
the development business and since then they have never lost their grip, widening
their leadership in time to embrace the ideology of development itself. Others,
including anthropologists, have subsequently entered development as a social
process under the hegemony of economists. In order to be effective in policy
circles they had to learn economese, the ability to speak and write
like an economist in the absence of a training in economics. Many anthropologists
were unwilling or unable to do this. But they were introduced to the development
business because the human dimensions of the unfolding disaster that was becoming
apparent needed redressing.
Although they did not express
it as such, the contradiction of development was between bureaucracy and the
people. The lives of people in society were being overridden by bureaucratic
planning recipes which could not accommodate the real interests and practices
of people on the ground (Hart 1982, Chapter 4). In a climate of neo-liberalism
this observation could be assimilated to the critique of the state, the core
of bureaucratic order. Consequently states were by-passed as corrupt and ineffective,
their place taken by NGOs. But NGOs are not just Not Governments, they are
Organizations, i.e. bureaucracies. In many ways NGOs are driven by even stronger
bureaucratic imperatives alien to the people concerned than many government
agencies, because of their dependence on image-making suited to maintaining
donation levels in the west. The multilateral agencies too, who took it on themselves
to co-ordinate development, have constantly struggled with the contradiction
between their bureaucratic nature and the desire to stimulate self-organized
human initiatives on the ground whose impulses are inevitably stifled by rational
The anthropologists entered
this scene in the 60s and after. They brought with them a method of long-term
immersion in fieldwork, an ideology of joining the people where they live, concepts
drawn from ethnographies around the world and a general indifference or hostility
to numeracy, literate records and all the techniques of bureaucracy. They were
asked to fill in the human dimension of development as a complement to the dominant
work of the economists and the engineers, usually at short notice, for curtailed
periods and with the expectation of fulfilling standards of presentation they
had never known. But they had the people card to play and that was the Achilles
heel of the bureaucracy. They could always claim the authenticity of proximity
to the people on the ground. (“I have been there and you haven’t”).
Sometimes they were able to make short visits to places they already knew well,
which softened the pressures of short-term fieldwork methods. This has become
more commonplace in time, as senior academics with a long record of involvement
in a region have been drawn upon for their accumulated expertise rather than
for some quick fieldwork exercise.
If they did not know before,
the anthropologists soon found out that they were in the middle of a class war
between bureaucracy and the people. They could take up one of three positions.
They could inform on the people for the benefit of the bureaucracy. They could
take the people’s side as advocates for their interests (Paine 1985). Or they
could try to sit on the fence as mediators, offering interpretations of the
people to the bureaucracy and of the bureaucracy to the people. No prizes for
guessing which of these options was most frequently chosen: the one most compatible
with the discipline’s tradition of selecting adherents with a romantic vocation
for the role of lone ranger in exotic places. As individualists, their natural
position was in the gaps between all and sundry.
Apart from this political
bind, there was the sheer contradiction between the ethnographic paradigm of
twentieth century anthropology and the development process itself. Development
was after all a revival of that Victorian evolutionism which ethnographers had
flatly rejected at the turn of the century. It is not easy to devise a way of
studying the world that might inform how to realise new possibilities out of
actual social conditions. In the 60s and 70s, many anthropologists struggled
with trying to incorporate the history of nation-states and capitalism into
their local inquiries, they dabbled with Marxism and other promising intellectual
But this encouraged a critical perspective on contemporary society
which made the world of development institutions even more alien. In other words,
the reactionaries didn’t know how to think about development and those who could
didn’t want to join.
The situation from the 80s
onward is different again. Anthropologists with experience of doing fieldwork
in exotic places (or just trained for that possibility) were seen as suitable
personnel for the administration of development worldwide. This went along with
a reduction in the scale of development programmes to that of quite specialised
local projects, perhaps as a corollary of my claim that after the 70s any serious
commitment to reducing the gap between rich and poor was long abandoned. A subdiscipline,
the anthropology of development, arose seeking to formalise the involvement
of anthropologists in development bureaucracies. Techniques like Rapid Rural
Appraisal were embraced as inevitable, whatever violence they did to fieldwork
traditions. At the same time some anthropologists were prominent in advancing
a post-structuralist critique of development (Escobar 1995, Ferguson 1994),
claiming that it was just a way of talking without any real impact on actual
societies, beyond possibly their cynical manipulation in the interest of preserving
a status quo where some of the rich were getting very much richer, while the
poor were definitely not getting any less poor.
It would take another article
again to address the question of whether anthropologists might participate more
effectively than before in the development business. That would take us into
considering the forces reshaping the world at this time, what I have called
the shift from national capitalism to virtual capitalism. I have recently carried
out a collaborative study of Indian capitalists in South Africa after apartheid
(Hart and Padayachee 2000) which draws of the perspective of my book, Money
in an Unequal World (Hart
2001a). I have argued elsewhere for an anthropology that might
inform individual participation in world society as cosmopolitans,
universal citizens (Hart 2000). It is not easy to see how such a
programme might be harnessed to the imperatives of development
bureaucracy which, like bureaucracies everywhere, relies on territorial
administration, social classification and rule from remote power
This is my position after
decades of sincere engagement with the problem of global economic inequality.
I am not convinced that there is today any drive within the world’s bureaucracies
to alter the status quo. The Caribbean Nobel prize-winning economist, Arthur
Lewis, wrote a brilliant book on The Evolution of the International Economic
Order (1978). In it he concluded (and his track record was the opposite of
that of a radical) that for the poor to break out of the institutional stranglehold
imposed on them by the rich would require a world revolution. That is my conclusion
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1985 (1884) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Escobar, Arturo 1995
Encountering Development: the making and the unmaking of the Third World.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Fardon, Richard (ed.) 1990
Localizing Strategies: regional traditions of ethnographic writing. Washington,
DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Ferguson, James 1994
The Anti-Politics Machine: development, depoliticization and bureaucratic power
in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Fortes, Meyer and Edward
Evans-Pritchard (eds.) 1940 African Political Systems. Clarendon Press,
Gardner, Katy and David
Lewis 1996 Anthropology, Development and the Post-Modern Challenge.
London: Pluto Press.
Gregory, Chris 1997
Savage Money: the anthropology and political economy of commodity exchange.
Grimshaw, Anna and Keith
Hart 1995 The rise and fall of scientific anthropology, in The Future
of Anthropology, Akbar Ahmed and Cris Shore (eds.), 46-64. London: Athlone Press.
Hart, Keith 1973 Informal income
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to economic anthropology, in Economic Anthropology: Topics and Theories, Sutti
Ortiz (ed.), 105-144. Lanham: Universities of America Press.
Hart, Keith 2000 Reflections on a visit
to New York. Anthropology Today, 14 (August): 1-3.
Hart, Keith 2001a Money
in an Unequal World. Texere, New York and London.
Hart, Keith 2001b
Money in an unequal world. Anthropological Theory, 1:307-330.
Hart, Keith 2002
World society as an old regime, in Elite Cultures: anthropological approaches,
Cris Shore and Stephen Nugent (eds.), 22-36. London: Routledge.
Hart, Keith and Vishnu Padayachee
2000 Indian business in South Africa after apartheid: new old trajectories.
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(1938) The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo revolution.
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Kant, Immanuel 1974
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Senior Research Fellow, The Arkleton Centre for Rural Development
Research, University of Aberdeen, Scotland and Occasional Visiting Professor,
Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo. He is the author of
Money in an Unequal World (Texere, 2001; see
www.thememorybank.co.uk). He has taught in universities on both sides
of the Atlantic, but especially at Cambridge University, where he was Director
of the African Studies Centre.
Cowen and Shenton (1996) call these two aspects of the process
‘intentional’ and ‘immanent’ development. Since most parts of the Third
World have not experienced the second, my usage generally follows the first
when talking of ‘anthropologists and development’. I do, however, see anthropology
as a general project being linked to the history of capitalist development
over the last three centuries or so.
The mainly anglophone anthropology of the mid-nineteenth century,
much of it published in the same decade, the 1860s, as Marx’s Capital
(1864) and the political revolutions inaugurating industrial capitalism
worldwide. It was of course linked to the rise of the British empire as
the most powerful force of globalization.