Global affairs and the failure of liberal common sense
The latest Theory Talk features an interesting interview with James Ferguson, Stanford political anthropologist and outspoken critic of the “development” doctrine. In the talk, he offers insights to his work and vita, but he also talks more generally about social science approaches to global studies:
One of the things that bothers me about a lot of what I read the in social sciences that’s, as you say, ‘globally oriented’, is that it seems to start with a bunch of certainties, a bunch of assumptions – a kind of Western liberal common sense – that we know how countries ought to be organized. They ought to be democracies; they ought to respect human rights; they ought to guarantee the rule of law; they ought to be at peace with their neighbors. And then you look at, say, a country in Africa and all you’re able to see is a series of lacks – of things that should be there but aren’t. And you end up constructing huge parts of the world as just sort of empty spaces where things ought to be there but aren’t. And it leads to a kind of impoverished understanding, I think, because you don’t really understand what is going on here. How do people conduct their affairs? How is legitimate authority exercised? How are rules made and enforced? You know, all the kinds of questions that ought to be the starting place tend to disappear or recede into the background. So, I think the real challenge is to approach this whole question with a sense of openness, a willingness to be surprised and learn something new and not to be so deductive.
This is pretty much the criticism of “development” and the subsequent category of “development countries”, which was discussed here before. From this angle the analysis of social relations — using the analytical unit of the state — focuses on an abstract ideal that reality is supposed to be molded into. The strategy can be likened to a literature critic who trashes a novel because its is different from what the critic had expected. Such linear concepts often blur one’s vision on what’s crucial.