Discussion ‘Seeing Like a State’ (James Scott)

I recently finished James Scott’s ‘Seeing Like a State, possibly the most broadly venturing book on development I’ve ever read.  I ordered the book after reading a raving review by Duncan Green on FP2P.

What’s wrong with seeing like a state? States have been seeking to expand their power by increasing information they collect about their citizens and territory. This process from “blindness” towards ever increasing “legibility” involves a simplification of complex natural and social situations and processes, retaining only “useful” information.  Ever increasing state capacity allows pursuing ever wider ambitions to appropriate, control and manipulate (levying taxes, collecting conscripts, prevent undesired behaviour…).  Historical examples are the introduction of permanent last names and the standardization of units (for length, weight…).

Scott discusses a few cases in detail.  The introduction of German forestry science transformed chaotic “old” forests into standardized, geometric wood-production factories and enabled centralized management by state bureaucrats.   The modernist urban vision of Le Corbusier ignored both history and local people’s desires and made abstraction of the complex micro-sociology that turns areas into vibrant and attractive neighbourhoods.   Lenin’s socialist vision aimed at re-making society, ignoring political and social complexities and realities.

All those examples share a naive optimism in the ‘make-ability’of society, inspired by an erroneous belief in the scientific method.  Rather than questioning assumptions and adopting the uncertainty, characteristic for science, they overestimate the power of science and show contempt for local knowledge.  The fatal overestimation of human capability to design society and the importance of local and practical knowledge are highlighted by critics such as Jane Jacobs (on Le Corbusier’s plans) and Rosa Luxemburg (on Lenin’s plans).

Scott stresses that states can use more ‘legibility’ both to improve and curtail freedom.  It can be used to improve public welfare, introduce literacy or vaccination campaigns or offer a bulwark against global homogenisation.  However, it can just as well lead to disaster.  Administrative reordering of society and nature is not sufficient to generate social disaster.  Combined with a high modernist ideology, an authoritarian state and a weak civil society, it can have lethal consequences.

This process of legibility also affects power relations.  By discarding local knowledge, simplification of processes benefits state bureaucrats.   The language of policies, procedures and permits de-skills people with local and practical knowledge such as farmers and teachers.

“The capital has its order, the village its customs” (p.33)

This double-edged character of a legible state raises dilemmas for development agencies, as well-intended efforts to increase institutional capacity to improve citizens’ literacy may later just as well be used to suppress them.  The development community often still sees the world as something that can be planned top down, captured in a log frame.  A body of knowledge and jargon impenetrable to outsiders systematizes and simplifies a wide variety of local situations and provides an aura of authority.  The drive towards ‘evidence-based’ interventions based on ‘what works’ similarly assumes that reality can be reduced to a few variables and that only knowledge that is acquired through tightly controlled experiments is valid.  The archetypical ‘flying in’ of experts shows contempt for the history of place and domain.

A good example is poly-culture in West-Africa. It was dismissed by agriculture experts in favour of more efficient mono-culture.  However, yield maximization is not the only consideration for small African farmers.  For some, steady yields are more important than occasionally higher ones.  Constraints on land, skills, tools and labour also play a role, as well as elements of culture and group identity.

Scott suggests that ‘practical knowledge -friendly’ institutions should be flexible and adaptable to changing local realities, although he doesn’t explicitly writes it implies decentralisation.  His recommendation resembles in the discourse on complexity and development.  Secondly, development interventions should be analysed to what degree they enhance the skills, knowledge and responsibility of those who are part of it.  He pleas for polyvalent institutions that foster reasoning and negotiation among its members, distinguishing ‘canned’ institutions that permits little or no modification from those that are largely open to the development and application of local knowledge.

The book has plenty of lessons for education and development.  Supporting ministries in teacher training, curriculum design or national assessment all increase state capacity, often to the detriment of local and practical knowledge.  Traditionally, the role of the state in education has focused on the input (curriculum, textbooks) and the output (assessment, accreditation) of education, whereas the how was referred to as the ‘black box’ of education, the domain of the teacher and largely illegible to the state.  The teacher was recognized as a professional, equipped with a rich arsenal of knowledge about his/ her students, the local context and pedagogical content knowledge.  It was accepted that the teacher would know how best to translate the intended learning outcomes into powerful learning activities.  However, this zero-sum game between ‘education experts’ (academics, bureaucrats) and teachers is at play as well.  Experts use (evidence-based) education  research, large-scale assessments, control over professional development and an avalanche of reporting requirements to encroach on the ‘how’ of the teaching, characterised by ever more detailed curricular descriptions and focus on assessments.

On the other hand, some countries struggle to attract qualified teachers, in particular in areas such as maths and science.  These subjects are taught by teachers without the expertise, experience or motivation to provide qualitative education.  Stronger control by means of curriculum and assessment may be a necessary way to guarantee a minimum quality to children.  However, it might just as well kill the love and passion for teaching


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