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We are the UK association for all those who research, study and teach global development issues

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What is development studies and decolonising development.

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The need for South-centred theorisation in Development Studies

The second post in the blog series: What’s Wrong with Development Studies.

Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven, King’s College, London

There has been some introspection in recent years in Development Studies, much more and for much longer than in Economics or in Development Economics. There has been work in the past decade showing that Development Studies is racist – ranging from work showing how the process of Development itself is fundamentally racist to work investigating how to make development interventions, teaching, and research less racist. There has been a lot of work showing that Development Studies has colonial roots. Most of that work has been historical but there is also important work showing how imperialism is a contemporary feature of Development. There has also been a lot of work documenting how the profession itself lack diversity: it is dominated by white people based in the global North. It is good that there is this introspection in Development Studies, which is to a great extent lacking in Development Economics. But in my intervention here, I want to focus on a broader problem, which may also be one of the fundamental causes of these issues that have more recently received increased attention such as the lack of diversity, racism, and colonialism.

The issue I want to focus on is the exclusion of South-centered theoretical traditions in Development Studies: That it is theoretical or epistemological traditions that theorise from the vantage point of the global South. This is not about diversity or even about geography, but about theory. Theorisation from the vantage point of marginalisation is generally important, given that such theorisation is more likely to uncover the power structures that produce that marginalisation in the first place (as Sandra Harding noted decades ago, and as feminist economists have long pointed out), but the exclusion of theory from the South poses particular problems for Development Studies.

Eurocentrism, heterodox economics, and Development Studies

Within Development Studies there has been a widespread tendency to reduce problems of Development to technical questions, which is a Eurocentric way of approaching Development given that it papers over issues such as uneven development, imperialism, and other forms of oppression that underpin capitalist development. Rather, it assumes that capitalist development is a peaceful and technical process of rationalisation and technical improvements. This stands in contrast to historical and contemporary realities that become particularly evident when theorising from the South.

Heterodox economic theories challenge technical and Eurocentric approaches to development by focusing more on power inequalities, uneven capitalist development, and historical processes. There has been a severe marginalisation of heterodox economics in the Economics field, while Development Studies has remained a bit more open. However, South-centric work is also marginalised within heterodox economics – so it’s not enough to only think of this problem in terms of exclusions of heterodox work in Development Studies.

This exclusion is exacerbated by reward systems and systems of research evaluation in the global North. For example, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK discriminates against South-based or non-English language journals – that are likely to ranked at the lowest level if at all listed on major rankings. There are therefore less incentives for scholars to publish in those journals if they want to survive in academia. Development Studies associations also tend to be fairly global North-centric, with the biggest conferences organised in the North and with few panels on South-centered scholarship

When scholars in the global South are included in Development Studies spaces, it tends to be on the premise of scholars in the North and within Eurocentric frameworks. The most extreme example being the Randomista Enterprise – they use a Eurocentric framework based on neoclassical theorisation (based on rationality, universality, and alleged neutrality) – and seek to set up centers all over the world doing randomised control trials (RCTs). This also illustrates how scholars in the South are often incentivised to emulate scholarship in the North given how universities are structured in a hierarchical way with Global North institutions generally higher in the global academic hierarchy. This is what the philosopher Paulin Hountondji calls ‘extraversion’: a situation, scholars from the global South travel to the North for training in Northern intellectual frameworks, to then get published in Northern journals. In this situation the only legitimate theorising is assumed to be done in the metropole, while the global South plays the role of a site primarily for data collection.

What could change look like? Taking theorising from the South seriously

I want to use dependency theory as an example. I have previously called for a renewal of development studies by bringing the key components of dependency theory as a research program. Ha-Joon Chang said earlier at this workshop that he agrees with the questions of dependency theory but not its answers. However, I would say it is not possible to pin down one answer from dependency theory because dependency theory is not one thing – it’s a tradition of rich debates. Indeed, one of the problems for the traditions is that it is often dismissed based on a stereotypical and ungenerous reading of the scholarship which equates a rich, mostly South-based tradition with the scholarship of Andre Gunder Frank – the most famous dependency scholar from the global North. Based on my PhD research, I argue that dependency theory is best thought of as a research program, rather than a singular theory, with the following key commonalities:

  1. A historical approach that is anti-disciplinary. This stands in contrast to the multi-disciplinarity that is often practiced in Development Studies.
  2. Theorisation from the vantage point of the Global South. This was a challenge to Modernisation theory, but also Eurocentric Marxism at the time.
  3. Theorisation about the unevenness of development or polarising tendencies of capitalism. That development is a fundamentally uneven process –within and between countries – needs more attention in Development Studies.
  4. A focus on structures of production and the social relations that underpin them. While this is important for understanding inequalities and its drivers today, such a focus has been relatively neglected in Development Studies in recent decades.

Not everyone should become a dependency theorist but bringing back some of the key pillars of this tradition would be extremely important if we want a more relevant and radical Development Studies. The insights this tradition brings to light also demonstrates the difference theorising from the South makes – in contrast to Eurocentric theorisation.

Where we are today: pockets of hope and resistance

Somehow there is some shifting going on. There have been some moves in recent years to uncover theoretical traditions and debates from the South (see for example the work of Max Ajl, Margarita Fajardo, Peter James Hudson, or Adom Getachew). Attempts at recovery that are going on do also try to unpack how theoretical developments happen in an interconnected way – as it’s not easy to say that any tradition is fully from the North or South because of the global exchanges of ideas going on. What’s more, after a long slump between 1985 and 2000, contemporary scholarship on dependency seems to be booming if one looks at the number of new publications mentioning “dependency theory” in titles or abstracts.

While the future may be rather bleak for heterodox scholarship within the field of Economics, Development Studies has pockets of hope. These pockets may be places where we can start to change things and give more attention to South-centered scholarship, while also continuing to challenge the structures that limit our discipline. For example, contemporary accepted standards for what counts as rigorous research need to be completely revamped. 

Many of us may be able to survive as individual scholars within current structures, but to create more space for South-centered scholarship in Development Studies we need to also build collective movements and alternatives. This means we need to think about how to bring about change in all institutions we are a part of, including our associations, conferences, journals, centers, communities, and seminar series.

Finally, to change the field of Development Studies we also need to change the foundations of the higher education sector, as the neoliberal university is stifling both radical scholarship and the space we have for organising alternatives – as we hardly have time to talk to each other anymore. In that sense, the ongoing industrial action in the UK is also essential for changing development studies so that we can reach a point where we’re not just scrambling to finishing marking or running to meetings and have no time to even think about how we could organise our universities differently. The 1970s was dependency theory’s heyday, but it was also a moment when scholars were politically engaged. Many of the big dependency names were also heavily engaged in building social movements. Whereas now, scholars have become mostly divorced from social movements and from building political alternatives. Challenging this separation can also help to change Development Studies for the better.

As such, when we go on strike this spring it is not just about pay, pensions, and the Four Fights, it’s also about the future of academia and radical academic scholarship – and its space in Development Studies.

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