What’s wrong with Development Studies and how can we change it?
Introduction by Pritish Behuria and Tom Goodfellow
In January 2023, we, as convenors of the DSA’s Politics and Political Economy Study Group, organised a conference in Manchester on the theme – The Politics of Development Studies. The conference was a response to the growing trend among development studies scholars and departments to seek new development paradigms or to chart new ways forward for the field, combined with recognition of the ethical and political challenges that arise from the growing amounts of research funded by development agencies.
Bob Jessop (2018) identified that academic capitalism – profit- or revenue-oriented, market-mediated competition among higher education institutions – has been on the rise since the marketisation of UK higher education since the 1990s. Universities increasingly prioritise revenues – both from student tuition and from academic grants. This puts traditionally ‘interdisciplinary’ or ‘multi-disciplinary’ departments – like development studies – in a unique position to host and attract large grants. In the case of development studies, this was given a major boost in the UK by the channelling of a significant proportion of aid funding into research, including through the Global Challenges Research Fund. As a result, many development studies departments have become increasingly re-shaped into externally-facing grant-capturing bases but also are perceived to be increasingly attractive destinations for postgraduate (and even) undergraduate students.
At the same time, the credibility of ‘development studies’ as a field of academic study been under threat from a range of angles. Development’s colonial origins – and development studies’ longstanding association with (often problematic) policy paradigms – has rendered it a target of criticism from a range of academic disciplines, as well as from within. The links development studies have to colonialism are impossible to escape or ignore. Given its association with foreign aid and Western development interventions, including the Truman project, development studies has become an easy scapegoat. However, there were also alternative development framings (e.g., Bandung) from within former colonies, which not only saw development as emancipatory project but also acknowledged the inequalities and violence that is inevitably central to capitalist development.
As part of the conference, Ha-Joon Chang’s keynote explored not only the many different histories of development thinking but also the many peculiar histories of development studies and development economics departments within the United Kingdom. Despite the consistent criticisms faced by development studies, there are increasing numbers of postgraduate (and even) undergraduate programmes being initiated across the UK. While many of us struggle with the troubling histories of development studies and the problematic issues that persist with development programming and its associated interventions, there is still something that motivates us to continue to either teach within this field or research and publish in its journals. Kate Meagher, during the conference, encouraged us to remember that development studies scholars and practitioners have long been aware of the troubling aspects of this field of study. Partly as a consequence of critiques, development studies is currently alive with theoretical and ethical debates that give a vibrancy and reflexivity that is relatively lacking in some social science fields.
During the conference, we invited four scholars – Ingrid Kvangraven, Kamna Patel, Sara Stevano and Indrajit Roy – from different perspectives and positionalities (either working within development studies departments or researching and writing in its journals) to answer two questions from four distinct perspectives: What is wrong with development studies and how can we change it?
Rather than trying to present a coordinated universalistic position – like many popular attempts at reframing the future of development studies – our intention was to begin conversations from pluralist perspectives.
Read the next response from the conference:
- The need for South-centred theorisation in Development Studies by Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven, King’s College, London.
Other responses in this series:
- Looking inside the ‘black box’ of Development Studies by Kamna Patel, UCL
- Centring social reproduction in the study of development by Sara Stevano, SOAS University of London
- Reimagining the politics of development /studies by Indrajit Roy, University of York