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A new set of global economic and political processes are shaping the twenty-first century and the changing face of Development is a major actor in creating these changes. Authors Katy Gardner and David Lewis discuss their new edition of this enduring classic Anthropology and Development: Challenges for the Twenty First Century.


‘Whatever happened to the Anthropology of Development and its ‘post-modern challenge’? After Anthropology and Deveopmentnearly twenty years since the first edition of our book, we decided that the time was ripe to revisit the issues. What we found was both a huge amount of change and not very much at all. It depended where you looked. Whilst there were new players in ‘Aidland’ – corporations touting ‘social responsibility’ and billionaire philanthropists, for example – and with the emergence of BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and ‘the Next 11’ some notable shifts in Development’s geopolitics, in other ways the issues were resoundingly familiar. The collapse of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh during 2013, for example, reminded us that the issues that framed the earlier edition of the book remained horribly pertinent. As we had argued then, anthropological questions of access, control and effects were core to the academic critique of development and contributed to progressive policies which attempted to make it better. Yet as the biggest industrial disaster since Bhopal reminded us, lack of rights, weak and corrupt states, poverty and entrepreneurial criminality combined in a toxic mixture to bring about the deaths and grave injuries of thousands of factory workers in a country that was being hailed in some quarters for its accelerating economic growth. Those that died had no access to safe working conditions or employment rights and the building, which the day before was showing large cracks, was controlled by a member of the criminal underworld associated with land grabs and illegal construction. The Rana Plaza’s horrific collapse materialised the effects of rampant neoliberal development.

What, then, of the ‘postmodern challenge’? As we had documented, in 1997 Development was under sustained theoretical fire. Discredited for its evolutionary and Euro-American centrism, and attacked by writers such as Wolfgang Sachs (The Development Dictionary, 1992) and Arturo Escobar (Encountering Development, 1995) for its role in the maintenance of postcolonial power relations, it seemed possible that in the next ten or twenty years Development might expire altogether and that new framings of progressive change might arise. Even if reports of its death were greatly exaggerated, the era of ‘post-development’ thinking seemed to be upon us. Within anthropology post-modern critiques were also causing significant disquiet. Accused of creating exoticised representations of ‘the other’ and methodological techniques in which anthropologists subjugated and objectified the people they researched, the discipline seemed, for a while, in danger of losing its confidence, or even turning into a sub-field of literary critique.

Anthropology, Development and the Post-Modern Challenge (Pluto, 1996) addressed these questions by arguing that the discipline should not balk at becoming directly involved with social problems. The book was a rallying cry for anthropological engagement in development, in all its varied meanings. In it, we argued that whilst the ‘post-modern’ attack on development was theoretically beguiling, it was in danger of contributing to an apolitical disengagement by anthropologists not wishing to dirty their hands in the dubious business of trying to change the world for the better. Indeed, we argued that Escobar’s analysis homogenised and simplified Development, which by the 1990s involved a lot more than colonial-style planners pushing people around. Instead, we suggested that whilst they had previously been treated within the discipline as working in an inferior sub-field, anthropologists of and in development had much to offer. This was not only useful in helping to formulate new policies and practices which prioritised issues of power, poverty and inequality rather than economic growth or modernisation, but these anthropologists also had an important role to play in bringing rich insights around the relationship between social relations and economic change to academic anthropology itself.

Tracing the links between ethnographic work and new, often (at the time) radical directions in Development we argued that anthropology’s influence in shaping new formulations that moved far beyond the monolithic colonial discourse described by Sachs, Escobar and others was potentially huge. The questions of control, access and effects that anthropologists asked informed development work that had power, unequal access and inequality as its focus. Ethnographic methods were key to new ways of seeing and doing. Indeed, based on anthropological practice, new techniques for gathering information and using it to effect change were fast catching on in Development World, such as the various participatory learning and action (PLA) approaches that became popular during the 1990s.

So, was Escobar right in his prediction that Development was reaching the end game? Over the last twenty years the rate and substance of change is remarkable in two ways. In the first sense, it has been profound and rapid. The world we described in 1996 was very different from the contemporary post 9/11 era of war, securitisation and, more recently, financial meltdown, recession and austerity. Whilst the ‘BRICs’ have been hailed as emerging economies for their rapid rates of economic growth, industrialisation and urbanisation, others, most notably in Southern Europe, have experienced dramatic de-development as a result of the global financial crisis. Where and to whom development work is supposed to take place is increasingly blurred, as distinctions between ‘the developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ world become increasingly problematic. Meanwhile not only have new governments, agencies and donors entered the fray as givers of aid and do-ers of development – India and China are obvious examples – but ethical conduct and schemes of improvement have been taken on by corporations as a badge of honour. Great moral value is placed on improving the lives of others, especially if they live on the other side of the world. Today, philanthropy is the hobby of choice for billionaires, pop stars and actors who rush to endorse projects and causes whilst making ‘poverty history’ or ‘turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide’[1]at the click of a mouse, paying a donation or wearing a wristband.

In the second sense, change is remarkable only for its absence. Development – both as a concept and a set of practices – still continues to wield huge power globally. To this extent the story remains the same, regardless of the stones thrown from both sides of the political divide. Development’s capacity to absorb critiques and turn what were once radical alternatives into de-politicised common practices whilst on the central stage business goes on as normal is testimony to its enduring power. This applies equally to its ideological dominance: the view that economic growth and other measures will lead to the social good, generally imagined as involving Westernisation or modernisation. The United Nations Millennium Goals (MDGs), for example, were, naturally, Development goals, as are the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that have been designed to follow on from these. Meanwhile the Development Industry continues unabated. Universities continue to offer degrees in Development studies, government Departments of Development remain in place, civil society and non-governmental organisations are tasked to carry out Development, and many thousands of experts, consultants, fieldworkers and officials rely upon it for their livelihood. And it continues to touch the lives of almost everyone.

So what of the Anthropology of and in Development? In rewriting large sections of the book, which we have renamed Anthropology and Development: Challenges for the Twenty First Century, we argue that Anthropology’s potential to analyse and describe processes of change and contribute to alternative visions remains as powerful as ever. Rather than being on the margins, the Anthropology of Development has in many ways been increasingly absorbed into the mainstream. In the twenty years since the book was first published the field has become enormous. This is partly because so many anthropologists are working in contexts of rapid economic transformation, globalisation, and cultural complexity that questions of change are impossible to ignore or corral as a sub-field. Today only a small minority of anthropologists engage in research with communities or groups that could be considered to be unaffected by the wider world. Even if this were not the case, what matters more than the context in which fieldwork is carried out are the questions that anthropologists ask. That the world is changing is nothing new. What has shifted is not only the rate and scale of change, but anthropology’s willingness to acknowledge, document and theorise it. Anthropological studies are nowadays framed by questions concerning global capitalism, conflict, governance migration, and environment, to name a few of the most obvious. If the Anthropology of development is in its broadest terms the anthropology of change and transition, or of global economic systems, then we are hard pressed to identify where the boundaries lie between this and the anthropological mainstream.

There remains, however, a body of work that is clearly of Development. This newly animated Anthropology of Development is a large and rapidly-expanding field of study. What does it mean to analyse Development work and knowledge as a discursive field? How might we understand policy and projects, not to say the cultural worlds of those who produce them, in these terms? Centrally, how might we understand new approaches to Development, including micro-finance, fair trade and entrepreneurial schemes that aim to mine the market potential of the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ – in Prahalad’s (2004) influential phrase – as linked to global governance and the on-going hegemonic might of global capitalism? How might we understand the developmentalisation of welfare – now increasingly relabeled well-being – in the form of large-scale investments in social protection interventions, such as conditional cash transfer schemes, micro-insurance and commodity subsidies? What moral economies underlie these schemes, and how can Anthropological theory be used to explain them?

Throughout the book we argue that the questions of access, control and effects that we outlined in the first edition remain core concerns. Since these primary questions are the same, we have left some of the original book intact: who gains and who loses? What is happening or happened, and why? What are the underlying dynamics of power at all levels and scales? As before, we argue that these seemingly simple questions must remain at the heart of anthropological analysis, to be used as an ethical yardstick both for those working within the industry, and for those using academic research to critique it. Indeed, whilst once derided as the discipline’s ‘evil twin’ (Ferguson, 1997) the anthropology of development has more recently been celebrated as its ‘moral narrative’ (Gow, 2002). In a world increasingly divided between haves and have-nots, where profit and economic growth seem invariably to involve disenfranchisement and exclusion for those at the margins, and where morality and personhood are played out via consumption it is anthropologists who are best placed to offer empirical evidence and analysis of how global systems work and what this means for ordinary people. It is also anthropologists, armed with cross cultural perspective, who are able to offer fresh ways of seeing, to combat the accepted orthodoxies: for example that ‘the market’ can cure the world’s ills or that global capitalism’s economic systems are rational.

Here it is useful to distinguish between anthropology as critique (‘of’) and anthropology as enabling or involving action, or ‘in’ development. As with the first edition of the book, we have divided the chapters with this distinction in mind, offering an updated account of the history of engaged anthropology in general and anthropologists ‘in’ development in particular, along with an overview of academic analyses and ethnographies ‘of’, adding new sections to cover the directions the field has taken since the late 1990s. But again, whilst useful for thinking about different types of activity – the first, using anthropological perspectives in order to critique, the second using anthropological perspectives in order to change things – the boundaries between ‘of’ and ‘in’, or ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ are ever more fuzzy. This is partly because in recent years the political pressures to justify academic research have been piling up, with an increasingly instrumentalist approach being taken by funders and policy makers. In Britain, for example, bureaucratic exigencies for academics to produce ‘impact’ in order to gain funding and as part of government audits of ‘academic excellence’ have forced anthropologists to think more seriously about the effects that their work has beyond academia.

The problem with the separation between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ is the implication that research ‘for research’s sake’ is somehow locked in a box marked ‘ivory tower’ and has no value beyond that. Yet as we argued in the first edition of this book, ideas matter. Merely because the person producing research is not the same person who is designing policy, protesting or leading social movements it does not mean that the research has not played an influential role in the actions that ensue. Whilst there are clearly anthropologists who are research-orientated and those who are actively engaged in policy, advocacy or protest, ‘pure’ research leads to insights and ideas that go on to inform ‘applied’ work.

What form has this synergy between research, ideas and action taken in recent years? Writing in the mid-1990s we were excited by the possibilities that anthropology offered in changing development agendas. Ideas from feminist anthropology, research into the interface between scientific and indigenous knowledge and the ethnographic focus on everyday lives and perspectives, not to say power dynamics contributed to an array of new directions that offered the hope of breaking free from the dominant discourse. Since then there have been successes but also failures. Many of the most radical ideas – empowerment and participation, for example – have been taken on, absorbed but also de-politicised. This can be read as a sign of positive change, but in many instances has involved a watered down version of the original ideas. In some cases potentially radical practices have been reduced to ‘box ticking’ exercises. In this sense, Escobar was right in his prediction that the discourse would always absorb change, yet remain essentially the same. Yet, we end by outlining new ideas and new approaches which offer alternatives as well as critiques of mainstream Development, and which meet the challenges of the twenty first century.’


David Lewis is Professor of Social Policy and Development in the Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics. He is the author of Bangladesh: Politics, Economy and Civil Society (CUP, 2012) and co-editor of The Aid Effect (Pluto, 2005).

Katy Gardner is Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and the author of Global Migrants, Local Lives (Oxford University Press, 1995) and Discordant Development (Pluto, 2012).


Anthropology and Development : Challenges for the Twenty-First Century is available to buy from Pluto Press here.