States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order

By Sheila Jasanoff | Go to book overview

6

Plants, power and development

Founding the Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies, 1880-1914

William K. Storey

Where does the idea of “development” come from? The word itself has been used in several ways for centuries, but the specific use of the word, to mean the economic and social uplift of a disadvantaged country, has its origins in the “New Imperialism” of the late nineteenth century. Ever since then, development policy, even in its scientific and technological aspects, has been heavily freighted with imperialist ideology. In the British Empire, ideologically driven scientific and technological development was first instituted in the West Indies. Discussions about the founding of the Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies were highly important for the elaboration of development policies, and indeed for the very idea of development. In particular, the Imperial Department, and the institution of its development policies, was closely linked to Social Darwinism and colonial paternalism. These ideologies provided a rationale for those who wished to disseminate scientific agriculture throughout the colonies. By the turn of the century, the new Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies was serving as a model for the creation of state research institutions and development policies in many other colonies. The Imperial Department embodied imperial rule and helped sustain patterns of scientific power and interdependence between Britain and the colonies.

Today many believe that “third-world development” will be achieved, in part, through neutral “transfers” of science and technology. The history of the Imperial Department of Agriculture related in this chapter tells a different story, more consistent with the theme of co-production. As Jasanoff points out in Chapter 1 of this volume, the formation of new institutions is often a moment to observe co-production at work. I show in this chapter how the local needs of the British West Indies became translated into imperial institutions through a blend of discourse and practice. We will first consider how the local needs of the West Indies were rooted in the “sugar crisis” of the late nineteenth century, a crisis that was simultaneously natural and political. We will then examine the ways in which the British government addressed the crisis while creating new, closer imperial ties to the colonies. In doing so, Britain institutionalized a new discourse of intervention, called development, as well as the practices associated with it. Development entailed a new way of thinking about the Empire's social responsibilities, quite different from the laissez-faire approach that preceded it, at the

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