Discourses of Development: Anthropological Perspectives

By Gow, David D. | Anthropological Quarterly, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Discourses of Development: Anthropological Perspectives


Gow, David D., Anthropological Quarterly


Discourses of Development. Anthropological Perspectives. R.D. GRILLO and R.L. STIRRAT, eds. Oxford and New York Berg, 1997; 299 pp.

Reviewed by DAVID D. GOW

George Washington University

For reasons that are not entirely clear, anthropological critiques of development produced by European social scientists tend to be more subtle, more nuanced, more interesting than those emanating from this side of the Atlantic. One reason for this difference may be that European academics are more tolerant of development, accepting it as a given, whereas their American counterparts often view it as morally undesirable and politically questionable. Europeans, in contrast, not only criticize, but also try to understand and explain the problematics of development.

Over the past decade, they have produced an impressive body of literature dealing with various aspects of the anthropology of development, which views development as a social, economic, political, and cultural process. The present volume continues this tradition, bringing together a collection of eleven articles dealing with not the discourse of development, but rather discourses of development. The distinction is important, since this has been a topic of considerable interest on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S. study of development discourse has been heavily influenced by Foucault and, hence, rather single-minded and monolithic, whereas in Europe such analysis has been -broader and more multistranded, both theoretically and empirically.

In the introductory chapter Grillo critically reviews a wide range of recent works on the subject, produced on both sides of the Atlantic. While agreeing that there may indeed be such a thing as a "development gaze," an authoritative voice which sets the rules for what is and what is not acceptable in development, he takes exception to the tendency to accept this as hegemonic and monolithic. He cogently argues that there is as much diversity within the community of development professionals, as there is between them and other actors in this process - local people, state agencies, political and economic elites, and national government. This suggests that the anthropology of development must increasingly become both multivocal and multisited.

Several of the chapters that follow ably demonstrate how productive and effective such an approach can be. Fairhead and Leach examine the formulation of environmental policy in Guinea, specifically the contrasting explanations for forest loss in the savanna, comparing the perspectives of planners with those of local people. By using a variety of sources, such as vegetation maps, aerial photographs, satellite imagery, writings of colonial administrators, accompanied by detailed ethnographic fieldwork, the authors convincingly demonstrate that the planners were wrong, that their perception of environmental degradation was a "myth," aided and abetted by the discourses of local officials, state agencies, the national education system, and even FAO.

The chapter by Crewe, dealing with the ideology of cooking stoves, is equally powerful. In the 1970s and 1980s donor agencies strongly promoted "improved" cooking stoves as a way to combat deforestation. Not only were the energy-efficient cooking stoves, designed by engineers, rejected on an enormous scale, but the assumption - one might say "ignorance" - for their introduction in the first place proved unfounded: they had little impact on fuel wood use.

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