Academic journal article Ethnology

Development and the Life Story of a Thai Farmer Leader (1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Development and the Life Story of a Thai Farmer Leader (1)

Article excerpt

In the anthropology of development, the contributions of poststructuralist theory have been marred by tendencies toward discursive determinism and an inadequate theorizing of agency. The life history approach is a strategy for probing the cultural politics of development in a way that better addresses the reality of development actors. Development does not just determine what counts as knowledge or truth, but also opens opportunities for individual cultural experiments. Richard Fox's concept of the "cultured life" is here used to explore the various cultural and political entanglements in the life of a northern Thai farmer who has helped pioneer a new form of agricultural development in Thailand. (Development, life history, NGOs, agency, Thailand)


In the 1990s, the anthropology of development saw a move toward poststructuralism and an approach to "development as discourse" (Apffel-Marglin and Marglin 1990; Escobar 1995; Ferguson 1994; Sachs 1992). Yet criticisms of the poststructuralist approach to development noted its overemphasis on the uniformity of development discourse (Grillo 1997; Gupta 1998), a tendency toward "discursive determinism" (Moore 1999), and an inadequate theorization of agency (Moore 1999; Sivaramakrishnan and Agrawal 1998). This article attempts to demonstrate the merits of the life history approach as an avenue of analysis in the anthropology of development that can address some of these problems. It does so by presenting the "cultured life" (Fox 1991) of a northern Thai farmer leader, Berm, who in the 1980s and 1990s became entangled with the politics of development in Thailand and with struggles over development intervention in his home village and district. Berm was confronted with various challenges, including changing livelihood options and the opportunity to become involved in nongovernmental organization (NGO) development efforts. He creatively engaged the challenges and opportunities in ways consistent with his cultural background, gender, class position, place in local politics, and personal inclinations. Far from a benighted victim of the discursive straitjacket of development, Berm emerged as an influential local figure who appropriated Thai development for personal and political projects that engaged yet also transcended the discourse and material process of development identified by poststructuralist analysts.


The poststructuralist direction in the anthropology of development drew particularly on the work of Foucault. This showed that the analysis of development as a discourse could highlight the processes of knowledge and subject production wrought by institutions and actors in the global economy. In his account of the development "apparatus" in Lesotho in the 1980s, Ferguson (1994) argues that although development interventions most often fail to achieve their stated objectives, they nonetheless have important, if unintended, consequences. In Lesotho, development primarily provided for the expansion of state power under the cover of a technical, depoliticized struggle against poverty (Ferguson 1994:256). Ferguson likens the consequences of development intervention to Foucault's instrument-effects, "effects that are atone and the same time instruments of what 'turns out' to be an exercise of power" (Ferguson 1994:255). Escobar (1995:5), also drawing on Foucault, sees discourse analysis as a concern for "how certain representations become dominant and shape indelibly the ways in which reality is imagined and acted upon." Thus, development as discourse permits some modes of thinking and being while discouraging others. In the process, particular kinds of knowledge about the Third World and their subjects are produced and accepted, reinforcing the First World's material and symbolic domination over the Third.

Discourse analysis has helped question both liberal views of development as a tool in the right against poverty and Marxist arguments that development is merely an extension of the "logic of Capital. …

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