I continue my musings on the recent emergence of development studies in the American academy . . .

The rise of development studies presents two interesting opportunities for development in general – a chance to start treating development as a discipline, and the chance to bring interdisciplinary (or, in the parlance of the donor and implementation world, integrated) thinking to the fore in development.

What do I mean by treating development as a discipline?  Various social scientists have demonstrated that development is not just a set of activities, it is a body of thought.  This is what I meant in Delivering Development when I said that

“contemporary development is not the product of a single organizational mission, a single theory, or a particular set of practices. It is the congealed outcome of more than six decades of often-uncoordinated administrative decisions, monitoring reports, economic theories, academic studies, and local responses. These ideas, such as the value of free trade and global markets for the global poor, are repeated so often and in so many venues that they seem to lack a single author or source. For the contemporary development practitioner, they seem to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The same assumption is repeated over and over in development documents until, for example, it is impossible to talk about development in the absence of markets. The results are practices and ideas that seem both universal and eternal.” (p. 7-8)

If people come into development from narrow, technical backgrounds, they are unlikely to know the history of ideas into which they have waded.  They may not know the history of interventions that have been tried in the past.  Understanding the ideas to which one is responding or building on with a particular program or project, and knowing the previous history of similar efforts, seems to me to be critical to achieving any development goals.  For such a knowledge base to become common in the field, development cannot just be an object of study for other academic disciplines – it has to be recognized as its own discipline to which new students must be introduced.

Academia has, for essentially my entire academic life since I entered undergrad, argued for greater interdisciplinary collaboration.  As best I can tell, very little of academia has actually shifted academic incentives such that interdisciplinary work might actually emerge and flourish.  The emergence of development studies presents an opportunity to create such incentives within an academic discipline*.  Any program of development studies that considers not only theory and thought, but also the history of development interventions, will necessarily engage the fact that development is an inherently interdisciplinary undertaking.  While economists have long held sway over the (informal) discipline of development, they are hardly the final answer for most questions that anyone engaged in development might face on a day-to-day basis (market failure around the environment, anyone?).  As the same time, the climate scientist is probably not going to have a lot of answers for how we might foster the emergence of local markets better able to address the predicted/modeled challenges of future climate change.  Technical expertise is critical to achieving development goals, but narrow disciplinary expertise is likely to reproduce stovepipes of information, funding and programming that make it difficult to address the suite of issues arising around most development challenges.  In the rise of development studies, we have the chance to break down these stovepipes under the rubric of a single discipline, thus creating a home for interdisciplinary work within a discipline (yes, that is contradictory), as it were.  At the same time, graduates of such programs would already think “integratively,” perhaps one of the biggest challenges I have seen for implementation.

Much of this opportunity could be realized even in the course of a Masters degree – which is critical to most programs, as they are Masters-terminal.  However, if development studies is to realize these potentials, it will require Ph.D.-level engagement by students and faculty to build literature, journals, and approaches requisite of an academic discipline.  This, however, must take shape in the context of an extended and varied engagement with donors and implementers that can only really be had if we move more people between academia and the donor/implementer world.  Creating the incentives for such movement is an entirely different question . . .

 

 

 

*Note: as a geographer, I have to point out that my discipline displays all of the characteristics of an interdisciplinary endeavor – most departments contain everything from qualitative social scientists to soil or atmospheric scientists to experts in the GISciences, and we are rewarded for collaborating with one another.  Of course, we are collaborating within geography, and publishing in journals accepted by geography, which makes things much easier.  But working across the various academic divides (quant/qual, human/environment, etc.) has already been modeled . . .

 

Disclaimer: This post is my personal work, and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of any of my current or past employers.