Higher Education


I’m getting a bit better at updating my website…probably because I have more to update. Specifically, I’ve put up some new work on the publications page. There, you will find:

On the preprints page, I have two new pieces up:

Also be sure to check out the HURDL website. We’ve got new pubs up, and the last member of the lab (Bob Greeley) finally has a bio up!

Nick Kristof’s piece decrying the distance between academia and the rest of society has, predictably, triggered a screaming firestorm in academia. That’s what you get when you poke the (over)educated, seriously literate beast. A lot of the criticism is very well written and thought out (outstanding examples here and here). But I fear that Kristof’s central message, that society needs a more engaged academia, is getting lost here. My main problem was not that Kristof was arguing for a more engaged academy, but that his prescriptions for how to bring about that engagement did not address the real incentives and barriers that academics negotiate when they try to engage with public debate.

So, in the interest of constructive criticism, I have some suggestions for things that Mr. Kristof might consider looking into – throwing a light on these challenges would actually serve to highlight the real, and often absurdly unnecessary, barriers between the academy and society. This is obviously just a tiny sample of potential topics, drawn from my own experiences in a top-tier department in a large, Research-1 state institution.

  1. Examine the system by which departments are “ranked” in the United States: The National Research Council (NRC) ranks departments at (not so) regular intervals, creating a sort of BCS ranking of departments, with about the same amount of accuracy and certainty. By and large, academics know these rankings are garbage, but administrations love to trot them out to demonstrate the excellence of their institution, and therefore justify the institutional budget/tuition/etc. But here’s a fun fact: if you dig into what counts in the rankings, you can quickly see why university administrations don’t necessarily care for academic outreach. For example, did you know that authoring an NRC report (which is seriously prestigious) DOES NOT COUNT AS A MEASURABLE PUBLICATION IN THE NRC RANKINGS? I know this because my department ran into this problem the last time around, with at least three members of our faculty losing multiple publications because the NRC did not count ITS OWN PUBLICATIONS. If those pubs were excluded, you can imagine that basically all reports in all contexts were excluded. So if administrations love rankings, and rankings hate outreach, you’re not going to get much outreach.
  2. Consider how academic evaluation’s over-focus on the number of articles produced creates less interesting, more arcane academic outputs: The production of knowledge in academia has, for some time, been driven by expectations of ever-greater output (as measured in research dollars and publications) with less input (fewer faculty members). These expectations govern everything from the evaluation of departments to individual tenure decisions. As a result, the publication requirements for tenure have become ever-more challenging, with expectations for the number of publications produced rising so steeply that many who recently got tenure might have published more articles than their very senior colleagues published to become full professors even two decades ago. This is driven by everything from departmental-level politics to the NRC rankings themselves, though I suspect a strong trickle-down effect here. In any case, this has created a crisis of knowledge production in which professors are incentivized to produce what my colleague Carl Dahlman once called the minimum publishable unit (MPU). Because expectations of performance are more and more heavily based on quantitative output (thanks, NRC!), as opposed to the quality of that output, it makes sense for faculty to shy away from “big question” articles that might chew up a lot of their data and interesting ideas, and instead package that same set of ideas as two or three smaller, much more arcane publications. This is a very real pressure: when I put out my retheorization of livelihoods approaches a year ago, more than one colleague suggested that I would have been better cutting its 15000 words into two 8500 word pieces, as it would have counted for more in my annual evaluation. Nothing has driven us toward a proliferation of small, specialized journals carrying tiny, arcane articles quite like this drive for quantification and greater production. Undoing this really awful trend would help a lot, as academics would be freed up to think big thoughts again, both in journals and in other fora. One way to help: publicize the alt-metrics movement (start at the LSE Impact Blog and work from there) that attempts to move beyond a system of academic assessment that reflects a long-dead era of publication and communication.
  3. Focus on how for-profit academic publishers wall off knowledge from the public: Academics must publish to survive professionally, and the best journals in nearly every field are the last profitable properties for a number of publishing houses. These publishers benefit from free labor on the part of authors, reviewers, and the nearly-free labor of editors, and often the subsidy of taxpayer-funded research, yet charge exorbitant amounts for subscriptions to their journals – in the case of public universities, bleeding the taxpayer once again. Academics are absolutely responsible for this situation – after all, we collectively define what the good journals are, and as I’ve argued before we could change our minds if we wanted to. But academia takes time to change, and could use a push. Where is the push from the federal government to demand that the results of taxpayer-funded research be made available to the taxpayers immediately? What happened to the initial push from the Obama White House on this issue? It seems to be a topic ripe for a good investigative journalist.

And, for good measure, an interesting trend that will likely lead to a more engaged academia:

  1. The shift in acceptable academic funding: Until very recently, academic grants from traditional agencies like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health were given exalted status, with all other forms of funding occupying lesser rungs on the great chain of funding. Thus, to get tenure, many (biophysical science/social science) academics really had to land one of these grants. The programs associated with these grants very often rewarded pure research and actively discouraged “applied” work, and even today the NSF’s requirements for “impact” are fairly surficial. Contracts were very second-tier, and often not taken seriously in one’s academic review. Now, thanks to funding crunches in both universities and the funding agencies, any research-looking dollars have started looking good to university administrations, and contracts are more and more being evaluated alongside more traditional academic grants. There is a tremendous opportunity here to engage academia through this mechanism. [Full disclosure: I’ve been funded in the past by NSF and by the National Geographic Society, but today roughly 90% of my funding comes directly or indirectly from development donors like USAID in the form of contracts or grants]

This is hardly a comprehensive list of things into which a serious journalist could shed light on, and perhaps help leverage change. I’m just typing quickly here. If you have other ideas for things that journalists should be examining, please leave them in the comments or email them to me: ed at edwardrcarr.com   I will append them to this post as they come in, attributing them (or not, depending on the wishes of contributors) in the post.

So, some of you might have wondered where the guy who ground out a lot of longish (too-longish?), wonky blog posts has gone over the past year and a half or so. Well, the transition back to academia was much bumpier than I had anticipated. Funding for research takes time to arrive, as does the support (i.e. skilled labor) necessary to make that research happen. And then there is the fact I teach two classes a semester – and they are not small classes. I just finished my annual reporting for 2013, and because of this exercise I know that I taught 261 students last year. In four courses – one of which was a 12-person graduate seminar, so you do the math on my average undergraduate class size. It’s…not ideal.

I’m also now dealing with a complete reversal of my situation back in 2009-10, when I decided to leave academia for a while and go work at USAID. Back then, I felt completely disconnected from development policy and implementation. I was frustrated and bored. Now, I have a small lab running five different projects, only one of which is “pure” research. But we are not fully staffed yet – we’re about to search for a research associate to take up some of the load – and the result has been a lot of nights with less than six hours of sleep. This is hard, but as I remind people, it beats being ignored.

So, until about a week ago, I simply could not get my head above water long enough to blog. I think that is going to change over the next few months, as we get things under control in the lab. So, for that small but dedicated fanbase of the longish, wonky development blog posts, soon you will have more to read.

In the meantime, I’ve finally updated my personal homepage. There are new publications up, new preprints up, and a new mission statement on the home page. This week, I will walk you through these new pubs and ideas. I’m also at work on a new lab page. This will introduce you to a new cast of characters, and a new set of projects, that should keep things interesting around here for a while. I’m not yet sure about the relationship between the lab and this blog – I have to work that out. But the lab will have a twitter account, likely an Instagram account (we’re going to be going a lot of places), and the web page will have project-related videos. It should be pretty cool.

Thanks for bearing with me over the past year and a half. Watch this space – it should get interesting.

Ok, so that title was meant to goad my fellow anthropologists, but before everyone freaks out, let me explain what I mean. The best anthropology, to quote Marshall Sahlins, “consists of making the apparently wild thought of others logically compelling in their own cultural settings and intellectually revealing of the human condition.” This is, of course, not bound by time. Understanding the thought of others, wherever and whenever it occurs, helps to illuminate the human condition. In that sense, ethnographies are forever.

However, in the context of development and climate change, ethnography has potential value beyond this very broad goal. The understandings of human behavior produced through ethnographic research are critical to the achievement of the most noble and progressive goals of development*. As I have argued time and again, we understand far less about what those in the Global South are doing than we think, and I wrote a book highlighting how our assumptions about life in such places are a) mostly incorrect and b) potentially very dangerous to the long-term well-being of everyone on Earth.  To correct this problem, development research, design, and monitoring and evaluation all need much, much more engagement with qualitative research, including ethnographic work. Such work brings a richness to our understanding of other people, and lives in other places, that is invaluable to the design of progressive programs and projects that meet the actual (as opposed to assumed) needs of the global poor now and in the future.

As I see it, the need for ethnographic work in development presents two significant problems. The first, which I have discussed before, is the dearth of such work in the world. Everyone seems to think the world is crawling with anthropologists and human geographers who do this sort of work, but how many books and dissertations are completed each year? A thousand? Less?  Compare that to the two billion (or more) poor people living in low-income countries (and that leaves aside the billion or so very poor that Andy Sumner has identified as living in middle-income countries).  A thousand books for at least two billion people? No problem, it just means that each book or dissertation has to cover the detailed experiences, motivations, and emotions of two million people. I mean, sure, the typical ethnography addresses an N that ranges from a half dozen to communities of a few hundred, but surely we can just adjust the scale…

Er…

Crap.

OK, so there is a huge shortage of this work, and we need much, much more of it. Well, the good new is that people have been doing this sort of work for a long time. Granted, the underlying assumptions about other people have shifted over time (“scientific racism” was pretty much the norm back in the first half of the 20th Century), but surely the observations of human behavior and thought might serve to fill the gaps from which we currently suffer, right. After all, if a thousand people a year knocked out a book or dissertation over the past hundred years, surely our coverage will improve.  Right?

Well, maybe not. Ethnographies describe a place and a time, and most of the Global South is changing very, very rapidly. Indeed, it has been changing for a while, but of late the pace of change seems to be accelerating (again, see Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion). Things change so quickly, and can change so pervasively, that I wonder how long it takes for many of the fundamental observations about life and thought that populate ethnographies to become historical relics that tell us a great deal about a bygone era, but do not reflect present realities.  For example, in my work in Ghana, I drew upon some of the very few ethnographies of the Akan, written during the colonial era. These were useful for the archaeological component of my work, as they helped me to contextualize artifacts I was recovering from the time of those ethnographies. But their descriptions of economic practice, local politics, social roles, and livelihoods really had very little to do with life in Ghana’s Central Region in the late 1990s.  In terms of their utility for interpreting contemporary life among the Akan, they had, for all intents and purposes, expired.

So, the questions I pose here:

1)    How do we know when an ethnography has expired?  Is it expired when any aspect of the ethnography is no longer true, or when a majority of its observations no longer hold?

2)    Whatever standard we might hold them to, how long does it take to reach that standard? Five years? Ten years? Thus far, my work from 2001 in Ghana seems to be holding, but things are wobbling a bit.  It is possible that a permanent shift in livelihoods took place in 2006 (I need to examine this), which would invalidate the utility of my earlier work for project design in this area.

These are questions worth debating. If we are to bring more qualitative, ethnographic work to the table in development, we have to find ways to improve our coverage of the world and our ability to assess the resources from which we might draw.

 

 

*I know some people think that “noble” and “progressive” are terms that cannot be applied to development. I’m not going to take up that debate here.

I just witnessed a fascinating twitter exchange that beautifully summarizes the divide I am trying to bridge in my work and career.  Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, the head of research at Oxfam GB, after seeing a post on GDP tweeted by Tim Harford (note: not written by Harford), tweeted the following:

To which Harford tweeted back:

This odd standoff between two intelligent, interesting thinkers is easily explained.  Bluntly, Harford’s point is academic, and from that perspective mostly true.  Contemporary academic thinking on development has more or less moved beyond this question.  However, to say that it “never has been” an important question ignores the history of development, where there is little question that in the 50s and 60s there was significant conflation of GDP and well-being.

But at the same time, Harford’s response is deeply naive, at least in the context of development policy and implementation.  The academic literature has little to do with the policy and practice of development (sadly).  After two years working for a donor, I can assure Tim and anyone else reading this that Ricardo’s point remains deeply relevant. There are plenty of people who are implicitly or explicitly basing policy decisions and program designs on precisely the assumption that GDP growth improves well-being. To dismiss this point is to miss the entire point of why we spend our time thinking about these issues – we can have all the arguments we want amongst ourselves, and turn up our noses at arguments that are clearly passé in our world…but if we ignore the reality of these arguments in the policy and practice world, our thinking and arguing will be of little consequence.

I suppose it is worth noting, in full disclosure, that I found the post Harford tweeted to be a remarkably facile justification for continuing to focus on GDP growth. But it is Saturday morning, and I would rather play with my kids than beat that horse…

Man, has there ever been a less enticing blog post title?  But it pays to be direct – so there it is.  I have funding for a Ph.D. student, starting in January, to help me on my USAID-funded work on climate services for development.  So, without further ado, the ad:

Graduate Student Opportunity for January 2013

University of South Carolina, Department of Geography

Ed Carr is seeking a Ph.D. student to support ongoing work on climate services for development in sub-Saharan Africa and develop an independent research program in this broad area of inquiry.  The funding for this position is attached to USAID’s Climate Change Resilient Development (CCRD) program, and the candidate will have specific responsibilities supporting the the development of field methods and the analysis of preliminary data, as well as conducting extensive fieldwork in one or more Malian communities in May-July 2013 as part of the project “An Assessment of Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Program.”

Qualifications:

  • Candidates will have to be admitted to the geography graduate program at the University of South Carolina
  • Candidates should be from a country in which USAID operates. Preference will be given to candidates from West Africa, then other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as this is the current target region for the project.
  • Candidates should have experience in one or more of the following: climate change adaptation, rural/community development, rural agriculture, climate science
    • The bulk of initial project work will focus on community-level information needs, and therefore preference will be given to those candidates with experience conducting qualitative research in rural settings.
  • Candidates should hold a Masters degree in Geography, Anthropology, Planning or another closely related field
  • Excellent written and spoken English.  French language ability is preferred.

The duration of funding is January-July 2013, with likely continuation through July 2014.  The candidate will receive tuition, a living stipend, and salary/research support for work to be conducted in May-July 2013.  Candidates who meet departmental expectations of progress and excellence will be eligible for additional semesters of support to complete their degrees.

Please note the very short lead time for this opportunity – viable candidates will likely have to have a visa in hand if they are to start in January 2013.  Candidates who cannot make this deadline, or who are not selected in this round, should stay tuned – I am hoping to open up a few more slots in the fall.

Prospective candidates are encouraged to contact Ed Carr at carr@sc.edu.  Applications are due on 1 November, 2012 via the instructions on the departmental web page: http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/geog/academics/admissions.html

 

 

There has mixed response to my posts on disaster awareness among college students (well, the Horn of Africa drought among my current students) – see posts here and here.  Some see something hopeful and interesting in the idea that the students want more complex explanations for the problems they see.  Others are significantly more negative, suggesting that people such as my students are just symptomatic of a larger societal, if not species-level, lack of empathy for distant others.  I fall on the optimistic side of things, perhaps because I am a geographer.  Let me explain…

Geography, as a discipline, spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about how places are created and maintained.  Places are not locations (folks get this mixed up all the time) – places are our experiences of particular locations – at least this is how I choose to think about it.  And when you think of it that way, it becomes impossible to see life in a particular place as independent from events in other places.  The experience of living in Columbia, South Carolina is shaped by the weather, the cost of living, the infrastructure, the schools (I am a parent), etc.  But each of these is in turn shaped by other factors that transcend Columbia.  The cost of living and state of the infrastructure are intimately tied to the history of the state of South Carolina within the United States (where the South has historically been the underdeveloped agrarian other of the industrialized Northeast), but are also tied to the global economy. South Carolina is now the last stopping point for large-scale manufacturing before it heads out of the US to find the most favorable conditions of production possible.  The overseas shift of the textile industry wrought devastation on the state’s economy…and relatively few in the state seem able to come to grips with the fact they were ground up in the jaws of a new global economy that has already spit them out.  Even the weather is being reshaped by global factors that drive climate change, as a new regime of reduced rainfall seems to be settling in.  At what point do you stop calling a prolonged rainfall deficit a drought and start calling it the new normal?  Turns out about three decades. We are about 20 years into a significant decline in precipitation, so we are getting there.  Thus, the policy decisions (regarding industrial policy and emissions policy) of actors in China and India drive shifts in the economy and environment of the State of South Carolina.  We are thoroughly tied up in larger global forces here.  To understand South Carolina today, we have to understand the larger world today – there is simply no way around this.

As soon as this lesson settles in (and it can take a while), it becomes obvious that these forces flow both ways – that is, as Columbia, SC is constituted by global forces, so too what we do here in Columbia contributes to global forces that play out in other places.  Thus, when we vote for federal lawmakers who keep absurd ethanol subsidies in place no matter what the price/maize production conditions, we create a driver of food price increases that can radiate around the world.  And while we in Columbia feel those increases, when the price of a loaf of bread goes up by a dollar, most of us are inconvenienced and annoyed.  For someone who was already living on less than $2/day, this same price increase blows up their capacity to feed themselves.

All of this then goes back to my earlier point about what the students wanted – complex explanations.  The kids already get it, folks – they already understand an interconnected world (to some extent), and they mistrust oversimplified explanations.  When you feed them simple explanations, you often have to root out the interconnections that connect us to events in other parts of the world – the very things that students would grab on to.  In short, by oversimplifying things, we are making it harder for people to feel connected to the places in which things like famine happen.

The lesson: find yourself a geographer, work with them to tell the damn story in all its complex glory, and get out of the way.  The kids are waiting…

Today, I reentered the classroom for the first time in two years.  That’s not completely accurate, actually – I lectured at the Foreign Service Institute several times while I was in DC, and I have a number of lectures, so I am not totally out of practice.  And after you’ve spent over 1000 hours (!!!) in front of a classroom, it really is like riding a bike…

Despite my classroom experience, I was seriously thrown by a moment in class today – I was discussing the different climates we see in East Africa, and mentioned the Horn of Africa famine in an offhand way…then realized there were too many blank stares.  So I asked the class directly how many of them were aware of the famine.  Not a single hand went up – 70 students, no hands.  Now, maybe someone put up a hand in that half-shrug, uncomfortable sort of way and I missed it.  And perhaps a few people had heard of the famine, but had not heard of it as something going on in the Horn of Africa.  But…at best, that is a few people.  Out of 70.

HOW THE HELL COULD THIS HAPPEN?  Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine – actually, that is a very low estimate, given that we were looking at 20,000-30,000 under-5 deaths in August 2011, and things stayed bad for quite a while after.  This is probably the single biggest human catastrophe since the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 (that killed 230,000 people).

I don’t blame the students.  Honestly.  They are wired in – they get all kinds of media all day long.  The simple fact is that the story of this famine was never sold very well, or very widely.  I thought the PSA campaign around the famine was terrible – a bunch of B-list celebrities, at best, in really dull clips (more on that in a later post).  Media coverage was confused.  Most could not separate drought from famine (which led me to write my most-viewed post ever), attributing the causes completely to the weather.  Others played up the Somalia terrorism angle with al-Shabab, a heterogenous and not terribly effective fundamentalist group in Somalia that decided to turn itself into drone bait by aligning with al-Qaeda.  But the whole story was much more than could be compressed into 2 minutes on the nightly news.

That these students didn’t know about the famine is a lost opportunity – an opportunity to illustrate how complex the world is, how climate change compromises development efforts, how relief work is very hard, and very political, and how there are a hell of a lot of really heroic people doing amazing work that probably saved as many lives as were lost, if not many, many more.  These are the people who will become educated voters, who will shape America’s place in the world through who they elect and what sorts of priorities they express – and they have no idea that America has a tool like FEWS-NET, which now can predict when and where famine will break out months in advance in several African countries…this is an astonishing accomplishment, and the envy of the world.  And if the foreign aid cutters in Congress get their way, it could go away.

Maybe many more people paid attention to the famine on other campuses, in other states…but somehow, I have a feeling that my class was not all that much of an anomaly.  Simply put, we in the relief and development community suck at messaging.  Between the frantic and often disingenuous fundraising that imprint television viewers with the belief that the situation is hopeless, the confused media reporting as everyone looks for their unique angle, and the near-total failure of messaging from the donor institutions, it is no wonder my students were clueless – hell, they almost certainly knew about the famine, at least in passing, but the completely disjointed storytelling probably prevented any meaningful understanding of the causes of the events or how to address these causes and their impacts.

I have no idea how to fix this, but somebody has to fix this. It is too important to be lamented and then ignored in favor of “doing the work” of development and relief.  Messaging is the work of development and relief – telling the story of what we do, why it needs to be done, and how we could do less of it in the future if we just addressed some root causes now is fundamental to getting the societal buy-in we need to do our jobs right.  Somebody do this right.  I can only reach 70 people at a time…

OK folks, yesterday I pointed to my friend Keith Bratton’s kickstarter effort to fund a photodocumentary study of the impacts of climate change on life in Ghana’s Central Region.  Please go to the page and check it out – Keith is a great photographer, and will produce really stunning stuff (some of which you can have, for a very low pledge!).  He’s crawling toward what he needs for the project, so all donations are important.

But to up the ante, I want to point out another “reward” option that Keith is now putting up.  The case he wants to document is a fantastic example of the complex challenge that climate change presents to the achievement of development goals – it raises issues of cross-sectoral work, the connections between people and the natural world, and how climate change creates unexpected challenges that, if unaddressed, can compromise the things you are focusing on.  It is, in short, a perfect case from which we can learn about why we must integrate climate sensitivity into development work, and the ways in which such sensitivity makes us “think differently” about development.

To whet your appetite, an example from my own work in Ghana that I talk about in my public speaking on the book: in 2005, I suddenly noticed that there were flocks of toucans flying around the villages in which I had been working from some 8 years.  I had never seen toucans before, and their sudden presence puzzled me.  It took me a while to piece together what was going on – you see, the Gulf of Guinea large marine ecosystem has been collapsing due to an intersection of overfishing (itself driven by a combination of local overfishing to feed a growing population, and the presence of large international trawlers overfishing the territorial waters of Ghana and other countries, largely with impunity) and climate change (which has changed the upwellings of cold water in July-September and December such that there are fewer fish riding those upwellings into the local fisheries).  With less fish to eat, communities in the coastal hinterland had started hunting aggressively, wiping out most terrestrial animals in the process – along with them, rodents…who must have eaten toucan eggs.  Hence the explosion of toucans, who are likely wiping out some other species they like to eat, etc., etc..  The toucan is just a manifestation of a complex ecological change taking place along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea that is poorly understood, but presenting real challenges for people’s food security and incomes.  Achieving development goals in this region, then, requires understanding climate change and its impacts, as well as the complex and seemingly-distant outcomes of these impacts.

That is a remarkably simplified version of what I see happening in Ghana – and it can be told more eloquently, and with more grounding in the human experience of these changes, in the work Keith proposes.  So, beyond seeing him work toward publishing this important story, I have suggested to him that he offer, at the $1000 pledge level, to put together a training module for your organization, using his pictures and findings, to help train your people up on the importance of climate change to development, and on how to think about climate change in the context of development.  Further, because I believe in Keith’s project but lack the wherewithal to back it out of my own pocket, I have offered to work with Keith to build this module should anyone order it.  So, in return for supporting Keith’s work, you get his photos and experiences, as well as my expertise – 14 years in university classrooms, over two years of living in villages in sub-Saharan Africa, lots of refereed publications addressing the climate change/development connection, and work on the donor side examining the climate change/development connection – all wrapped up in a training module that you can plug in to your own training program.

For those of you outside the development implementation world, this might seem like an insanely high price – but everyone in that world knows that this is a steal.  Were I a training consultant, I would be charging an order of magnitude more for such a service, at least.  And my illustrations would not be as nice as what you will get from Keith.  Again, Keith will produce the module, and I will help him do it – but I will not be paid to do this.  I have no financial stake in this project at all.  This is my in-kind backing of what I think is a significant project.  So if your organization needs the training, here is a great opportunity.

 

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.

Next Page »