Debates within the Discipline

From its inception, one of the strengths of development sociology has been its mutual concern with disciplinary/theoretical and policy/practice issues. Since the 1950’s, sociology has engaged these twin foci to explore both internal and international spatial inequality in two contrasting ways. The first conceptualizes development as a series of interventions in transition-economies with the goal of facilitating economic growth and/or improving lives and livelihoods.  The second understands the ‘development project’ (McMichael 1996) as an organizing principle to promote global capitalist expansion during the Cold War, with an overarching geopolitical goal of securing resources and markets for Western powers. A range of lively debates exists both within and across these two perspectives.

In the 1950s, development thought was dominated by modernization theory. This lens divided the world into “traditional” and “modern” societies, each with distinct qualities, such as economic structures, values, or family and community organization. Positing that modern societies possessed a set of characteristics that had allowed them to advance economically, modernization theory focused on strategies to facilitate a transition from traditional (generally third-world countries) to modern (Western) economies (Rostow 1963). Modernization theory itself was a diverse set of ideas about how to facilitate this transition. Following in the footsteps of classical sociological thinkers, several modernization theorists sought to understand and theorize transition moments such as the industrial revolution (Smelser 1959, Bendix 1967) and social structures such as religion (Bellah 1957) as ways of understanding the mechanisms that facilitated the transition to modernized societies. One popular model in the modernization literature articulated a dual economy approach, divided by a low technology agricultural sector in rural areas (e.g. traditional), and modern infrastructure in the urban areas (cf. Boeke 1953; Lewis 1954; Lambert 1967). Another argued that the change from “traditional” to “modern” required the transformation of values to those similar in Western societies (cf Parsons 1951; Hoselitz 1960; Lerner 1958; McClelland 1961). Writers argued that developed countries were characterized by universalism, achievement orientation, and functional specificity; whereas in developing areas individuals needed to learn “the need for achievement” (McClelland 1961).

Farming near Tilonia, Rajasthan, India

Modernization theory continues to be a central concept in both the sociology of development and in development practice (for recent articulations, see Inkeles and Smith 1974, and Davis 2004). Yet, by the 1960s, many modernization writers realized that the process of modernization did not necessarily guarantee a smooth path to liberal democracy and was often accompanied by discontinuities, breakdowns, dictatorship, rebellions, and protests (Moore 1966, Eisenstadt 1970). Dependency theory, originating in Latin America in the inter-war years, emerged as a response to and direct critique of modernization theory (Cardoso 1979, Furtado 1964). Dependency theorists looked beyond domestic economies to suggest that the persistence of underdevelopment could be explained through long histories of unequal exchange between Europe and the United States and the rest of the world. These relationships, emerging from imperialism and colonialism, were at once fundamental to the rise of the West and central to the structural underdevelopment of the rest of the world (Baran 1957, Sweezy and Baran 1966, Amin 1973, Gunder-Frank1978, Rodney 1974, Evans 1979). Dependency thinkers posed various approaches to understanding and addressing this relationship. Some, particularly Latin-American thinkers associated with the UN Economic Commission for Latin America, posed import-substitution industrialization as a strategy for development. Others, such as Paul Baran, adopted a more overtly Marxian view of dependency, seeing it as an international division of labor into regionally defined skilled and unskilled workers. Thinkers in this school saw little path out of these dependent relationships short of political revolution. As such, dependency theorist moved away from a modernization approach to development as “transition” to one that, rather, asked questions about processes of transformation. A common theme that united dependency thinkers, and subsequently paved the way for new directions in the sociology of development, was the use of a core/periphery model to explain both international and internal socio-economic relationships. As such, dependency theorists mapped their analyses of the foreign trade, labor, and investment linkages that produced underdevelopment to a global, historical, and relational framework of analysis.

World-Systems Analysis systemized and advanced the logic of underdevelopment theory into a coherent framework of global development.  Historically, world-systems analysis grew out of development sociology.  Of the four scholars ever to have been awarded the PEWS Distinguished Career Award, Immanuel Wallerstein’s first three books (1961, 1964, 1967) were on post-colonial Africa, Andre Gunder Frank’s first three books (1967, 1969, 1969) were on Latin American development and the sociology of development, Janet Abu-Lughod’s first book (1971) was a history of Cairo, and Giovanni Arrighi’s first three books (1967, 1969, 1973) were on Africa and imperialism.

World-systems analysis moved beyond these early analyses of the causes of development in the colonial and post-colonial periphery to both expand the range of dependent variables to include the effects of dependent development, and to expand the historical scope of analysis beyond the nineteenth and twentieth century Euro-American world system. Active areas of research today include gender-based social movements in the global South (Moghadam 2005), labor conditions in the global South (Ross 2004), the historical development of the global South (Singh 2006), economic growth and income inequality (Babones 2009), the rights of indigenous peoples (Hall and Fenelon 2009), and the environment and development (Jorgenson and Kick 2006).  World-systems perspectives on development tend to be structuralist and deeply historical.  World-systems sociologists added geographical breadth and historical depth to the dependency approach, tracing the roots of today’s core-periphery structure back 400 years (Wallerstein 1974), 800 years (Abu-Lughod 1991), or even several thousand years (Frank and Gills 1993; Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997).  World-systems sociologists see the global South and the global North as interdependent components of a single global socioeconomic system.  Gerreffi’s 1993  concept of global commodity chains has complemented traditional world-systems perspectives nicely by providing new micro and meso theoretical foundations for the dynamics of cross-national links

Within comparative macrosociology, another line of research has emerged which studies local capacity to develop in the face of hostile world-systemic factors; such models generally invoke a proactive state which limits the autonomy of multinational actors and proactively invests in sectors with long term growth potential. The classic statement of this perspective is Peter Evans 1979 Dependent Development which studied developmentalist actions by the Brazilian state. This was followed by a substantial literature on East Asian developmentalist states.  (Amsden 1989, Gold 1986) The next generation of studies in this tradition studied failed developmentalist states, identifying the social and political pre-conditions for ineffective clientilist intervention. (Chibber 2003, Lange and Rueschemeyer 2005). A parallel tradition exists in economic sociology examining the role of the state in the historical creation of markets and financial institutions. (Carruthers 1996)

Not all sociological work on development is macrosociological; there are significant microsociological traditions as well. Formal decompositions have shown that population factors can contribute very extensively to increases in per capita GDP (Kelley and Schmidt 2001). The most well known demographic contributor to growth is population control. (Stockwell 1962, Easterlin 1967) Fertility reduction lowers dependency ratios (the percent of the population not of prime working age), which increases productivity. Reduced child-bearing promotes greater educational attainment and labor force participation among women. (Ahlburg and Mason 2001) Greater education increases the human capital stock and productivity of a nation – although there is significant debate about the size of the effect and the mechanism by which this occurs. (Rubinson and Browne 1994) Mortality affects development as well; long life spans have been empirically shown to raise savings rates. (Kinugasa and Mason 2006)  Furthermore, migration has substantial effects on economic growth both by reallocating stocks of human capital and by providing financial remittances to impoverished areas. (Borjas and Tienda 1987, Massey and Parado 1994).

Mural in a Zapatista Caracole

A related tradition of work is the literature on gender and development. The various theoretical frameworks that constituted the sociology of development – modernization, dependency, Marxist, world-systems – initially were inattentive to the gender dynamics of development processes, but sociologists such as Rae Lesser Blumberg, Hanna Papanek, Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, Helen Safa, Saskia Sassen, Rita Gallin, Deniz Kandiyoti, Susan Tiano, Kathryn Ward, Shelley Feldman, Anita Weiss, and Val Moghadam drew on feminist concepts, stratification theory, and the interdisciplinary field of women-in-development (later to be known as gender-and-development) to integrate gender analysis into the sociological study of development.

In the 1980s, studies showed how gender ideologies emphasizing the “nimble fingers” of young women workers and their capacity for hard work, especially in the southeast Asian economies, justified the recruitment of women for unskilled and semiskilled work, in labor-intensive industries at wages lower than men would accept and in conditions that unions would not permit. Research also showed the “feminization of employment” across the globe, in the dual sense of an increase in the numbers of women in the labor force and a deterioration of work conditions (labor standards, income, and employment status).  Gender ideologies, however, also underpinned the retention of the sexual division of labor within the home, along with the creation of a “global care chain” through migration and demand for low-cost caregivers.  There is now a large literature examining women’s roles in and contributions to production, capital accumulation, reproduction, “the care economy”, and labor mobility, along with movements for social/economic rights.  While scholars differ as to whether the development process is exploitative or emancipatory (or both) for women and gender relations, the literature taken as a whole confirms that the relationship between gender relations and the development process is dynamic and interactive.

A third microsociology has considered the role of social capital in development. Social capital scholars integrated the study of national economies, with the study of ethnic entrepreneurship, and the new economic sociology that emphasized the importance of social networks. (Portes, 1998, Coleman1988, Putnam 2000, Grootaert and Bastler 2008) Proponents argue that social capital provides a way to both identify and produce synergies and positive outcomes in development practice ( Fukuyama 2002, Evans 1997, Larance 2001). Critics of this perspective argue that the concept of social capital offered a functionalist understanding of development that dangerously obscured relations of power and a range of political and social relations that underpinned and constituted conditions of inequality (Schafft and Brown 2003, Fine 1999, Harris 2002).

Not all development sociology involves the periphery and semi-periphery – and not all development sociology involves nations or world-systems. Spatial and regional sociology – while applicable to these settings – has given particular emphasis to analyses of subnational units within the developed core. Such analyses are particularly salient in an era of increasing de-industrialization. A rich and established urban literature explores inequalities of poverty, racial segregation, crime, and other conditions, much of it focusing on large and/or world cities.  Intermediate units of analysis have also been of interest.  The emphasis is on regional inequality processes beyond the metropolis but below the level of the nation-state.  Comparative subnational studies focus on shared attributes of groups of places, such as localities, states, and other territorial units, with the purpose of examining how social stratification processes unfold differentially within a nation. This body of work argues for the need to study and explain why general, national patterns do not work out evenly within a nation; at the same time, its scale of interest involves generalizing beyond individual localities and local-level actors and processes.

Sociology has had a longstanding interest in regional processes dating back from the work of the Southern Regionalists and human ecologists ( Hawley 1950; Odum and Moore 1938) and continuing through development sociology (Bunker 1985). The field of rural sociology has always been a regional sociology in that it examines the nation’s hinterland (Lobao 1990, RSS 1993). Contemporary regional sociological studies focus on the maintenance and reproduction of poverty and other inequalities at the regional scale such as Appalachia and the South (Duncan 1999; Falk et al. 2003; Fossett and Seibert 1997; Lyson and Falk 1993), Native American areas (Hooks and Smith 2004), areas of Latino settlement (Saenz 1997) and in developing nations with regionally based ethnic stratification (Brown et. al. 2007). Sociologists have also sought to understand regional processes creating urban-suburban-rural gaps (Drier et al. 2001; Orfield 1997) and connections between urban processes and national/global ones as mediated by transborder-regions (Chen 2005; Orum and Chen 2003).

Development sociology has changed significantly in the last two decades. The most important break with traditional formulations has been the rise of a critical post-developmentalism. The new work emphasizes the adverse effects of traditional development on the ecology of the planet, on the well being of subordinated peoples, and on global culture.  This literature has its antecedents in empirical examinations of the adverse effects of neoliberalism, international debt and globalization . (George 1989, 1991, Harvey 2007, Hoogvelt 2001, Sklair 2002, Beneria and Feldman 1992). New questions emerged about the unequal and uneven impacts of such programs on range of factors such health, education, and income  the penetration of trans-national corporations into newly liberalized markets (Sklair 2000); and the increasing role of NGOs in the implementation of broad development agendas and in national politics (Feldman 1997).

These concerns crystallized into a post-development critique. (McMichael 1996)  Post-development thinkers—heavily influenced by poststructural and feminist theories (Elson 1995, Harcourt 1994, Enloe 1989, Moghadam 1996)—began to rethink the whole development enterprise, exploring how the development narrative made unrealistic assumptions about poverty and underdevelopment, and how to address it through coordinated international policies. Development discourse and its structuring of development programs and practices came under particular critical scrutiny (Ferguson 1994,  Sachs 1992, Rahnema and Bawtree 1997). Such studies highlighted both the institutional structures and logics that enabled particular development interventions (Escobar 1994, Mitchell 1991) and the complicated meanings and mappings of power involved in the implementation of such projects (Mosse 2005). While post-development thought opens up a range of new spaces of inquiry in the study of development, debate remains active over whether such post-development thought itself overstates its case and, in doing so, precludes the possibilities of positive development interventions in the lives of those living in poverty (Berger 1995, Kiely 1995).

New directions include reconsidering the links between culture and development, engaging a range of questions about appropriation of “empowerment” in gender targeted programming, the multiple deployments of “indignity,” and the links between western norms that are often constitutive of development programs and the diverse contexts in which they are deployed ( Da Costa 2010). The environmental sociology of development has addressed the adverse effects of climate change and large scale development initiatives (Castles 2002, Cernea 2003, Vandergeest 2003, Baviskar 1997)—opening questions about the meaning of environmental conservation and the range of potential relations between economic development and the environment ( Peluso and Watts 2001, Foster 2000, Magdof, Foster and Buttle 2000, Gellert 2005) . Others engage with the range of social movements that have emerged around the world to reassert the claims of marginalized groups in political and economic arenas from which they have been excluded (Petras 2003, McMichael 2010). Such engagements continue to raise critical questions about social action, democratic governance, and participation.

The sociology of development as a field continues to be a vibrant space within sociology. It has been central both in questioning the terms and meanings of “development,” and in shaping debates and programming decisions within both sociological, practitioner, and policy circles. While many old debates remain, many new approaches seek to resolve schisms within the field and bring synthesis to longstanding divides between approaches that seek to refine and those that seek to critique development. It is at once “public,” in its engagement with projects and policies that directly seek to shape the lives and livelihoods of many throughout the Global South; theoretical, in terms of its ongoing attempts to understand processes of economic and social transformations and the ways these changes shape and are shaped by the contemporary moment; and historical, in its re-figuration of development in the context of broader capitalist and colonial historiographies.


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