The School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

Students Archive

Adam Clark

Project title: Critique of development theory

Supervisors: Prof Hartmut Behr and Dr Jesse Ovadia

In recent decades the so-called ‘grand theories’ of development – particularly modernisation and neoliberalism – have come under fire from scholars who argue that the world is too complex and diverse to be reduced to simple, totalising theories. These ‘universal’ theories attempted to capture the particularities of the world in frameworks applicable across cultures. Critics argue that the search for universals must necessarily result in the suppression of particulars. This widely accepted view has had profound – and, I argue, counter-productive – implications for the subsequent direction of development theory.

Two key criticisms of universalist theory are covered: first, that it sets up dichotomies between a deficient 'Other' and a complete 'Self' toward which the 'Other' must aspire; and second, that by abstracting from reality in search of universals, such theories ignore/suppress/cannot account for the particularities of and differences between the West and the rest. It is argue that while both are fair criticisms of how universalism has actually been used in development theory; neither constitutes valid grounds for dispensing with grand theories altogether. With regards the first criticism, it is pointed out that dichotomies of the type 'good/bad' are not contradictions (which would be good/not-good). Rather, they are contraries - opposite ends of a spectrum - and therefore not mutually exclusive. The response to the second criticism is to show the classical logicians' distinction between precisive and non-precisve abstraction. Precisive abstraction, used in neoliberal theory, explicitly excludes parts of reality. Non-precisive abstraction includes everything, abstracting in the sense that only the relevant variables are actually specified.

The conclusion, then, is that universalism can in principle account for particularism, but that in practice the grand theories of development did not do so. This leads to the question of why this was the case. For an answer we must look back to the common origin of all modern theories of development: the early 19th century, where the idea of development arose as a reaction to what was perceived as the abstract, utopian visions of progress and humanity of the Enlightenment.

Intentional policy was to ameliorate the problems considered to be more or less inherent in capitalist progress. In practice, the state was appointed trustee of the nation's development. It is this aspect of development theory, rather than its epistemological underpinnings, that led to the problems noted by the critics. By its very nature, the idea of national development required a greater emphasis on the inside-outside distinction, and abstractions from the complexity of the real world.

This argument, which associates the problems of the grand theories with their ontology rather than their epistemology, reopens a space in development studies for universally applicable concepts and theories – a space closed by the postmodernist critics.