What is development studies?

by Professor Melissa Leach FBA

20 Feb 2020

We live in an era of major global disruptions and challenges, from poverty and inequality to those related to climate and environmental change, health, technology, conflict, migration, rapid urbanisation and democratic disorder. Development studies is critical to understanding and addressing these, generating and mobilising research that crosses boundaries – disciplinary, sectoral, national – and tackles global issues while remaining grounded in the day-to-day realities of people’s lives. It doesn’t seek only to understand the world, but also to change it for the better.

To ask, “what is development studies?” begs the question “what is development?” Meanings are diverse, contested and changing. For some, development is inextricably entangled with colonially embedded ideas of modernisation, linear progress and the transfer of resources and knowledge from ‘developed’ to ‘developing’ nations. Development thus means the institutions, discourses and practices established in the post-Second World War period and  applied to newly independent countries through international agencies such as the World Bank, reproduced and adapted to the present through a growing ‘aid industry’ involving multiple donor agencies, consultants, governmental and non-governmental organisations.

But this view of development as aid, planning and projects is critiqued both for presuming that some should define and steer ‘progress’ for others and for its narrow view of change. Another, in my view more apt, meaning of development is social, economic, political and technological change that leads to better lives. This opens up appreciation of a far wider range of actors and influences, including social movements, businesses, media and more. It allows us to pluralise ‘development’, appreciating people’s diverse views and experiences of change, ‘good’ and 'better’, and supporting their power to choose and achieve social justice. As Amartya Sen put it in his book Development as Freedom, “Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.”

Meanwhile, the categories of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, ‘North’ and ‘South’ are now challenged by evidence of poverty, inequality, health and environmental problems in countries of Europe and North America as well as Africa, Asia and Latin America. Development is now recognised as relevant for everyone everywhere, in Brighton as much as Bamako or Bogota – as emphasised in the ‘universal’ framing of the United Nations Agenda 2030 (Sustainable Development Goals), calling for transformations towards more sustainable and prosperous futures for people and planet.

Angolan construction site with several large cranes on the horizon
Cranes on a construction site, Luanda, Angola, July 2018. Photo by Eric Lafforgue / Art In All Of Us / Corbis via Getty Images.

Given this diversity, it is not surprising that the field of development studies has multiple foci. It includes studies within the ‘development industry’, helping policies and projects work better; more critical studies tracking its power relations and identifying alternatives; analyses of complex change processes, often asking “who gains and who loses”, and focused research on many topics; from finance to food and nutrition, war to migration, youth employment to gender inequalities, epidemics to climate resilience, and urban governance to agricultural livelihoods. With new topics and manifestations constantly emerging, development studies is an endlessly lively and wide-ranging field.

Yet some key features hold it together. One is interdisciplinarity: scholars include anthropologists like myself, economists, sociologists, political scientists, geographers and other social scientists, increasingly working also with those from the arts, humanities and natural scientists. A second is an engaged perspective, sometimes referred to as transdiciplinarity, in which research and knowledge are co-constructed with non-academic actors such as policymakers, practitioners, social movements, businesses or community organisations, improving relevance and capacity to make a difference. A third is inclusivity; whether through partnerships, consortia, approaches or methods, development studies attends to the voices and perspectives of marginalised people. Finally, all this involves ongoing attention to power relations, along with humility and the questioning of one’s own position and assumptions.

None of this is easy, and the practices of development studies, as well as its scope and areas of focus, are constantly evolving. This makes it an endlessly challenging as well as exciting field, as befits one grappling with the biggest issues of our time.

Professor Melissa Leach is Director of the Institute of Development Studies. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2017. She is an anthropologist who leads and works with partners in interdisciplinary, international programmes on health and sustainability issues, in Africa and beyond. Amongst various UK and international roles, she is currently an independent member of the UK Strategic Coherence of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) Research Board, and of the Committee for Science Planning of the International Science Council.


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