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The Anthropology of Development 101: Theoretical Underpinnings and Alternative Approaches


The Anthropology of Development 101 intends to review the contributions of anthropological knowledge to development theories and practices in ‘underdeveloped‘ and ‘developing‘ societies, as well as the critique of development as a social, economic, and political phenomenon. It critically examines the major theories, strategies, institutions, and the social consequences of global development while emphasising what development means in relation to particular places and people. By placing development theories and practices into broader historical contexts, these articles look at development as a dynamic phenomenon that is continuously shaped and reshaped by new social, economic, and political circumstances.

This 101 series is divided into six articles including:

  1. The Anthropology of Development 101: Theoretical Underpinnings and Alternative Approaches

  2. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Discourse on Development and Its Effects

  3. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Challenge of Participatory Approach to Development

  4. The Anthropology of Development 101: Neoliberal Approach to Development: Microcredits vs Unconditional Cash Transfert

  5. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Gendered Politics of Development

  6. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Development of Difference: Rethinking Indigeneity, Ethnicity, and Social Movement

Development is tied to historical notions that consider some countries as less advanced and in need of assistance from more developed nations to move toward progress. The moral imperativeness of development arises out of Western policies, ideologies, and practices. However, development is not a linear process but has continuously been negotiated and challenged over time (Grosfoguel, 2000; Rist, 2008), and alternatives to the dominant developmental model have frequently emerged around the world (Dehart, 2012; Mawdsley, 2012). This article critically explores the concept of development and its alternative approaches to investigating how development has been regenerated and reformulated in different times and spaces. More specifically, it provides a historical perspective of the guiding principles and ideologies underlying the development paradigm before examining the main alternatives to development, both as theory and practice, as well as the involvement of new actors in changing landscapes.

What is Development?

Traditionally, development is explained as a process of change through which an increasing proportion of the population achieves a higher standard of living. In addition to practices, development appears as a belief: “At the heart of Western thought (…) lies the idea of a natural history of humanity: namely, that the ‘development’ of societies, knowledge, and wealth corresponds to a ‘natural’ principle with its own source of dynamism, which grounds the possibility of a grand narrative” (Rist, 2008, p. 39). From this perspective, development cannot be stopped: it is an ideal that all nations should strive to achieve. Rist (2008) even conflates the term with modern religion. The social belief that development would bring universal happiness became a faith that people cling to against all the odds and evidence. Embedded in the belief in progress, development is loaded with Western ethnocentricity combined with an evolutionist view of history based on the premise that all nations will follow the same growth path (Rist, 2008).

Roots of Modern Development Ideas in the 20th Century

Drawing from Rist (2008), the roots of modern development ideas lie in the ideology of the Enlightenment, which posited that the human condition was moving toward progress that could be discerned by reason. It later became part of the interventionist ideology of colonialism that culminated in the creation of the League of Nations, which “legitimated the internationalization of this intervention [colonialism] in the name of civilization itself, considered as the common heritage of European countries” (Rist, p. 58). The League of Nations was the first permanent international political institution that implied the notion of developmental stages: it thus conferred upon certain League members administrative responsibility for the administration of territorial possessions (Rist, 2008). In the aftermath of the Second World War, European reconstruction was initiated with significant assistance from the United States. In Point Four of his inaugural speech, President Truman extended the idea of foreign aid to include undeveloped countries:

we must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery... For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve suffering of these people. The United States is pre-eminent among nations in the development of industrial and scientific techniques. The material resources which we can afford to use for assistance of other peoples are limited. But our imponderable resources in technical knowledge are constantly growing and are inexhaustible (Inauguration of Harry S. Truman. Washington D.C, 1949).

The United States would use their technical knowledge and investment power to improve the life of people, thereby allowing them to climb the ladder of progress. Truman’s Point Four marked the beginning of the “development Age” and “a new way of conceiving international relations” based on the principle of differentiation between developed and underdeveloped countries (Rist, p. 72). Ever since, development has been intimately linked with the idea of modernization and economic growth (Mosse & Lewis, 2005; Rist, 2008). However, an approach merely based on economic growth and the primacy of GDP above all else is inherently shaped by a Western conception of growth that does not necessarily account for the diversity of situations. Rist highlights that “there was nothing in the past to suggest that one day every society would see its collective history as a constant effort to increase the quantity of goods and to make such growth the principle of government” (Rist, 2008, p. 215). In addition to criticising the economic aspiration of development, the author claims that development is intrinsically harmful (Rist, 2008). It is destructive of the environment, social relations, and the Global South more broadly. Not only does development fail to alleviate poverty, but it also widens the gap between rich and poor countries, and ultimately creates poverty as natural resources and human beings engage in the unbridled pursuit of consumption and profit.

Development may increase the unequal share of economic and natural resources

Alternative to Mainstream Development

It is against this background that alternatives to development theories and practices have emerged. Dependency theory, for instance, offers a solid criticism of developmentalism. First proposed in the late 1950s by the Argentine economist Raúl Prebisch, it gained prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. Drawing from the Marxist conception of capitalism which sees globalization in terms of the exploitation of cheap labour and resources by the developed world, dependency theorists affirm that development produces inequalities: rich countries get richer while the rest inevitably get poorer. This echoes Wallerstein’s (1974) concept of centre and periphery, representing the North as the core of capitalism and the South as its periphery. Peripheral economies were integrated into capitalism during imperial conquest, though on an unequal basis. These regions became highly dependent upon foreign markets and failed to develop their own manufacturing industries (Wallerstein, 1974). Dependency theorists affirm that underdevelopment is more than a technical problem: it is embedded within unequal political structures of power. Improvement policies, therefore, inevitably fail, for they do not address the origin of the problem. They might ease the short-term suffering of people living in the so-called underdeveloped countries, for instance by creating jobs or diversifying industries (Gardner & Lewis, 1996). Yet, they contribute to supporting the status quo. Long-standing changes, the dependency theorists argue, would necessitate radical structural changes. One of the main critiques of the dependency school is that it remained overly focused on a narrowly economic sphere. This theory ignored the significance of structural categories, such as gender and race, which continue to play a critical role in the hierarchical structuring of social and economic relations (Grosfoguel, 2000). Moreover, dependency theory tends to view peripheral states and populations as passive, thus downplaying how they might maximize opportunities, resist structures that subordinate them, and, on some occasions, successfully embrace capitalist development (Grosfoguel, 2000). Nonetheless, the legacy of dependency theory remains influential, and elements of its central ideas continue to shape current critiques of development.

Unequal share of resources in development projects

In the last decades, different approaches to development have emerged, subverting overarching narratives and entrenched development discourses. Actors which initiate development policies are no longer set unilaterally by Northern countries or multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank (Dehart, 2012). The Global South is increasingly active in development assistance in Africa and Asia. In contrast to the post-1945 narrative of official foreign aid regimes characterized by hierarchical relations and discourses of charity and benevolence, South-South Cooperation emphasizes Southern countries’ shared experiences, identity, and development objectives (Dehart, 2012; Mawdsley, 2012). While official foreign aid is characterised by what Sahlin called “negative giving”, a relationship of superiority and inferiority between donors and recipients (Mawdsley, 2012, p. 259), South-South Cooperation is more in line with Mauss’ conception of the gift that encompasses reciprocity in social relations (Mawdsley, 2012, p. 157). But is it possible to overcome hierarchical structures of power? Is a horizontal and inclusive approach antithetical to development? By rejecting structures of dependency that act as important markers of difference between Northern and Southern countries, South-South Cooperation undermines the ever-widening differences in the Global South. Cooperation can reinforce social hierarchies and obscure the distinctions between emerging countries (Mawdsley, 2012). In this view, criticism of South-South Cooperation cautions against generalizations and assumptions of ubiquitous and unanimous approaches of solidarity between the Global Southern states. Countries in the Global South are not a single entity but have diverse and sometimes contradictory interests, as well as different relative positions in international relations (Pacitto & Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2013).

South-South Cooperation Projects

Knowledge as Practice: The Role of Development Anthropologists

Since the mid-1970s, a growing awareness of the social and cultural aspects of development combined with a critique of top-down approaches has led to a change in the ways to conceive development. Since then, anthropologists have been increasingly involved in development projects, including strategies, policies, practices, and organizations (Escobar, 1990). The greater demand for development anthropologists is partly due to their ability to bridge the gap between people carrying out development projects and the targeted population of the projects. Acknowledging the cultural gap present in North-South cooperation, Escobar describes anthropologists’ abilities to facilitate “a new sensitivity toward the social and cultural factors” in development programs and projects (Escobar, 1990, p. 663). However, the involvement of anthropologists in development projects does not come without contestation. The assumption that communities need to be developed at all costs is often counter-intuitive: “[Anthropologists] face the uncomfortable proposition that applied anthropology is using people’s knowledge to advance development when we consider their cultures already well-developed in their own way” (Sillitoe, 2007, p. 157). More problematic is the use, or misuse, of information provided by anthropologists.

Knowledge as Practice in Development

The line between protecting a community’s interests and satisfying a client’s requirements can be easily blurred, and anthropologists’ work may inadvertently harm the very people they try to protect, for instance by bringing them to the attention of officialdom or harmful political and economic forces (Robertson, 1984, p. 296). Furthermore, development anthropology remains anchored in a Western-centered system of knowledge and power. Development anthropologists act within the scope of mainstream development institutions, thus implying that development programs are legitimate solutions to problems that people encounter (Escobar, 1990). On a different note, Gardner and Lewis (1996) argue that anthropologists can contribute to more positive forms of development by working on development projects while still providing a critical account of development. Whether good or bad, development is happening, and the deployment of anthropological knowledge has, at least, the potential to moderate the bad and enhance the good.


Over time development has carried different meanings and the nature and ideologies of development have been the subject of profound debates and concerns. Alternative voices to mainstream development discourses have played a crucial role in questioning the development paradigm. Yet, they have not made a lasting impact on the dominant paradigm of economic growth that equally applies to countries all over the world. The idea that every state must move towards the spread of technology and industrialisation remains prevalent today, and development institutions continue to implement development projects more than ever before. One should bear in mind that development is not a natural process but a set of practices and beliefs that have been woven into the fabric of Western culture. As such, it is not a transcultural concept that can claim universal validity (Rist, 1990, p. 12). Contemporary understandings of development tend to draw from a variety of theoretical sources and the involvement of new actors. It is urgent to understand development as a holistic concept where socio-cultural and economic factors intertwine with one another to produce change.

Bibliographical References

DeHart, M. (2012). “Remodeling the Global Development Landscape: The China Model and South-South Cooperation in Latin America.” Third World Quarterly 33: 1359–75.

Escobar, A. (1991). “Anthropology and the Development Encounter: The Making and Marketing of Development Anthropology,” American Ethnologist 18 (4): 658-68.

Gardner, K., & Lewis, D. (1996). Anthropology, Development and the Post-modern Challenge. Pluto Press.

Grosfoguel, R. (2000). “Developmentalism, Modernity, and Dependency Theory in Latin America”. Nepantla: Views from South 1(2): 347-374.

Mawdsley, E. (2012). “The Changing Geographies of Foreign aid and Development Cooperation: Contributions from Gift Theory.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37: 256–72.

Mosse, D., & David, L. (2005). The Aid Effect: Giving and Governing in International Development. London: Pluto Press.

Pacitto, J., & Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2013). Writing the “Other” into Humanitarian Discourse: Framing Theory and Practice in South–South Humanitarian Responses to Forced Displacement. RSC Working Paper Series, 93.

Rist, G. (2008). The History of Development: from Western Origins to Global Faith. Zed Books: London and New York.

Robertson, A. (1984). People and the State: An Anthropology of Planned Development. Cambridge University Press.


Sillitoe, P. (2007). “Anthropologists Only Need Apply: Challenges of Applied Anthropology.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13: 147-165.

Wallerstein, I. (1974). “The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 16(4) 387–415.

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Aug 14, 2022

A well-written article with a really interesting topic! I had never read an article about this subject, it was very enlightening. The explanation is so engaging that it makes one want to know about it. It is a great article!


I would honestly recommend this article to anyone. You did a great job in emphasising to ideological (and not at all natural) construction of development, as well as the colonial roots it implies. You clearly explained the relevant theories on the subject, as well as the limitations of each approach.

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Valentine Hallard

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