Transitional Ethnographies: Power Shifts and Intranational Development

A classic anthropological critique of development connects ethnocentricism in international development with the problematics of power. Failings of the global community to ‘develop’ out of poverty can thus be attributed to the imposition of inappropriate and top-down systems of economy or politics – a neoliberal, capitalist, or free-market approach to name the most often-cited candidates.

What is interesting about more recent anthropological critiques of development is how they show that the organisational imperative simply to survive – to retain funding and one’s own job – has a dynamic which undermines developmental goals, as assessments and improvements which hit upon structural problems are elided or ignored in the drive to demonstrate how fundamental one’s own role is, or to demonstrate that a program should continue to be funded.

Although it would be unreasonable to imagine that the world’s power structures are to be quickly turned around in the coming years, it seems probable that there will be – and already is – a shift in the way that these powers are balanced on the international stage. I do not mean the global stage – I’m talking less about the relative powers of social or economic classes than about the relative powers of different sovereign governments. A good example lies in aid contributions, and international investment: the BRIC countries, as they become less eligible for international development aid, are in turn becoming major providers of development funding.

What I’d like to focus on here in terms of these broad, historic changes is the ways in which they will affect development discourse. China is already more willing and able to invest (and, so the stereotype goes) with less concern about governance, due diligence or environmental impact. But some of the same pressures that encouraged the World Bank and the IMF to alter their hard-line, top-down approaches after the well-described detrimental effects of structural adjustment programs are also having an effect on the national development discourses in the USA and the UK, and also (shock horror) on those of China. The pressures I’m thinking of are the drives for more ‘grassroots’ and ‘community-led’ approaches to development, commonly identified with that all-powerful development buzzword ‘empowerment’; interestingly, although the push for empowerment and participation has clear linkages with the politics of the Left in international development, it is the Right which tends to push for more local empowerment on the domestic stages of the UK and the USA. What I’ve found especially interesting over the last few months, however, has been how these discourses of empowerment, and of the reclaiming of developmental direction, have been used by people in wealthy nations – coming from a variety of political standpoints – looking to reshape the direction and nature of their own economic, political and social futures.

I’m talking in particular about the Transition Movement, which arose out of a Permaculture course in Ireland, and spread to rural towns in England in the 2000s. Transition is, in short, about community-led responses to peak oil and climate change. In Developmentspeak, it could be seen as a civil society response to environmental concerns. Like many social movements, however, it has quickly absorbed a number of related political and economic critiques and solutions. For example, its focus on ‘community’ as the site for action, and the implications of reducing carbon footprints lend it a distinctively localist emphasis. There are now 421 official transition town initiatives registered in 34 countries worldwide, with 566 emerging and gathering support. One of the many interesting things about the Transition movement is its apolitical stance, and also its connected focus on the idea of ‘community’.

One of the things which excites me about the Transition movement from an International Development point of view is the idea that it suggests a model of development which we might see as beyond industrial-capitalist models of economics. Anthropologists have rightly criticised the progressive teleology which underpins much economic thought – in particular those which view modern industrial capitalism as the pinnacle of a single track of historical development (but also those, like some strands of Marxist thought, which similarly saw an evolution of societies on the global scale). But what might be arguable, in terms of models of development that we might aspire to – and suggest that others aspire to, is for socially and environmentally sustainable development to be at the heart of aid efforts. This is a self-evidently appealing statement on the face of it, but I’m certain that there’s something demonstrated in the concrete solutions proposed and tried out by affluent, energy-wasting citizens (a stereotype of white, middle-class people dominating Western social movements is not, sadly, entirely untrue for Transition) which shows a recognition that business-as-usual, or an obsession with endless growth, is clearly not the pinnacle of human development.

One final note to bring some of the diffuse strands discussed here into a nice big logical rope: China, one of the emerging powers on the global stage, is taking its own commitment to national sustainable development much more seriously than most Western powers (at least in terms of investment in renewable energy – this is not the place to decry China’s well-publicised, atrocious record on environmental protection thus far). Will Chinese business abroad (i.e. the ones accused of land-grabbing and irresponsible development investment) similarly realise the planet’s limitations and become paragons of sustainable international development? Or are social and environmentally responsible development actually sometimes irreconcilable?


One of the things which we hope to explore on this blog is how we can study local, and ‘intra-national’ development using some of the same tools, theories and techniques used in the anthropology of international development. We very quickly get into territory which is addressed by other branches of anthropology – political and economic anthropology are obvious contenders, but also the anthropology of religion, business anthropology and organisational anthropology spring to mind. In looking at the Transition movement, I hope to be able to explore some of the limitations and benefits inherent in civil society-led development in affluent nations like the UK, but I’ll also be looking for critiques and solutions which are suggested by that more recent strand of the anthropology of development – those which look from within institutions themselves to explore how individuals (re)negotiate the power structures in which they operate.

Jack Dentith


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s