Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Developing Nations: "James Scott Essay"

Seeing Like James Scott: Some Observations and Critiques


James Scott is one of the most innovative and important political scientists in the discipline. Scott’s research— mainly on peasant and rural populations in Asia and elsewhere — brought to light new and interesting conclusions that many social scientists might never have garnered by engaging in mainstream methodologies alone. “Instructors looking for something a little different to put on their reading lists,” suggested Oxford’s Brian Glenn, “should give [Scott]… careful consideration” (Glenn 1999: 1207). The first part of this essay will try and expound on the contributions of Scott, and highlight his importance in the discipline. These contributions include detailed analyses of peasant life, “taking the state” back out of comparative politics, and doing political science that was concerned more with good research than attaching itself to certain political commitments. And while Scott is a “little different,” making the literature ultimately fascinating and unique, his work is not without its own share of flaws and critics. The second part of this essay analyzes the problems with the Scott framework, particularly aspects of his methodology and in his monolithic treatment of the local communities.

The Scott Contribution

James Scott’s work has dealt with several important issues that much of political science has not studied in great detail. In particular, Scott’s work on peasant and rural communities is deserved of praise. In fact, his career has been completely dedicated to studying “those at the bottom” — how they live, work and survive. In Scott’s Moral Economy of the Peasant, he elaborates the notion of the “subsistence ethic” whereby peasants spend much of their day doing labor and chores for the sole purpose of survival, or subsistence. A bad crop does not just mean a poor income, but even worse, starvation and hunger for the coming year (Scott 1976: 2). In Weapons of the Weak, Scott relates how powerless groups resist domination from the state by foot dragging, poaching, arson and sabotage, etc (Scott 1986: 5). For Scott, these are “everyday forms of resistance,” that peasants and rural folk use as their only defense. Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Scott relates that communication among powerless peoples takes the form of “hidden transcripts.” On the one hand, those at the bottom appear to accept the edicts and official views of the dominant power, all the while creating their own versions of history via hidden discourses and transcripts (Scott as cited in Joo 1999: 2-3). Lastly, Scott’s latest venture, Seeing Like a State, is not specifically about peasant communities, but does relate how powerless groups are often taken advantage of by states driven towards rationalization and grand schemes. In both the short and long run, what he calls “high modernism” hurts local communities by ignoring their needs in favor of the state’s (Scott 1998: 4-5).

Scott’s second chief contribution is what I call “taking the state” back out of political science. By this I do not mean that Scott does not engage states and elites in his research. All of his work deals with the central tension involving states and rural and peasant communities. But for Scott, politics does not just take place at the national level, and theories that think only about states or elites are woefully incomplete. At the local level, in rural and peasant communities everywhere, important things happen that political scientists must be aware. Seeing Like a State is a good example of Scott recognizing this importance. Statist theorists often discuss what states ought to do in order to help citizens, keep order, or do any number of things (See Skocpol 1993; Orloff and Weir 1993; Huntington 1968). Alternatively, Scott looks at the state from the perspective of those at the bottom, and while the state accomplishes some for the powerless, it also hurts many. Therefore Scott remains critical and somewhat skeptical that states, with their push towards “hegemonic planning,” can achieve all the goals some scholars set forth for them (Scott 1998: 6). Moreover, statist theories are often overly mechanistic and structural, and ignore the influence the so-called “people” have on politics. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak demonstrates that the weapons the powerless use, over time, have real effects on states. As Scott notes: “How is it possible…to explain the collapse of the Czarist army… without giving due weight to the massive desertions from the front in the summer of 1917?” (Scott 1986: 14).

A third strength of the Scott approach is his general concern for the powerless, whoever they may be. Thus, Scott’s books are hard to place on a right or left spectrum because all political regimes — conservative or radical, revolutionary or static — are open to critique. Conservatives might take solace in his skepticism of state-driven modernization and “high modernism”. His understanding of collectivization programs in China and the Soviet Union and ultimately “brutal and repressive,” was on the mark, but one cannot infer from this his laissez-faire leanings (Scott 1986: 16; Scott 1998: 203). As he argues, his preferences are not for greater neoliberalism per Hayek and Friedman (Scott 1998: 8). Unlike the various development ideologies — modernization and dependency for example — Scott’s approach is not necessarily tied to any political commitments. Oppression of peasant and rural groups is just as likely in market-oriented societies as overly bureaucratized ones.

Scott and His Critics
Thus far I have argued that James Scott is a talented, unique political scientist who has highlighted aspects of the world that other political scientists have ignored, in particular peasant and rural peoples in many underdeveloped areas. However, much of Scott’s work suffers from some similar deficiencies. I suggest three. First, Scott’s methodology — or the way he goes about his research — is never explicit in any of his work.[1] In other words, it is not clear how Scott collects his facts. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, Dietrich Rueschemeyer argues, is an “uneven book, uneven in the selection of cases and in its conclusions” (Rueschemeyer 1999: 109). For Rueschemeyer, Seeing Like a State is a collection of episodes that although tragic, like Stalin’s collectivization programs, are exceptions to the rule. Rueschemeyer’s research on Scandinavian welfare states points to the transformative powers of strong, but benevolent states. Scott, for example, never provides any statistical evidence about the likelihood of “failure” as opposed to “successes.” Even more surprisingly, Scott never actually interviews any of the local or rural populations hurt by the legacies of these “grand schemes.” How can one speak on the behalf of metis — local knowledge — without engaging any of the locals?

Second, it could be said that Scott’s treatment of the peasantry and rural folk is overly monolithic. Scott never goes into detail about the diversity of local communities. More importantly, Scott rarely suggests that not all local communities were in a monumental struggle against the state. For example, while many peasants did engage in “everyday forms of resistance,” many did not. Although absenteeism was rampant in the crumbling Soviet Union, many factories still had workers. And though desertion was common among Civil War soldiers, clearly most did not desert, and fought with their fellow soldiers until the last days. David Ludden, in an important study on agrarian peoples, highlights the problems with the Scott framework and the field of what he calls “subaltern studies” (Ludden 2001: 208). For Ludden, ‘elite” and ‘local’ were artificial distinctions created by scholars that in some cases had very little meaning to actual elites or locals. Local communities were incredibly complex, full of various kinship, class and patron-client relationships (Ludden 2001: 211). To reduce these very real differences was a grave disservice to the academic community.

Two points must also be made along this front. One, if Ludden and other scholars believe that local communities have diverse interests, various class cleavages, and general differences of opinion, then certainly Scott’s preference for metis, over high modernism and rationalization, confronts some problems. In fairness, Scott argues that states should be sensitive to local knowledge when implementing these programs from afar, and not that local knowledge should be the sole determinant in planning (Scott 1998: 313). But even if planners are sensitive to local knowledge, they must know, as some scholars do not, that there are a variety of opinions among the locals on everything from farming to hunting and fishing. For example, in rural Appalachia there was a considerable debate about the extent to which farmers should farm according to the Farmer’s Almanac. Some folks believed that the Farmer’s Almanac— a book recommending farming patterns according to various positions of the moon and certain seasons of the year — was the agricultural bible, and to go against it would curse your crop for the year.[2] Others felt that the almanac was a farce, and crop planting could produce results by any number of methods and timing. Needless to say, the debate is not just state versus local, but often times local versus local.

Two, while both states and local communities have various interests and knowledges, it is possible that the state and the local will “share” certain realities as well. Hyung-min Joo postulates in his own study of hidden transcripts that both states and local communities “share” a common discourse and outlook about the world. While some might have power and others do not, it does not change their common discourse. In the Soviet Union, Joo’s case study, elites shared with their citizens a view that the system was corrupt, inefficient, and ultimately destructive (Joo 1999: 10). It is not unreasonable to assume that local communities share a great deal with the state in terms of certain religious, moral and cultural attitudes about the world as well.

Lastly, some would argue that Scott was “uncritically admiring of the local community” and idealized such traditional arrangements. Scott reiterates at several occasions, in Seeing Like a State and Moral Economy, that his goal was not to romanticize peasant life (Scott 1998: 8; Scott 1976: 6). But Scott nevertheless constructs a dichotomy between the state and the people that makes it very hard not to conjure up sympathy of and longing for the traditional ways, and a general disdain for all things statist. This jibes well with the general constructivist project that gives voice to the powerless, and opens up a discourse to combat the powerful. As some scholars have suggested though, this romanticized outlook, intentional or not, is not only analytically problematic but empirically misleading. Paul Greenough’s work on environmental policy in India reveals that environmental crises could not have been averted by following metis, or traditional practices of local communities, and the tendency to blame the problems of local communities on the state is a utopian view of the world (Greenough 2001: 144). Historian Daniel Samson was also skeptical of privileging the local community and their traditional ways. Samson’s work on local Scottish communities revealed that without rationalization provided by benevolent elites, many a “Highland laird” were lost. Local measurement systems were arcane and backwards not only to the state, but to many who resided throughout the countryside (Samson 2000: 91). Rationalization was not something to be feared, but something that made life easier, was not oppressive, and was appreciated by all.


James Scott is an accomplished social scientist who has contributed a great deal to the discipline. His chief contributions include detailed analyses of rural and peasant life, “taking the state” back out of political science, and doing research that was generally devoid of certain political commitments. Scott is indeed innovative because he tried to answer questions that other political scientists have largely ignored. That being said, his innovations have not gone without a fair share of criticisms by fellow social scientists, anthropologists and historians. In the latter part of this essay, I tried to highlight some of the main criticisms of his lengthy body of work. The main criticism coming from the political science community has generally been a methodological one. Scott’s work, while interesting, operates with a case selection that is rather exceptional and does not fit the general rule. Although these exceptions matter, at the end of the day all we can examine are a collection of cases that share some features — authoritarian rule for example — but are disparate in other ways. Second, scholars, especially some historians, feel Scott’s treatment of the local community is too monolithic and lacks nuance. How can one favor local knowledge when there are a variety of “knowledges” to sort through and choose from? Lastly, both historians and anthropologists have been disenchanted by what they view as an overly romantic portrayal of local and rural life. The state is constructed as a strawman to be feared, but real rural life was void of romance and traditional ways were sometimes just as confusing to locals as they were to the state.

[1] This is not completely true. His first book, Political Ideology in Malaysia (1968), describes in detail the research methods he engaged when interviewing Malay elites in the early 1960s. But every work since has pursued a similar research agenda.

[2] On a personal note, my grandmother believed, to an almost religious level, that the edicts of the Farmer’s Almanac was the only way to appropriately plant crops.