James Ferguson on seeing what isn’t there

Over at the wonderful Theory Talks, James Ferguson, the Stanford anthropologist, responds to the question of the “biggest challenge in global studies”:

One of the things that bothers me about a lot of what I read the in social sciences that’s, as you say, ‘globally oriented’, is that it seems to start with a bunch of certainties, a bunch of assumptions – a kind of Western liberal common sense – that we know how countries ought to be organized. They ought to be democracies; they ought to respect human rights; they ought to guarantee the rule of law; they ought to be at peace with their neighbors. And then you look at, say, a country in Africa and all you’re able to see is a series of lacks – of things that should be there but aren’t. And you end up constructing huge parts of the world as just sort of empty spaces where things ought to be there but aren’t. And it leads to a kind of impoverished understanding, I think, because you don’t really understand what is going on here. How do people conduct their affairs? How is legitimate authority exercised? How are rules made and enforced? You know, all the kinds of questions that ought to be the starting place tend to disappear or recede into the background. So, I think the real challenge is to approach this whole question with a sense of openness, a willingness to be surprised and learn something new and not to be so deductive.

4 thoughts on “James Ferguson on seeing what isn’t there

  1. I work primarily in organizational development and the generalities of “no capacity” and “no accountability” perpetuated about small and local organizations by those in the INGOs can be pejorative and disparaging, and does not do justice to on-the-ground efforts that are well-run.

    Though local organizations may lack the formality and structures that are easily identifiable using our Western-trained deductive powers, people miss the strengths that grassroots groups already have, like their deep contextual knowledge, community embeddedness, resourcefulness, language and cultural capacities, and the ability to operate in a responsive manner to local needs, all of which are those that NGOs and donors often lack.

    Luckily, I see many more practitioners seeking to challenge and abandon the vestiges of “expertise infusion” leftover from modernist and racist perspectives of aid and development. Indeed, we must keep learning to keep our minds, but more importantly, our hearts open.


  2. Hi Rachel – thanks for this post. You describe this tension well. The shoe example is a great one – just by thinking through things a little more, you start to recognize how much more is going on than meets our (very limited) eyes. This reminds me of work that changed my life as an undergraduate – have you heard of Asset-Based Community Development? Check it out – the idea is to methodically seek out what a community DOES have, and start working from there. Again, really appreciate this post, thanks for writing.


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