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.

I certainly believe that there are a number of Western development practitioners who have taken this perspective – of the limits of their own understanding – to heart, in useful ways.  And it’s also quite clear to me that any number of practitioners persist in seeing low income countries as a series of gaps and lacks, filled with people who are not inherently passive, but are still incapable of generating substance and meaning on their own.  When you look at a dirt road, and immediately wonder why it isn’t paved, rather than pondering the ways that people use it and the spaces it connects, your normative vision of the world is likely standing between you and a more proximately accurate understanding.

Shoe StoreShoe vendor, Kinshasa

I remember having this instinctive reaction myself when I took the above photo in Kinshasa (on my BlackBerry in 2009, apologies for the poor quality).  I thought something along the lines of “wow, that’s an awfully low budget shoe store.”  I didn’t notice the creative display (maximum visibility of shoes in a minimal space, compared to piling them on a table).  I didn’t think about the processes by which sending Western cast-offs to low income countries, to be purchased by the bale by clothing merchants, had become a normal and even admired aspect of globalization.  It didn’t even occur to me that this particular vendor had thoughtfully specialized in white trainers.  I only saw what wasn’t there.  It’s the steady challenge of life, and especially work, in a globalized world, to learn to focus on what is there.

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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