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(2016-7) Two contrasting anthropological approaches to development

By Frederick Charles Craig, Husniye Ilhan, Grace Ludlow, Hisako Okuzumi, Margaux Soyer, Rebecca Spruce, Sophie Esme Taylor Martin

Anthropological analysis can offer a unique insight into understanding the expertise of development and humanitarian practitioners. What makes the subject of anthropology different to other disciplines is its dedication to long term, in depth fieldwork using participatory and observational methods on a small scale. Anthropologists gain local knowledge of particular groups of people, including that of development aid workers, taking care to avoid preconceptions and revealing unexamined presuppositions. This perspective can lead anthropologists to look at both unintended consequences and why development practitioners do what they do, two concerns that are in tension in anthropological analyses. We see this clearly in contrasting the works of James Ferguson and Maia Green.

In The Anti-Politics Machine Ferguson (1990) focuses his attention on a development project in Lesotho which was implemented to boost their economic base. Ferguson looks to the unintentional side effects, which he calls ‘instrument effects’, of this programme, in order to understand why it was implemented and it failed (1990: 256). Even though the development programme seemed to have failed, there was an underlying market logic that transcended the development experts’ intentions. There were unintended political side-effects, which amounted to the expansion of bureaucratic state power, partly as a result of unacknowledged market-based structures. Ferguson shows that ‘what look like technical, apolitical reforms seem to bring with them political ‘side-effects’ that overwhelm … the originally intended or claimed “main effects”’ (Ferguson, 1990: 265). Ferguson’s analysis demonstrates the utility of anthropological analysis as it can help make visible the potential and unintended politics within development projects.

In contrast to Ferguson, Maia Green’s (2003) work in Tanzania shows how practitioners are aware of and struggle with the issues which Ferguson pointed out. She critiques Ferguson for reifying development projects and ignoring the agency of the development experts, as she says that aid workers know that they are constructing ‘development as a management project’ and that they can have political consequences (Green, 2003). She says that we need to move beyond reifying development projects and recognise a more nuanced view of development practitioners and their expertise, one which recognises aspects like agency, compassion, and other motivating factors that arise through development work. Even though development projects might have unintended political consequences as Ferguson described, we should also recognise and understand how development experts might want to present themselves as apolitical, especially in political contexts that might put them or others in danger.

In this sense anthropological analysis shows itself to be ever reflexive, working on always obtaining a greater understanding of the practitioners of development, going beyond primary critiques to generate more insightful knowledge.


Ferguson, J. (1990). ‘The Anti-Politics Machine’. The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 251-278.

Green, M. (2003). ‘Globalizing development in Tanzania: Policy Franchising Through Participatory Project Management’. Critique of anthropology, 23(2), pp.123-143.