Comment on Joseph Hodge, On the Historiography of Development (Part I and II)

This post is part of a roundtable discussion on two historiographic articles by Joseph Hodge published in recent issues of Humanity. For more about the roundtable and all currently available posts please see this page.

In comparatively little time, the history of development has become a highly popular and equally populated subject of scholarly research. It is characterized by lively debates and a high number of publications of all genres, and it might well be considered one of the most productive fields of research in the area of international, global, and transnational history in recent years. For that reason, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of all ongoing research. It is therefore of immense value that Joseph Morgan Hodge, one of the first historians to publish a monograph on the history of development, has written an extensive essay on the history and historiography of development. The essay can well be considered the most complete overview of existing research up to date, yet it is much more than that. In my view the essay stands out because it provides much-needed orientation in an increasingly complex and diverse field of scholarship. Joseph Hodge offers this orientation by means of a systematic contextualization, interpretation, and connection of different strands of research. Instead of limiting his role to that of an observer, he takes a critical stand on problems related both to the history of development and the existing scholarship on this topic.

The essay is divided into two parts. The first part treats the “first wave” of scholarship on the history of development, focusing on literature published in the 1990s and 2000s. In this part Joseph Hodge also includes some of the earlier works that discuss development from a historical perspective but are not considered part of the field of development history as it is understood today. The second part of the essay, titled “Writing the History of Development (Part 2: Longer, Deeper, Wider)”, is concerned with more recent publications and discussions. To a certain extent, the historiographical angle from which the author looks at the literature is informed by American political and intellectual debates. For example, he emphasizes the role 9/11 had in awakening or renewing scholarly interest in the history of development policies in the United States. Elsewhere, historians have approached the history of development from different political and historiographical angles. Some have arrived at the history of development by studying European imperialism and colonialism, especially the notion of the civilizing mission, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Others have identified the League of Nations as an early promoter of development approaches. Still others have emphasized the conceptual and structural roots of postwar development aid in late colonial development schemes. In the eyes of scholars critical of what is perceived as a US-centric interpretation of the history of development, the rise of the concept of development was not predominantly determined by the Cold War and the rise of the United States to global power status but also connected to colonial practices and postcolonial interests vis-à-vis the former colonies.

Notably, Joseph Hodge in his essay includes a large number of studies that focus on the role of colonialism and decolonization in the shaping of European development policies and practices. This integrated perspective is undoubtedly an expression of his own expertise in British late colonial and postcolonial development policies and practices. By bringing together these two strands of research, which, for a long time, have lived parallel lives, the author does a great service to the international scholarly community. He also argues convincingly that research on European development aid in the postwar period has paid too little attention to the role of the Cold War. Taking up this suggestion, I think it would also be worthwhile to engage with the question if and in which ways European colonial and imperial experiences might have affected the formulation of American development policies and approaches, and, if so, how. Furthermore, Joseph Hodge highlights the fact that the development aid policies and practices of the socialist bloc and the People’s Republic of China have been overlooked for a long time, and he points to Latin America and the Middle East as regions that remain heavily understudied with regard to the development debates and programs they experienced. In terms of topics and approaches, he argues that the gender dimension and the role of the environment should be studied in greater depth, as should the local contributions to and experiences with development thinking and practices.

I agree with all of those suggestions, yet I think we could even go a step further with regard to identifying future tasks of research. Apart from closing gaps in writing development history (or histories), it seems important to address the questions in which ways the field might be able to offer insight into larger methodological problems and what it can potentially contribute conceptually to twentieth-century historiography. For example, does our accumulated knowledge about the history of development suggest that we should re-think existing periodizations? Consider, for example, the ongoing debates about the 1970s as a caesura in postwar history in the Western world. We know that development concepts and practices came under fire in the 1970s, yet did this criticism and its effects go so far that we could speak of a new development regime coming into existence after the 1970s? This question is closely connected to the emergence of neoliberal development approaches, which Joseph Hodge discusses in his essay, too. Here I see an opportunity to engage two fields – the history of neoliberal ideas and practices and the history of development ideas and practices – in a fruitful conversation. This would also be a chance to analyze the role of non-governmental actors in the development arena, especially companies and entrepreneurs, more systematically. In recent years we have learned a lot about development experts and advisors, but we still know relatively little about those who delivered the technology, the loans, the personnel, and the advertisements for development projects. Studying the economic, financial, technical, and material aspects of development in more depth seems crucial to understand why a certain development approach gained or lost prominence at a certain time and in a specific context, which in turn could allow us to come up with a more refined periodization of the international history of development.

With regard to historical methods and approaches, the history of development suggests itself to discussions of what ‘transnational’, ‘international’, and ‘global’ history means and how it can be written. It also offers opportunities to refine the use and understanding of concepts like entanglement, transfer, and triangulation, the latter of which Joseph Hodge highlights as one of the most promising concepts. Finally, much more remains to be learned about how to use concepts like ‘indigenous’ and ‘foreign’, ‘local’ and ‘global’ in ways that neither reproduce simplistic dichotomies and biases nor turn into empty jargon. Whether or not such attempts to take the historical methodology a step further by writing new histories of development depends to a large degree on the choice and combination of sources. For entirely plausible reasons, many of the existing studies are based on sources from the respective historians’ countries of origin, which tends to result in historical accounts centered on the respective nation states’ development policies and practices. This kind of methodological nationalism can, perhaps, be overcome by making an effort to embrace a more genuinely international, or global, perspective on development history. This is not to negate the continuing importance of nation states – rather it is meant as an encouragement to creatively challenge established patterns of archival provenance and to identify new avenues into the history of development by including a wider array of sources reflecting different actors, regions, and time periods. Joseph Hodge’s essay contains a wealth of valuable suggestions on where to look and which questions to ask, and it will surely become a reference point in the history of development field itself.

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About Corinna R. Unger

Corinna R. Unger is Professor of Global and Colonial History at the European University Institute, Florence. Her publications include Entwicklungspfade in Indien: Eine internationale Geschichte, 1947-1980 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2015), and as a co-editor International Organizations and Development, 1945-1990 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), with Marc Frey and Sönke Kunkel; and Twentieth Century Population Thinking: A Critical Reader of Primary Sources (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2016), with the Population Thinking Network.


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