Is a global history of development possible?

This post first appeared at Small Precautions.


What would a fully integrated “global” history of development entail? It would require

  • Considering all actors in the development process: from the subaltern “objects” of development at one end of the spectrum, to various NGOs and IFIs and transnational corporations in the middle layers, to state elites in the North at the other end – recognizing the politically negotiated nature of each project
  • Looking across all geographies in which development has been deployed: including not just the entire Global South, but also peripheral areas of the Global North, as well as urban spaces everywhere;
  • Assessing all the ideological frameworks in which development has been promulgated or used to justify political and other forms of action, including colonialist, liberal, socialist, national socialist, communist, neoliberal, post-growthist, etc.;
  • Writing across all the many decades in which development has mattered, including not just the “high modernist” early cold war years and back into the interwar period, but indeed much further back into the nineteenth and even eighteenth centuries, as well as looking forward to how development practitioners have envisioned various long-term (global and local) futures, some running into the 22nd century and beyond.

Such a complete global history of development would have be methodologically omnivorous, indeed totalizing – drawing on diplomatic, economic, environmental, political, social, intellectual, and cultural history methods – which, done correctly, would require also pulling techniques and knowledge from geography and anthropology, from political science and economics, from psychology and sociology – using diverse materials as evidence.

Considering the scale of this, we may well ask: could even a Fernand Braudel take on such a synthetic task? Or, instead, is the historiography of development doomed to forever being a patchwork?

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About Nils Gilman

Nils Gilman is an historian at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to coediting Humanity, he is the author of Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Johns Hopkins, 2003) and many other publications on technology, security, and economic development.

2 thoughts on “Is a global history of development possible?

  • CS

    Is there a reason the “global history of development” has to consist of a single work, authored by a single person. Even as an edited volume many of those goals could be achieved – at least for some arguably representative examples – as a subfield, all of them could.

  • deepak

    Found your article on global history of development worth pondering upon…

    Please do watch my video on TEN COMMANDMENTS OF HUMANITY and let me know your comments and if possible please do subscribe it.


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