Response to the Commentators, Part One

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.

I would like begin by expressing my gratitude to the Humanity editorial collective, and especially to Nils Gilman and Sam Moyn, for providing me with the opportunity to publish these two pieces. I would also like to thank the commentators – Tom Robertson, Corinna Unger, Robert Packenham, David Ekbladh, Steve Macekura, Suzanne Moon, and Fred Cooper – who took the time to read the essays and to respond in ways that I find engaging. As Corinna Unger observes, the history of development is a field marked by spirited debate, and these contributions are no exception.

As anyone who has attempted such an exercise can attest, writing an historiographical synthesis of the last twenty years of scholarship of a particular field, especially one as productive and as rapidly evolving as development historiography, is a daunting task. This project began almost five years ago, when Nils Gilman contacted me to see if I would be interested in writing a review of Nick Cullather’s The Hungry World. I agreed but before I could begin, Nils asked how I would feel about writing a review of several recent texts. This was the beginning of stimulating exchange of ideas between Nils and I, which would lead me to write a much more extensive historiographical review essay. As important, new works appeared as part of the expanding scholarship on development as history, more studies were added to the list, and as they were an already substantial essay became even more substantial until eventually it evolved into two parts (at one point, we were even contemplating three parts, but decided, wisely, not to go down that road). Both essays also underwent several configurations and rounds of revisions. In a field as dynamic and fast-growing as this one, it is difficult to achieve closure, but at some point, one must commit to a particular framework and choice of texts, knowing full well that any structure and selection imposes certain limitations that cannot fully do justice to such an innovative, diverse, complicated and fast growing subject of scholarship as the history of development.

I point this out as a way of acknowledging the insightful evaluations and suggestions for new directions offered by the commentators. I also think it is important to acknowledge both the strengths and limitations of the approach I have taken. Narrative structures, as William Cronon put it in his brilliant article, “A Place for Stories”, provide the framework, explicitly or implicitly, for historical analysis and such structures requires us to prioritize and select certain facts, events and themes, while omitting others.[1] One must impose some kind of order on such a broad and varied subject matter, yet regardless of which ordering framework one adopts, there will be both merits and shortcomings. Reading these commentaries have helped to clarify for me the choices I have made in defining the parameters of the two essays, and the way those choices have shaped the scope of the study. From the beginning, one of the goals of these essays was to be as comprehensive and exhaustive of the new histories of development as possible. This led, as several of the commentators have observed, to a “closing the gaps” kind of approach; that is to aim for wider coverage by including in the story as many different countries and regions (from the U.S. and Western Europe, to the Soviet Union and China, to Africa and Asia, to Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East) as possible, and by adding new thematic topics needing investigation such as the environment, gender and culture. One of the drawbacks of this approach, it seems to me, has been an overly descriptive view of the key scholarly trends that have molded scholarship in the past and are currently molding the state of the field, rather than a more prescriptive stance in the sense of identifying future research pathways and undertakings.[2] Several of the commentators, while largely in agreement with the analysis presented in the essays, have offered helpful and insightful suggestions of how we might reflect more deeply and push the analysis even further in ways that have the potential to not only reframe the way we understand development’s history, but also the history of the twentieth century.

I will pick up on these proposals in the second part of my response (which seems appropriate for an essay written in two parts!), but for the remainder of this post I would like to address those commentators (not mutually exclusive) who take issue with some of my premises. These concerns have to do with my sense of timing, periodization, and framing of development historiography. Both Packenham and Cooper question the essay’s periodization, especially the omission from my analysis of important intellectual pioneers and theorists of development who engaged critically with the subject such as W. Arthur Lewis and Raúl Prebisch (in the case of Cooper), and Samuel P. Huntington and neo-Marxist and dependency theorists like Fernando Henrique Cardoso (in the case of Packenham). I do not have much to say to Packenham, except to reiterate that these essays concern the work of historians and historically-minded social scientists who were/are writing about development as history. It is not explicitly about the policy-makers or theorists or even the practitioners of development, except in so far as they are the object of our studies. He is rather flippant and dismissive of what he terms “the many ‘new history’ writings of the period after 2000.” But what he doesn’t seem to understand (or chooses not) is that this is not an essay on the history of development theorists and ideas from 1945-1990. Rather, it is an essay on the writings of historians and other scholars who have been engage since 1990 in a critical exercise of historicizing development; that is treating “development” as an historical subject that can be studied using historical methods.

Cooper’s criticisms are more compelling and constructive. I have tremendous respect for Fred Cooper, whose work, along with that of Bob Shenton and the late Mike Cowen, have been inspirational for my own scholarship, and nothing short of foundational for the broader field. Unlike Packenham, Cooper clearly understands that this is an essay “about people who study development as an historical question; it is not itself a history of development ideas or actions.” He cautions, however, that delimiting the boundaries of the essay in this way carries with it certain constrains about timing and periodization which he questions, especially about where to begin the story. Fair enough. Historians, as Cronon reminds us, cannot escape the use of narrative forms, either explicitly or implicitly, and these forms present us with a range of choices about where to begin our stories and where to end them and what to include along the way.[3] Cooper feels that there is a need for a longer term perspective through an inclusion in the analysis of critical intellectuals and pioneers of development such as Lewis and Prebisch. I agree the work of Lewis and Prebisch is central to the history of development ideas and practices, and the omission of the biographies by Robert Tignor (on Lewis) and Edgar Dosman (on Prebisch) is regrettable. But again, I would emphasize that this is not a history of the rise of critical approaches to development, but rather, of historical approaches to development. The biographies he cites should be included, but in my view, they are part of the “second phase” of development historiographies; akin to the work of Eric Helleiner and others who have drawn attention to the critical role of Southern policy makers and intellectuals in producing development knowledge and pioneering developmental practice.

Cooper is also not convinced by the shift I see in the scholarship on the history of development following the events of September 11, 2001. As he points out, many of the historiographical trends discernible in the literature of the early 2000s can be traced back well before 2001, and built on the earlier foundational texts of the mid-1990s, including important work by Cooper himself. Both Monica van Beusekom’s Negotiating Development, and my own Triumph of the Expert, for example, are projects that were conceived of in the 1990s, though they were not actually published until the 2000s.[4] I have to say that I largely agree with Cooper’s comments here. As I alluded to in the essays, the key trends of taking a longer and deeper view of the history of development were anticipated by historians such as Cooper and Cowen and Shenton, and their work serves as an important bridge to the more nuanced treatments of development history that characterize the post-2001 literature. I suspect the fallout from 9/11, and especially the U.S. invasion of Iraq, precipitated a more decisive investigative turn for historians of U.S. foreign aid and nation-building policies, than it did say for those studying the roots of development thinking in European colonialism or the initiatives of the League of Nations. Still, I think what can be said is these events reverberated throughout the field, helping to accelerate and intensify moves that had already been set in motion.

If Cooper is skeptical about the “break points” in my narrative, David Ekbladh finds fault in what he regards as my use of an evolutionary plot line, which he feels diminishes the complexity and diversity of the subject and unfairly pigeon-holes certain texts, particularly his own, as less advanced. I am sympathetic to Ekbladh’s concerns. I will admit to not being entirely satisfied with the framework I settled on. As noted, these essays went through several alterations. In earlier versions of the essays, for example, the work of Cowen and Shenton and Cooper appeared as part of the “second phase” of historical writings, even though chronologically they clearly belong within the first wave. Originally, the treatment of several texts in the body of Part 2 was split among two or even three of the key historiographical shifts analyzed, which reflects the complexity of works being produced and the difficulty of categorizing them. I’m sorry if Ekbladh feels his book has been treated unfairly, although as he notes the criticisms I have expressed are widely shared by other reviewers. To be fair, though, his work also receives much praise. He is one of the first (and few) historians of U.S. modernization to take a longer view by searching for the origins of many of the concepts and methods of the postwar era in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. The other great merit is that his study moves not only beyond the Cold War but beyond the state, by including missionary societies, philanthropic institutions and other non-state actors into his analysis which enables him, as I wrote, “to render a much broader canvas than any previous study of the history of modernization and its place in U.S. foreign relations has been able to do.” It is in this last respect, in terms on moving beyond the state lens, that I find Ekbladh’s comments the most relevant. I will return to this point in the second part of my response when I consider some of the suggestions advanced by the commentators for future avenues of research that historians of development might take.


[1] William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” Journal of American History, vol. 78, no. 4 (March, 1992), pp. 1347-76.

[2] Thus, contrary to David Ekbladh’s charge that I have been “too prescriptive” and that I have imposed “strictures to govern inquiry”, I would argue that I have not been prescriptive enough. Ironically, and somewhat contradictory, he also claims that “significant segments of Hodge’s program for future research have already been undertaken.” This is because, I would suggest, what I have written is not so much a program for future research, as it is a compendium of the main contributions and directions discernible in the current scholarship.

[3] Cronon, “A Place for Stories,” 1352.

[4] The core of Triumph, for instance, is based on my PhD dissertation, the bulk of the research and writing of which was completed between 1995 and 1999.

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About Joseph Morgan Hodge

is an associate professor of history and chair of the department of history at West Virginia University in Morgantown. He is author of Triumph of the Expert: Agrarian Doctrines of Development and the Legacies of British Colonialism (Ohio, 2007). He is also co-editor along with Brett Bennett of Science and Empire: Knowledge and Networks of Science across the British Empire, 1800–1970 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), and co-editor with Gerald Hödl and Martina Kopf of Developing Africa: Concepts and Practices in Twentieth-Century Colonialism (Manchester, 2014). In addition, he has published several articles in leading historical journals including the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, the Journal of Southern African Studies, Agricultural History, and the Journal of Modern European History. He is currently working on a new project tentatively entitled “After Empire: Late Colonial Experts, Postcolonial Careering and the Making of International Development,” which explores the subsequent careers of former British colonial officials and technical experts who went on to work for various international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank or for British donor agencies and consultancy firms.

2 thoughts on “Response to the Commentators, Part One

  • Kuttappan Vijayachandran

    Reading these essays and notes was a wonderful experience and in tune with my own perceptions on human development using Science and Technology. By striving toward larger and larger collectives, the Individual Man seeks not only safety and security but also tries to transcend the constraints of time and space. Einstein had theorized on the Socialist future of mankind as inevitable in his famous essay title Why Socialism? And, I believe, it is time to plan for a socialist globalization using the institutional resources already built as part of the UNO. I have already published a couple of papers on this theme which I would like to share with you.

  • Jenn

    MUY BUENO Escucharlos me trae gratos recuerdos de mis padres y sus amigos en mi casa, haciendo reuniones, tomando, parrillas, bailando, fiestas; parece mentira, el mundo dio un giro. Mis padres ya no están, pero recuerdos como estos los traen de nuevo a la vida de una forma alegre, fes.lel…igucna y Guillermo mesen, hopin y victor vivas parte de ello


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