Response to the Commentators, Part Two

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.

Once again let me express my gratitude to the commentators, most of who appear to agree with the overall argument, analysis and historiographical arc I have sketched out in these essays. That said, as previously noted, several contributors also see the need to reflect more deeply about the study of development history and have shared their ideas for taking the literature in new directions. In this second response, I want to devote a bit more thought and space to those possibilities, which as several commentators have suggested offer the chance not only of reframing the field of development history, but also of significantly recasting the history of the twentieth century.

In my initial response, I suggested the essay’s “closing the gaps” approach, which aimed for as wide a coverage as possible, tended as a consequence to be more descriptive of past and current trends in scholarship, than indicative as perhaps it could have been of future research trajectories. At the same time, although the aim of the two essays was to be as complete a survey of the literature as possible, and to add as many layers to the discussion as possible, certain parameters had to be introduced. Not all topics and areas of interest could be touched on; to do so would have been impossible and unending in terms of time and space. One of the important choices made (more implicitly than explicitly) was to examine the history of development largely through the lens of the state. There are sounds reasons for this. Following Cowen and Shenton, I find it useful to distinguish between “development” as an intentional or conscious practice, and “development” as an intransitive, self-evolving process of change.[1] Development in the former sense, as an intentional or planned intervention that must be consciously willed to happen, originated in the early to mid-19th century, and was conceived predominantly, though not exclusively, as the sphere of the state in conjunction with experts acting as the “trustees” for humanity. The period between the 1930s and the end of the 1970s constitute what might be termed the “high age” of state developmentalism; a distinct historical epoch when state-directed and managed plans for the economic and social advancement of humanity were shared widely among colonial, national and international organizations and states. A lot of ground on the history of development in the twentieth century can be covered by examining states and intergovernmental organizations and their various ideologies, plans, programs and practices, as well as the impacts and effects of such initiatives.

But fixing on the role of governments, or relations between governments, can also run the risk of overlooking important aspects in the history of development that fall beyond the purview of the state. What I hear my colleagues saying is that writing a broader and more uncut history of development, one that is genuinely global in scope, will require us to do more than provide greater coverage (as important as this is) by adding a more diverse and heterogeneous range of development experiences and perspectives. It will require researchers, as Corinna Unger proposes, to take the historical methodologically a step further. This means thinking more deeply about how to write histories of development that adopt a more transnational and comparative framework of analysis; histories that do not leave states out, but which enable us to see through and even beyond them in ways that will allow us to overcome what she describes as the prevailing “methodological nationalism” of many studies.

Many of the suggestions for continued research put forward by the commentators, in one way or another, arrive at a similar point. Below I summarize the ideas I find most fruitful, some of which are raised in the two essays, while others are not:

  • Thinking more thematically about development history has the potential to change the way we understand development and its legacy. Tom Robertson, for example, advocates bringing environmental history and development closer together. Not only can environmental history provide new insight into the origins of development and allow us to understand its impact and long-term effects on the ground better, but environmental approaches are ideal for comparative analyses (colonial vs. postcolonial, communist vs. capitalist, government vs. nongovernmental, etc.)
  • Following the career trajectories and circulations of development aid specialists and experts, as Suzanne Moon recommends, provides another unique pathway into a more global history of development. As Moon notes, the careers of technical experts, scientists, project managers and engineers became increasingly global in scope as they moved across countries and between states and various commercial and intergovernmental organizations. We might think about these professional communities as networks or webs across which not just people, but ideas, models, techniques and practices were exchanged and flowed. Thinking about global expert communities as multi-directional and spatial may also help us explore more deeply, as Stephen Macekura urges, the disjunctures, fractures, and debates among development experts.
  • Beyond aid specialists and experts, a transnational framework would allow researchers to more methodically explore the role of non-state actors as part of the historiography of development, including as Corinna Unger remarks, private contractors, companies, and entrepreneurs “who delivered the technology, the loans, the personnel, and the advertisements for development projects.”
  • Re-imagining the place of states (as well as the porousness and fluidity of state boundaries), can open up new and more critical ways of thinking about the domestic experiences of so-called “developed” nations as part of the wider history of international development. This is a point that both Stephen Macekura and David Ekbaldh have stressed. They note that the United States itself (or parts of it) was an object of development strategies and interventions, that were simultaneously or subsequently applied internationally, but also that U.S. development experts working abroad often returned home with new ideas and experiences that they sought to apply to American domestic problems (what Macekura calls the “boomerang” effect). The latter theme, incidentally, overlaps nicely with Moon’s idea of exploring the movements and careers of development professionals across transnational spaces.
  • Pushing the historiography of development in a more transnational and global direction offers the possibility of reframing long-held assumptions and understandings concerning the history of the twentieth century. This is what I call the “maximalist” position, which Macekura (and to a lesser extent Unger) invokes in his commentary, by suggesting we think of the twentieth century as “the development and growth century.” By weaving and drawing together some of the most significant narratives of the twentieth century: the decolonization of European colonial empires and their post-imperial afterlives; the globalization of the Cold War, especially the impact of U.S.-Soviet interventions in the so-called Third World; and the revolutionary aspirations and visions of the future of Southern peoples, development history has the potential to offer a new, global perspective on the making of our contemporary world, one which challenges and questions accepted periodizations and storylines.

Finally, there is the question of the relationship between history and historical research and development studies and policy today. In my experience, scholars of development history are deeply torn about how to grapple with this question. On the one hand, there are those who feel little can be gained from greater dialog between the two fields, and that historians need to be wary about the uses (and misuses) of history within the development community. Others feel that this “practical mission” as Robertson phrases it, is extremely important and that historians should be more willing to engage with development practitioners and policy makers. I certainly can see both sides of the issue, and like me, I think most historians of development fall somewhere in between. But, to be clear, I am not suggesting we “tailor our work to the needs of the policy realm,” as Ekbladh alleges, or that we produce histories that can be used as “tools” for improving development today. I think that misconstrues what is, to use Suzanne Moon’s words, “a significant, and significantly challenging, responsibility.” Rather, what I am calling for is a greater dialog between historians and development practitioners, in the hopes that the latter might embrace a more serious engagement not only with the complicated history of development, but with the messy past of their own profession as well. This may turn out to be a futile endeavor, but I think we need to at least try.


[1] M. P. Cowen and R. W. Shenton, Doctrines of Development (New York: Routledge, 1996), vii-ix.

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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.

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