I went to a cracking lecture Monday night courtesy of Edinburgh University’s Global Development Academy (link). It’s always a pleasure to hear Duncan Green (link) speak. He bridges the sometimes gaping divide between practitioner and academic and their linguistic worlds. It was a pretty broad-brush look at the changing development landscape since 2008; everything from the financial crash to the ‘Arab Spring’ and all the geo-political seismology in between. There was something for everyone in the room, reflected in the wide-ranging nature of the questions.
One question, however, has given me pause for thought. Someone asked how researchers can maximise their impact in the policy/practitioner sphere. Green gave examples of longitudinal studies, returning to particular communities over time. There were examples of challenging dominant economic indices, such as GDP, which say little about the well-being of poor people. This is good. What is less relevant, he suggested, was some obscure discourse analysis on a policy paper – ‘we don’t read it’ he said, ‘nothing post-modern please!’ and we laughed.
I felt my cheeks flush, given my sympathies with post-modern, or more accurately, post-structuralist, thought in my research. ‘Damn it’, I thought, ‘I’m so irrelevant’. As I mused a bit more on Green’s talk, however, I realised that much of the content is actually the stuff of post-structuralism (and/or critical theory).[i] Post-structuralism is still dominated by the influence of Foucault’s work, despite his rejection of the term (but whose name I’ll lazily borrow for brevity). And the academic practice of post-structuralism (whether we like the term or not) has had a profound influence in ways sometimes as covert as the workings of power it tries to excavate.
Firstly, the lecture’s recurring theme of power. Foucault’s all-encompassing, subjugating brand of power is infamously vague and at times conflated with authority, legitimacy/legitimation and all sorts. Not to mention the fuzzy definitions of ‘governmentality’ and the (mis)applications this has given rise to. Overly broad political concepts were Foucault’s bread and butter to the point where they sometimes said so much they said nothing at all. However, few would contest that Foucauldian thought has contributed to a broader conception of power from a classical one of power over (normally vis-à-vis institutional power/authority) to a more nuanced, situational and relational understanding. Power does not exclusively reside in individuals or institutions, but is relational within each ‘complex strategic situation’ in a particular society (Foucault, M., The History of Sexuality, 1979, p.93). ‘There are hidden power dynamics in this room that I can’t see’ Green said. Quite. Localising power, contrary to Foucault’s critics, is actually quite ‘empowering’, to borrow some dev-speak.
Secondly, Green’s musings on how and when power speaks to knowledge. There has been no fundamental reform to the international financial system that precipitated the crash. Indeed. In fact, there has not even been any fundamental challenge to the (neo)classical macroeconomic principles that it is grounded on, nor how they are taught in universities. Why? Well, Chakrabortty spells it (link) out but it’s the power/knowledge nexus through and through; knowledge has always been bound to the interests of the most powerful. And knowledge production, including in development, has always been dominated by centres in the industrialised north. It’s this process that NGOs like Oxfam profess to subvert.
Thirdly, I wouldn’t dismiss discourse analysis given the power of the written word that Green himself took pains to emphasise. He deconstructed the recipe for a good campaign, highlighting how the language messaging is couched in is deliberately equivocal, multi-faceted and referential. In fact, sometimes in the process of bid-writing, it is good for NGOs to play the game in using free market-laden terminology to speak to power. Spin-doctors, politicians, marketers, campaigners and even statisticians have been doing this for years; fudging language, imbuing it with ambiguity, finding ways to resonate with broader norms and stereotypes, including negative ones. Discourse analysis is one tool in prising this apart. For Foucault, the point is to ‘discover who does the speaking’ and ‘the positions and viewpoints from where they speak’ (ibid., p11).
But post-structuralism isn’t all discourse analysis. And there is an issue with it is whereby systems of power become fixed and subjectivities subsumed. The other side to post-structuralism, therefore, places localised political and social practices more central to the field of analysis. This is not necessarily in a bid to bolster or qualify policy-making but as reversal of dominant epistemologies, or as Foucault would put it, the ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges’. As O’Malley & Clifford point out (Governmentality, criticism, politics, Economy and Society, 26(4), 1997), this element of Foucault’s work has been neglected. Yes, Foucault’s own empirical work itself was poor. Doesn’t mean the approach is.
Fourthly, Green’s interest in complex, adaptive systems. I don’t think anyone embraced the complexity and breadth of societal systems, both at the macro and micro, more wholeheartedly than Foucault. He was panoptic to a fault. This, as Green said, stops much in the way of prediction, but we get a hell of a lot better at understanding. Complexity theory, along with other thrusts in the world of science, has undermined social scholarship’s aspirations of a ‘scientific’ mode of enquiry, should such a thing have existed. The ‘Newtonian’ conception of cause and effect has little relevance in the messy and unpredictable world of the ‘sciences of man’ (Taylor, C., Interpretation and the Sciences of Man, Review of Metaphysics, 25(1), 1971). We can’t isolate and measure this stuff, so let’s get up close to try understand it.
Oxfam has a long and proud tradition of asking the bigger, more politicised questions regarding developmental discourse and practice. This comes down to its position at the top of the NGO tree. When they go to ask DFID for a million quid they take notice. Part of this is because they are very good at what they do and attract the best minds. It’s also to do with the security and diversification of their funding. They’re able to innovate, collaborate and self-critique from a position of power. They don’t lose funding if they admit failure – they write a paper and everyone reads it. These aren’t luxuries smaller NGOs can afford. That’s why most NGO activity is a murky, unregulated, grey area where accountability is pitifully poor. Oxfam should be applauded in its ability to challenge dominant discourse, the production and reification of ‘knowledge’ and to amplify the voices of those excluded. No wonder they don’t have time to read anything ‘post-modern’ – they’re already doing it.
Kathy Dodworth, PhD Student in Politics.
Kathy Dodworth @dodgington
Duncan Green @fp2p
[i] Post-modernism refers to a broader literary/cultural movement, often conflated with post-structuralism. I use the term where quoting Dr. Green. Post-structuralism shares a critical position with regard to studying society via distinct categories and the tools of deconstruction/textual analysis. Critical theory, associated with Habermas and the Frankfurt School, also shares these tools but is more optimistic in human capacity to transcend the categories/constructs used to define them.