What is Development Studies? 

Development Studies is an established area of scholarly enquiry, which implies some consensus over what the study of development entails. Does such a consensus exist?

Andy Sumner of King’s College London explores this question further in a new discussion paper

The Debate Revisited

Although there is some common understanding on Development Studies being about ‘development’ and inter-disciplinary as well as normative in orientation, there is a set of quite different approaches to Development Studies is or what Development Studies should be. 

There are several waves of literature since the end of the Cold War on the question of the identity of Development Studies.

First, towards the end and in the aftermath of the Cold War, a set of debates called for a greater relevance of Development Studies, along with questioning of development theory at that time.

Subsequently, in the early-to-mid 2000s a set of scholars sought to survey the history of development studies and to understand the common characteristics of Development Studies as climate change and other issues became more prominent.

In the late 2000s/early 2010s there was a third wave of discussions in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

Afterwards, in the later 2010s another set of publications pursued to grapple with the implications of major shifts and new issues in the study of development, which include not only climate change but also the rapid development of China and new technologies, among other meta-trends. These publications have also noted the bifurcation of the group of developing countries into a large set of developing countries with rapid economic growth versus a smaller set of extremely poor, aid-dependent developing countries with stagnant or zero economic growth (see the range of contributions).

This latter debate includes—centrally—the long running questioning of economic growth as the goal of development. One set of papers sought to understand what some of the blurring of North/South boundaries, global interdependencies other meta-changes imply for Development Studies itself.

In short, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, or the war in Ukraine, there has been ferment in Development Studies on how a range of ‘new’ issues, each of which radically impacts development itself, would or should impact on the study of development.

Which Development Studies?

The contemporary study of development can be characterised into four stylised visions (meaning generalised tendencies rather than absolutes): (i) an aid-dependence framed Development Studies; (ii) a global Development Studies; (iii) a critical Development Studies; and (iv) a post-aid, classical Development Studies. 

The fault lines between these four stylised visions of the study of development include the definition of desirable (or undesirable) development, whether desirable development (or what kind?) is perceived to be possible and under what conditions or pre-requisites. Which societies are the focus of enquiry? —the poorest countries, the unambiguous middle-income countries, all developing/colonised countries, or all countries of the world? How or whether the countries of the North are situated in the study of development, and what is the hierarchy of scales used (sub-national/local versus national or global or interactions between scales)?

So what?

Yet, there is more unpacking to do. Each approach has been outlined in crude aggregate. Furthermore, each approach encompasses various sub-approaches; and different disciplines, methodologies, and ways of knowing are dominant in each. There is also a need to lay bare the uneven power bases and outlets in which any conversations might happen. In short, to fully understand the different approaches to Development Studies, there is a need to comprehend the institutional basis of each in departments and journals. Both the latter are typically based in the North, albeit with increasing diversity on editorial teams and boards. 

Specifically, there is a set of questions to probe further to understand the politics of knowledge generation in Development Studies, such as: Where is each approach anchored in terms of countries, research institutes/university departments, and research funders? Where do researchers in each approach publish in terms of journals, working paper series, and books? Lastly, are those publications in Development Studies or in the researchers’ ‘home’ disciplines? 

Exploring these further would be a useful next step to developing a conversation.

Andy Sumner is Professor of Development Studies at King’s College London.

Image: NASA/NOAA

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