Current and Future Relevance of Development Anthropology

What does happiness mean? Ask this question to different individuals and surely you will obtain varying answers. There could be related or similar answers, but no two individuals will have the identical definition of happiness, unless of course, they had a prior discussion on the matter and took time to set parameters on how they would define the term. It is just like saying that one’s definition of happiness can be as unique as one’s fingerprint. Why is this so?

As human beings, each of us has his/her own purpose in life. We may have the same basic needs to keep us alive. but each of us has his/her own desires and aspirations as we go on living These are our goals in life. Up to what extent we are able to reach our goals becomes the basis of fulfillment, which in turn is the parameter of a person’s definition of happiness.

There are more than 101 ways to define happiness because human beings as individual living organisms vary. Each one of us has a certain uniqueness which sets us apart from other members of the Animal Kingdom.

Similarly, development is a term which is as subjective as the word happiness. Probably because both terms involve the satisfaction of humans’ needs and wants. This is why there are numerous bases for the achievement of both. But unlike the meaning of happiness which is taken more on an individual context,  a discourse on the meaning of development is much more complex because it involves not just one human being but a community, or even a whole nation.

The meaning of development depends on various paradigms. Defining it quantitatively in terms of economic growth has become inadequate which makes it even more difficult to give a concrete meaning of the word. Thus, different schools of thoughts and various disciplines have their own arguments on how to properly define the term while trying not to overlook how the term itself is being perceived by the objects or targets of the development process.

The various discourses on and practices of development have paved the way for the rise and growth of development anthropology. (Escobar 1991)

Development anthropology is defined as:

The application of anthropological perspectives to the multidisciplinary branch of development studies. It takes international development and international aid as primary objects. In this branch of anthropology, the term development refers to the social action made voluntary by different agents (institutions, business, enterprise, states, independent volunteers) who are trying to modify the economic, technical, political or/and social life of a given place in the world, especially in developing nations. (Wikipedia)

Development anthropology which takes off from the conventional or traditional view of development is what is being espoused by scholars such as Escobar. The traditional view of development is development according to how Western societies view it which is much more about modernization of local cultures and the adoption of Westernized lifestyle. In the paper, “Anthropology and the Development Encounter: The Making and Marketing of Development Anthropology“, Escobar presented and discussed this view and as conclusion, called for a revision on the practice of development anthropology, specifically in the utilization of development models which he referred to as “recycled combination of the traditional growth models.”

Development anthropology, for all its claim to relevance to local problems, to cultural sensitivity, and to access to interpretive holistic methods, has done no more than recycle, and dress in more localized fabrics, the discourses of modernization and development. Can the good intentions of development anthropologists be preserved and their activities be reoriented significantly in ways that undermine, rather than reinforce, these paradigms? (1991: 677)

It is this view that made him towards the end of the article pose the question: Is there a future relevance for development anthropology? Escobar went on further to conclude that:

Anthropological studies of development will of course continue to be important, but they would take a different form. Anthropologists could examine how communities in the Third World are progressively constituted through the political technologies of development, and could elucidate the larger cultural and economic projects that such technologies deploy with them. First, however, it will be necessary to renew our way of listening to the voices of different groups of people in the Third World, without making them into signs of a need for development, and to renew our awareness of the suffering caused by human institutions and actions, development or otherwise.

Finally, anthropologists may contribute through this type of work to a collective practice of re-envisioning ways of organizing societies and economies, ways of relating to nature and to one another that have a better chance for life. In the process, we may discover other ways of caring and of healing the ravages brought about by development in the Third World. Some grassroots social movements seem to be pointing the way. (ibid: 678)

Escobar emphasizes that it should be the people themselves who should decide on the course of the development process based on what he called “local realities”. The idea should come from within and not from the perception of outsiders who usually consider the lack of modernization as the take-off point for the development process.

In his paper “Anthropology and Development: Evil Twin or Moral Narrative?”  Gow (2002) pointed out the weakness of the localization of development as being espoused by Escobar due to the current trend of globalization. He explains that “. . . the present effects and future implications of globalization (however much contested), surely demonstrate once and for all the limitations of what is now ambiguously termed localization. Certain human needs and human rights can be taken as universal, the basis for a moral narrative in this new millennium of development.” The moral narrative that Gow is referring to is the dilemma of anthropologists (the writers) in  defining development in terms of the vision of a good society.  To quote:

By framing the values of development in moral terms, rather than say economic terms (the market) or political terms (democracy), these writers not only escape from the tyranny of ideology, academic discipline, and political fashion; they also elevate the general tone of development discourse, for what they are proposing is a vision of the “good society”. (ibid: 310)

I believe that the current and future relevance of development anthropology depend on whether it follows the path being suggested by Gow, that is, elevating the meaning of development in terms of  the moral vision of a good society.  In this age of satellite technology, when even the remotest places on Earth could have access to communication facilities and the mass media, the preservation of local culture is becoming a serious concern.

People are influenced by modernization as they are exposed to various forms of technology, and many of them especially the younger generation aspire to leave and prefer to settle for a much modern lifestyle in cities. More than ever, development anthropology is relevant in order to direct the correct path of development wherein the living condition of the poor is alleviated to the point wherein they will have enough basic needs and services while at the same time retaining their cultural identity and who they are as a people is never lost or forgotten.

The role of development anthropology therefore should be focused on determining the people’s vision of a good society, and from there the design of a suitable development framework and the conceptualization of strategies that could guide institutions in coming up with the right formula for development. This way, Escobar’s grassroots involvement is compromised while being open to the trend of globalization. An example would be to consider the willingness to commercialize the production of exotic handicrafts which are originally for sole domestic consumption. If the people look at this as a way to alleviate their economic condition while promoting their culture, then the development anthropologist should see this from a positive perspective and not as a sign of moral degradation.

Development anthropologists have focused on four themes in performing their role which defines their current and future relevance to humanity.

An increasingly focused sense of the anthropological contribution defined in terms of what anthropologists say about culture and social relations

Opposition to the marginalization of indigenous peoples and their knowledge

Cynicism about the aims and practices of development

The emergence of critical views of development and the development process


Escobar, Arturo. (1991) ‘Anthropology and the Development Encounter: The Making and Marketing of Development Anthropology.’ American Ethnologist [online] 18 (4) 658-682. Available from [22 May 2009]

Gow, David D. (2002)’Anthropology and Development: Evil Twin or Moral Narrative?’ Human Organization 61 (4) 299-313

Wikipedia (n. d.) ‘Development Anthropology.’ Available from [30 May 2009)