U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Modernization and Development on Trial

For those who have not read Barbara Weinstein’s presidential address, “Developing Inequality” in the most recent (February 2008) AHR, it is quite thought provoking. She argues that the poststructural tendency to deconstruct the narratives of development elides the question of economic inequality: why are some societies or regions poorer than others? This is a question not answerable by deconstruction, so it tends to be ignored, which has the effect of reinforcing inequality.

Weinstein’s argument could be read with Thomas Haskell’s 2005 essay in MIH, “Modernization on Trial” (link requires subscription), in which he argues that developmental schemes are unavoidable in historical understanding and in self-understanding. Assigning anything a causal structure, which we all reflexively do in order to live in a world that is predictable and makes sense, presumes a developmental structure. Given that reality, a new set of questions needs to be brought to bear in order to understand development and modernization. Simple deconstructive critique or simple embrace of the notions of modernization and development will not do. -DS

One Thought on this Post

  1. David,

    Very interesting topic. Your post left me wondering this: What can intellectual historians do to ensure that inequality is addressed?

    Well, we can reframe the issue such that the broadest number of factors can be included in our analyses. For instance, using ~social justice~ as a category of analysis gives one the leeway to contextualize topics like public intellectualism, the history of the idea of progress (i.e. not just technical), ethics, religion, government projects, unionizing of labor, etc.

    Using social justice also doesn’t necessitate that we simply find inequality, but ask whether the situation is appropriate. For instance, it gives perhaps a clearer answer when faced with the issues like laziness, or of inequalities in the prison system (some therein “deserve” fewer liberties, yes?).

    Social justice, then, seems to provide a way out of the deconstruction/progress/inequality Bermuda triangle.

    Anyway, a good post. I’ll have to read Weinstein’s address. – TL

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