SOAS University of London

Department of Development Studies

Key Development Thinkers

Year of study:
Year 2

This module looks at the writings and influence of key voices that have inspired and influenced development through the years. From ‘classics’ of social theory to contemporary voices worth listening to, we engage in depth with a diverse set of original texts and explore the ways that these works have been interpreted, used and critiqued.

The module explores how different writers have built on each other's work, as well as how they diverge and conflict in their understanding of what constitutes development. Students consider the historical and contemporary relevance of these works, deepening and broadening their understanding of how key ideas shape perceptions, processes and projects of development in the world around us. The module provides an opportunity to explore major intellectual debates, examining divergences and convergences between thinkers.

Overall, the module provides an opportunity for students to deepen their intellectual grasp of the thinking that shapes their field of development studies.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

LO1) Demonstrate a critical understanding of the ideas of key thinkers and schools of thought and how they relate to development
LO2) Evaluate the various arguments and debates, and identify their weaknesses and strengths
LO3) Compare and contrast ideas and theories effectively, and use those theories in the construction of arguments related to development
LO4) Think critically and analytically, and to present thoughts in a clear verbal and written manner


  • Seminars: 2hrs per week
  • Independent study: 260hrs (over 10 weeks)

Scope and syllabus

The module embraces a range of voices that have contributed to debates around development over the years, as well as making space for exploring the divergences and convergences between thinkers, and the insights that different thinkers bring to different issues.

We explore influential conceptualisations of the relationship between state, market and society including critical analyses of modernity and the development of capitalism; the influence and legacies of colonialism and empire; race, class and gender; and the very idea of development as it is linked to notions of progress in the contemporary world.

Indicative topics include:

  • critique of political economy
  • neoliberalism
  • racism and development
  • decolonial feminism
  • governmentality and post development
  • capabilities approach
  • pedagogy for liberation.

While most sessions will focus on a particular new thinker, the module will also include an introductory session, a class debate, an exercise applying particular thinkers’ ideas to current development challenges, and a wrap up session making space for support with final assessment.

Method of assessment

  • Exam: 1hrs (20%)
  • Essay: 2,000 words (30%)
  • Essay: 2,000 words (50%)

Suggested reading

  • The Elgar Companion to Development Studies, Edited by David Alexander Clark, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
  • Fifty Key Thinkers on Development, edited by D. Simon (London: Routledge).
  • Selwyn, Ben. The Global Development Crisis, Polity Press, 2014.
    Hunt, E.K (2002). History of economic thought: a critical perspective, Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.
  • Rist, G. (1997). The History of Development. London: Zed Books.
  • Leys, C. (1996). The Rise and Fall of Development Theory. Oxford : James Currey Ltd.
    Cornwall, Andrea et al. (eds) (2007) Feminisms in development: contradictions, contestations and challenges. London: Zed Books.
  • Friedman, M. (1962) Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: Chicago University Press, Introduction and Chs.1-2
  • Nussbaum, Martha Craven (2011) ‘A Woman Seeking Justice’ in Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp.1-17 [Ebrary]
  • Freire, Paulo (1996, originally 1970) ‘Chapter 1’ Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin, pp. 25-51 [Scan available]


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules