SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Anthropology of Development

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2020/2021
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
Taught in:
Full Year

This is the year-long core course for the MA Social Anthropology of Development (for an option course, see Perspectives on Development 15PANH033). It aims to provide an up-to-date and in-depth understanding of anthropological perspectives on policy and practice of contemporary international development. 

The course starts with a theoretical overview of the relationship between Development and Anthropology and how it has evolved. This overview allows key concepts and arguments to be identified in both applied ‘development anthropology’ and the ‘anthropology of development’. Concepts and debates are then probed further through examination of the politics of aid, donors, states, shifting aid frameworks and concrete intervention programmes. This involves close reading of anthropological studies throwing light on the nature of policy-making, bureaucracy and programmes in a variety of sectors – livelihood and food security, reproductive health, human rights, water or others– always paying attention to the specific cultural contexts of development relationships. Since the market has become a core metaphor of globalized development, attention is given to markets and market forces, and the effects of neo-liberal policy on world food security. The often disparate worlds of planners and beneficiaries are bridged, initially, through a discussion of household dynamics, gender and planned development. The course then turns to the broad issue of poverty, its meaning, measurement, and experience. Anthropology has made significant contribution to debates over poverty as well as over scientific and ‘indigenous’ knowledge for development, human rights, violence, and complex emergencies contributing detailed ethnographic accounts which form the basis of course readings and discussions.

In the second half of the course (Term 2), the theoretical foundations of an anthropology of development are further explored through debates over ‘development discourse’, the state and governance, and over ‘alternative’, community or indigenous development. Anthropological studies provide the basis for examining the work of policy makers, development workers and projects, and the meaning of popular ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’ in development. The course incorporates further sectors and theories when it turns to technology and development, environmental policy and natural resources management. The significance of institutional development, ‘social capital’ to poverty reduction and the shifting profile of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society in contemporary international development are debated. The course ends with an appraisal of the role of anthropologists in, and the anthropology of, development.


This course is for students enrolled on the MA Social Anthropology of Development and is also offered on the MA Anthropological Research Methods.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

By the end of the course, students will:

  • have a grasp of the key debates in the anthropology of development;
  • have acquired the capacity to understand development encounters from different points of view, and in different regional and institutional contexts;
  • developed the capacity for conceptual and ethical reflection on what and how anthropologists can contribute in practice. 

This grasp of theory, method and problem will enable students to write an MA dissertation on a theme related to international development.

Suggested reading

Useful background readings

  • Edelman, Marc & Angelique Haugerud (eds) 2005. The anthropology of development and globalisation: From classical political economy to contemporary neoliberalism. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Gardener, K. & D. Lewis 1996. Anthropology, development and the post-modern challenge. London:Pluto
  • Harrison, E. & Crewe, E. 1999. Whose development? An ethnography of aid. London: Zed Books
  • Olivier de Sardan, Jean-Pierre. 2005. Anthropology and Development: understanding social change. London: Zed Press
  • Mosse, D. & D. Lewis (eds) 2005. The Aid Effect: Giving and Governing in International Development. London & Ann Arbor MI: Pluto Press
  • Quarles van Ufford, P. and Ananta Giri (eds.) A Moral Critique of Development: In Search of Global Responsibilities. London & New York: Routledge.

Sample ethnographic readings

  • Ferguson, J. 1990. The anti-politics machine: development, de-politicisation and bureaucratic power in Lesotho. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Li, Tania, 2007. The Will to Improve: governmentality, development, and the practice of politics. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Farmer, Paul 2005. Pathologies of power: health, human rights and the new war on the poor. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules