SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Anthropology of Development and Sustainability: Knowledge, Power and Inequality

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/2023
FHEQ Level:
Taught in:
Term 1

This module examines the myriad ways that anthropologists engage with and contribute to development. It combines theory and anthropological case studies to help students develop a critical knowledge of development and insights into a range of contemporary challenges (e.g. poverty, gender inequality, migration, urbanization) that development institutions seek to address. The module traces the history of development, from its roots in enlightenment thought to contemporary market-based interventions, and explores the encounters between development policy and practice and the social and natural worlds of its beneficiaries. A key focus of the module is the role of power and authority in shaping the outcome of development interventions. Drawing on ethnographic case studies, the module charts how the development industry attempts to reconcile the gap between policy and practice, and encourages students to consider how development interventions might be reworked to ensure their cultural, economic and environmental sustainability.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  1. Understand and critically evaluate the main theories, concepts and debates in the anthropology of development and sustainability.
  2. Gain familiarity with how an anthropological and/or ethnographic perspective contributes to the study of global challenges.
  3. Acquire the capacity to apprehend social and environmental change from different points of view, and in different regional and institutional contexts.Assess data, methods and evidence critically, and understand the contributions and limits of different types of knowledge production.
  4. Develop the capacity for conceptual and ethical reflection on what and how anthropologists can contribute in practice.
  5. Communicate arguments and viewpoints effectively and coherently, orally and in writing.

Scope and syllabus

Topics to be covered in the course:

  • Introduction. Anthropology of development and sustainability 
  • A short history of development: Continuity and change
  • Ways of Seeing: Top-down, bottom-up and in-between
  • Human rights: The limits of a discourse
  • Humanitarianism and disaster capitalism
  • Refugees and migration
  • Poverty and ‘the poor’
  • Urbanization, accumulation, dispossession
  • Gender, power and inclusion
  • Disease, health and inequality

Method of assessment

  • AS1: x2 Reading response papers - 15%
  • AS2: x2 Reading response papers - 15%
  • AS3: x1 Essay - 60%
  • Seminar participation: 10%

Suggested reading

Brightman, M. and J. Lewis (eds). 2017. The Anthropology of Sustainability: Beyond Development and Progress. London: Palgrave McMillan.

Crewe, E. and R. Axelby. 2012. Anthropology and Development: Culture, Morality and Politics in a Globalised World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Edelman, M. and A. Haugerud. 2005. The Anthropology of Development and Globalization. From Classical Political Economy to Contemporary Neoliberalism. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Ferguson, J. 1990. The Anti-Politics Machine. New York: Cambridge University Press

Gardner, K. and D. Lewis. 2015. Anthropology and Development: Twenty First Century Challenges. London: Pluto Press.

Li, T.M. 2007. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Duke University Press.

Scherz, C. 2014. Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scott; J. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


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