The word “change” is problematic for anthropology and development, for historical, theoretical and practical reasons. There is tension between the disciplines about their views on change, because they are often interlinked due to the nature of their work being interwoven. There are two types of change: firstly, ‘modernisation’ – which is linked with development, planned or imposed change, and secondly, change that occurs without plan, characterised as ‘modernity’.

The reason why ‘change’ is such a loaded term is that it has been used as a tool in many theoretical models to differentiate, categorise people in the name of modernisation and development. This essay aims to deconstruct views on ‘actual change’ and the construction of narratives related to knowledge about change, at various levels throughout the history of the disciplines and how they have been reconciled on certain aspects of the debate, paving the way for a more amicable future.

In the last fifty years, the political geography of the globe has changed dramatically, and is continuing to do so. Societies worldwide are embracing, or localising the concept of “modernity”, and anthropologists have taken this phenomenon as a topic of research, and developmentalists have been at the forefront of implementing policies of change in the name of modernisation. Therefore, these forms of change differ on the element of planning, but the picture is not as simple as this because both are interlinked.

Anthropology has been criticised, as it is argued that it should not be practically applied or used in “development”, since the respect for others’ values which it embodies is irreconcilable with planned change. Whereas, development has been criticised for being an extension of neo-colonial enterprises. “The idea of development stands like a ruin on the intellectual landscape. Delusion and disappointment, failures and crimes have been the steady companions of development and they tell a common story: that it did not work. (Sachs, 1992:1)”1

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Now, in the 21st century, there is a more intellectual climate, which is more receptive to an analysis of development within theoretical frameworks and the the dynamics of cross-cultural practices, meanings and discourses. New approaches to development and local/global relationships underline the importance of analysing how knowledge and power are constituted and reconfigured. This has brought out the usual anthropological problem of how to engage with and represent other cultures, whilst trying to understand and move away from its own historical roots in Western rationality and the commitment to ‘progress’.

(Marcus and Fischer 1986)2 This has created tension in the existence of anthropology as an academic discipline and the practice of anthropology in the field. Since colonial times anthropology has been used for ‘progress’ projects, and it is arguable that the word ‘progress’ has been replaced by ‘development’ projects – a less conspicuous term, but which may carry the same connotations. However, the debate over the ‘good’ and ‘ugly’ sides of development help us to understand the complex intercultural and now increasingly global scales of contemporary change, development and their counter-tendencies.

The 20th century global project, illustrates a set of complex, shifting relations which exist between the academic social sciences and various kinds of knowledge and theory that circulate within the world of development. The nature of these relations between the academic and non-academic sites for the production of both knowledge and theory have been complex and multi-directional. The dominant conception from the origins of anthropology as a discipline was the idea of social evolution.

Thus the project at the time was to trace the different stages of progression and use the observations of ‘savage’ and ‘barbarian’ peoples as evidence that would fill in the earlier stages of what human history had been, thus creating a vision of a kind of human unity. Furthermore it was a device of differentiating and ranking different contemporary society according to their level of evolution, since, “other tribes and nations have been left behind in the race of progress. ” (Morgan: 1877:vi)3 This provided an extraordinary powerful narrative for those who told of a single, unified and meaningful story of ‘Mankind’.

The idea of ‘development’ was central to this race of progress. The development theory of the 19th century based on evolutionist anthropology, reflected basic cultural and philosophical themes with a long and deep history in Western thought and possessed a specificity beyond ideas of ‘progress’. If other peoples differed from the western standard, it was only because the has been, ‘left behind in the race of progress’, and thus they remained one of the prior development levels through which the West had already passed. 4 This had enormous consequence both in anthropology and the wider world.

This metaphor for ‘development’ invited a fusing of the ideas of evolutionary advance with the developmental maturation of an organism or person, thus facilitating the persistent slippage between the contrasts primitive/ civilised and child/ adult that played a key role in ideologies of colonialism. 5 Anthropological academic theories of ‘functioning systems’ and ‘social equilibrium’ have guided both the practice of applied anthropologists in colonial Africa, and the formulation of certain official ideas and policies pertaining to ‘colonial development’.

Nevertheless, applied research initiatives taken up in 1940s/50s by the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute helped to shape the theoretical agenda of British academic anthropology, therefore illustrating relations were important and complex. The nature of such relations between academic forms of theory and knowledge and those used in development settings, varies in time across both disciplines. For anthropology the relation between doing development and plain anthropology understood to involve a distinction between the pure and the applied.

Although anthropology was the initial discipline, later development arose and anthropology had to suffer division in its subject, objectives and content form. That is ‘academic’ or ‘theoretical’ anthropology against ‘development’ or ‘applied’ anthropology. Anthropologists asking for funding provided scientific advice on such processes, and appeals to practical application were the key to the establishment of British Anthropology in the 1930s and 1940s, as the discipline’s emphasis turned away from ‘salvage anthropology’.

The subject of ‘development studies’ arose as a distinctive field of study in 1945 as a direct result of this, when western experts became concerned with the modernisation of the colonial territories and newly emerging independent countries. Many academic anthropologist became interested in using their knowledge for practical purposes and this branch of anthropology became known as ‘applied anthropology’ and many collaborated formally and informally with professionals engaged in public administration, social work and agriculture.

One of the main areas in which these ‘applied’ anthropologists have long been active is that of development, and some of the earliest applied work was carried out for the British colonial administrations in Africa, where anthropologists undertook research into areas of specific interest to administrators and provided information or advice to officials or participated in the training of government servants.

Anthropology was seen at this time as a tool which gave administrators or business people an ability to understand, and therefore to some extent control, the behaviour of the people with whom they were dealing, whether they were ‘natives’, employees or consumers in the market place. The gradual professionalism and institutionalism of development after the Second World War led to the creation of formal opportunites for applied anthropologists to work in development agencies or as private development consultants.


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