Escobar: Development and Domination. Book Review

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  • Topic: Discourse, Development anthropology, World War II
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Development and domination.
Escobar's one sided discourse.

Book Review: Escobar, Arturo (1995) Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (1995), written by Arturo Escobar, has been a controversial book in development debates. The book establishes a critical reading of multiple ideas and practices that have evolved, since World War II, to form what Escobar calls the development discourse. This book is continuation of an academic and political effort, started in the 1980s, to understand social constructions through discourse analysis.

Inevitably, Escobar's claims have raised comments and harsh criticisms by various authors (Little and Painter, 1995; Lehmann, 1997; Crew & Harrison, 1998; Pieterse, 1998; Mosse & Lewis, 2006). For most of these authors the problem is not so much with discourse analysis but with Escobar's actual study.

This article is divided in two. In the first some of Escobar's ideas in Encountering Development are revised: (1) the claim that development is a historical construction, and can be analysed as a discourse, and that by doing so, the analysis becomes a study of domination; (2) the authors perspective against claims of truth and universal models of understanding and acting; and (3) the idea of resistance as expression of alternative discourses. In a second part, I will consider some criticisms done to Escobar's arguments, and highlight aspects, that have resulted from the development debate, and seem relevant for understanding social processes of development.

Domination and discourse.

The structure of the book offers a general idea of Escobar's arguments, one of which is, discourse matters. Encountering Development is divided into six chapters. In the introduction the author explains his methodology and its usefulness, as well as the use of it by other authors. In the second chapter, Escobar argues that poverty, Third World and development are products of an apparatus that came to be in the post- World War II era; this apparatus, the author believes, is composed by forms of knowledge and forms of power. The third chapter is a historical revision of the involvement of some economists with the hegemonic development discourse. The forth and fifth are studies of discourse of specific practice of development in Colombia. The last chapter is dedicated to the existence of alternative discourses and how these are related with the hegemonic discourse. Overall, the author offers a narrative to construct development discourse as an object.

The main characteristic of Escobar's book is that his analysis of development is based on Michael Foucault's conception of discourse, in which discourse is practice. For Escobar any practice is discursive, and can be understood in a specific discourse. In this logic, Escobar bounds any practice of development as part of the development discourse.

As result of the above theoretical departure, Encountering Development can be read as a book about domination. Indeed, Escobar claims that discourse analysis allows him to focus on domination (1995, p.6). According to the author, by equating discourse and practice is possible to understand the production of objects as a cultural action. Additionally, the study of the production of realities, or objects, from a hegemonic discursive position can carry imposition and domination. The creation of poverty, for example, is seen by Escobar as product of the development discourse. In this case, those who are labelled as poor are liable to be shaped as that particular form of poor (a discursive poor).

Furthermore, for Escobar, discourse is not an effect of natural social process in which ideas are found spontaneously; instead, discourse is a construction in a specific context and historic moment. The author believes that after World War II there was a conjuncture,...
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