Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed

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Citation: James Scott (1998) Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed.

Tagged: Anthropology (RSS) Anthropology (RSS), Sociology (RSS), Globalization (RSS), Development (RSS), Knowledge (RSS), Politics (RSS), Theory (RSS)


In this book, James Scott sets out to understand the logic behind what he calls “state simplifications”: the acts and mentality that lead to well-intentioned efforts to improve the human conditions through the creation of social order, rationalization and scientific knowledge. He argues that a few factors are necessary for this logic to become operational:

  1. the administrative ordering and legibility of the state as well as of nature;
  2. a high modernist ideology shared among elites;
  3. authoritarian state institutions;
  4. a prostrate civil society (see pp. 4-6).

In his empirical cases and chapters, he elaborates a position against the imperialism of such state logics and high modernist schemes, arguing instead for the recognition and empowerment of mētis (Greek for 'cunning intelligence'), the informal, practical and improvisational knowledges through which poor, disempowered, and non-elites manage their existence on a day-to-day basis. This summary focuses on explaining Scott's ideas of high modernism and mētis.

Scott defines high modernism variously throughout the book, but its ideological variants usually incorporate “a sweeping, rational engineering of all aspects of social life in order to improve the human condition” (88). Scott also identifies it with a “muscle-bound” belief in scientific and technological progress (89). He groups a range of political ideologies and actors under the high-modernist label. The list includes (most prominently) Le Corbusier and Lenin, both of whom sought authoritarian and revolutionary powers to impose a rationalized vision of society through radical state interventions. In this regard, Scott claims, “High-modernist ideology thus tends to devalue or banish politics. Political interests can only frustrate the social solutions devised by specialists with scientific tools adequate to their analysis” (94). In his discussion of Le Corbusier and Brasilia, he goes on to claim that another component of high-modernist interventions in urban space and developing countries consist of the desire to “start from zero” and to subject all subsequent decisions to the rationality of “The Plan.” Finally, in his chapter (8) on agronomy and scientific agriculture, Scott examines how high-modernist faith in progress and knowledge relies on the (intrinsically limited) apparatus of scientific knowledge production. Ultimately, Scott suggests, high modernism, science, and rational legibility can serve as useful – in some cases necessary - tools for improving the quality of human life, but they are not sufficient.

Throughout most of the text, the concept of mētis emerges only in contradistinction to high-modernist ideals & scientific knowledges. Arguably, Scott develops the idea most fully through his discussion of Jane Jacobs and his more systematic definition of the term in Chapter 9. mētis boils down to practical and informal knowledges which resist codification, systematization, or hierarchical imposition. In this, mētis lies somewhere between the completely unknowable, innate components that make up “genius” and the more formal, systematic teachings that make up modernist knowledges. As an organizing logic of social life, Scott contends that mētis offers several advantages over more structured, statist logics: (1) it decentralizes control to the edges of social systems where individuals have the greatest access to relevant information about their circumstances; (2) these peripheral individuals have the greatest stake in observing, altering, and improving their conditions through partial solutions and schemes; (3) they also have a huge advantage over planners and scientists in that they spend all their time “in the field”; (4) they can act on the collective and accumulated wisdom of an entire community in crafting particular solutions to their particular circumstances (see 324). In this way, mētis also functions as the “intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves and enforced by the people themselves” (Scott, quoting Jacobs, p 135).

Theoretical and practical relevance:

Scott is a senior professor at Yale University. This book is widely read and cited in Anthropology, Sociology, Development Studies, Geography, Urban Studies and other fields. In the context of research on development and globalization, Scott's concepts of high modernism (developed in chapter 3, the first half of chapter 4, and chapter 8) and mētis (the latter half of chapter 4 and chapter 9) arguably represent the most original and compelling contributions of this book.