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Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed Paperback – Feb 8 1999

4.1 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; Revised ed. edition (Feb. 8 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300078153
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300078152
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.6 x 3.1 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 499 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #22,158 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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James C. Scott's research for this book began with an examination of the tensions between state authorities and various "unstable" individuals throughout history, from hunter-gatherer tribes to Gypsies to the homeless. He soon became fascinated, however, by the recurring patterns of failure and authoritarianism in certain social engineering programs aimed at bringing such people fully into the state's fold. Soviet collectivization, the Maoist Great Leap Forward, the precisely planned city of Brasilia--these and other projects around the world, while deeply ambitious, extracted immeasurable tolls on the people they were designed to help.

One of the most important common factors that Scott found in these schemes is what he refers to as a high modernist ideology. In simplest terms, it is an extremely firm belief that progress can and will make the world a better place. But "scientific" theories about the betterment of life often fail to take into account "the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability" that Scott views as essential to an effective society. What high modernism lacks is metis, a Greek word which Scott translates as "the knowledge that can only come from practical experience." Although metis is closely related to the concept of "mutuality" found in the anarchist writings of, among others, Kropotkin and Bakunin, Scott is careful to emphasize that he is not advocating the abolition of the state or championing a complete reliance on natural "truth." He merely recognizes that some types of states can initiate programs which jeopardize the well-being of all their subjects.

Although the collapse of most socialist governments might lead one to believe that Seeing Like a State is old news, Scott's analysis should prove extremely useful to those considering the effects of global capitalism on local communities. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


...a tremendous achievement, easily one of the most impressive and important books of recent years. -- Reason, Jesse Walker

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Format: Paperback
How do states and empires control people and landscapes, and why do their attempts so often tragically fail? Agrarian theorist James Scott answers this question boldly and provocatively in Seeing like a State. States (and all of us) simplify a complicated world in order first to understand and then ultimately to change and control the world around us. Indeed, at the root of much of our modern daily activity and thinking is a great deal of simplification-we invent categories, we exclude variables, we limit diversity, we simplify.
For states, the problem with the world is that it is impossibly messy. It is, to use Scott's most brilliant metaphor, illegible. Within every state's territory-especially huge modern imperial states-there exist diverse ecologies, diverse peoples with myriad customs and linguistic dialects, and a variety of local customs. In order to control these areas (i.e. to prevent rebellion, social unrest, starvation) and in order to exploit them (i.e. to use natural resources, to make money, to raise armies) states first must be able to read them. They must make them legible. And herein begins the process of simplification that so profoundly shapes modern bureaucracy. States standardize landholdings, blotting out old inheritance and geographical patterns. States work to simplify ecologies, turning complex ecosystems into streamlined, productive, and micro-managed forests or monocrop fields. States standardize languages, substituting myriad local dialects with a uniform King's English. And they create huge lists, cadastral maps, registers, etc., which they use to describe their holdings and the people who live in them. With these documents, they reshape the world according to their own simplified categories, and according to their own top-down priorities.
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Format: Paperback
The above reviewer, Stirling S Newberry, writes, "The book is part of a useful discussion, but the context and knowledge to engage in it does not seem to be present at this time. Unfortunate."
Actually, what is most unfotunate is that Newberry failed to that Scott allows his assertions regarding social engineering at the behest of an individual state apply just as well to, for example, international aid regimes and foreign hegemons who strive to "remake" the world and its societies after a single vision (8).
Scott's concern in Seeing Like a State is to make a case against an "imperial or hegemonic planning mentality that excludes the necessary role of local knowledge and know-how. Scott goes on to argue, "The most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements." The first is a simplification and aggregation of facts. Scott argues that states manipulate otherwise complex, dynamic, discrete and often unique circumstances into simplified, static, aggregated, and standardized data, and that these form unrealistic "snapshots" which often miss the most vital aspects of the situation. The second is what Scott terms "high-modernist ideology." Scott defines this as "a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.
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Format: Paperback
James Scott is known for portraying the moral world of peasants, showing how they have resisted the encroachment of capitalism and the state. Now he investigates the other side: the experts, bureaucrats, and revolutionaries whose grandiose schemes to improve the human condition have inflicted untold misery on the twentieth century. Seeing Like a State can be read, along with Foucault's Discipline and Punish and James Ferguson's The Anti-Politics Machine, as a classic of 'structural dysfunctionalism.' The point (put metaphorically) is not merely that the cure for social ills has proven inadequate-but that the disease inhered in the diagnosis, and that failure will continue so long as the doctors prevail.
The dysfunction, Scott argues, derived from three modern conditions. One was the ambition to remake society (and ecology) to conform to a rational plan. It is the conviction-expressed by such varied characters as Robert Owen, Le Corbusier, and Mao (pp. 117, 341)-that the present is a blank sheet, to be inscribed at will. Putting this into effect required a second condition: comprehensive information about individuals and property, gathered by a centralized bureaucracy. The third condition, what made the combination lethal, was a state sufficiently powerful to force its radically rational schemes on their 'beneficiaries.' This was characteristic of post-revolutionary and post-colonial regimes, and so the book devotes chapters to collectivization in the Soviet Union and ujamaa 'villagization' in Tanzania. But the basic vision, Scott emphasizes, was common to experts everywhere. Three Americans planned a Soviet sovkhoz in their Chicago hotel room; a democratic populist built Brasília, which is also accorded a chapter.
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