Seeing Like a (noun)

The end of my semester is here and I am semi-swamped with little pieces of things to get done. I also find myself running constantly to another meeting. I was telling someone earlier today (while looking for a bright spot) that I like this time of the year as I get to cross so many things off my to do list. Of course getting them done and handing in quality work are not equivalent. Regardless I haven’t found too many of my peers eager to share in my optimism.

As I have been away for the blog for a bit I thought I could at least share with you some of my work. For a Anthropological Perspectives on Global Health assignment I read a book and wrote a reaction paper. Here is a summary of the book, I’ll spare you the reaction so as you can have your own. If it sparks your interest, follow the link at the bottom to buy it, or find me and you can borrow.

The cover of Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott features a z-shaped double bend in an empty road with little else around it except for meticulously manicured fields. The jog in the road is a systematic blip in an otherwise uniform grid of roads that have been laid out to define six-square-mile townships in North Dakota. The roads follow lines of longitude and are forced to dogleg every twenty-four miles in order to keep with the decreasing distance between longitudinal lines as they continue north. Initially, the photo seems an unimportant adornment on an otherwise detailed work of analysis, however once you have read the text this choice of photo becomes much clearer.

In the text, Scott points out the methods which states have used to simplify, control, standardize, manage, and manipulate complex and diverse systems; first in nature and eventually in social environments. Scott begins with the example of a managed forest in which specific characteristics of the forest (perhaps specific to a type of tree), for example growth rate/yield, are recorded, monitored, and managed so that over time the forest is changed to take on those characteristics that its managers have favored. He views this as an oversimplification of the complex system that is the forest and points out some of the flaws and vulnerabilities it exposes.

Having exhibited control of the ‘wild’ natural forest the management of inhabited land followed. Scott argues that similar simplifications and standardizations, most influentially with the cadastral maps, were a necessary part of modern statehood and important in colonization. Maps were developed so that the state could quickly survey lands for the enumeration and location of population, wealth, and resources allowing those in charge to act strategically to influence ownership and to ultimately impose their own values. The influence was increased though the use of standardized systems of measurement, languages and surnames. More importantly, Scott shows that as officials of these modern states assessed life as a series of categorizations they were removed, to some degree, from the society they governed.

Scott carries his analysis from the formation of modern states to larger social and philosophical movement of High Modernism. Here he explains some of the more extreme authoritarian views on using the new science of the day to manage people as well as place. In High Modernism, an understanding of administrative ordering of nature and society is assumed to be an entitlement to such duties. Proponents of such radicalism proposed a comprehensive rational engineering of all aspects of social life in order to improve the human condition. It is typified by a top-down structure, the rejection of the past as a model upon which to build and is influenced by the military mobilization of World War I. The technocratic nature of High Modernism brings with it an incredible hubris. This is amplified in the circumstance of colonization where visionaries of the day were less constrained to carry out grand schemes and the chasm of cultural knowledge was even greater. Here Scott points out the failures of High Modernist agriculture and ‘villagization’ in Africa.

Seeing Like a State

2 thoughts on “Seeing Like a (noun)

  1. just reread my synopsis. It’s pretty crappy, but that gets at the point I was making about quality. With all these assignments, quality gets sacrificed for quantity. That and I can’t write good.


  2. Scott does make me think that cadastral map features are outdated now that we can rely on satellite technology to see things and draw lines on the ground. Relying on traditional boundaries is lazy when more intelligent solutions exist. For example, Byron R. pointed out that using rivers as political boundaries makes no sense from a watershed protection standpoint. He has an idea that political boundaries should conform to watershed borders rather than rivers. Then, one entity has sole responsibility for a river’s quality rather than multiple entities bickering over it and shirking duties.


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