James C. Scott

American political scientist and anthropologist

James C. Scott (born December 2, 1936) is an American political scientist and anthropologist.

Scott received his bachelor's degree from Williams College and his MA and PhD in political science from Yale University. He taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison until 1976 and then at Yale, where he is Sterling Professor of Political Science. Since 1991, he has directed Yale's Program in Agrarian Studies.


Seeing Like a State (1997)Edit

  • I shall argue that the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements. All four are necessary for a full-fledged disaster. The first element is the administrative ordering of nature and society-the transformative state simplifications described above. By themselves, they are the unremarkable tools of modern statecraft; they are as vital to the maintenance of our welfare and freedom as they are to the designs of a would-be modern despot. They undergird the concept of citizenship and the provision of social welfare just as they might undergird a policy of rounding up undesirable minorities.
    The second element is what I call a high-modernist ideology. It is best conceived 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. It originated, of course, in the West, as a by-product of unprecedented progress in science and industry.
    • Introduction
  • Only when these first two elements are joined to a third does the combination become potentially lethal. The third element is an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being. The most fertile soil for this element has typically been times of war, revolution, depression, and struggle for national liberation. In such situations, emergency conditions foster the seizure of emergency powers and frequently delegitimize the previous regime. They also tend to give rise to elites who repudiate the past and who have revolutionary designs for their people.
    A fourth element is closely linked to the third: a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. War, revolution, and economic collapse often radically weaken civil society as well as make the populace more receptive to a new dispensation. Late colonial rule, with its social engineering aspirations and ability to run roughshod over popular opposition, occasionally met this last condition.
    In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.
    • Introduction
  • The "interruption," forced by widespread strikes, of France's structural adjustments to accommodate a common European currency is perhaps a straw in the wind. Put bluntly, my bill of particulars against a certain kind of state is by no means a case for politically unfettered market coordination as urged by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. As we shall see, the conclusions that can be drawn from the failures of modern projects of social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.
    • Introduction
  • Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision. The great advantage of such tunnel vision is that it brings into sharp focus certain limited aspects of an otherwise far more complex and unwieldy reality. This very simplification, in turn, makes the phenomenon at the center of the field of vision more legible and hence more susceptible to careful measurement and calculation. Combined with similar observations, an overall, aggregate, synoptic view of a selective reality is achieved, making possible a high degree of schematic knowledge, control, and manipulation.
    • Chap. 1. Nature and Space
  • If the utilitarian state could not see the real, existing forest for the (commercial) trees, if its view of its forests was abstract and partial, it was hardly unique in this respect. Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis, and it is not at all surprising that the abstractions of state officials should have reflected the paramount fiscal interests of their employer. The entry under "forest" in Diderot's Encyclopedie is almost exclusively concerned with the utilite publique of forest products and the taxes, revenues, and profits that they can be made to yield. The forest as a habitat disappears and is replaced by the forest as an economic resource to be managed efficiently and profitably.' Here, fiscal and commercial logics coincide; they are both resolutely fixed on the bottom line.
    • Chap. 1. Nature and Space
  • As we shall see with urban planning, revolutionary theory, collectivization, and rural resettlement, a whole world lying "outside the brackets" returned to haunt this technical vision.
    • Chap. 1. Nature and Space
  • To grasp the prodigious variety of customary ways of measuring land, we would have to imagine literally scores of "maps" constructed along very different lines than mere surface area. I have in mind the sorts of maps devised to capture our attention with a kind of fun-house effect in which, say, the size of a country is made proportional to its population rather than its geographical size, with China and India looming menacingly over Russia, Brazil, and the United States, while Libya, Australia, and Greenland virtually disappear. These types of customary maps (for there would be a great many) would construct the landscape according to units of work and yield, type of soil, accessibility, and ability to provide subsistence, none of which would necessarily accord with surface area. The measurements are decidedly local, interested, contextual, and historically specific. What meets the subsistence needs of one family may not meet the subsistence needs of another. Factors such as local crop regimens, labor supply, agricultural technology, and weather ensure that the standards of evaluation vary from place to place and over time. Directly apprehended by the state, so many maps would represent a hopelessly bewildering welter of local standards. They definitely would not lend themselves to aggregation into a single statistical series that would allow state officials to make meaningful comparisons.
    • Chap. 1. Nature and Space
  • The state's increasing concern with productivity, health, sanitation, education, transportation, mineral resources, grain production, and investment was less an abandonment of the older objectives of statecraft than a broadening and deepening of what those objectives entailed in the modern world.
    • Chap. 1. Nature and Space
  • An illegible society, then, is a hindrance to any effective intervention by the state, whether the purpose of that intervention is plunder or public welfare.
    • Chap. 2. Cities, People, and Language
  • A key characteristic of discourses of high modernism and of the public pronouncements of those states that have embraced it is a heavy reliance on visual images of heroic progress toward a totally transformed future.
    • Chap 3. Authoritarian High Modernism
  • Redesigning the physical layout of a village is simpler than transforming its social and productive life. For obvious reasons, political elites–particularly authoritarian high-modernist elites–typically begin with the changes in the formal structure and rules.
    • Ch. 7. Compulsory Villagization in Tanzania: Aesthetic and Miniaturization
  • Changing the rules of regulations is simpler than eliciting the behavior that conforms to them.
    • Ch. 7. Compulsory Villagization in Tanzania: Aesthetic and Miniaturization
  • We miniaturize, and thereby domesticate, the larger phenomena that are outside our control, often with benign intentions.
    • Ch. 7. Compulsory Villagization in Tanzania: Aesthetic and Miniaturization
  • If the environment can be simplified down to the point where the rules do explain a great deal, those who formulate the rules and techniques have also greatly expanded their power. They have, correspondingly, diminished the power of those who do not.
    • Ch. 8. Taming Nature: An Agriculture of Legibility and Simplicity
  • Following the illuminating studies of Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, we can find in the Greek concept of metis a means of comparing the forms of knowledge embedded in local experience with the more general, abstract knowledge deployed by the state and its technical agencies.
    • Chap. 9. Thin Simplifications and Practical Knowledge: Metis
  • Those who do not have access to scientific methods and laboratory verification have often relied on metis to develop rich knowledge systems that are remarkably accurate. Traditional navigation skills before the eras of sextants, magnetic compasses, charts, and sonar are a case in point.
    • Chap. 9. Thin Simplifications and Practical Knowledge: Metis
  • The subordination of metis is fairly obvious in the development of mass production in the factory. A comparable de-skilling process is, I believe, more compelling and, given the intractable obstacles to complete standardization, ultimately less successful in agricultural production.
    • Chap. 9. Thin Simplifications and Practical Knowledge: Metis
  • A state mainly concerned with appropriation and control will find sedentary agriculture preferable to pastoralism or shifting agriculture. For the same reasons, such a state would generally prefer large-holding to small-holding and, in turn, plantation or collective agriculture to both. Where control and appropriation are the overriding considerations, only the last two forms offer direct control over the workforce and its income, the opportunity to select cropping patterns and techniques, and, finally, direct control over the production and profit of the enterprise. Although collectivization and plantation agriculture are seldom very efficient, they represent, as we have seen, the most legible and hence appropriable forms of agriculture.
    The large capitalist agricultural producer faces the same problem as the factory owner: how to transform the essentially artisanal or metis knowledge of farmers into a standardized system that will allow him greater control over the work and its intensity. The plantation was one solution. In colonial countries, where able-bodied men were pressed into service as gang labor, the plantation represented a kind of private collectivization, inasmuch as it relied on the state for the extramarket sanctions necessary to control its labor force. More than one plantation sector has made up what it lacked in efficiency by using its political clout to secure subsidies, price supports, and monopoly privileges.
    • Chap. 9. Thin Simplifications and Practical Knowledge: Metis
  • Metis, with the premium it places on practical knowledge, experience, and stochastic reasoning, is of course not merely the now-superseded precursor of scientific knowledge. It is the mode of reasoning most appropriate to complex material and social tasks where the uncertainties are so daunting that we must trust our (experienced) intuition and feel our way.
    • Chap. 9. Thin Simplifications and Practical Knowledge: Metis
  • Metis, far from being rigid and monolithic, is plastic, local, and divergent. It is in fact the idiosyncracies of metis, its contextualness, and its fragmentation that make it so permeable, so open to new ideas. Metis has no doctrine or centralized training; each practitioner has his or her own angle. In economic terms, the market for metis is often one of nearly perfect competition, and local monopolies are likely to be broken by innovation from below and outside. If a new technique works, it is likely to find a clientele.
    • Chap. 9. Thin Simplifications and Practical Knowledge: Metis
  • The great high-modernist episodes that we have examined qualify as tragedies in at least two respects. First, the visionary intellectuals and planners behind them were guilty of hubris, of forgetting that they were mortals and acting as if they were gods. Second, their actions, far from being cynical grabs for power and wealth, were animated by a genuine desire to improve the human condition-a desire with a fatal flaw. That these tragedies could be so intimately associated with optimistic views of progress and rational order is in itself a reason for a searching diagnosis. Another reason lies in the completely ecumenical character of the high-modernist faith. We encounter it in various guises in colonial development schemes, planned urban centers in both the East and the West, collectivized farms, the large development plans of the World Bank, the resettlement of nomadic populations, and the management of workers on factory floors.
    • Chap. 10. Conclusion
  • One might, on the basis of experience, derive a few rules of thumb that, if observed, could make development planning less prone to disaster. While my main goal is hardly a point-by-point reform of development practice, such rules would surely include something along the following lines.
    Take small steps. In an experimental approach to social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then plan the next small move. As the biologist J. B. S. Haldane metaphorically described the advantages of smallness: "You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mineshaft; and on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away. A rat is killed, a man broken, a horse splashes."
    Favor reversibility. Prefer interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be mistakes. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences. Interventions into ecosystems require particular care in this respect, given our great ignorance about how they interact. Aldo Leopold captured the spirit of caution required: "The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts"
    Plan on surprises. Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen. In agricultural schemes this may mean choosing and preparing land so that it can grow any of several crops. In planning housing, it would mean "designing in" flexibility for accommodating changes in family structures or living styles. In a factory it may mean selecting a location, layout, or piece of machinery that allows for new processes, materials, or product lines down the road.
    Plan on human inventiveness. Always plan under the assumption that those who become involved in the project later will have or will develop the experience and insight to improve on the design.
    • Chap. 10. Conclusion
  • A good many institutions in liberal democracies already take such a form and may serve as exemplars for fashioning new ones. One could say that democracy itself is based on the assumption that the metis of its citizenry should, in mediated form, continually modify the laws and policies of the land. Common law, as an institution, owes its longevity to the fact that it is not a final codification of legal rules, but rather a set of procedures for continually adapting some broad principles to novel circumstances. Finally, that most characteristic of human institutions, language, is the best model: a structure of meaning and continuity that is never still and ever open to the improvisations of all its speakers.
    • Chap. 10. Conclusion

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017)Edit

Yale University Press
  • Mankind has been mesmerized by the narrative of progress and civilization as codified by the first great agrarian kingdoms. As new and powerful societies, they were determined to distinguish themselves as sharply as possible from the populations from which they sprang and that still beckoned and threatened at their fringes.
    • p. 7
  • Once the basic assumption of the superiority and attraction of fixed-field farming over all previous forms of subsistence is questioned, it becomes clear that this assumption itself rests on a deeper and more embedded assumption that is virtually never questioned. And that assumption is that sedentary life itself is superior to and more attractive than mobile forms of existence.
    • pp. 7-8

Quotes about ScottEdit

  • Still, Scott's advice is far from useless. It can be applied to contexts far afield from those that concern him here. His case studies help explain, say, why national regulation tends to work better when it consists of altered incentives rather than flat commands. Some of the most successful initiatives in American regulatory law have consisted of efforts to increase the price of high-polluting activities; and some of the least successful have been rigid mandates that ignore the collateral effects of regulatory controls. Scott's enthusiasm for metis also suggests that certain governmental institutions will do best if they act incrementally, creating large-scale change not at once, but in a series of lesser steps. We might think here not only of common law, but also of constitutional law. Many judicial problems derive from a belief that judges can intervene successfully in large-scale systems (consider the struggles with school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s), and many judicial successes have come from proceeding incrementally (consider the far more incremental and cautious attack on sex discrimination in the same period).
    And Scott also offers larger implications. A society that is legible to the state is susceptible to tyranny, if it lacks the means to resist that state; and an essential part of the task of a free social order is to ensure space for institutions of resistance. Moreover, a state that attempts to improve the human condition should engage not in plans but in experiments, secure in the knowledge that people will adapt to those experiments in unanticipated ways. Scott offers no plans or rules here, and a closer analysis of the circumstances that distinguish success from failure would have produced greater illumination. But he has written a remarkably interesting book on social engineering, and he cannot be much faulted for failing to offer a sure-fire plan for the well-motivated, metis-friendly social engineer.

External linksEdit

Wikipedia has an article about: