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Growth / John Liu via flickr

A discipline in search of boundaries

Saskia Hollander | 26 June 2014

On the third day of the EADI General Conference, a plenary session was organized to mark the 50th anniversary of the German Development Institute (DIE), at which participants discussed the future of development studies. They emphasized that the field is in search of a new identity, which will entail focusing on themes rather than regions, conducting political economy analyses and cooperating more closely with other scientific disciplines.

Development Studies is no longer solely about studying the poor in underdeveloped countries,  but about analysing the development perspectives of socioeconomically, culturally and politically marginalized people in both low- and middle-income countries. The focus has shifted towards analysing the unequal distribution of global public goods, and the disproportional impact that environmental degradation and climate change are having on the most vulnerable groups. The global power dynamics have shifted, and traditional development themes have become intersected by a broad range of global issues. While these changes are certainly not new, the field of development studies has, according to the session’s participants, been insufficiently able to respond to them. Now, more than ever, it needs to redefine its identity and set clear boundaries for what it should and should not do.

Changing parameters

DIE director Dirk Messner kicked off the discussion by outlining the changing parameters relevant for the field. First, in the context of climate change, the differentiation between developed and developing countries has become outdated. To cope with the pressures of climate change, all economies - in both the North and the South - need to transform, which broadens the scope of traditional development research. Secondly, the shift in global power dynamics has clear implications for scientific competition. In Messner;s words, ‘emerging powers like India. China and Brazil expect us to know how Europe works. They need knowledge about what is going on here. If we don’t give it to them, they don’t work with us’. Altogether, this forces practitioners of development studies to gain a better understanding of the interlinkages between the environment, society and technology. As they increasingly encroach on the territory of environmental institutions, they needs to work more closely with natural scientists and engineers and learn more about their methodologies.

A focus on themes

According to Messner there are three options for dealing with these changed parameters. The first is to ignore them and to stick to the old questions, which implies a focus on an ever-shrinking number of countries. The second option is to move to global development research rather than development as such. This would imply that the field should focus on any type of development pattern in any type of country at any particular level, whereby any other disciplines are welcome to step in. According to Messner, however, ‘this is no longer a discipline’. The third and, in Messner’s view, only valuable option, is to set clear boundaries around specific themes on the basis of which new research communities will emerge.  
Isa Baud, president of EADI, largely agreed with this perspective and identified urbanization and cities, as hubs in networks, as an example of a research area that is relevant to the field of development studies. Cities are the drivers of economic growth, and according to Baud, research should focus on how they influence regions within countries, and are integrated within international networks and global value chains. A focus on cities should, in addition, include analysis of the prospects of new types of social mobilization and local governance, and identify the conditions under which new social contracts are being built.

Political economy

Besides narrowing down the themes it addresses, Siddharth Mallavarapu of the Centre for Global Cooperation Research stressed that development studies needs to incorporate more political economy analyses. More specifically, it needs to focus on the intersections between class, race and gender, and provide more thorough analyses of the development perspectives of marginalized groups. In this context, the North-South divide is still largely relevant, as global public goods are still unequally distributed along this demarcation line. Moreover, there needs to be more focus on the semantics of development concepts. Concepts like fragile states and participatory development are widely used, but what do these terms actually mean, and what interests underlie their use? According to Mallavarapu, analysing these questions is a clear task for the field of development studies. 

A truly interdisciplinary approach

The participants in the session called for a more interdisciplinary approach and more thorough cooperation between different research sectors, as this is where the real strength of development studies lies. For example, when it comes to a focus on cities, Baud called for closer cooperation with disaster risk management. The importance of an interdisciplinary approach was underlined by Jan Börner of the Center for Development Studies, Germany.  He differentiated between interdisciplinary thinking - which Dirk Messner referred to as a ‘thin’ interdisciplinary approach - and full-fledged integration of various academic disciplines - Messner’s ‘thick’ interdisciplinary approach. According to Börner, the latter is the most difficult, yet the most valuable, to achieve.
All in all, the participants views were quite optimistic, yet realistic. Clearly, there is still a future for development studies, but it will largely depend on whether and how the field is able to adapt to new realities. Furthermore, while the will among researchers is definitely there, the ability of the field to redefine its identity also depends on the extent to which the institutional surroundings and political contexts in which researchers operate allow it to take shape.

The Broker reports from the EADI conference 'Responsible Development in a Polycentric World: Inequality, Citizenship and the Middle Classes', 23 – 26 June 2014 in Bonn, Germany. The Broker is main media partner during this conference.

Photo credit main picture: Growth / John Liu via flickr