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Hard Times for Geographical Determinism

When we began our research with Simon Johnson in 1998 that provided a lot of the insights around which we built Why Nations Fail, we were partly reacting against the ascendancy of what we saw as a highly misleading explanation form, comparative economic development based on geography — both in academia and in policy discussions. In Chapter 2 of our book “Theories that Don’t Work” we explain in detail some of the evidence that is inconsistent with such geographical views.

Thankfully, one rarely hears nowadays at an economics conference that Africa is poor because it is cursed with adverse geography. Yet such views linger on elsewhere in social science, particularly in the literature on state formation.

Scott’s book, for all of its creative flair, is a rather depressing example of this. In Chapter 2 where he talks about “State Space,” the ideal setting to build a state he focuses on flat country suitable for growing rice. The mountains, places where the “friction of terrain” kicks in are not favorable for building states and instead become the refuge of those who flee from the state. This geographical determinism that fills the book is enough to warm the heart of Jeffrey Sachs.

These ideas have of course been applied everywhere. The seminal empirical work on the incidence of civil wars by James Fearon and David Laitin “Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War, emphasized that importance of “rough terrain” for allowing civil wars (presumably the opposite of state formation – state collapse) to happen. The problems of creating a state in Afghanistan, for instance, can hardly be mentioned before the nature of the topography is introduced as the prime reason why it is impossible to build a modern state in the presence of such territorial frictions.

As we write, while the state in Afghanistan has problems, it is actually in a little bit better shape than the one in Iraq. Here’s the thing about Iraq, it is very flat. The collapse of the Iraqi state has nothing to do with geography and everything to do with the politics of state building, or its failure.

What about the Incas on the Andean rough terrain? Perhaps it’s just fortunate for modern archaeologists and tourists that the Incas never realized that they were not supposed to be able to build a state in the mountains, otherwise they might have given up before constructing those 40,000km of roads.


An Application of the Art of Not Being Governed

Scott’s theory can actually help to understand some facts about economic development. In their paper Geography and Economic Development, John Gallup, Jeffrey Sachs, and Andrew Mellinger elaborate several versions of what we called the geography hypothesis in Why Nations Fail. They point out that there is a correlation between the distribution of population in a country and poverty, with countries in Asia and Africa often having populations far from the coast and navigable rivers — a fact which they interpret as a geographical source of underdevelopment.

But they do not explain why African countries have populations that are far from the coast. Why could this be?

Scott’s book suggests that this could well have nothing much to do with geography (well to the extent you can’t grow rice in Africa…) and everything to do with the historical processes of state formation. He notes

“A final state-thwarting strategy is distance from state centers or, in our terms, friction-of-terrain-remoteness” (p. 279)

and argues that a “distance-making-strategy” was an important part of stopping being incorporated into the state.

There are other ideas that could help explain such a distribution of population. One is the slave trade. The historian John Thornton, in his seminal history of the Kingdom of the Kongo in West Central Africa (The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641-1718), pointed out that when the Kingdom started to get seriously into slave raiding, people started to move away from roads and anywhere which might give access to slave traders. Rivers would be an obvious such source of access.

A related idea was investigated in detail by Nathan Nunn and Diego Puga in their paper Ruggedness: The Blessing of Bad Geography in Africa. They argued that in the period of the slave trade in Africa places which were rugged and hilly were very attractive to hide from slave traders. In their empirical work they showed that ruggedness actually reduced the negative impact of slavery on the economic development of African countries.

So the fact that in Africa or Asia population may be distributed in “paradoxical ways” seems to have little to do with geography (a puzzling interpretation in the first place) and everything to do with politics and the historical evolution of institutions, including states, in different parts of the world. Another instance of geographic determinism getting the picture all wrong…


The Art of Not Being Governed

Scott followed up Seeing Like a State with another important book on the state, The Art of Not Being Governed. The thesis of this book is simple but provocative. Focusing on South East Asia, Scott points out that historically (roughly up until the middle of the 20th century) many countries like Burma, Thailand and Vietnam were divided into core areas controlled by the state, and peripheries that are largely outside the state’s control. These peripheries are typically more ethnically diverse, culturally distinct, poorer and often in conflict with the state in the core. On way of viewing these is that they are backward places, which are simply waiting for the state to integrate them into “civilization,” or to use Scott’s terminology, they were waiting to be made legible.  

But this view is wrong, Scott argues. Instead, he suggests that they are places of refuge from the state. His view is that states are coercive entities taxing, regulating and conscripting people and that the normal situation is that people oppose the state. The margins/periphery are not then backward static places waiting to be integrated into the state, they are rather places where people have gone to actively oppose the state and indeed many of the institutions and cultural features of these areas are deliberately designed to stop the state integrating them.

Like all Scott’s books, this one is full of immensely creative ideas and historical and ethnographic examples that make you think hard. Maybe the most provocative chapter is Chapter 7 where he argues that the social institutions of the periphery are an adaption to the goal of fending off the state.

The idea that people may not want the political centralization that a state brings is a familiar one in political anthropology. Scott refers to the work of anthropologist Pierre Clastres whose book Society Against the State argued this in the case of many indigenous societies in Latin America, but actually the idea was common far before this, as we will show in some posts coming up. Many stateless societies or chiefdom had elaborate social and political institutions that made it very difficult for anyone to accumulate too much power and thus in effect stop in its tracks the process that could have cumulated in state formation. Though Scott’s focus is more on innovations in institutions that stop state’s spreading, rather than what archaeologists call “pristine state formation,” the ideas are closely related.

Nevertheless, Scott put this idea on the table and argued that it explained big patterns in the world in a way that nobody had done before. In a way it is related to our argument in Why Nations Fail about the “dual economy”.

Development economists from the 1950s right up to today conceptualize poor countries as consisting of a developed (maybe urban and industrial) modern sector and a backward (rural and agrarian) sector. The problem of development is to transform the backward sector and make it more modern. What we showed, building on seminal historical work, particularly on Southern Africa by Colin Bundy, Robin Palmer and Neil Parsons, is in fact that dual economies were not at all natural; they were typically created in the process of colonization.

Moreover, just as Scott argues it is incorrect to think of peripheries as traditional places waiting to be modernized, in dual economies the typical situation was that modern and backward were in symbiotic relationships. For example, in Apartheid South Africa, the backward areas, mostly the black Bantustans, were part of an elaborate set of institutions designed to provide cheap labor to white owned farms and mines.


Seeing Like a State

Scott’s book Seeing Like a State proposes a theory of the state and its consequences for society, picking it up where The Moral Economy of the Peasant left off. The state expansion, by threatening the moral economy of peasants, could trigger rebellion and a fight against the expansion of the state.

In Seeing Like a State, Scott makes several main arguments. Perhaps the most general is that states by their nature want to make everything “legible” — in order to control society. To establish such control, states have to have an understanding of it and information about society and the territory they occupy, and this launches many projects that Scott illustrates as follows:

“the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation” (p. 2).

But this process of creating a legible territory to be controlled naturally created gross simplifications and obscured the complex heterogeneity of society. Significantly, for the purposes of the book, this attempt by the state to make society legible, in conjunction with some other features, created some of the worst human disasters of the 20th century, such as the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union which led to the starvation of millions of people. These other features which interact in such a pernicious way with legibility are what Scott class a

“high modernist ideology … best conceived as a strong … version of the self-confidence about scientific and technological 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.” (p. 4)

But even legibility and high modernism are not enough to create a real disaster. For that in addition you need “an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs to being” (p. 5) and relatedly “a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans” (p. 5).

Summarizing it in Scott’s words:

“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.” (p. 5)

Legibility is key because having created such a simplified vision of what constitutes society, any plan based on it is quite likely to suffer from unintended consequences and perhaps go wildly wrong. The book then brilliantly illustrates these forces in action in a number of contexts.

There are many things to like about this book and many things to argue about as the next few blogs will show, but let’s start with something to like.

Scott’s emphasis that the creation of a modern state in the context of authoritarianism and a prostrate civil society runs against the grain of those who advocate the “Beijing Consensus” that China currently has a viable and generalizable model of economic growth. In Why Nations Fail we argued that the combination of important areas of inclusion in economic institutions along with extractive political institutions is intrinsically unstable. Dictatorship cannot support economic inclusion except in transitory and unusual circumstances. Scott’s book adds something very interesting to this. If you are looking for the big man-made disasters of the future, China would be a good place to start.


Images of the State

The state — what it is, how it behaves, and what it means — varies greatly across societies. We have seen, for example, that there are parts of the world, like the Berber society of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, which historically did not have a state. We also showed, drawing on the work of the great anthropologist Ernest Gellner, that the structure of the Berber polity inverted standard definitions of the state. The state did not have a “legitimate monopoly of violence,” but society did. We also asked why people in sub-Saharan Africa tended to live far less frequently under the authorities of states than people in Eurasia, relating this, albeit speculatively, to particular social institutions such as age sets. We have also discussed some of the most important hypotheses about state formation in Eurasia, for example that of the sociologist Charles Tilly who linked it to inter-state political competition and warfare.

But there are difficulties in interpreting many of these facts and the rich patterns about the state. Why didn’t the Berbers have a state? It could have been that really they wanted a state but couldn’t figure out how to construct it, or perhaps just didn’t have a model of what a state looked like. Many scholars working in development economics, for example, argue that if a society lacks institutions or policies which would promote development then this must be because they don’t really understand how to make the policies or institutions work in their own specific context.

James Scott, on the other hand, would argue that the most plausible explanation for the absence of a Berber state was that the Berbers did not want a state (because the disruptions that the state would inevitably create in their lives) and had managed to create mechanisms to stop it forming. Scott’s general arguments about the state, which we review in the next two posts, are powerful and provocative images of what the state is and does and how people react to it. After we develop his arguments, we will discuss a whole series of empirical examples to interrogate his ideas.