The place of Culture and Tradition in Theories of Development
By: Sewnet Mekonnen Department of Sociology Delhi School of Economics University of Delhi 2006 This essay is an attempt to show how culture and tradition have been conceptualized in the theories/approaches of development. For this purpose major theories of development will first be described and how culture and tradition configure in those approaches is indicated. Concluding remarks will be made based on what has been presented. Until recently the significance of culture has been played down by writers and commentators on the issue. Such neglect of culture and tradition has been mainly attributed to the timing and locus of the emergence of development theory itself, (Fukuyama, 2001:3134). The emergence of development theory as a separate body of ideas coincides with the end of the second world war (WW II) in 1945, the time when Western Europe was devastated by the war and the United States of America emerged as a major political and economic power in the world. This the time when many countries in Asia a Africa got their independence from colonial rule and the beginning of the Cold War in which the USA started every means available to contain Russian led communism from spreading to the newly independent countries .This had important implications in terms of the underlying assumption, methodology, and policy options of development, (Worsely, in Skelton and Allen, 1999:30). Modernization is considered to be the major development theory which evolved from two ideas about social change that developed in the 19th century: 1) the conception of traditional versus modern societies and, 2) Positivism that viewed development as societal evolution in progressive stages of growth. According to modernization theory, problems that held back the industrialization of poor countries were related to irrational ways in which resources are allocated in such societies. Tradition had no function to perform in development; it is in fact an obstacle to
modernization. Even though its major proponent W.W. Rostow recognized the importance of ideas and values besides appropriate economic, technological, and demographic conditions to development, practitioners and academics of modernization did not pay much attention to that aspect. That may be one of the reasons why culture and tradition were given little attention in approaches to development for so long. The policy implications of such an approach are self evident. Traditional societies can become modern only through rationalizing resources allocation and the elimination of cultural, institutional and organizational roadblocks that did not allow countries to develop. Rostow (1960) suggests that countries with traditional societies could evolve by starting in a stage with undeveloped and traditional one and through one path /linear process to change their societies to a stage of modern rational and developed society. He identified different stages, variables and processes through which a society develops from traditional to modern: 1) Traditional society, 2) Precondition for take off, 3) Take off, 4) The drive to maturity, and 5) The stage of high mass consumption. According to Rostow and other proponents of modernization, modern societies are those that resemble western capitalist societies and traditional societies and traditional societies are residual category comprising the rest of the world including peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The theory looks much of the world in the same way as the mainstream liberal thought sprang with the early capitalist system. Modernization theory simply renders such concepts as “the White Man’s Burden”, “The Civilizing Mission”, etc. as abstract social thought. From this one can observe that the timing and locus of modernization theory help to explain its ethnocentric and self-serving world view which characterized non-western cultures and traditions as unimportant or obstacles to development. It was only in the 1980s that this western biased approach had been questioned on the observation that some features of pre-industrial societies are
inconsistent with the societal models of industrial countries and these features should be taken into account. In the late 1960’s new models countered modernization theory the chief among which known as the dependency or underdevelopment school propounded by Andre Gunder Frank and the world system theory of Immanuel Wallerstien. The argument of dependency and world system schools is similar and states that since the industrial revolution in Europe, capitalism and its market have been developing and expanding a set of core nations (those with capital and other forms of material wealth)and a set of peripheral countries( the rest of the world ) that have become dependent on the core. The core countries have entered the peripheries in search of land, raw materials labour, and new consumer markets. As capitalism expands from its core in Western Europe and North America, ever larger portions of the globe and growing shares of the human population have been incorporated in the world capitalist system. The result of this relationship is the ever growth of the core at the expense of the underdevelopment of the periphery. The solution for this “development of underdevelopment” of the periphery is not continuous imitation of the core but through complete breakdown of that dependent relationship since it is difficult to duplicate the conditions necessary for economic development along the lines of the western (core) model. The dependency school ,though it criticized the modernization theory on the latter’s idea that traditional societies should imitate the methods and strategies of the west ,it is similar to it because in both models economic growth is emphasized as the main aspect of development and the role of culture and tradition have been downplayed or ignored. In order to remedy the defects of dependency and modernization schools, various approaches to development had been suggested. To mention but few basic needs approach, Structural Adjustment Porgramme, Adjustment with a Human Face, Sustainable Development are some of the models. For instance the basic needs approach which became very popular in the early 1970’s takes the position that in the development policies and programs priority must be given to meeting basic necessities. Development approaches like basic needs are indicators the recognition of culture and human values as important factors in development. It was not an accident, therefore, that
a new concept, the cultural dimension of economic development, emerged in the 1980’s and the UNESCO declared World Decade for Cultural Development at the time. Such change in the approaches towards culture in development is partly a result of the astonishing economic performance by Japan, China and other East Asian countries. The societies and cultural values (Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.) of such countries had previously been classified as lacking the Protestant Ethic, hence not conducive to development. The success by Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, however, disproved such assessment and indicated that their cultural values were not throwbacks of the capitalist West but other ways of doing things. To illustrate let’s take the case of Buddhist Economics described by E.F. Schumacher (1973). According to this writer, the essence of civilization for the Buddhist is not multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Development endeavor should not be something that turns the work of man into a mechanical slave but rather that enhances man’s skill and power. A development strategy that replaces human labour by mechanical power is harmful to man since work has its own value of fulfilling the human soul. Such an approach seems inefficient and irrational when viewed from a western perspective but rational from the Buddhist. This indicates that culture and tradition are not something to be dismissed or ignored as obstacles to development. The case of Japan’s economic performance is another example which suggested that different behavioral explanations that invoke variety of influence Japanese conduct are testimonies to the fact that values are not immutable and must not be taken as given. One cannot sustain the argument that the Protestant Ethic of the west always promotes development while other values continue to be obstacles to improvement. This lesson is learnt from the practical experience of Japan and an open minded approach to the values of different cultures and traditions in promoting or retarding development. Amartya Sen (2004) has the following to say regarding the relationship between culture and development: “…development and culture are linked in a number of different ways and the connection relate both to the ends and to the means of development.” Such linkages, Sen goes on to say, are not in a straight forward way but intricately complex. Failures to be aware of such intricacy leads to overgeneralization, like traditional values
lack the Protestant Ethic and, therefore, are obstacles to development, a long held claim refuted by Japans emergence as the major economic power. If we look at the policy implication of ignoring culture as one of the factors affecting development we find that some practices have unimagined consequences upon the lives of people. To illustrate let’s take the case of Lesotho described by James Ferguson (1997). The country has received huge development assistance from international donor agencies, non- and quasi non-governmental organizations like CARE, the Ford Foundations etc. on the belief that it had a traditional, isolated subsistence peasant society whose lives cannot be improved unless assisted towards ‘modern’ way of life. Ferguson however found that the assessment of Lesotho as isolated subsistence economy was not the case. The country has not been a subsistence society since the mid of 1800’s , having entered the 20th century as a producer of wheat mealaes , kaffir ,corn , mohair , wool, horses and cattle for south African market which at the same time attests the fact that it was not isolated. The ‘development ‘programs doomed to failure for that very reason even though individual development workers carried out their duties with a genuine interest to assist. This is also one indicators of the fact that culture and tradition did not receive the attention they deserve in approaches to development. To conclude we have seen that development theory from the start gave a marginal attention to culture and tradition. One of the major for this neglect has been the fact that development approaches them originated in a particular cultural, historical, and political setting (the industrial west after WWII). This resulted in a biased attitude towards culture and tradition other than the west until recently. The success registered by non-western societies like Japan ,Honk Kong , South Korea, etc. , however, impacted development thinking towards the paying more attention to culture tradition and other ways of doing things. Approaches like development with a human face, cultural dimensions of development emerged as a consequence.
References Escobar, Arturo (1991) ‘Anthropology and the Development Encounter: the Making and Marketing of Development Anthropology,’ in American Ethnologist, 18:658-82. Ferguson, James (1997) ‘Development and Bureaucratic Power In Lesotho’ in Rahnema Majid and Victoria Bawtree (eds.), The Post development Reader, London Zed Books, PP.223-233 Fukuyama, F. (2001) ‘Culture and Development: Cultural Concerns’, in Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Llisevier, Science Ltd., pp.3130-3134 Schumacher, E, F. (1973) Small is Beautiful, London: Vantage Books Sen, Amartya (2004) ‘How does culture matter?’ in Rao Vijyendra and Michael Walton (eds.) Culture and Public Action, Delhi: Permanent Black Worseley, Peter (1999) ‘Culture and Development Theory’, in Skelton, Tracey, and Jim Allen (eds.) Culture and Global Change, London and New York: Rutledge, pp. 30- 41