Social development: engineering solutions, or complex social processes?

There are at least two competing theories of social development, one which draws predominantly on natural science analogies and considers development to be a series of technical problems amenable to technical/rational interventions, and the other which emphasises the social. Neither is exclusive of the other, but sometimes you would be forgiven for thinking that they are.

For example, I recently came across this video on TED   from the BIF innovation summit which shows one organisation’s response to social development in Latin America. What is interesting about it is the way that it completely ignores the debates that have taken place over the last few decades about the importance of the social in ‘social development’. So, simplistically put , previously there was a dominant discourse that development was about finding ‘solutions’ to people’s ‘problems’ so that people in less developed countries could ‘develop’, i.e. be more like us, and aspire to the things that we aspire to. The things that stood in people’s way were technical problems that the West’s greater scientific know-how could ameliorate. Then for a period  counter arguments seemed to hold more sway, that technical ‘solutions’ on their own would never be enough, or even that the West’s understanding of development was not a universal paradigm but a culturally and contextually defined ideology. People in other cultures would not necessarily want to develop as we have and do not necessarily aspire to what we aspire to. For the young woman on the film however, development turns on capital, infrastructure and know-how. How, then,  would we explain the modern state of India, where all three exist but still ¾ of the population lives in abject poverty?

Another way of  thinking about social development that it is not the technical answers that bump start social conditions, but entirely the other way round, that social conditions bump-start the infrastructure, the capital and the know-how. I was recently in a lecture where two professors took entirely opposite views of the role of the first printing press: the first argued simply that it was the introduction of the printing press, like a chance mutation in nature or a quantum fluctuation, that entirely transformed Western society. The other professor turned this proposal entirely the other way round and argued that there was much less randomness about it: social relations had advanced to a sufficiently complex degree in Medieval Europe for the idea of the printing press both to be conceived and to have the effect that it did. It was an innovation, but one that was bred out of, and fed back into, the social conditions of its forming. Paradoxically it was formed by, and helped form, the social context in which it emerged. This latter view is much closer to the sociological thinking of Norbert Elias for whom there was no mystery about the social basis of what he termed the civilising process. Longer and longer chains of interdependent people bring about both social and psychological changes in the population which allow for the development of more detached ways of thinking and more highly differentiated societies. Technology and different ways of knowing are a direct result of the competitive and co-operative dynamic that arises in the formation of longer and longer chains of interdependent people.  This will not necessarily lead to greater social equality, however, as the example of both India and China demonstrate.

From this film, and from the lack of any insight that it gives into politics, power, inequality, social justice, you might be lead into thinking that we have come back to where we started: development is about techno-rational inputs with a little bit of acknowledgement that they have to be local answers to local people’s problems. However, we are back to ‘engineering’ a better life for people. To take up the engineering metaphor,   in the less developed world people are cogs for which we in the West are the spanners – they are the objects of our technical interventions

Of course, even with a different analysis one might start doing exactly the same sort of things, as Practical Action (formerly the Intermediate Technology and Development Group) has been doing from its base in this country for more than 20 years. However, one might have a different understanding of what one was doing and a different explanation of why it was useful. It is possible to bring technical know-how to communities in less developed countries in support of the social as well as technical changes that they are trying to bring about.


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