Modernist discourse and the crisis of development theory

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The field of Third World studies is thought once again to be in a state of crisis, thanks largely to disillusionment with the once-dominant dependency “paradigm.” Amidst renewed interest in developmentalism and the clamor for an alternative to dependency, this article argues, first, that the major achievements of dependency theory remain largely unrecognized because the approach has been so frequently misrepresented or misunderstood. Whatever the ultimate status of dependency’s theoretical claims, it contains elements of a countermodernist attitude which ought to be retained in any new approach to the study of Third World development.

Second, the article argues that, despite these accomplishments, dependency remains trapped, along with developmentalism, within a modernist discourse which relies on the principles of nineteenth century liberal philosophy; that it treats the individual nation-state in the Third World as the sovereign subject of development; and that it accepts the Western model of national autonomy with growth as the appropriate one to emulate. The final section of the article discusses the efforts of a number of scholars to ground knowledge in local histories and experiences rather than building theory through the use of general conceptual categories and Western assumptions. Although these ideas currently remain on the margins of Third World studies, it is to be hoped that dependency’s loss of intellectual hegemony has at least opened up a space for them to be taken seriously, in the same way that dependency was itself taken seriously in the late 1960s.

Kate Manzo is assistant professor of political science at Williams College in Williamstown, MA 01267. Her research and writing interests focus on theories of development and on the nature of South African change. She is currently at work on a book entitledAfrikanerdom and Race: The Nature of Ideology in a Changing Society.