Uncomfortable comparisons: Anthropology, development and mixed feelings

Katy Gardner, Juli Qermezi Huang

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Development (as a field of action) and anthropology (as a field of knowledge) involve incommensurate objectives which rest on radically different techniques of comparison and result in contrasting states of affect. Whilst development is based on models that float free of context and are expected to travel across space, anthropological knowledge is gained from located ethnographic research which primarily generates context-specific knowledge. And whilst qualitative ethnographic material is used in anthropology to generate theoretical insights, in development, quantitative data or ‘indicators’ are compared in order to measure relative success or failure at the end of an intervention. Crucially, whilst anthropological comparison generates critical theory that is often used to critique development by politically engaged anthropologists, development’s lack of engagement with difference generates ‘travelling tales’ which are deliberately free floating. This allows ideas and practices to move across space without challenge, engaging an appreciative audience and telling a convincing story. From this, we suggest that in comparing development and anthropology, an important though as yet little discussed difference is that of the ‘affect’ generated by these different comparative techniques: whilst development stories generate (naïve) hope, anthropology’s critique generates anger/cynicism. This makes the anthropology of development an inherently uncomfortable field of study and casts new light on Ferguson’s (1997, Anthropology and its evil twin. In International development and the social sciences: Essays on the history and politics of knowledge (eds) F. Cooper & R. Packard, 150–175. Berkeley: University of California Press) assertion that development is anthropology’s ‘evil twin’. The chapter is based around two examples of development tales: gender training and ‘the female entrepreneur’.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHow People Compare
EditorsMathijs Pelkmans, Harry Walker
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781003283669
ISBN (Print)9781032229973
Publication statusPublished - 26 Dec 2022

Publication series

NameLSE Monographs on Social Anthropology


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