What makes ID unique?

A creative space of invention firmly rooted in the disciplines

We publish not only in leading development and area studies journals, but also in highly visible and selective disciplinary journals, as well as books with leading academic presses and other leading book publishers. Many colleagues occupy prominent roles in the main professional organisations of those disciplines.

Why have a department of International Development at all? For the same reason universities with good natural science departments invest in engineering schools. Disciplinary departments tend to focus on questions, methods, and theories that are defined by the norms and boundaries of those disciplines. In International Development, our objects of study are shaped more by the needs of the world.

ID is a problem-oriented department focused on specific questions given by the world, clearly contextualized in time and place, with the best theoretical and methodological tools available across the social sciences. We choose concepts and methods according to our questions, and not vice versa. And we combine qualitative and quantitative methods (‘Q2’), and draw on theory from across disciplines, to develop new approaches that can loosen the constraints holding back developing countries.

Bridge-building offers a relevant analogy. The engineer is tasked with designing a bridge for a particular place and time. A disciplinary response might be, ‘Build it downstream, where conditions are better suited to current methods.’  To which the engineer responds, ‘The road segments that need connecting are not downstream. They are here. Hence we choose methods to suit the site.’

This happened to a PhD student of ours studying the effects of Christian missionaries in Madagascar. Some suggested he switch to far better Indian data. This was a good suggestion… for someone not too interested in Madagascar. But he was. So we helped him design an innovative Q2 methodology that identified important effects of missionary activities on human development. His work won APSA’s Max Weber Best Paper Award, and was published in World Development. His name is Borge Wietzke, and he’s now a tenured Associate Professor at IBEI-Barcelona.

In sum, we view development as a creative space of invention that lies above the disciplines, and interacts critically and intensely with them. We don’t conceive of the field in negative terms – ‘that which is not economics, nor political science, nor anthropology…’. Rather, we believe in a positive-sum approach that reaches deep into the disciplines for theories and methods, and then returns to them cutting-edge insights in a constructive cycle of collaboration and growth.

There are many examples of this approach in action. Here are a few:

Ebola in Sierra Leone and DRC

Creative syntheses with significant disciplinary and policy impacts.

Tim Allen and collaborators applied anthropological understandings of public authority to generate pioneering analyses of the Ebola crises in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These were taken up enthusiastically by public health specialists, who foregrounded their work in The Lancet and employed it to plan preparedness and design responses to Ebola, COVID-19, and other pandemics.

Political topography of the African state

Creative syntheses with significant disciplinary and policy impacts.

Catherine Boone fused concepts from political science, geography, anthropology and sociology to demonstrate the existence of sub-national variation in state structure driven by patterns of landholding. Her ‘political topography’ model has influenced several generations of political science research on electoral politics, distributive politics, and state-building in Africa and other developing regions.

Decentralisation in Bolivia

Creative syntheses with significant disciplinary and policy impacts.

In a series of books and articles, Jean-Paul Faguet integrated ideas from political science, anthropology and economics to explain subnational variation in local government effectiveness in a series of publications in development studies, economics, and political science outlets, cited 4,000+ times. This work developed a bottom-up understanding of local governance that enriched top-down understandings of decentralization in both economics, which traditionally focused on resource distribution and elite capture, and political science, which concentrated on electoral competition and interest group politics. It also played a key role in establishing ‘large-N subnational analysis’ as a cutting-edge, rapidly growing empirical method today.

Bayesian qualitative methods

Creative syntheses with significant disciplinary and policy impacts.

Tasha Fairfield borrows logical Bayesianism from physics, astrophysics, and geology to develop a new iterative method of case comparison that builds greater rigour into qualitative research by mitigating confirmation bias and ad-hoc hypothesizing. Born of the challenges of empirical fieldwork in developing contexts, her method is having a big impact on political science, where it was published in two leading journals, won APSA’s Sage methodology award, and will soon appear as a book (Cambridge). Sociologists and philosophers of science are currently applying Bayesian process tracing to their fields.

Microfinance in India

Sohini Kar’s analysis of microfinance in India weaves together a multi-disciplinary understanding of financial networks and institutions. It has enriched anthropology, where microcredit research has tended to focus on dyadic relationships between borrowers and lenders, by showing how the everyday lives of poor borrowers and loan officers are, in fact, shaped by the larger flows and structures of global finance.

Photo credit: Daniel Jamme. Source: https://www.tourisme-aveyron.com/en/millau-viaduct/discover-millau-viaduct. Bridge credits: French engineer Michel Virlogeux, English architect Norman Foster, and CEVM.