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Beyond the quest for "policy implications": Alternative options for applied development researchers

Humanity Journal's picture

This post, written by Michael Woolcock, is a contribution to an online symposium on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. Be sure to read other entries by Deval Desai and Rebecca Tapscott and Lisa Denney and Pilar Domingo.

Indonesia fills out form on riceMy nomination for development’s ‘Most Insightful, Least Cited’ paper is Ariel Heryanto’s “The development of ‘development.'”[1] Originally written in Indonesian in the mid-1980s, Heryanto’s gem has been cited a mere 79 times (according to Google Scholar), even in its carefully-translated English incarnation. For me, this paper is so wonderful because it makes, in clear and clever ways, two key points that bear endless repetition, especially to today’s junior scholars. The first point is that inference from evidence is never self-evident: significance must always be interpreted through theory. Consider the seemingly obvious fact that the sun rises in the east every morning, he writes. What could be more universally and unambiguously true? The problem, of course, is that the sun does not rise in the east; instead, despite every piece of sensory evidence to the contrary, the earth rotates counterclockwise on its axis and revolves around a stationary sun, making it appear as ifthe sun rises in the east. But we only know this – or, more accurately, claim to know this – because today we happen to have a theory, itself based on more complex forms of observation and theory, that helps us interpret the prevailing evidence, to reconcile it with evidence from analyses of other cosmic phenomena, and thus draw broadly coherent conclusions and inferences.

Heryanto’s second key point is that we are all captives of language, of the limits of any given tongue to convey the subtleties of complex issues. From this premise he proceeds to unpack the clumsy, alluring yet powerful word that in English we call ‘development’, noting that in Indonesian there are at least two very different interpretations of its meaning, and with this, two very different words – perkembangan and pembangunan – connoting two very different teleologies and policy agendas: the former a natural, ‘organic’ process akin to flowers blooming (“software”); the latter to an overt, intentional and ‘constructed’ political project of nation building (“hardware”). When translated into English, however, both perkembangan and pembangunan are typically rendered simply as “development,” thereby collapsing into a singular popular conception what in Indonesian discourse is a distinctly pluralist one. In the opening week of my class at the Kennedy School, which typically has 50 students who between them speak around 30 languages, we begin with a lively discussion of what “development” means in Arabic, Hindi, French, Turkish, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish… It turns out to mean all sorts of things.[2]

I open this way because I think the next article we need in this “genre” – though hopefully one that quickly transcends it because it is both highly insightful and highly cited! – is something akin to what Desai and Tapscott have begun with their ‘Tomayto Tomahto’ paper. In short, echoing Heryanto, we need more development research on development research. Such scholarship, however, would go beyond providing a mere chronology of changing professional styles, methodological emphases and funding characteristics (scale, sources, time horizons, expectations) to explanations of how and why such changes have occurred. Such explanations would be grounded in analyses of the shifting historical experiences and geo-political imperatives different generations of researchers have sought to accommodate, the particular ideas these experiences and imperatives rendered normative, and the concomitant gains and losses these changes have entailed for those finding themselves managing the “trade-offs” (such as they are) between scholarly independence and public utility.

Media (R)evolutions: The internet and the death of languages

Roxanne Bauer's picture

New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's, and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.

A large body of evidence shows that affordable and effective broadband connectivity is vital to economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. Nevertheless, while internet access has spread around the world and many more people now have access, certain barriers still exist— like language.

Today, only a fraction of world languages– an estimated 5% (by number of languages)– is present on the Internet, according to The State of Broadband 2015, a report by the Broadband Commission. English continues to dominate the web, and around 54.5% of all web content is still in English despite huge growth in users that do not understand that language or who prefer to access content in their native languages. According to analysis of the most popular 10 million websites by W3techs, after English, the most common languages are Russian (5.9%), German (5.7%), Japanese (5.0%), and Spanish (4.7%). Moreover, a significant of languages (such as Hindi and Swahili) are used by less than 0.1% of these websites, and most of the world’s languages are not represented at all in their data.

Languages used on the Internet

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

The Internet of Things Will Thrive by 2025
Pew Research
This current report is an analysis of opinions about the likely expansion of the Internet of Things (sometimes called the Cloud of Things), a catchall phrase for the array of devices, appliances, vehicles, wearable material, and sensor-laden parts of the environment that connect to each other and feed data back and forth. It covers the over 1,600 responses that were offered specifically about our question about where the Internet of Things would stand by the year 2025. The report is the next in a series of eight Pew Research and Elon University analyses to be issued this year in which experts will share their expectations about the future of such things as privacy, cybersecurity, and net neutrality. It includes some of the best and most provocative of the predictions survey respondents made when specifically asked to share their views about the evolution of embedded and wearable computing and the Internet of Things.

Thinking in a Foreign Language Could Sway Your Moral Judgments
Would you kill one person to save five? This cruel dilemma pits the principle of thou-shalt-not-kill against simple math: Five is greater than one. But presumably it’s a dilemma each person solves the same way each time, unaffected by superficial things like the language in which it’s presented. After all, we like to think we abide by a consistent moral code. Yet psychologists say that’s not always the case. In a series of experiments, they found that people confronted with this one-for-five dilemma were far more likely to make a utilitarian choice when contemplating it in a foreign language. “We tend to think about our ethical decisions as reflecting something fundamental about who we are,” said psychologist Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago, co-author of the new study, published April 23 in Public Library of Science ONE. “You wouldn’t think they would depend on such a seemingly irrelevant thing as whether you’re using your native language. But it can matter.”

When a Spade is Not a Spade

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Polite conversation, we can all agree, often involves not calling a spade a spade…the same way you are not supposed to break wind in company. There are modes of obliqueness that keep friendships and relationships going where blunt speaking can very often sunder ties suddenly and violently. People have fragile egos. You have to be careful how frankly you deliver feedback to them. And, in many cultures, an ability to decipher oblique communication is regarded as a mark of high mental rank, even of being well-born. For instance, in my own culture, Yoruba elders say: a well-brought up person only needs half a word; the word becomes whole within him and he acts accordingly.

Not surprisingly, obliqueness is the hallmark of diplomacy. Somebody says something less than intelligent during a meeting and you reply: ‘That’s interesting’ or ‘That’s fascinating’. You don’t commit yourself and, unless they are really paying attention to nuance, they might never know that you don’t think much of the proposal they have just put on the proverbial table. In this regard, I remember that in the course of my legal training, while in the school for barristers and solicitors, we were taught polite ways of disagreeing with a judge without running the risk of ruining your client’s case or ending up in jail because the judge has convicted you of contempt of court.

Whānau Coalition Building: Intra-Group Relationality ≠ Best Practice Transferability

Naniette Coleman's picture

The beads in her traditional red, black and white headpiece rustled in response to her subtle bow.  Although the degree took years of work, it took only a matter of seconds for her advisor, Professor Mark Warren, to loop her Doctoral hood around her neck and drape it down her back. On May 26, 2010, Malia Villegas became one of very few Alaska Natives (indigenous) with a Doctorate.  Stanford educated Malia, co-editor of “Indigenous Knowledge and Education, Sites of Struggle, Strength, and Survivance” Malia, Fulbright scholar and newly minted Doctor of Education from Harvard University Malia is not one out of a thousand, not one out of a hundred or even fifty.  In 2008, there were only 21 Alaska Natives who obtained a PhD from any school at anytime in the United States.  It is safe to say that Malia is perhaps one of twenty-five or thirty.