"Seeing Like a State" by James C.              Scott

Seeing Like a State How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed James C. Scott

The Institution for Social and Policy Studies
Publication date:
08 Feb 1999
Yale University Press
464 pages: 235 x 156mm
36 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

Compulsory ujamaa villages in Tanzania, collectivization in Russia, Le Corbusier’s urban planning theory realized in Brasilia, the Great Leap Forward in China, agricultural "modernization" in the Tropics—the twentieth century has been racked by grand utopian schemes that have inadvertently brought death and disruption to millions. Why do well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition go tragically awry?

In this wide-ranging and original book, James C. Scott analyzes failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields. Centrally managed social plans misfire, Scott argues, when they impose schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies that are not—and cannot—be fully understood. Further, the success of designs for social organization depends upon the recognition that local, practical knowledge is as important as formal, epistemic knowledge. The author builds a persuasive case against "development theory" and imperialistic state planning that disregards the values, desires, and objections of its subjects. He identifies and discusses four conditions common to all planning disasters: administrative ordering of nature and society by the state; a "high-modernist ideology" that places confidence in the ability of science to improve every aspect of human life; a willingness to use authoritarian state power to effect large- scale interventions; and a prostrate civil society that cannot effectively resist such plans.

James C. Scott is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale University and current president of the Association of Asian Studies. He is the author of Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, and The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, all published by Yale University Press.

"A magisterial critique of top-down social planning that has been cited, and debated, by the free-market libertarians of the Cato Institute (which recently dedicated an issue of its online journal to the book), development economists, and partisans of Occupy Wall Street alike."—Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times

"One of the most profound and illuminating studies of this century to have been published in recent decades. . . . A fascinating interpretation of the growth of the modern state. . . . Scott presents a formidable argument against using the power of the state in an attempt to reshape the whole of society."—John Gray, New York Times Book Review

"Illuminating and beautifully written, this book calls into sharp relief the nature of the world we now inhabit."—New Yorker

"Seeing Like a State is an important work. It will, I believe, be used widely in university courses and by a wider reading public who seek to understand the broad contours of our recent history."—Jane Adams, Rural History

"To my mind, Seeing Like a State is one of the most stimulating and ambitious synthetic works of recent years."—John Agar, British Journal for the History of Science

Winner of the 2000 Mattei Dogan Award

2015 Wildavsky Award for Enduring Contribution to Policy Studies, from the Public Policy Section of the American Political Science Association

"James Scott is one of the most original and interesting social scientists whom I know. So it is no surprise that Seeing Like a State is a broad ranging, theoretically important, and empirically grounded treatment of the modern state. For anyone interested in learning about this fundamental tension of modernity and about the destruction wrought in the twentieth century as a consequence of the dominant development ideology of the simplifying state, high modernism, Seeing Like a State is a must read."—Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University and author of Hitler's Willing Executioners

"A broad-ranging, theoretically important, and empirically grounded treatment of the modern state and its propensity to simplify and make legible a society which by nature is complex and opaque. For anyone interested in learning about this fundamental tension of modernity and about the destruction wrought in the twentieth century as a consequence of the dominant development ideology of the simplifying state, this is a must-read."—Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners

"The 'perfection' Scott so rightly and with such tremendous skill and erudition debunks in his book he himself has nearly reached, as far as positing and presenting the problem is concerned. The case of what the order-crazy mind is capable of doing and why we need to stop it from doing it has been established 'beyond any reasonable doubt' and with a force that cannot be strengthened."—Zygmunt Bauman, emeritus professor, University of Leeds

"A tour de force. . . . Reading the book delighted and inspired me. It's not the first time Jim Scott has had that effect."—Charles Tilly, Columbia University

"Stunning insights, an original position, and a conceptual approach of global application. Scott's book will at once take its place among the decade's truly seminal contributions to comparative politics."—M. Crawford Young, University of Wisconsin, Madison