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Divyaj Sharma

Divyaj Sharma

Intro to Comparative Politics (PSCI 110-601)

Analytical Book Review

30th November 2018


• Scott, James C. “Seeing like a State How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”. Yale Univ. Press, 1998.

• Mamdani, Mahmood. “The Myth of Population Control; Family, Caste, and Class in an Indian Village”. Monthly Review Press, 1973.

What would villagers people know about Economics?

In this paper, I analyze the arguments presented in the book Seeing Like A State by James C. Scott and The Myth of Population Control: Family, Class and Caste in an Indian Village by Mahmood Mamdani. Scott argues that schemes to improve the human condition fail when undertaken by Authoritarian High Modernists. He argues that Authoritarian High Modernism undermines the importance of “Practical Knowledge” or Mētis. Mamdani uses the Indian-Harvard-Ludhiana Population study, a.k.The Khanna study, to show how large families are necessary for the rural context for under-developed countries. The Khanna study studied the effectiveness of contraception in poor rural households. Population control is a High Modernist project and Mamdani’s observations allow us to assess Scott’s argument about such projects. Scott’s argument is structural while Mamdani studies one particular project that follows the structure described by Scott. I conclude by highlighting the limitations of this comparison.

Scott argues that the combination of four elements leads to the most tragic attempts at social engineering undertaken by states. These four elements being; the administrative reordering of nature and society, a high modernist ideology, an authoritarian state, and a prostrate civil society that that lacks the capacity to resist plans initiated by the state (Scott 1998 3-5).

Administrative reordering of nature and society refers to the restructuring of parts of nature and/or society into a form suitable for the implementation of the administrations’ plans. For example, a standardized system of measurement restructures a part of society into a form that allows the administration to make more informed decisions. Standardized systems allow states to make data from diverse localities legible for administrators and policy-makers. Such restructuring is essential for large-scale social engineering (Scott 1998 5).

A High Modernist ideology refers to an absolute version of beliefs in the Scientific and Technological spheres of knowledge. These beliefs entail a linear progression of knowledge in favor of scientific knowledge over all others, an increase in control over nature, an absolute self-confidence in the power of science to understand the “laws of nature”, and science’s ability to use these laws for the betterment/worsening of the human condition (Scott 1998 89). High Modernism puts an emphasis on visual re-ordering and a suppression of alternative modes of knowledge (Scott 1998 94). For example, the use of statistics in sports to make almost all decisions is a High Modernist Project. The movie “Moneyball” illustrates this High Modernist ideology through its protagonist, Billy Beane. He shows an almost blind faith in the power of statistics to restructure a baseball team and devalues alternative modes of decision making such as a Coach’s experience (Luca, Michael De, et al 2011). High Modernism can accommodate a wide range of political affiliations and reinforce all of them (Scott 1998 99). For example, economics can be used by liberals, Marxists, socialists, conservatives, and communists to argue for their ideology.

An authoritarian state refers to one that can undertake a project of social engineering without the consent of the civil society. Such a state is accompanied by a prostrate civil society that is unable to reject policies imposed on them. For example, forced sterilization in India. The state assumed a paternal role and imposed sterilization upon the poorer sections of society. The state had absolute power to carry out it’s plan and the civil society subject to these plans was unable to reject them (Biswas 2014).

According to Scott, these elements alone do not cause schemes to improve the human condition to fail. The combination of these elements leads to the undermining of Mētis knowledge in favor of Techne knowledge (Scott 1998 323). Mētis or Practical knowledge is the knowledge one gains by participating in a particular process. One’s practical knowledge increases as one has more relevant experiences. Techne is the technical knowledge that one possesses. It is usually in the form of a codified formal system that describes the universal laws that it’s subject matter obeys. For example, consider two surgeons; Jack and Jill. Jack and Jill both attended Medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. Jack graduated in 2000 which Jill graduated in 2010. Both Jack and Jill completed the same courses and have the same relevant technical knowledge concerning surgery. Jack and Jill can be said to have the same Techne but Jack would have more Mētis than Jill as he has been practicing for longer.

According to Scott, all Authoritarian High Modernist plans have a set of relevant variables that they choose to model their policy on. The information derived from such models is directly applied to diverse real-world systems. Due to the high modernist ideology of the planner, plans are subject to scrutiny only using the theories/system that the planner uses. The so-called objective results derived from such abstract models are taken as fact by the planner. Other competing forms of knowledge cannot undermine the planner’s findings because the planner does not believe in the legitimacy of any form of knowledge except his science.

The planner chooses to ignore certain variables due to his science’s own crypto-normative beliefs. Such variables are usually only available to those who have Mētis. Scott argues that the officials of the modern state are often several steps removed from the process and society that they are trying to reshape (Scott 1998 76). The planners view Mētis as backward, context-specific, and illegible. Scott states: “Only by grasping the potential achievement and range of mētis is it possible to appreciate the valuable knowledge that high-modernist schemes deprive themselves of when they simply impose their plans.” (Scott 1998 323).

Mamdani highlights three key mistakes in the Khanna study; the bias problem, the blind faith problem, and the perspective problem. The Khanna study actively tried to remove any bias in the study. To do so, only field workers from the same ethnic background as the villagers were chosen. However, a class bias persisted throughout the study. This is the bias problem. The Khanna study considered any unfavorable empirical evidence as either insignificant or a result of the village’s educational levels. This is the blind faith problem. The Khanna study actively thinks of the family unit in terms of the traditional economic unit. Because of this, they chose to ignore key variables that were context specific. This is the perspective problem. Mamdani shows how all of these problems were a consequence of the ideology of the research team and the state that sponsored them.

These problems are highlighted in the following case; the effectiveness of the program was measured by the rate of “acceptance of contraceptives”. The acceptance rate was extremely high and the study was thought to be a success. However, residents who accepted these contraceptives still had children. It was clear that the villagers were accepting the contraceptives but were not using them. The villagers saw no harm in “accepting” the program if it made the researchers happy. Banta Singh, a field researcher, refrained from showing any emotion while conducting the study. The villagers responded so poorly to Banta Singh that he was removed from the study (34 Mamdani 1973).

The acceptance rate wasn’t representative of the effectiveness of the birth control program. The researches failed to recognize that the villagers had no intention of using birth control as it was actually disadvantageous for them. The researchers might have eliminated cultural prejudice but ended up being blinded by class prejudice. Furthermore, the researchers concluded that the villagers were not accepting the contraceptives as they were hesitant to accept technology. The researchers chose to use the educational levels of the villagers as an explanation of any contradicting evidence instead of reevaluating their hypothesis. The researchers could have prevented making these mistakes if they understood the mētis of living in a poor rural village and not just the techne of budget and consumption.

Mamdani’s argument is aimed at the High Modernists that advocate for population control, although he does not identify them as high modernist. Population control projects follow the High Modernist ideology presented by Scott. Proponents of population control argue that given the budget constraints and work capacity available to the rural poor, large families reinforce poverty (Elrich 2007). They reshape the family unit to better fit their economic institutions. That is, they use a general Techne based argument to conclude that small family units are necessary to improve the condition of poor rural dwellers. The state takes up a paternal role and stops taking the input of the civil society that it is focusing on while deciding policy for population control. The state assumes that it’s scientific and economic reasoning is beyond doubt and the uneducated villagers cannot comprehend such complex ideas.

Mamdani gives us a specific example of how a High Modernist ideology can affect the scientific process that otherwise might have led to the desired result. The importance of mētis is emphasized in both books. However, this emphasis is explicit in Scott’s argument and implicit in Mamdani’s argument. Mamdani’s critique is both methodological and epistemological. That is, he criticizes the researcher’s methodology from within the system that they operate within and the system itself. He shows how his arguments about the methodology are a consequence of the epistemological ideology adopted by the researchers. This gives us an example of the thought process embedded in Scott’s argument about how a high modernist ideology leads to the suppression of mētis.

The Khanna study is not undertaken by an authoritarian state or a helpless civil society. The entire premise of the study is based on making the civil society accept population control by educating them. However, subsequent population control methods were undertaken by an authoritarian state that devalued the opinions of the people that its policy was targeted towards. The targets of this policy were the poorest and politically weakest class of the civil society. Therefore, Scott’s argument might not track directly onto the Khanna study and Mamdani’s observations but they do align with the following policy that was taken because of studies such as the Khanna study.


• Luca, Michael De, et al. “Moneyball.” 2011.

• Biswas, Soutik. “India’s Dark History of Sterilisation.” BBC News, BBC, 14 Nov. 2014,

• Ehrlich, Paul R. The Population Bomb. Buccaneer, 2007.

• Mamdani, Mahmood. “The Myth of Population Control; Family, Caste, and Class in an Indian Village”. Monthly Review Press, 1973.

• Scott, James C. “Seeing like a State How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”. Yale Univ. Press, 1998.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.

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