Development Studies
04 March 2019

Exploring Social Change and Democratic Forms: The Influence of Francophone Literature

In her chapter for Building Development Studies for the New Millennium (Palgrave Macmillan), Christine Lutringer, Executive Director of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, adopts a long-term perspective to analyse how reflections on democracy and social change are framed by Francophone literature – some of which produced by scholars at the Graduate Institute. 

Why is it worthwhile to study the contribution of Francophone literature to development studies?
It is worthwhile for three main reasons. First, Francophone literature covers a wide range of economic, social and cultural settings; its geography spans France, Switzerland, Belgium, Quebec, Central and West Africa, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. Therefore, observing socio-economic realities of the Francophone community opens up avenues of research and gives rise to analyses of development processes that may differ from Anglo-Saxon or other scholarships. Second, some important pioneering work on development originates from Francophone authors: the very notion of the “Third World” was coined by French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952. This also highlights the key role of non-economic disciplines in shaping Francophone development studies, an aspect that my chapter addresses as well. Third, studies originating from Francophone academic networks have had significant influence on development processes themselves because they have informed a certain type of development cooperation and a range of aid programmes promoted in particular by French, Swiss, Canadian and Belgian stakeholders.

How did you proceed?
My aim was to interrogate the specific contributions of Francophone scholarship to the field of development studies, both methodologically and empirically, with a view to tease out some key messages. I adopted a long-term perspective and a particular thematic vantage point, asking how reflections on – and to some extent engagement with – democracy and social change are framed. In fact, understanding social and political change has been central to the work of many Francophone development scholars and there has been an early interest in democratic forms: Francophone scholarship has called for reflection – and action – on democratic practices within and beyond states. This was accompanied by a key methodological change in the 1970s as research ceased to confine itself to the intended beneficiaries of development interventions and recognised the plurality of actors and agents in development processes and the essential role of power relations. I also wanted my review of Francophone scholarly literature to take into account the link between “theory” and “practice”, so I mapped the research landscape and examined in which context and on what terms institutions for development research were created. In that respect, it was very interesting to delve into the research produced at our own Institute and to recast its role in forging development studies. Amongst others, I found particularly illuminating the following quote from the first issue of the Cahiers de l’IUED published in 1975, titled La pluralité des mondes, where Pierre Bungener argued that “the plurality of cultural worlds needs to lead to a plurality of epistemologic approaches … [However] if we recognise the existence of an ‘other’ which is plural, we also need to interrogate ourselves on the supposedly unique Western thought, particularly when faced with other realities”. I think that this summarises well the need – then and today – for critical approaches and reflexivity in our studies.

What are the main conclusions of your study?
My study highlights the distinct role of disciplines such as demography, sociology and anthropology in shaping Francophone development studies. In particular, it underlines the particular contribution of French sociologists in this field as early as the 1950s. Sociological approaches of authors such as Bourdieu, Touraine and Foucault have deeply informed scholarship on development. The literature has therefore placed particular emphasis on notions such as “trajectoire” and “pouvoir”. Interestingly, the early introduction of culture – and of cultural exceptionalism – in development theories also brought about a hiatus and hierarchy between the cultural realm and market rules. In this perspective, cultural flows were to remain outside the purview of the market, which justified state interventions meant to restrict market laws in a range of domains. Overall, Francophone development economics seems to have provided more critical approaches to development policies, locating analyses in more global or integrated perspectives compared with the Anglo-Saxon tradition.
The chapter also suggests that Francophone literature ties together development theories and practices in specific ways. Cultural aspects, linguistic factors, philosophical references along with the specific contexts of Francophone countries have informed the scholarship. The lived experience and memories of colonisation and decolonisation fostered activist, political but also scientific mobilisation. In fact, the production of Francophone scholarship has been facilitated by the extensive network of parastatal bodies and research institutions involved in activities of “cooperation for development”. Researchers who gained concrete experience of development also fed heterodox thinking. Development Projects Observed, to quote the title of Albert Hirschman’s influential book published in 1967, was key in shaping the analysis of development processes among Francophone thinkers as well. More generally, I argue that it is important to locate historically, politically and economically the linkages between the policies and practices of development and the research on development.

Is Francophone development literature still specific today, or do we observe a convergence of thoughts with the rest of the world?
An important and original contribution of Francophone development studies lies in the renewed importance of sociology and anthropology of development since the 1990s. Authors have explored in depth the links between the dynamics of the inside (les dynamiques du dedans) and the dynamics of the outside (les dynamiques du dehors). In the context of globalisation, socio-anthropological approaches to development have served to examine the multiple relationships that exist between development institutions, both public and private, and the local populations to which these institutions are geared. Francophone analyses of the complex “developmentalist configurations” have also focussed on the resources, material and symbolic, deployed by the various actors. Considering the effects of globalisation and the multipolarity of the world, Francophone political scientists and sociologists are remarkable for their observation of economic, political, social change from below; one can cite the Groupe d’analyse des modes populaires d’action politique, which was created already in 1980 by Jean-François Bayart to explore political situations from the perspective of subordinated actors rather than political power holders. Therefore, studying these popular practices is key to understanding how authoritarian or democratic forms of government are experienced in everyday life.
As Francophone scholars have largely contributed to “post-development” and “de-growth” theories, the French-speaking development community is now raising concerns about the need to rethink the relationship between society and the environment. Although the role of social sciences in analysing development has been prominent, contemporary development problems also call for more attention to technical and technological factors. This is driving a new thread of applied development studies led by engineering disciplines and applied sciences where the distinction between Francophone, Anglo-Saxon and other scholarships seems to be less evident.

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Full citation of Dr Lutringer’s chapter:
Lutringer, Christine. “Social Change and Democratic Forms: Revisiting the Contribution of the Francophone Literature on Development Studies.” In Building Development Studies for the New Millennium, edited by Isa Baud, Elisabetta Basile, Tiina Kontinen and Susanne von Itter, 75–96. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Read or re-read the Cahiers de l’IUED >

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Interview by Marc Galvin. Edited by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Illustration by by javarman /