Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed
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Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

4.16 of 5 stars 4.16  ·  rating details  ·  900 ratings  ·  86 reviews
In this wide-ranging and original book, James C. Scott analyzes failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields. He argues that centrally managed social plans derail 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...more
Paperback, 445 pages
Published 1998 by Yale University Press
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Hadrian
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley. (Go often awry.)
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

-Robert Burns

Seeing Like a State is a deeply impressive book.

It begins, in all places, with the study of 'scientific forestry' in 18th century German Prussia. The Prussian state was interested in more accurately quantifying tax revenue, and one possibility was the measurement of forests. This involved cutting down the trees and planting them in neat rows, and measuring...more
Michael Burnam-fink
This is the kind of book that restores my faith in academic theory. It should be required reading for anybody interested in the exercise of power, economic development, or large scale systems.

In Seeing Like a State, Scott explores how attempts to radically transform and improve the human condition have failed. He identifies the central problem of statecraft and of government as one of legibility; the state must make its citizens and their activities visible before it can appropriate revenue and...more
Ed
This is an amazing book--I haven't been this enthused about a social science text since I read Braudel's "The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II" about one zillion years ago.

The first chapter of “Seeing like a State” is a brilliant tour de force of how James C. Scott approaches his thesis and his method for analyzing it. Looking at the “acknowledgements” page of the book gives one indication why this chapter is so good: it has been worked and reworked a number of...more
Jill
There are times when you read a book and it's as if someone's opened a window to let the light in. I had one of those moments just 20 minutes or so after cracking open Scott's Seeing Like A State. In his book, Scott tries to unpack the various failures in high-modernist, authoritarian state planning, from the building of Brazil's new capital in Brasilia, Soviet collectivization and ujamaa villages in Tanzania. These case studies form the heart of the book and while interesting, were not what spa...more
David
Mistaken notions I previously held that this brainy tome corrected:

-- "Physiocrats" advocate government by massage therapy.

-- "Usufruct" is available in a fun variety of colorful flavors.

-- If someone tells you that something is "immanent", just hang around and wait for it to happen.

-- "Pari Passu" is what's for lunch at the ashram.

-- Upon reading (p. 19 of Kindle edition) that a particular type of tree was a “bread-and-butter tree”, it is appropriate to rush into the nearest park with a shaker...more
Dan
Having read Stephen Pinker's excellent, The Blank Slate, and devouring Nassim Nicholas Taleb's superb duology of, The Black Swan and Anti-Fragile, James C. Scott's, Seeing Like a State, fits quite snugly in this cloud of anti-authoritarian, anti-state, anti-liberal, but most importantly, anti-modernism sentiments that has been seething for the past few decades. While Pinker's focus is psychology/linguistics, and Taleb's is Finance/Philosophy, Scott's diatrabe against the state is manifested in h...more
Margaret Sankey
So, you're the state, and you've devised a brilliant modernization plan--people must choose last names (Mindanao), accept new standardized measurement (France's colonies), live on redivided farmland carefully surveyed to give each person equal sections (Stolypin's Russia), move to a beautiful new capital designed by Le Corbusier (Brasilia), or grow a single, new crop (collective villages, Tanzania), but the ungrateful wretches don't like it! Scott examines why, with the best intentions, planned...more
Anders
This book finds Scott resting on his laurels a bit too much, writing a book which falls awkwardly between pop-academia a la Guns, Germs and Steel, and full-on academia. Too much simplifying to hold a lot of water in the academy, but still too opaque for the masses. The first few chapters of this book are pretty good, but by the end, you start to catch on that his argument is pretty simplistic, and sort of flawed. I read this at the same time,. chapter by chapter, as Timothy Mitchell's Rule of...more
Elizabeth Theiss
One of my favorite political science books of all time, Seeing Like a State underscores the importance of a vibrant civil society and the foolhardiness of state central planning. Scott provides a series of instructive and fascinating case studies from disasters associated with the shift to mono cropping in poor nations to the folly of city planning in Brasilia.

This is a book full of insights into administrative hubris and its consequences. I remember when it first came out, John Grey's review i...more
Mirza  Sultan-Galiev
Very illuminating history on a wide variaty of issues (last names as a means of tax collection, the similarity between Soviet and American "scientific" farming etc), however the failure (despite statements in the intro to the contrary) to integrate the critique of the modernizing state with a critique of the logic of generalized commodity production, leaves this book a little too close to the Austrian school.
William Leight
"Seeing Like a State" is about that most modern of phenomena -- indeed, Scott refers to it as "high modernism" -- rule by expert. Divine right having largely been discarded as a justification for authoritarian rule, science is now pressed into service instead: the ruler's decisions cannot be questioned because they are not political or debatable, being the product of the expert's neutral, technical knowledge. "Seeing Like a State" is essentially a refutation of this assertion: Scott instead demo...more
Max Nova
Seeing Like a State was recommended to me by Yale Cold War historian John Gaddis. At its core, this is a book about the many failures of mankind's attempts to assert order and "legibility" to nature, society, and the economy. Scott takes aim at many of the grand-scale authoritarian planning schemes of the 20th century, ranging from the notorious Soviet farming plans to the forced "villagization" of Tanzania. Apparently, this book is somewhat of a classic in historical circles and is cited incred...more
Alper Çugun
I need to think about it more but this book is every bit as seminal as everybody says it is. Compulsory reading for everybody who thinks about complex issues.
Ari
The book didn't quite live up to my expectations. The author claims that ambitious state planning efforts often go wrong in a similar way: The government opts for inefficient organizations or approaches that are easy to monitor bureaucratically, at the expense of efficiency, resilience, or popular desire. This is presented as a startling observation, but I think it's conventional wisdom.

To demonstrate the claim, the describes a number of ambitious state planning efforts that went badly, and the...more
Steve
Scott's dissection of the hubris & folly of scientific agriculture, of monoculture and reckless disregard of local environments, of planned cities in which -- at urban scales -- the peas are not allowed to touch the carrots, adds up to sharp condemnation of reductionist simplification and abstraction applied to governance, agriculture, and industry. At an engineer's scale, such simplification is the very substance of technology, from simple plows to grid computing. But as Scott demonstrates,...more
Adam Wiggins

Dense and academic, but some truly poignant insights buried among all those big words.

Starting a few hundred years ago, states (that is, national governments) found many new informational tools at their disposal: population censuses, for example. Top-down management of national populations became possible like never before, offering governments greater ability to extract taxation and conscription from their populations, thereby increasing the power of the state.

"Administrative legibility" is a t...more
James
This book is an excellent exploration of why the modern state behaves the way it does and why it has trouble undertaking large scale, well-intended projects, like city planning and especially agricultural reform.

It starts with a look at early state attempts to make commerce 'legible,' with the example of efforts to standardize weights and measures in France, which was much more complicated and involved a lot of push back by the aristocracy. Then he looks at the invention of last names and the de...more
RA
Scott is fantastically thorough. The depths to which he ventures in his historical analyses of the failings of scientific forestry, urban planning and collectivized farming initiatives, are at once illuminating and overwhelming. I approached Seeing Like A State looking for broader philosophical schema and themes regarding social planning efforts and I was certainly not disappointed in my search. Throughout Scott's work he addresses the philosophical/cultural underpinnings of the times, projects,...more
Meredith
Why do catastrophes like famine and food shortages occur in some countries but not others? More importantly, why do some countries experience catastrophes at more severe and more frequent levels even when accounting for geographic and regional factors? Political anthropologist James C. Scott explores human tragedies as failures of the modern state in his work, Seeing Like a State. Adopting a structural approach, Scott investigates why the modern state’s preference for maintaining order and contr...more
Chris
This book sits oddly between popular and academic non-fiction. Not quite focused or rigorous enough to make a solid academic argument, and a bit too dry for Joe Schmoe to dig into. It's a shame, because the study of legibility and its dangers is fascinating. Especially the first 100 pages or so that introduces the concept and how it influenced various practices in history (agriculture, tax collection, names, city design). The book takes some rough intuitions (e.g. that feeling of being a number...more
Ariel
I loved this book. Academic but completely engaging and readable.
Basically the general idea is a critic of high modernist state planning that abstracts reality to the point that the reality is changed to its likeness despite consequences. Scott notes that across political divides, the belief in the technology of high modernism, from Brasilia, to Soviet collectives to African villagization, has lead to a top down approach that ignores reality on the ground.

The examples given have had devastating...more
James
While most theory books have a hard time captivating me, this one is very well done. Scott focuses on why some of the utopian centrally-planned societies failed and why organic "home-spun" communities and societies generally are more adapt to deal with harsh times. Echoing Kroptkin's writing nearly a century later (though without all the romance) Scott states that local mutual aid works more systematically than systematic over-arching state plans. He goes through several historical examples, suc...more
Adamhburchard
Some of it is a good tool for showing how statehood in general operates in its quest for the legibility of its citizens. Teaches you how to see the way you're seen from the state's perspective.

-Legibility is a condition of manipulation....they must be organized in a manner that permits them to be identified, observed, recorded, counted, aggregated, and monitored. The degree of knowledge required would have to be roughly commensurate with the depth of the intervention. In other words, one might s...more
Mac
A convincing account detailing the failure of utopian schemes when the are coupled with governmental power, from the USSR to Tanzania to the America heartland. Particularly interesting is the section on scientific forestry in Germany and Japan. Scott brings a really lively perspective to just what it is that makes projects successful: he is particularly convincing when discussing industrialized agriculture, the failure of which we have to a large degree seen. A good general reading, and neither...more
Tom Tresansky
Fascinating study of the inherent difficulties of any sort of authoritarian government efforts to categorize and reshape their citizens and infrastructure. Long winded at times, especially the chapters on farming villages, and the authors' politics seep through once or twice, but still totally worthwhile, and applicable to any sort of effort at centralization and synopsis. The concept of Metis is memorable and reflective of many everyday realities. The early chapters on the foundations of state...more
Kelsey Fitzpatrick
James Scott's "Seeing Like a State" offers a plethora of valuable information on city-state topics. A few of these topics include monoculture, planned cities and the beginning of last names. I found the last names portion particularly interesting, Scott informed readers that last names were given by the government as a way to tax and keep track of the population. One example from the book is the Spanish government passing out spanish last names to the people of the Philippines, which made then v...more
Brandon Wu
A three-star rating of an acknowledged classic needs some justification. This is a lengthy book in which Scott makes a fairly simple argument: exercises in large-scale state planning have failed because they haven't sufficiently taken into account local specificities and local knowledge. There are some hugely useful concepts here, like the idea of legibility, but unless you're really interested in this argument, reading the introduction and perhaps the third chapter is sufficient. I just didn't...more
John Favini
A fantastic, yet disturbingly long look at the ways in which modern states have sought to make their domains "legible" often at great harm to their citizens
david
A fantastic book. the chapter of the Germanic forest is especially important. Scott argues that man of the 19th and 20th century atrocities of state development were orchestrated as a combination of:
1. aspirations for scientific/ rational rule (high modernist ideology)
2. power of the modern state to mobilize those aspirations and put them into practice.
3. a weakened civil society capable of pushing back against this vision.

his chapter on Lenin and Luxenburg is also particular;y interesting. he...more
Low Jiarong
Low Jiarong marked it as to-read
Aug 30, 2014
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received his bachelor's degree from Williams College and his MA and PhD (1967) from Yale. He taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison until 1976, when he returned to Yale. Now Scott is the Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and is Director of the Agrarian Studies Program. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has held grants from the N...more
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“Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. This truth is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified. By merely following the rules meticiously, the workforce can virtually halt production. In the same fashion, the simplified rules animating plans for, say, a city, a village or a collective farm were inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a functional social order, The formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that, alone, it could not create or maintain.” 5 likes
“The aspiration to such uniformity and order alerts us to the fact that modern statecraft is largely a project of internal colonization, often glossed, as it is in its imperial rhetoric, as a 'civilizing mission'.” 2 likes
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