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

(The Institution for Social and Policy Studies)

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  4,003 ratings  ·  422 reviews
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 improvin ...more
Paperback, 445 pages
Published 1998 by Yale University Press
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Michael Burnam-Fink
Sep 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2011, academic
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
The author of this book has said, in another context, that he sees the world “with an anarchist squint”. This book is a polemic, but within that context it’s well worth reading. One other general comment – the book was first published in 1998 and I did think it was slightly dated. I haven’t changed my rating because of that, but it’s something to bear in mind if you’re thinking of reading it.

In a well-written opening section, the author suggests that the move from pre-modern to modern states ca
Mar 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Definitely one of the best non-fiction books I have read lately. So much food for thought - so much to rethink about how I look at the world.
I got interested in reading this book because of a series of tweets in response to about how both stats and stories have limits and can't help us comprehend the full complexity of the truth.

So the book starts of with a description of "scientific forestry" in 18th century Prussia wherein some smart people realized tha
Jun 10, 2007 rated it liked it
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
Daniel Clausen
This book is a fascinating look into the history of state-designed projects and their failures.

Scott’s thesis, as concisely as I can put it, is that state-designed plans often attempt to create highly legible spaces through planned simplifications. For a state, legibility is important because it makes governing and intervening in a population easier -- whether it be for tax collection or public health interventions. These plans often come in the form of modular, grid-like formation that can be
Aug 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
I think the book is a bit dated, but perhaps it was so influential that its ideas seeped into everything else. It's a solid and almost unassailable thesis--modernizing states overlooked the knowledge of local farmers and other people for central planning and caused all sorts of terrible outcomes. Agreed.

However, at times I think he over extends the thesis to disparage all forms of government planning where his facts and data only apply to land management, farming, and other issues of local cult
Dave Schaafsma
I first read the more accessible and much shorter text from Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism, and as one of my friends observed, that book makes the same basic point as Seeing like a State, though more conversationally. More pithily. (!). But I knew soon after I was into Anarchism that I would read this book. I wanted more. Scott is one of the few contemporary theorists who is actually a great writer. He crafts sentences, he’s compelling. He makes you care about the way ideas may impact the world ...more
Luke McCarthy
May 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
As a work of academic theory this is mostly terrific. Scott does a great job articulating his central thesis, and the entire project is underpinned by a curiosity of mind that's readily apparent in the breadth of the books case-study work (I particularly loved his tangent regarding city planning). The argument at the centre of this is a relative simply one: human ecology is unfathomably complex, and the simplifications inherent in large-scale, utopian visions of statehood will inevitably wash aw ...more
Aug 09, 2017 rated it liked it
This book is a great reference and it did intrigue me to learn more about Luxembourg's criticism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks as well as to read Jane Jacobs's "The Death and Life of Great American Cities. " However, I didn't like Scott's writing style as much as I had expected. I wish he focused more on different perspectives rather than going into details jumping from one topic to another and repeating his conclusions through the book. Perhaps I should read it again. ...more
Feb 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Paul Ataua
Feb 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
‘Seeing like a State’ piles on example after example of where state intervention has proved disastrous from places as far apart as the Soviet Union and Tanzania, and yet while mirroring Hayek’s horror at Government large scale economic and social intervention, which is tightly conjoined with a total belief in market forces, Scott takes a more anarchistic stance looking more to local knowledge, involvement, and decision making. The book as a whole works well at battering supporters of large scale ...more
John Ihor Campagna
Jul 20, 2015 rated it liked it
Good, but disappointing.

The message is clear, concise and initially highly thought provoking. The problem is Scott's repetitiveness as the same hypothesis and even the same examples sometimes are continually repeated or brought back in. By the end I had enough, and skimmed parts. Yes Professor Scott it's clear that human knowledge is limited, and we need to be careful about what we try to implement this is highly evident now. His's main examples are interesting, but in a way disappointing as hi
Jun 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
Five stars for the ideas, two stars for the prose, rounded up because this is just too an important book to not celebrate. Authoritarian high modernism, legibility, and metis—the concepts Scott introduces have hugely affected the way I see the world and have given me a vocabulary for talking about what I find so important about the institutions societies build and the dignity that is to be found in what I will call craft. It took me much longer to finish this beast than expected, but the final c ...more
Aug 24, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-history
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
Dec 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The best non-fiction creates a language/system of thought to explain something that everyone intuitively knew but couldn't quite flesh out. Love this set of ideas. Good social science (and any science) is thinking clearly. ...more
Matthew Jordan
Mar 07, 2021 rated it liked it
5/5 for the book's thesis.
1/5 for the book's length.

Why is this allowed?? Why do thesis-driven books have to be so long??
Hamza Sarfraz
Oct 03, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Always a pleasure to read James Scott.
I've heard about this book for years and for some reason never felt much desire to read it despite many clear overlaps with my areas of interest. Even after I read his new book Against the Grain, which is a great synopsis of all the niche construction, domestication, and the cultural evolution of government stuff I've been interested in lately, and enjoyed the writing quite a bit, I didn't immediately jump back to this. But now that I've been diving into epistemology and the history of science a ...more
Buzz Andersen
Nov 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018-read
I absolutely loved this book. It’s definitely academic, and the extensive case studies can be a lot to get through, but in my opinion the effort is always rewarded with profound insight. I would say this book comes as close as anything I’ve come across to articulating my personal outlook on politics and history.
William Leight
Apr 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
"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
Alexander Boyd
Mar 07, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Utopian, philosophical, scientific. These three words, when backed by an authoritarian state, are humanities worst nightmare according to Scott, and I agree. Just a lovely book that brings you inside the state's "eye" (singular, as the states covered in the book often act under the direction of an unrivaled authoritarian ruler), in a manner I had not quite realized before.

I first encountered the term high-modernism when interviewing Kristen Looney about "village mergers 合村并居," whereby "natural
Sarah Inman
Oct 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorite
One of the best books I've read....

Why do human beings suffer under the weight of the State, particularly a State that is set up to protect? In the introduction of Seeing Like a State, James Scott introduces the problem of understanding why large-scale social engineering schemes intended for utopia have largely failed. Because the state of all institutions has the greatest ability of “treating people according to its schemata” (82), it is the “vexed institution that is the ground of both our fr
Mark Seemann
Mar 25, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a book that can change how you understand and interpret the world. At least, I think it did this for me.

I discern at least two insights from my reading of it. One relates to the concept of legibility, the other to metis.

Communities in the old world (Europe before enlightenment, the third world before colonisation, etc.) would often be organised around local ways of doing things, established via oral tradition, and, while tradition-bound, also constantly adjusting to changes in the enviro
Josh Friedlander
What does James Scott want? He avows to be not just a progressive but an anarchist, yet quotes approvingly classic conservative intellectuals like Michael Oakeshott. (The review where I first encountered this book - worth reading in full - calls it "the book G.K. Chesterton would have written".) His book is essentially a contrast between what he terms "High Modernism" (enormous, rational plans - the city of Brasilia, Julius Nyerere's Ujamaa plan in Tanzania, anything by Le Corbusier, etc) and me ...more
Andrew Carr
Feb 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of the big cultural clashes these days is an epistemological one. Between those who praise reason and science (think Silicon Valley types) and those who value local knowledge and feelings (think indigenous activists and certain kinds of postmodernists). There are different ideas, morals and world views, but at heart, how these groups think about what information matters and what ways of thinking are valuable defines how they approach the world and their clash.

Like most people, I lean towards
Oct 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Certainly an insightful discussion of a particular point. The map is not the territory, and attempting to treat the territory as if it really were the map will lead to disconnects which can be extraordinarily painful. Scott approaches this largely from a background in the study of agriculture, referring to cadastral land surveys in France and Russia, Soviet collectivisation, and ujamaa villages in Tanzania. As relief that broadens his point, he talks also of urban planning, and the case of Brasi ...more
Margaret Sankey
Feb 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
I found this a stale, difficult, overly-academic book but packed with some very interesting ideas.

Scott lays out the four factors that when combined, create a really bad time for people:

1. The administrative ordering of nature and society: essentially, mistaking the map for the territory on a large scale.
2. A "high-modernist ideology": I would define this as scientism combined with a political ideology; Scott adds "uncritical, unskeptical, and this unscientifically optimistic about the possib
Aug 28, 2015 rated it liked it
Ok, let's start with the good:

There are parts that are 5 star material. The overall concept is very interesting. James C Scott lays his argument very clearly on how we can umderestimate the complexity that is embedded in any attempt for social change. His applying of this concept to urban planning is absolutely facinating, which made me think about the cities I lived in and how various urban projects may have affected how we live and interact in the city. His metaphor of urban planning vs. langu
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James Scott, Ph.D., Yale University, 1967, is the Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and is co-Director of the Agrarian Studies Program and a mediocre farmer. His research concerns political economy, comparative agrarian societies, theories of hegemony and resistance, peasant politics, revolution, Southeast Asia, theories of class relations and anarchism.

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“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'.” 21 likes
“A language is the joint historical creation of millions of speakers. Although all speakers have some effect on the trajectory of a language, the process is not particularly egalitarian. Linguists, grammarians, and educators, some of them backed by the power of the state, weigh in heavily. But the process is not particularly amenable to a dictatorship, either. Despite the efforts toward "central planning," language (especially its everyday spoken form) stubbornly tends to go on its own rich, multivalent, colorful way.” 9 likes
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