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

4.16  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,486 Ratings  ·  133 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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16th out of 95 books — 33 voters
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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
Michael Burnam-fink
Sep 24, 2011 Michael Burnam-fink rated it it was amazing
Shelves: academic, 2011
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
Mar 21, 2012 Ed 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 29, 2012 Jill 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
David 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
William Leight
May 11, 2014 William Leight 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
Apr 25, 2012 David 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
Jul 08, 2007 Anders 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
Ihor Hrubyak
Sep 03, 2015 Ihor Hrubyak 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
Sarah Inman
Oct 13, 2014 Sarah Inman 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
Zeynep K
Sep 01, 2014 Zeynep K rated it liked it
james c. scott, devletin bizleri daha minnoş vatandaşlar -insanlar veya bireyler değil, vatandaşlar- haline getirmek için denediği sivil mühendislik projelerini dört ana bölümde incelemiş. kısacık bir girişi takiben; birinci, ikinci ve üçüncü bölüme gelişme, dördüncü bölüme ise sonuç diyebiliriz;

1.devletin okunaklılık ve basitleştirme projeleri
2.dönüştürücü vizyonlar
3.kırsal yerleşimin ve üretimin toplum mühendisliği
4.kayıp halka

ilk iki bölümü zevkle, kana kana, damarlarımda sıcacık anarşizm ile
May 12, 2013 Dan rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 03, 2015 Mbarak 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
Oct 20, 2015 Cărăşălu rated it liked it
Although written by an anthropologist, this book has little to do with anthropology (in a classic understanding). Scott's goal here is to document and criticize the high-modernist ideology, which believes progress can be achieved solely through modern science and bureaucratic effort.

In fact the very idea of progress in this sense is flawed. Modernizers are driven by some kind of religious zeal and faith in the dogmas of modern, commercialized science, as well by an aesthetic ideal: big, square
Adam Wiggins
Aug 04, 2011 Adam Wiggins rated it liked it

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
Margaret Sankey
Feb 12, 2012 Margaret Sankey 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
Elizabeth Theiss
Mar 20, 2013 Elizabeth Theiss rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 25, 2016 Kars 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
Zara Rahman
Jul 26, 2015 Zara Rahman rated it it was amazing
This was fascinating - a very long read, which took me quite a while to get through, but separated enough into distinct chapters and sections, to make taking my time over it okay. It was excellent background reading for me for the podcast I'm working on, as it explains a number of case studies around imperialistic science, colonialism, technology and power, and goes into a lot of detail. There is clearly a lot of background research that has gone into the book, and it's a really thorough read. H ...more
Neil Bhatiya
Jan 19, 2016 Neil Bhatiya rated it really liked it
The classic study of how central governments (particularly but not exclusively authoritarian ones) often fail at their Utopian schemes to remake societies according to some mechanistic blueprint. Scott highlights the tension between a central authority and the people over whom it hopes to govern. Some of the examples are well-known (the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union); other less so (a village relocation program in post-independence Tanzania).

In the broad strokes, the main
Dec 09, 2015 Cory rated it really liked it
Definitely a paradigm-nudging work for me. I think it's a great summary of the ways in which states (or quants/scientists/economists...) simplify in order to make progress and some of the perverse consequences in the most extreme examples of that (forests dying because only one species of tree is planted, collectivization in the USSR...). The first chapter on forestry is amazing.

After that, however, the book tends to apply the same idea just to a number of different scenarios, not all of them in
Milk Badger
Jul 24, 2015 Milk Badger rated it really liked it
The principal theme of this book is how the imposition (usually by governments or other authoritarian actors) of formal, abstract rules upon complex natural, social and technological systems is prone to disastrous outcomes. Uniform weights and measures, common currency, surnames, cadastral surveys and language standardization are all cited by Scott as early modern examples of this type of imposition. These innovations were imposed by empires and states (and frequently resisted by commoners) in o ...more
Michael Lewyn
Jun 17, 2015 Michael Lewyn rated it it was amazing
This book tries to explain large-scale bureaucratic error. The concept “seeing like a state” refers to the desire by large-scale institutions (usually government) to make a situation “legible” – that is, easily understandable and controllable. For example, a government will wish to know who and where its citizens are in order to collect taxes from them and enforce other laws. As a result, post-medieval European governments conducted censuses, mapped cities, and forced citizens to take surnames.

Nov 08, 2014 Erhardt rated it it was amazing
This book is an incredible critique of the accidental and not so accidental authoritarianism of the past 200+ years in which high modernist planning used scientific knowledge and oversimplification to attempt to improve the world. Through social and environmental engineering, James C. Scott documents the ways revolutionaries have attempted to simplify the world so that it is more legible and controllable, assuming scientific expertise would make society more efficient and productive. Most of the ...more
Oct 17, 2014 Samuel rated it really liked it
This is a book of impressive scope. While there are some examples of specific regimes, countries, and social systems, this work takes a greater look at how high-modern, authoritarian regimes operate and fail in general. It is much more about the thematic, imaginative theory behind modern statecraft than a chronological look at any particular course of development--though there are some moments of this. Some of his larger arguments include:

Natural and social (human) systems are comprable. Just a
Sanjay Varma
Nov 27, 2015 Sanjay Varma rated it it was amazing
I read the first chapter ("Nature and Space"), skimmed the second chapter ("Cities, People, and Language"), and glanced at the remainder of the book. I agree whole-heartedly with the author's thesis, and his bias.

His thesis is that we create simplified models in order to assert administrative control. His bias is that such impositions introduce many new problems, and create systems that are not resilient. As an example, forest management enabled accurate measurement of timber resources but, by c
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.
Carl Ollivier
May 29, 2015 Carl Ollivier rated it it was amazing
Scott makes an effective indictment of a what he calls 'Authoritarian High Modernism', the belief that technical and scientific forms of knowledge, imposed from above through the force of the state on an unruly and ignorant populace, would liberate the people from their benighted condition. Scott characterises Authoritarian High Modernism as an aesthetic more than an ideology, appealing to left and right alike, but reaching its apex in the schemes of the revolutionary Communist dictatorships of ...more
Faine Greenwood
Mar 01, 2015 Faine Greenwood rated it it was amazing
Fantastic exploration of the effects of social and urban planning on humanity, and the dangers of assuming that we "know enough" about complex systems - be they natural or human-created.
Alper Çugun
Jan 18, 2013 Alper Çugun rated it it was amazing
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.
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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.” 7 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'.” 4 likes
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