Book Launch - Culture and Public Action
On Thursday, May 20, 2004, the Comparative Urban Studies Project hosted a book launch for Culture and Public Action. Led by distinguished anthropologists and economists, this book argues that culture is central to development, and presents a framework for incorporating culture into development discourse. The editors, Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton provided an overview of the book's theoretical underpinnings and conclusions.
Vijayendra Rao, senior economist in the research department of the World Bank, began the session by describing the conceptual foundations of the book. He outlined two modern theories of culture and development, hypermodernism and cultural denomination. Hypermodernism, supported by Huntington, Landis, and Harrison, argues that "toxic culture" (static cultural orientations which do not support western-styled economic and political development) hinders third-world countries from developing. The view of cultural domination, supported by Ferguson and Escobar, argues that the North's view of the South, and the southward spread of this ideology has led the South to view development through the lens of the North. Rao emphasized that neither view of culture is helpful and that hypermodernism has little empirical support and cultural domination offers few constructive alternatives.
The book portrays culture as a force guiding relations between individuals, groups, nations, donors and beneficiaries. It proposes defining social capital as access to social networks, which are unequally distributed between the rich and the poor. Additionally, the book recognizes that cultural capital limits individuals' access to social networks: if the difference between rich and poor is sufficiently internalized, then members of the cultural group see it as justified, and are not necessarily as interested in poverty reduction. These internalized cultural constructs impede development in countries from India to the United States. Instead of focusing only on external constraints, such as income inequality, development efforts should attempt to achieve equality of agency—by equalizing access to social networks. Rao continued to describe some cases, which exemplify past failures in development due to a lack of understanding of cultural capital.
Calls for debt reduction and greater decentralization and localization in development have recently become more prominent. Commenting on these trends, Michael Walton, adviser on poverty reduction and human development in the Latin America and Caribbean region of the World Bank, described the radical social conflict in Bolivia in response to debt reduction measures, indicating that debt reduction alone is not a cure-all. The potential for development resources to be captured by local elites during decentralization, indicates that the purported positive effects of decentralization may be lessened by internalized cultural norms regarding the just status of rich and poor. Instead, Walton proposes that agencies utilize a long-term horizon and recognize the importance of cultural capital.
The meeting concluded with a short question and answer session. The book provides a timely and constructive interdisciplinary conversation on development policy,
including perspectives of economists, anthropologists, and development professionals. Culture and Public Action is a comprehensive work, which should be of interest to all involved in international development.