Development – The process of Economic, Social and Cultural Change

When most people think of anthropology, the first thing that comes to mind is studying different cultures. However, anthropology is much more than just cultural studies; it is also a field of study that examines human development over the entire course of our species’ existence.

In this blog post, we will explore the concept of development in anthropology and discuss some of the key theories and methods used by anthropologists to study it. We will also take a look at some examples of how anthropologists have studied human development in different parts of the world. So, if you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating topic, keep reading!

Defining development in anthropology

There is no single definition of “development” in anthropology. However, most anthropologists agree that it can be defined as the process by which human societies change over time. This includes changes in economic, social, and political structures, as well as changes in individual behaviour.

Development is a complex concept, and there are many different theories and approaches that anthropologists use to study it. However, one of the most important things to remember about development is that it is not a linear process. That is, societies do not develop in a straight line from “primitive” to “modern.” Instead, they go through a series of complex changes that can be difficult to predict or understand.

Theories and methods of studying development in anthropology

There are many different ways to study development in anthropology. Here are some of the most common theories and approaches:

Evolutionary theory: This approach focuses on how human societies have changed over the course of our species’ history. Evolutionary anthropologists use evidence from archaeology, biology, and anthropology to reconstruct the history of human societies and understand how they have changed over time.

Cultural ecology: This approach focuses on the relationship between human societies and their natural environment. Cultural ecologists study how different cultures use and adapt to their local ecosystems.

Political economy: This approach focuses on the economic and political structures that shape development. Political economists study how different economic systems (such as capitalism, socialism, and feudalism) impact the social and economic evolution of societies.

Sociocultural anthropology: This approach focuses on the cultural norms and values that shape human behaviour. Sociocultural anthropologists study how different cultures define what is “normal” and “acceptable,” and how these norms change over time.

Examples of anthropological research on development

Anthropologists have studied human development in many different parts of the world. Here are some examples of their work:

In the 1970s, anthropologist James Scott conducted a famous study of peasant farmers in Vietnam. He found that the Vietnamese peasants were very adept at finding creative ways to resist the Communist government’s efforts to collectivize agriculture.

In the 1980s, anthropologist Michael Goldman conducted a study of economic development in Haiti. He found that many of the development projects sponsored by the Haitian government were actually having negative effects on the Haitian economy.

In the 1990s, anthropologist Clifford Geertz conducted a study of tourism development in Bali. He found that the Balinese people were using tourism to maintain their traditional way of life, even as the outside world was increasingly encroaching on their culture.

The history of development theory

The field of development anthropology has a long and complex history. Development theory is the set of ideas that have been used to explain how and why societies change over time. These ideas have been used to justify various development policies, from colonial rule to neoliberalism.

Development theory can be traced back to the early days of anthropology. In the 19th century, many anthropologists were involved in the colonial project, and they used their work to justify the belief that European culture was superior to all others. This theory came to be known as “social Darwinism,” and it was used to rationalize the exploitation of non-Western societies.

In the early 20th century, anthropologists began to challenge the idea that European culture was superior to all others. These anthropologists, such as Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski, argued that all cultures were equally valid and that there was no such thing as “progress.” This theory came to be known as cultural relativism.

In the 1940s and 1950s, anthropologists began to apply their theories to the study of industrialization and modernization. These anthropologists, such as Margaret Mead and Claude Levi-Strauss, argued that industrialization was having a negative impact on traditional cultures. This theory came to be known as cultural materialism, and it was used to critique the effects of development policies.

In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers began to focus their attention on the issue of poverty. These anthropologists, such as James Ferguson and Arturo Escobar, argued that poverty was not caused by a lack of resources, but by the unequal distribution of power and resources. This theory came to be known as “neo-Marxism,” and it was used to critique the way that development policies were exacerbating inequality.

In the 1990s and 2000s, a number of anthropologists began to focus on the issue of globalization. These anthropologists, such as Arjun Appadurai and Saskia Sassen, argued that globalization was having a profound impact on traditional cultures. This theory came to be known as “globalization theory,” and it was used to critique the way that development policies were leading to the homogenization of cultures.

The field of development anthropology is constantly evolving, and new theories are constantly being proposed. As anthropologists continue to study the effects of development policies, they will help to shape the future of the field.

Alternatives to traditional development models

There are a number of alternative development models that have been proposed by anthropologists and other scholars. These models seek to address the problems associated with traditional development models, such as inequality, environmental degradation, and cultural homogenization.

Some of the most popular alternative development models include participatory development, sustainable development, ecological anthropology, and feminist economics. Each of these models has its own strengths and weaknesses, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of development.

Participatory development is a model that emphasizes the need for community involvement in the development process. This model seeks to empower communities by giving them a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

Sustainable development is a model that emphasizes the need to meet the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This model seeks to balance economic growth with environmental protection.

Ecological anthropology is a model that emphasizes the need to protect the environment. This model argues that humans are a part of the natural world, and that we must respect the rights of other species.

Feminist economics is a model that emphasizes the need to address the issue of gender inequality. This model argues that women have traditionally been excluded from the development process, and that this exclusion has led to disparities in wealth and power.


Developmental theories in anthropology provide a rich and nuanced understanding of the process of human growth and change. By exploring different cultures, we can see how various factors – such as family dynamics, social roles, and environmental influences – contribute to individual development. These theories also remind us that humans are constantly evolving, and that there is no one “correct” way to develop.

Related Terms:

Globalization: The process by which the world is becoming increasingly interconnected.

Neoliberalism: An economic theory that advocates for free trade, deregulation, and privatization.

Global south: A term used to describe the parts of the world that have been traditionally marginalized by the global economy.

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