Philip Jenkins 




The main focus of discussion next week will be James Scott’s important book Seeing Like A State. So important is this book, in fact, and so wide-ranging its implications for the study of modern history, that it has generated not just the usual range of reviews, but symposia in major journals. This provides us with an excellent opportunity to see how historians debate. Begin, of course, by reading Scott’s book, and seeing what you make of it.


Some obvious thoughts and questions:


Note how often we encounter themes familiar to us from other classes, especially the process of mapping and classifying, ie how bureaucracy defines communities, and changes them in the process of doing so.


Tell me about the importance of straight lines in Scott’s study.


Why do bureaucrats so often want to change the structure of cities? What goals do they have? Do cities really need organizing?


Why don’t bureaucrats like peasants?


Does Scott idealize the “backward” or primitive communities who find modernity thrust upon them?


What are the political implications of Scott’s work? Do they lend support to a particular ideology or political approach? Who might use this book for ideological or rhetorical ends?


Do you think that Scott shows a North American and specifically US bias in his approach and his choice of examples?


What do we learn from this book about the importance of changing means of transportation in shaping societies, and especially cities?


In what way is Scott’s work a study in Modernism? What does his study suggest about the strengths and weaknesses of modernism? How do his findings relate to studies of literary modernism?


How might another historian have approached the case-studies offered by Scott?


Could we use a gender perspective on these projects? Is it reasonable to see them as “masculine” in scope and conception? How and why?


On what grounds would people object to high modernist schemes?


Scott is mainly studying failures. Can you think of comparable schemes that have succeeded?


Also do note the role of war and military needs throughout as driving forces in social change.


The relationship Scott presents between “state” and “society.” Is it a false dichotomy? Must the two necessarily conflict?


Scott’s book appeared in 1999. Looking at more recent events, do any other relevant examples or case-studies come to mind?


How would Scott’s ideas be applied to changing notions of criminal justice, penal institutions, etc?


Has new technology fundamentally changed the character and aspirations of government and bureaucracy? In other words, has information technology and the internet weaned bureaucrats away from their assumptions about the need for centralization, straight lines, control, etc?


Then, afterwards, I would like you to read through the two attachments/links:


1.“AHR SEEING”, a symposium that appeared in the flagship journal  American Historical Review in 2001, in which some leading scholars were invited to respond to Scott. You will also find John Gray’s review from the New York Times.


What do you think of their various criticisms? How do they mesh with your own impressions of the book? Focus on the issue of why he dropped the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) from his discussion – why does that become such an issue for the critics?


What are the political leanings/biases of Scott’s critics?


“James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State is in essence a post–Cold War book.” What does this mean? Do you agree?


Consider one quote especially – “But the idea that high modernist, top-down state schemes had a part in modern American life in any way comparable to those of the Soviet Union, China, parts of Africa, or elsewhere is an absurdity of the sort George Orwell had in mind when he observed that some things are so ridiculous only an intellectual would believe them.” (Morton Keller). How do you react to this comment? Is it fair?


Jane Caplan complains that “Two other major projects of state/society collaboration rather than subsumption—public health and universal education—are also strikingly absent here, and so, too, the emancipation of women with which they are closely entangled.” What do you think of this objection?


Can state intervention be liberating rather than oppressive? In what ways? For whom? Can you think of some historical examples?


2.”Conquest of Nature.” These are two lengthy reviews of a really important book that just appeared in this country, and which I do not expect you to have read or had access to. But in many ways, its areas of discussion match very well with Scott’s work, and with the ideas raised by his critics.



Finally… for some biographical material on Professor Scott and his background, check out