Global Development Institute Blog

DSA Politics and Political Economy Study Group

Sponsored by the Journal of Development Studies Conference fund and The Development Studies Association

Organised by Pritish Behuria (Manchester) and Tom Goodfellow (Sheffield)

Development studies – as a field – has been the subject of consistent criticism from neighbouring disciplines (political science, geography, economics and anthropology) and other interdisciplinary fields (global studies, international relations, urban studies). Not unlike other disciplines, development studies was rooted in colonial experiences. Fundamentally, the task of development studies was to understand the future trajectories of post-colonial societies. Given its close association with foreign aid-led development and particularly, the Truman project, this has made it an easy target for critics. However, it must be noted that this version of development studies is just one interpretation of the past of development studies and ignores other potentially more progressive versions like Bandung-oriented development studies (Mkandawire, 2011; Helleiner, 2014). Sumner (2022) goes further, highlighting four distinct ‘development studies’ that are currently envisioned by scholars working in the field.  Development studies has also been criticised for lacking a specific canon or being too inter-disciplinary in an era where other social sciences (political science, economics) have become increasingly narrow and mathematised.

Yet despite these criticisms, development studies appear to be increasingly popular (at least, within the UK). Over the past decade, several new development studies departments have been established and postgraduate, as well as undergraduate, programmes are being initiated. In an increasingly competitive space for research funding, development studies departments occupied a particular appeal given their globally-oriented approaches and interdisciplinary expertise. Thus, attempts to redefine development studies have become commonplace. These attempts have become particularly visible in the last couple of years, especially at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic (Leach et al., 2020; Oldekop et al., 2020).

This workshop calls for participants to question several aspects of the politics of the ever-changing field of development studies, as well as the place of politics and pluralist approaches within development studies. We would also be interested in thinking about how we, as researchers within development studies, debate the future of conducting research within development studies. We welcome abstracts on one of the following three themes:

1. The Politics of Development Studies as a postcolonial interdisciplinary field

Development studies – as a field – is currently being contested.  Within higher education in the United Kingdom – the heartland of development studies and the home of the Development Studies Association – contests over the framing of a new ‘future’ for development studies have become increasingly visible. Bob Jessop (2018) identified that academic capitalism – profit- or revenue-oriented, market-mediated competition among higher education institutions – has been on the rise since the marketisation of UK higher education since the 1990s. Universities increasingly prioritise revenues – both from student tuition and from academic grants. This puts traditionally ‘interdisciplinary’ or ‘multi-disciplinary’ development studies departments in a unique position to host and attract large grants. As a result, many development studies departments have become increasingly re-shaped into becoming externally-facing grant-capturing bases but also are perceived to be increasingly attractive destinations for postgraduate (and even) undergraduate students.

Even within the United Kingdom, development studies departments have had very different histories. Some were explicitly associated with heterodox traditions but have since been marginalised (Saith, 2019). Others operated as management training institutes for bureaucrats from former colonies and have then recast themselves as academic departments. Still, others have always been dependent on funding from the UK government, which is now in danger of drying up.

Within this rapidly changing funding and academic landscape, this theme calls for papers that question how the field is changing, why certain attempts at recasting development studies have emerged and how both the teaching of development studies and the funding of development research seems to be shifting. We also welcome papers that examine the incentives associated with being an early career researcher. In addition, we welcome papers from experienced scholars in development studies, which examine how incentives faced by development studies scholar/practitioner have changed.

2. The Place of Politics within Development Studies

Since about the 2000s, scholars have regularly commented on the neglect of politics within development studies (Hickey, 2008). Even within the study of development politics and, in particular, in relation to development programming, politics has largely been understood to be associated with analysis of democracy or democratic transitions. To some extent, this changed over the last few years, with analysis of power relations much more central (World Bank, 2017), partly owing to the influence of the political settlements approach (and other associated theoretical approaches) (North et al., 2009; Khan, 2010). Equally important have been trends within development programming including Doing Development Differently and Thinking and Working Politically. However, some within the discipline argue that rather than being acts of paradigm change, organisations have ended up co-opting these theoretical approaches and development trends, with little changing. Meanwhile, there is a growing debate on the politics of ‘decolonising’ development studies, a theme which has dominated some recent conferences in the field but where an apparent consensus around the value of decolonisation has more recently broken down into more nuanced and sometimes opposing positions (Táíwò 2022).

This theme calls for papers and abstracts that examine the shifting position and form that the study of politics takes within development studies, as well as the position of thinking politically within development programming. It also calls for critical reflections related to these shifts in the study of development politics and to the politics of development programming (e.g. Adesina, 2020).

3. The Politics of Development Studies Epistemologies and Methodologies

Critical scholarship has long bemoaned the ‘economics imperialism’ of neoclassical economics within development studies (Fine, 2002). With the RCT revolution, there is arguably even less space for historical political economy or heterodox traditions. Yet some optimists argue that there is increasing openness within international financial institutions (Cherif & Hananov, 2019) to heterodox policy measures like industrial policy though the form it takes is still up for debate (Lin & Chang, 2009). At the same time, the theme of development has continued to rise in significance within the discipline of geography. However, some institutions teach development/sustainable development primarily out of geography departments in ways that are disconnected from the study of development economics (and sometimes development politics).

This might be seen as pointing to increased diversity in terms of how development knowledge is constructed, but with the increased emphasis on ‘sustainability’ often translating into the valuing of natural resources as ‘ecosystem services’, and with ‘interdisciplinarity’ often amounting to encouragement to partner with scientists, is there likely to be an increased emphasis on positivism within development studies? Even if there is openness to heterodoxy within development economics (which is up for debate), will funding trends globally allow space for qualitative research and critical approaches to address development challenges? Similarly, is the job market for development studies graduates shifting, with an increased emphasis placed on data analysis?

This panel calls for papers and abstracts that examine how different disciplinary approaches engage with development knowledge construction, and what this reveals about the underlying politics of such approaches. It also welcomes papers that examine what kinds of methods to study politics and political economy are likely to be prioritised in the future, and what that means for the development studies curriculum and field more broadly. In addition, we welcome papers that reflect on the positionality of researchers and how this relates to their epistemological and methodological biases and choices in development research.

4. Development Studies beyond the UK

This conference will prioritise analysis of how the study and teaching of development studies has evolved outside the UK both independently and in comparison with British-based development studies. We also encourage the submission of abstracts about how development studies is evolving outside the UK independently and in comparison to British-based development studies.

The Workshop

We intend to hold this workshop over two days in January 2023 in Manchester. Tentatively, the workshop is scheduled for 19 January and 20 January (TBC). We welcome papers from scholars at all career stages, as well as those working outside academia. No papers are required at the time of presenting the conference. Please submit a title of your paper and an abstract of 150 words to Pritish Behuria ( and Tom Goodfellow ( by 25 November.

We are likely to have some funding available to support domestic travel to Manchester and accommodation in Manchester.

Photo by Lorenzo Cerato on Unsplash  Taken Nairobi, Kenya.