Seeing Like a State

James C. Scott Seeing Like a State: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed Yale University Press 1998 This is in Agrarian studies, but surely has a wider significance.


Scott argues that the following are necessary to explain the ‘failure of some of the great utopian engineering schemes of the twentieth century’.

    1. The administrative ordering of nature and of society. [The production and use of accessible and hence simplistic ‘maps’.]
    2. [A] high modernist ideology… a strong … self-confidence about scientific and technological progress … the rational design of social order … .
    3. [An] authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being.
    4. [A] prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.

[The] conclusions … are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.


Scott quotes Schumacher:

“[A] man who uses an imaginary map, thinking that it is a true one, is likely to be worse off than someone with no map at all; for he will fail to enquire whenever he can, to observe every detail on his way, and to search continuously with all his senses and all his intelligence for indications of where he should go.”

In many cases, Scott sees the high modernists as having the best of intentions, but being too hubristic. Planners proceeded much as they always had, but substituting ‘rationality’ for an absolute monarch or deity.

[The] progenitors of such plans regarded themselves as far smarter and far-seeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were. [Planners] ignore the radical contingency of the future … whatever awareness they had … seemed to dissolve before their faith.

Scott advocates the following guidelines:

  1. Take small steps.
  2. Favour reversibility.
  3. Plan on surprises.
  4. Plan on human inventiveness.

Commenting on high-modernist planning, Scott notes:

What is striking … is that … such subjects … have no gender, no tastes, no history, no values, no opinions or original ideas.  [This] is not an oversight; it is the necessary first premise of any large-scale planning exercise. [High] modernist designs for life and production tend to diminish the skills, agility, initiative and morale of their intended beneficiaries. … Complex, diverse, animated environments contribute … to producing a resilient, flexible, adept population that has more experience in confronting novel challenges and taking initiative. I want to make the case for institutions that are … multifunctional, plastic, diverse, and adaptable, in other words institutions that are powerfully shaped by metis. [They] are demonstrably more stable, more self-sufficient, and less vulnerable … , needing far less in the way of external infusions to keep them on track.


Scott is critical of high modernism and rationality and at times appears to be critical of science and even mathematics. But then he makes it clear that he is really being critical of pseudo-science and pseudo-mathematics, not the real deal. Scott’s title suggests that the problem is one of ‘seeing’, but he also blames hubris. It seems to me, though, that the high modernists that he criticises do not have over confidence in their own judgment, but are either cynical conformists or have undue confidence in what they have been taught and what those they respect say, and thus suppose that there is no need for them to make their own judgment: for example, ‘everyone knows’ that utility maximization is always ‘rational’. Thus the problem does seem to be a lack of science: or to say, it is too much confidence in those things that are taken to be products of science and too little use of genuinely scientific thinking. Hubris apart, Scott blames many ills on the simplistic ‘sight’ of those who would make things better. Such people make a mess of things because they are only trying to solve the superficial problem, with no real understanding as to how things really are.  But if the problem is one of ‘seeing’, it would seem that even correct science and mathematics applied to a mistaken view would give errors of the kind that Scott observes. The key here, surely, is that critical thinking is essential to proper science and mathematics. It seems to me that the problem of high modernism is that it uses the ‘results’ and some methods of science and mathematics but not in an appropriately logical critical spirit. It seems to me that high modernism can be perfectly reasonable. Problems arise when in order to solve a problem one focusses on some approved method (e.g., scientific) and then only considers those aspects of the situation that are relevant to the method. (The more scientific approach is to consider whether the assumptions of the proposed method are valid in the case at hand, but this always involves hard work, insight and experience: which are typically in short supply in those cases where high modernism fails.) With the above provisos, it seems to me that the thesis can be generalised beyond than states. The cases cited my be the worst, but it seems to me that any manager who is out of their depth and who fails to engage appropriately with those who do understand the actual situation will be liable to similar problems. This reminds me of the difficulties that many organisations have where non-specialists are managing specialist professionals and external changes or internal pressures unsettle or prevent any equilibria.

See Also

Confronting Managerialism, whose critique of ‘rational’ management seems to parallel Scott’s critique of state bureaucracies, and which blames misunderstandings of the relevant theories, such as ‘decision mathematics’.

Cato unbound has a summary and links to reviews.

Dave Marsay

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