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Beyond “the State” and Failed Schemes

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Abstract

In this article, I propose five ways to move beyond the analytical scheme of James Scott's Seeing Like a State (1998). I question the spatial optic that posits an “up there,” all-seeing state operating as a preformed repository of power, spread progressively outward to “nonstate” spaces beyond its reach. I highlight the role of parties beyond “the state” that attempt to govern—social reformers, scientists, and the so-called nongovernmental agencies, among others. I look beyond authoritarian high modernism to the more general problematic of “improvement” emerging from a governmental rationality focused on the welfare of populations. I explore the recourse to mētis (contextualized, local knowledge and practice) situated beyond the purview of planning. Finally, I reframe the question posed by Scott—why have certain schemes designed to improve the human condition failed?—to examine the question posed so provocatively by James Ferguson: What do these schemes do? What are their messy, contradictory, conjunctural effects?

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