My spring syllabus: Order & Violence

Beginning this spring, I’ll be teaching this new course to Harris Master’s students. The syllabus is just a draft, and so comments are welcome.*

Here is the overview:

Most countries in the world have been independent for about 50 years. Some are peaceful and have prospered, while some remain poor, war-torn, or both. What explains why some countries have succeeded while others remain poor, violent, and unequal?

Moreover, fifty years on, a lot of smart people are genuinely surprised that these countries’ leaders have not been able to make more progress in implementing good policies. If there are good examples to follow, why haven’t more countries followed these examples into peace and prosperity?

Finally, we see poverty and violence despite 50 years of outside intervention. Shouldn’t foreign aid, democracy promotion, peacekeeping, and maybe even military intervention promote order and growth? If not why not, and what should we do about it as citizens?

This class is going to try to demystify what’s going on. There are good explanations for violence and disorder. There are some good reasons leaders don’t make headway, bureaucrats seem slothful, and programs gets perverted. The idea is to talk about the political, economic, and natural logics that lead to function and dysfunction, order and disorder.

A lot of students will graduate and go and do peace-building or development work of some kind. I can’t tell you what specific programs or reforms to focus on, or how to implement them. What I can do is help you to understand some of the big ideas about why some paths lead to order, and some to violence. Or why the best plans so often goes awry—ideas that surprisingly few development practitioners ever acquire.

To understand the politics of weak states in the last 50 years, we are going to start with some theory and history. We need a theory of violence, and theories of how states, institutions, and societies develop to curb violence. And we want to look at the development of Western nations, and their impacts on the world, over a wide sweep of history.

Moreover, I designed this course to give students an appreciation for big ideas and theories in comparative politics, international relations, political economy, sociology, geography, and development economics. This class involves reading a lot of material, and building your conceptual and historical sense of development and politics.

This is a global class, but a slightly unbalanced one. A lot of the examples are going to draw on Africa and Latin America, with a good deal on historical European and U.S. development, plus some material on the Middle East and Asia—an ordering determined largely by my knowledge and ignorance.

I won’t have the concrete policy answers in many cases. Actually, no one does, and one of my big aims in this class is to help you learn enough and think critically enough to know why everyone with a clear solution is wrong, and why “peace-building” and “development” are the hardest things in the world. There is no single answer. But there are some principles to finding the right answer in the right situation, and history to learn from. That’s what you’re signing up for in this class.

*Every year I get feedback on adequate or inadequate coverage of women or authors from developing countries. Each year I strive to add more. The trouble, if anything, is not the lack of scholarly books or articles but rather the apparent lack of paper and chapter-length high-level overviews– that is, review articles and other things appropriate for an undergraduate of Master’s level course. So I welcome criticism but I like suggested solutions even more.

8 thoughts on “My spring syllabus: Order & Violence

  1. “Most countries in the world have been independent for about 50 years.” Not sure what you mean by “most”–this excludes Europe, Latin and North America and big parts of Asia like Japan and China. The ex-Soviet parts have been truly independent for half that period.
    I would include a geographic aspect–how many of the African countries are truly viable within their arbitrary borders? What happens why you put disparate people together, as in Iraq or Rwanda? When resources are maldistributed or there is a colonial legacy what does it take for a country to develop and if its population is mixed can they ever be treated equitably. Botswana shows what could happen and some other places (Ghana, for example) are improving, but a place like the Congo–very rich but culturally fragmented, unprepared for independence and an American pawn in the Cold War–shows the worst. Each case is different, but many have the similarity of starting from a point of artificial borders and imposed political systems.

  2. Hi Chris, To balance the rationalist, statist perspective, it might be worth incorporating informal norms, the moral economy, and some sociological approaches to institutions. As you know, identity groups, religion, etc. are a primary source of order and social cohesion in much of the world and often key to understanding how the modernist, technocratic rubber hits the road (also helps situate the violence in social context). A starting point might be Nigeria, using P. Ekeh’s ‘Two Publics’ and K. Meagher’s work on social networks and the informal economy.

  3. I just finished Ang’s “How China Escaped the Poverty Trap” and now looking at literature on the Industrial Revolution. The parallels are striking and also reveal much of what is missing in Africa’s development. For example, institutions are built gradually and don’t need to be fully functioning (from a Western sense) to work. Corruption doesn’t need to be eliminated and property rights don’t need to be established for economies to grow and order maintained. Historical context is lacking in development. Americans don’t know their own development story. Nor the stories of other developed nations.

  4. Nice syllabus. Strongly recommendation: review Michael Focault´s bibliography about disciplinary societies and the idea of the panoptic. I strongly reccommend: “Discipline and Punish”.

  5. Thanks again for sharing. I am surprised you didn’t include anything by Stergios Skapedas. His paper “Gangs as Primitive States” (with co-author Constantinos Syropoulos) is great.

  6. Order and violence work hand in hand. We can only correct violence if we make peace. But it doesn’t mean that we have to tolerate violence. And it doesn’t mean that we have to experience violence first before we act to gain order, that is not how it works. If only there is no violence or less of it then we can all live in peace and in order.