What Is Development?

The term development describes a certain kind of change, namely the growth and advancement of a system. In the context of a nation-state, this usually refers to economic growth and progress in terms of social and political rights. For example, a society might be developing when its citizens are allowed to own property, travel, receive education and engage in business.

In a broad sense, development is also used to describe a society’s ability to sustain its improvements over time. This is a more common-sense definition and is used as the yardstick for measuring countries’ progress in international development rankings.

Development is a vast field of study and there are many different perspectives on its meaning. It can be broken down into the following areas of inquiry:

Anthropology and sociology: These two disciplines explore the societal and cultural dimensions of development. For instance, anthropologists like Arturo Escobar use critiques of traditional development practices to call for an approach that is less colonial and more participatory. Sociologists examine the role of governmental and non-governmental agencies in shaping development outcomes. They also analyze spatial inequality within nation-states and the impact of globalization on development (Lobao, Hooks and Tickamyer [eds.] 2007).

Researchers’ assumptions about what causes development are known as meta-theories. Mechanistic meta-theories assume that humans behave like machines, with all their causes coming from outside the person (like gasoline for a car). Interactionist meta-theories, on the other hand, recognize that people participate in and shape their own development.