research and development historical background

13.1 An Introduction to Research and Development (R&D)

Learning objectives.

  • Know what constitutes research and development (R&D).
  • Understand the importance of R&D to corporations.
  • Recognize the role government plays in R&D.

Research and development (R&D) The intertwined processes of research (to identify new knowledge and ideas) and development (turning the ideas into tangible products or processes). refers to two intertwined processes of research (to identify new knowledge and ideas) and development (turning the ideas into tangible products or processes). Companies undertake R&D in order to develop new products, services, or procedures that will help them grow and expand their operations. Corporate R&D began in the United States with Thomas Edison and the Edison General Electric Company he founded in 1890 (which is today’s GE). Edison is credited with 1,093 patents, but it’s actually his invention of the corporate R&D lab that made all those other inventions possible. Andrea Meyer, “High-Value Innovation: Innovating the Management of Innovation,” Working Knowledge (blog), August 20, 2009, accessed February 22, 2011, . Edison was the first to bring management discipline to R&D, which enabled a much more powerful method of invention by systematically harnessing the talent of many individuals. Edison’s 1,093 patents had less to do with individual genius and more to do with management genius: creating and managing an R&D lab that could efficiently and effectively crank out new inventions. For fifty years following the early twentieth century, GE was awarded more patents than any other firm in America. Gary Hamel, “The Why, What and How of Management Innovation,” Harvard Business Review , February 2006, accessed February 24, 2011, .

Edison is known as an inventor, but he was also a great innovator. Here’s the difference: an invention Brings an idea into tangible reality by embodying it as a product or process. brings an idea into tangible reality by embodying it as a product or system. An innovation Generates revenue from a product or process. converts a new idea into revenues and profits. Inventors can get patents on original ideas, but those inventions may not make money. For an invention to become an innovation, people must be willing to buy it in high enough numbers that the firm benefits from making it. A. G. Lafley and Ram Charan, The Game-Changer (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2008), 21.

Edison wanted his lab to be a commercial success. “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility and utility is success,” A. G. Lafley and Ram Charan, The Game-Changer (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2008), 25. Edison said. Edison’s lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, was an applied research The systematic work to gain knowledge to meet a specific need. lab, which is a lab that develops and commercializes its research findings. As defined by the National Science Foundation, applied research is “systematic study to gain knowledge or understanding necessary to determine the means by which a recognized and specific need may be met.” National Science Foundation, “Definitions of Research and Development,” Office of Management and Budget Circular A-11, accessed March 5, 2011, . In contrast, basic research The work of scientists and others who pursue their investigations without commercial goals, focusing on unraveling the secrets of nature and finding new knowledge. advances the knowledge of science without an explicit, anticipated commercial outcome.

History and Importance

From Edison’s lab onward, companies learned that a systematic approach to research could provide big competitive advantages. Companies could not only invent new products, but they could also turn those inventions into innovations that launched whole new industries. For example, the radio, wireless communications, and television industry grew out of early-twentieth-century research by General Electric and American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T, which founded Bell Labs).

The heyday of American R&D labs came in the 1950s and early 1960s, with corporate institutions like Bell Labs, RCA labs, IBM’s research centers, and government institutions such as NASA and DARPA. These labs funded both basic and applied research, giving birth to the transistor, long-distance TV transmission, photovoltaic solar cells, the UNIX operating system, and cellular telephony, each of which led to the creation of not just hundreds of products but whole industries and millions of jobs. Adrian Slywotzky, “How Science Can Create Millions of New Jobs,” BusinessWeek , September 7, 2009, accessed May 11, 2011, . DARPA’s creation of the Internet (known at its inception as ARPAnet) and Xerox PARC’s Ethernet and graphical-user interface (GUI) laid the foundations for the PC revolution. Adrian Slywotzky, “How Science Can Create Millions of New Jobs,” BusinessWeek , September 7, 2009, accessed May 11, 2011, .

Companies invest in R&D to gain a pipeline of new products. For a high-tech company like Apple, it means coming up with new types of products (e.g., the iPad) as well as newer and better versions of its existing computers and iPhones. For a pharmaceutical company, it means coming out with new drugs to treat diseases. Different parts of the world have different diseases or different forms of known diseases. For example, diabetes in China has a different molecular structure than diabetes elsewhere in the world, and pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly’s new R&D center in Shanghai will focus on this disease variant. “2011 Global R&D Funding Forecast,” R&D Magazine , December 2010, accessed February 27, 2011, . Even companies that sell only services benefit from innovation and developing new services. For example, MasterCard Global Service started providing customers with emergency cash advances, directions to nearby ATMs, and emergency card replacements. Lance Bettencourt, Service Innovation (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 99.

Innovation also includes new product and service combinations. For example, heavy-equipment manufacturer John Deere created a product and service combination by equipping a GPS into one of its tractors. The GPS keeps the tractor on a parallel path, even under hands-free operation, and keeps the tractor with only a two-centimeter overlap of those parallel lines. This innovation helps a farmer increase the yield of the field and complete passes over the field in the tractor more quickly. The innovation also helps reduce fuel, seed, and chemical costs because there is little overlap and waste of the successive parallel passes. Lance Bettencourt, Service Innovation (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 110.

Did You Know?

Appliance maker Whirlpool has made innovation a strategic priority in order to stay competitive. Whirlpool has an innovation pipeline that currently numbers close to 1,000 new products. On average, Whirlpool introduces one hundred new products to the market each year. “Every month we report pipeline size measured by estimated sales, and our goal this year is $4 billion,” said Moises Norena, director of global innovation at Whirlpool. With Whirlpool’s 2008 revenue totaling $18.9 billion, that means roughly 20 percent of sales would be from new products. Jessie Scanlon, “How Whirlpool Puts New Ideas through the Wringer,” BusinessWeek , August 3, 2009, accessed January 17, 2011, .

Not only do companies benefit from investing in R&D, but the nation’s economy benefits as well, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Robert Solow discovered. Solow showed mathematically that, in the long run, growth in gross national product per worker is due more to technological progress than to mere capital investment. Solow won a Nobel Prize for his research, and investment in corporate R&D labs grew.

Although R&D has its roots in national interests, it has become globalized. Most US and European Fortune 1000 companies have R&D centers in Asia. “2011 Global R&D Funding Forecast,” R&D Magazine , December 2010, accessed February 27, 2011, . You’ll see the reasons for the globalization of R&D in Section 13.3 "How to Organize and Where to Locate Research and Development Activities" .

The Role of Government

Governments have played a large role in the inception of R&D, mainly to fund research for military applications for war efforts. Today, governments still play a big role in innovation because of their ability to fund R&D. A government can fund R&D directly, by offering grants to universities and research centers or by offering contracts to corporations for performing research in a specific area.

Governments can also provide tax incentives for companies that invest in R&D. Countries vary in the tax incentives that they give to corporations that invest in R&D. By giving corporations a tax credit when they invest in R&D, governments encourage corporations to invest in R&D in their countries. For example, Australia gave a 125 percent tax deduction for R&D expenses. The Australian government’s website noted, “It’s little surprise then, that many companies from around the world are choosing to locate their R&D facilities in Australia.” The government also pointed out that “50 percent of the most innovative companies in Australia are foreign-based.” Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century (U.S.), Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (U.S.), Rising Above the Gathering Storm (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2007), 195.

Finally, governments can promote innovation through investments in infrastructure that will support new technology and by committing to buy the new technology. China is doing this in a big way, and it is thus influencing the course of many companies around the world. Since 2000, China has had a policy in place “to encourage tech transfer from abroad and to force foreign companies to transfer their R&D operations to China in exchange for access to China’s large volume markets,” reported R&D Magazine in its 2010 review of global R&D. “2011 Global R&D Funding Forecast,” R&D Magazine , December 2010, accessed February 27, 2011, . For example, any automobile manufacturer that wants to sell cars in China must enter into a partnership with a Chinese company. As a result, General Motors (GM), Daimler, Hyundai, Volkswagen (VW), and Toyota have all formed joint ventures with Chinese companies. General Motors and Volkswagen, for example, have both formed joint ventures with the Chinese company Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC), even though SAIC also sells cars under its own brand. Brian Dumaine, “China Charges into Electric Cars,” Fortune , November 1, 2010, 140. The Chinese government made another strategic decision influencing innovation in the automobile industry. Because no Chinese company is a leader in internal combustion engines, the government decided to leapfrog the technology and focus on becoming a leader in electric cars. Bill Russo, Tao Ke, Edward Tse, and Bill Peng, China’s Next Revolution: Transforming The Global Auto Industry , Booz & Company report, 2010, accessed February 27, 2011,’s_Next_Revolution_en.pdf . “Beijing has pledged that it will do whatever it takes to help the Chinese car industry take the lead in electric vehicles,” notes industry watcher Brian Dumaine. Brian Dumaine, “China Charges into Electric Cars,” Fortune , November 1, 2010, 140. That includes allocating $8 billion in R&D funds as well as another $10 billion in infrastructure (e.g., installing charging stations). Gordon Orr, “Unleashing Innovation in China,” McKinsey Quarterly , January 2011, accessed January 2, 2011, . The government will also subsidize the purchase of electric cars by consumers and has committed to buying electric cars for government fleets, thus guaranteeing that there will be buyers for the new electric vehicles that companies invent and develop.

Another role of government is to set high targets that require innovation. In the 1960s, the US Apollo space program launched by President John F. Kennedy inspired US corporations to work toward putting a man on the moon. The government’s investments in the Apollo program sped up the development of computer and communications technology and also led to innovations in fuel cells, water purification, freeze-drying food, and digital image processing now used in medical products for CAT scans and MRIs. Adrian Slywotzky, “How Science Can Create Millions of New Jobs,” BusinessWeek , September 7, 2009, accessed May 11, 2011, . Today, government policies coming from the European Union mandate ambitious environmental targets, such as carbon-neutral fuels and energy, which are driving global R&D to achieve environmental goals the way the Apollo program drove R&D in the 1960s. Martin Grueber and Tim Studt, “A Battelle Perspective on Investing in International R&D,” R&D Magazine , December 22, 2009, .

After the 1990s, US investment in R&D declined, especially in basic research. Governments in other countries, however, continue to invest. New government-corporate partnerships are developing around the world. IBM, which for years closely guarded its R&D labs (even IBM employees were required to have special badges to enter the R&D area), is now setting up “collaboratories” around the world. These collaboratories are partnerships between IBM researchers and outside experts from government, universities, and even other companies. “The world is our lab now,” says John E. Kelly III, director of IBM Research. Steve Hamm, “How Big Blue Is Forging Cutting-edge Partnerships around the World,” BusinessWeek , August 27, 2009, accessed January 2, 2010, . IBM has deals for six future collaboratories in China, Ireland, Taiwan, Switzerland, India, and Saudi Arabia.

The reason for the collaboratory strategy is to share R&D costs—IBM’s partners must share 50 percent of the funding costs, which means that together the partners can participate in a large-scale effort that they’d be hard pressed to fund on their own. An example is IBM’s research partnership with the state-funded Swiss university ETH Zurich. The two are building a $70 million semiconductor lab for nanotech research with the goal of identifying a replacement for the current semiconductor-switch technology. Steve Hamm, “How Big Blue Is Forging Cutting-Edge Partnerships around the World,” BusinessWeek , August 27, 2009, accessed January 2, 2010, . Such a breakthrough could harken the creation of a whole new industry.

Of all the countries in the world, the United States remains the largest investor in R&D. One-third of all spending on R&D comes from the United States. Just one government agency—the Department of Defense—provides more funding than all the nations of the world except China and Japan. Nonetheless, other countries are increasing the amounts of money they spend on R&D. Their governments are funding R&D at higher levels and are giving more attractive tax incentives to firms that spend on R&D.

Governments can also play a big role in the protection of intellectual property rights, as you’ll see in Section 13.2 "Intellectual Property Rights around the Globe" .

Key Takeaways

  • R&D refers to two intertwined processes of research (to identify new facts and ideas) and development (turning the ideas into tangible products and services.) Companies undertake R&D to get a pipeline of new products. Breakthrough innovations can create whole new industries, which can provide thousands of jobs.
  • Invention is the creation of a new idea embodied in a product or process, while innovation takes that new idea and commercializes it in a way that enables a company to generate revenue from it.
  • Government support of R&D plays a significant role in innovation. It has been generally accepted that it’s desirable to encourage R&D for reasons of economic growth as well as national security. This has resulted in massive support from public funds for many sorts of laboratories. Governments influence R&D not only by providing direct funding but also by providing tax incentives to companies that invest in R&D. Governments also stimulate innovation through supporting institutions such as education and providing reliable infrastructure.

(AACSB: Reflective Thinking, Analytical Skills)

  • What benefits does a company get by investing in R&D?
  • Why do organizations make a distinction between basic research and applied research?
  • Describe three ways in which government can influence R&D.

Humanity Journal

  • Submission Guidelines
  • Review Essays

Writing the History of Development (Part 1: The First Wave)

Today . . . the idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape. Delusion and disappointment, failures and crimes have been the steady companions of development and they tell a common story: it did not work. Moreover, the historical conditions which catapulted the idea into prominence have vanished: development has become outdated. But above all, the hopes and desires which made the idea fly, are now exhausted: development has grown obsolete . . . It is time to dismantle this mental structure . . . [and] bid farewell to the defunct idea in order to clear our minds for fresh discoveries. — Wolfgang Sachs 1

It has been over twenty years since Wolfgang Sachs boldly proclaimed the “end of development” in his postdevelopment studies collection, The Development Dictionary . Sachs and his fellow contributors were not alone in their desire to relegate the idea to the dustbin of history. Indeed, since the late 1980s, the concept of development as applied to the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America has come under intense fire, not only from academics but also from within mainstream policy circles. For a time, under the onslaught of such scrutiny, it looked as if the critics might be right, and that we might be witnessing development’s last rites and requiem. Yet today, more than two decades later, the central tenets of the development discourse continue to persist and permeate the minds of policy makers and analysts, seemingly impervious to criticism and meaningful reform. In face of such persistence and comeback, even across as significant a historical watershed as the end of the Cold War, historians and other social scientists in a variety of fields have embarked upon a different and novel approach, one which treats development as history . 2 In other words, to paraphrase Nick Cullather, they propose to use history as the methodology for studying and understanding development, rather than constructing development theories to explain history and to provide predictive models for the future. 3

In this two-part essay, I review some of the most important contributions that have been made over the past twenty years to this expanding field of historical scholarship. In part 1, I examine what might be termed the “first wave” of writing the history of development that emerged in the 1990s during the neoliberal moment. Poststructuralist analysts were the first to set out a genealogical framework, viewing development as a discursive regime formally inaugurated by the United States in 1949, when the “discovery” of mass poverty in the Third World came to preoccupy Western policy makers and political elites. Following on the heels of postdevelopment writers, scholars in the field of U.S. diplomatic history also began to investigate the history of modernization. As they have shown, the offer of technical and financial assistance as part of a “new deal” for the underdeveloped areas of the world was invariably tied to the U.S.-led campaign to counteract communist influence in these regions during the Cold War.

In part 2, I examine some of the more recent contributions that have presented an increasingly more nuanced picture of development. The postwar periodization of development, for example, has been criticized by historians who challenge the conventional starting date by calling attention to the continuities between late colonialism and contemporary development policies and practices. Others have sought to examine local development encounters and specific projects as they played out on the ground. More recently, some researchers have also begun to move away from the predominantly American-centered framework of earlier studies and to conceive of modernization as a global project. The next step, I contend, is to create a truly global and transnational history of development, one that brings together the literature on late colonialism and decolonization with the new international history of the Cold War, and that offers a more diverse, refined, and historically-informed reading of international development.

Download PDF

Development Studies and History

It seems relevant to begin with a bit of personal background, for I suspect my own trajectory may be fairly common. I began my academic career at the Centre for International Development Studies, University of Guelph, when I enrolled in a newly established master’s program in 1990. When I began the program I was brimming with enthusiasm, optimistic that I could make a difference in the world pursuing a hands-on career working with the poor in less-developed countries. Three years later, I was not so sure. We were introduced to a variety of multidisciplinary theories, concepts, and models, everything from modernization theory to models that helped you analyze how technologies are diffused and adapted to new cultural settings to using video as a participatory tool for community development. But above all, I remember learning that development was in a state of “crisis.” Development studies, it seemed, had reached an “impasse” signaling, as Colin Leys suggested, that the golden age of development theory had come to a close. 4 I graduated from the program feeling disheartened and in serious doubt about pursuing a career where I might cause greater harm than good to the very people I intended to help.

It was at this point of uncertainty that I determined to learn more about how this elaborate network of institutions, programs, and practices called “development” had come about in the first place. How had we gotten to this point of apparent paralysis and intellectual impasse? I decided to look back in the hope of finding a way forward. On the road to development’s past, I soon discovered, there were many fellow travelers, who had had experiences similar to mine and who had come to similar conclusions. The disappointing track record of postwar economic planning and social engineering, coupled with the demise of the Cold War imperatives, had by the late 1980s and 1990s placed the very idea of intentional development into serious question. To many analysts it seemed the time had come to reassess the statist-developmental project, not only critically but historically.

This was not, to be sure, the first time history and development overlapped. In some ways, as Robert Bates points out, history and the study of development have always closely intersected: “To account for development, scholars often draw lessons from history: they extrapolate from what is `known’ to have happened in the past. As a consequence, the field belongs as much to historians as it does to social scientists.” 5 Perhaps the best-known example of the historian-turned-development-theorist is Walt Whitman Rostow, whose most well-known work, The Stages of Economic Growth , was as much a crystallization of the supposed lessons of Britain’s historical experience as the first industrial nation as it was a guide for developing countries dreaming of a high mass consumption future modeled on the United States. 6 Many other examples could be cited of scholars who have entered theoretical debates on contemporary development issues by extrapolating from the past. 7 The use of historical parallels or lessons derived from historical models to support (or refute) theories of development or to justify specific policy objectives has remained an enduring feature of the field of development studies since its inception. 8 More recently, the World Bank and other intergovernmental aid agencies have come to appreciate the importance of understanding the history of institutions conducive to economic growth, such as property rights, the rule of law, contracts and stable political processes, and the conditions under which such institutions are established. 9 This has led to the emergence of more analytical approaches to assess the impact or “weight” of past policy decisions on contemporary developmental outcomes. Development economists, for example, have shown great interest in comparing divergent development trajectories that are associated with certain sets of institutions that can be traced back to different types of European colonization policies. 10 This has encouraged economic historians to ask whether, and under what conditions, different colonizing powers were more successful than others in establishing institutions that promoted economic expansion. 11

What concerns me in this essay, however, is not the long-standing use (and often misuse) of history within development studies. The merits and pitfalls of such scholarship have long been debated. Rather, my interest in this essay lies in the way the relationship between history and development was fundamentally reconfigured in the 1990s, as first social scientists, and then professional historians, began to think critically and reflexively about development as a set of ideas, institutions, and practices that has a distinctive history of its own. This historicist approach, as Nick Cullather observed more than a decade ago, “puts the framework inside the frame. It treats development as history, as an artifact . . . and makes history the methodology for studying modernization, instead of the other way around.” 12

To be fair, I should acknowledge some important, earlier efforts by scholars interested in tracing the origins and impact of development ideas and development studies. As far back as 1969, the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet offered a critique of what he termed the fundamental concepts of developmentalism. He explored the way theories of social change—from the Greek concept of physis to the modern idea of progress to the central premises behind twentieth-century functionalism—were imbued with the biological metaphor of growth and the evolutionary life-cycle of organisms. 13 For Nisbet, the idea that society and history progressed in a cumulative, directional, and irreversible manner, such as through the gradual realization of some latent potential or through a stage-by-stage process of succession, flew in the face of actual history, which was messy, unpredictable, and filled with conflict caused by exogenous factors.

If Nisbet can be credited with pioneering the history of ideas about social development, much the same could be said of Albert Hirschman’s and H.W. Arndt’s investigations of economic development. Arndt was the first economist to trace in some detail the history of thought about economic development, not only in academic writing but as an objective of state policy. 14 Although not as searching or as philosophical as Nisbet, Arndt finds the origins or “prehistory” of such ideas embedded deep within Western civilization. The desire for “material progress,” Arndt suggests, first becomes the object of state policy in Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, spreading thereafter to other regions as part of “reactive” nationalist ideologies.

Hirschman, who is credited as one of the pioneers of development economics, also expressed an interest in the history of economic ideas and the conditions under which his field of study emerged. 15 His criticism of comprehensive planning and the predilection of early development economists for “balanced” or “big push” industrialization earned Hirschman a reputation for being, as he put it, “a demurrer within,” while his concept of “backward linkage” has been widely applied in various historical studies of economic development. 16 But what is most relevant for my purposes is Hirschman’s recognition that development economics as a subdiscipline arose at a unique conjunctural moment, when the Keynesian revolution of the 1930s along with the success of the Marshall Plan in Western Europe after the war encouraged a group of economists to view the poorer regions or “underdeveloped areas” of the world as economically and structurally set apart from the advanced industrial nations. A different kind of economic analysis was thus required, one designed to overcome the distinctive problems of rural underemployment and late industrialization through public investment planning.

Arndt also sees the post-1945 years as marking a new phase during which, after a hiatus of nearly a century, economists such as Kurt Mandelbaum, Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, W. Arthur Lewis, Ragnar Nurske, Raúl Prebish, Gunnar Myrdal, and Hans Singer among others returned to the classic problem of economic growth and in the process produced the seminal works, theories, and official reports of modern development economics. 17 The ascendancy of development economics, however, was relatively short lived. By the 1970s, Hirschman had sensed an increasing level of self-doubt and decline within the field as the so-called Third World countries became more diverse and differentiated, and as the subdiscipline itself became more highly specialized and fractured. Arndt concurred, observing that by the 1970s the primacy of development economics was rapidly being eroded as the goals of development thinking shifted toward social concerns such as health, education, nutrition, poverty eradication, and the fulfillment of basic needs, and as opponents on both the left and right of the political spectrum began to voice powerful countercritiques.

In the realm of political development studies, the most important early contributions came from liberal political scientists, including Robert Packenham and Irene Gendzier. 18 Both Packenham and Gendzier were interested in examining theories of political development devised by American social scientists in the 1950s and 1960s and their relationship and bearing on the doctrines that informed U.S. policy makers’ and government officials’ views regarding political change in the Third World. Did such theories influence or shape U.S. foreign aid and technical assistance policies aimed at managing the process of political change? For Packenham, writing in the early 1970s, the concern was less with actual political trends or the effects of aid than “in what the officials and social scientists wanted the trends to be, what conditions they thought promoted these trends, and what they supposed to be the consequences of such desirable trends.” 19 He suggested there was little direct or even indirect evidence of academic theories influencing the policy doctrines and decisions of government aid officials, whose exposure to such theories was limited and whose actions were largely pragmatic. Rather, the origins and persistence of the political development doctrines that underpinned the U.S. foreign aid program, and their strong resemblance to social scientific theories, reflected the implicit assumptions shared by both officials and theorists. This consensus, Packenham argued, was rooted in a liberal ideological tradition that grew out of the unique historical experience of the United States: economic growth and development were seen as straightforward and as going hand-in-hand with political stability and moderate democratic reform; radical politics and revolutionary change by definition were regarded as antithetical and threatening. 20

Published a dozen years later and in the midst of growing pessimism over the meaning of development and modernization, Gendzier’s analysis displays a noticeably more critical edge. In contrast to Packenham, Gendzier finds that policy-oriented social science was paramount to forging a U.S. foreign policy consensus. 21 She notes that government support for development-related social science research increased substantially from the time of the Eisenhower administration onward. This enabled a select group of academic consultants and specialists, well placed between government agencies and key academic institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to exercise an inordinate degree of influence in shaping both official and academic development discourse. Their views on political development, according to Gendzier, reflected less the realities of Third World politics than the internal biases of political theory that stretched back to the crisis of liberal democracy following the First World War. Their views were also influenced by the domestic climate in the United States during the Cold War, and especially the bitter debate on McCarthyism, which intensified the fear of popular participation and the potential dangers of mass-based movements in the Third World and led many policy-oriented intellectuals to favor the managerial role of political elites in maintaining order and stability.

The work of Nisbet, Arndt, Hirschman, Packenham, and Gendzier raised important questions about the broader intellectual and political origins and context of development and, in retrospect, helped lay the groundwork for much subsequent research and writing on the subject. But as social scientists operating within their respective disciplines (sociology, economics, political science), they wrote for a fairly specialized audience. It formed part of an internal disciplinary critique, written from the inside with the intent of reforming rather than radically overturning the structure. Packenham’s goal was to expose the rigidities derived from an overly dogmatic reliance on liberal constitutionalism in the hope that theorists might become more cognizant and critical of their own premises, but this did not imply for him the abandonment of that tradition in its entirety. The same might be said for Gendzier: “Reconsidering the genre of Political Development studies . . . is not equivalent to writing an obituary for a dead intellectual form. Rather, it is an effort at demystification, at the uncovering of the intellectual and political coordinates of the interpretation of Political Development.” 22 And, in a similar fashion, Arndt concluded: “There will always be disputation about the uses to which our expanding productive forces should be put. But only an extreme pessimist about the folly of mankind would deny the benefit of the increased freedom to choose that comes with economic development.” 23

These earlier internal critiques failed to spark wider interest or a broader literature on the history of development. The moment, it seems, was not yet ripe for these ideas to be taken up in force by other scholars and professional historians. It would take the rupture of the collapse of communism in 1989–90 and the demise of the Cold War to create the intellectual conditions for a critical deconstruction and historicization of development. As long as one could still point to “actually existing socialism” as an ideological alternative to market capitalism, the basic premises and logic that had underpinned state-led development since World War II remained intact. It seems that the owl of developmental Minerva, as Nils Gilman puts it, was not yet ready to begin its flight. This would occur “only with the onset of dusk” on the postwar, Cold War epoch that began in dramatic fashion with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. 24 It was Francis Fukuyama who captured the moment best, famously declaring the “end of history,” by which he meant the final march in the worldwide expansion of market capitalism and liberal democracy was about to begin. 25

The “Crisis of Development” and the Neoliberal Moment

By the early 1990s, the pessimists that Arndt had dismissed no longer appeared so extreme. More radical detractors, who wanted to tear down rather than merely remodel the edifice of development and all of its supports, replaced liberal reformers like Packenham and Gendzier. In the wake of the post–Cold War rupture, there was growing skepticism from all sides of the political spectrum concerning the results of state intervention and the performance of state institutions generally. This skepticism, which made the critical study of development seem so timely, was rooted in the demise of the post–World War II international economic order, which, as Eric Helleiner has noted, began with the U.S. abandonment of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates in 1971, and the rise in oil prices following the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. 26 These events triggered a general downturn in global economic activity that gave rise in the West to high unemployment coupled with unprecedentedly high levels of inflation. For most Third World countries, the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the subsequent recession of the late 1970s resulted in lower and even negative growth rates. 27 Faced with stagnating economies and declining per capita income levels, Third World states increased their overseas borrowing until, by the mid-1980s, most were faced with serious debt servicing and balance of payment problems.

The upheavals of the 1970s triggered what Helleiner has described as a “crisis of ideological hegemony,” resulting in a paradigmatic shift away from the Keynesian economic framework of the post-1945 period toward a reassertion of the central tenets of free market economics. The full implications of this shift were not felt until the 1980s when the neoclassical counterrevolution in economic thought, combined with the political ascendancy of conservative governments, forced the dismantling of Keynesianism and welfare state policies, first in the United States and Britain in 1979–80, and then in the other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries by the mid-1980s. Indeed, as Helleiner notes, “By the early 1990s, an almost fully liberal order had been created across the OECD region, giving market actors a degree of freedom they had not held since the 1920s and completely overturning the Bretton Woods order.” 28

The triumph of market fundamentalism, or “neoliberalism,” as it is often labeled, had an equally profound impact on developing countries. Economists including P. T. Bauer, Deepak Lal, Bela Balassa, and Ian Little attributed the retarding of development in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to inefficient and excessive state intervention in the economy and called for a new vision of growth based on a return to free market principles. 29 The writings of P. T. (Lord) Bauer were particularly influential in challenging the assumed benefits of foreign aid and state controls. Aid, according to Bauer, was more likely to retard economic development than promote it, since aid largely went to governments and thus diverted resources and attention away from productive, market activities. Contrary to aid advocates, Bauer maintained that aid-supported state spending mostly benefited political rulers and their own personal, financial, and political interests, rather than raising income levels or helping the poor. 30 The neoliberal counterrevolution, in turn, underpinned the World Bank’s and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) new market-orientated lending policies, including the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that were conditionally imposed on many Third World states during the international debt crisis of the 1980s.

The neoliberal ascendancy of the 1980s would have lasting repercussions for development theory and studies, whose central tenets had up to this point been girded by the same postwar economic framework described above. 31 The initial response of development theorists, as well as those within the wider development community, was varied and mixed. For more policy-oriented scholars like John Toye, who considered the views of both the counterrevolutionary right and the left to be untenable, the answer lay in a more pragmatic, consensual approach that would transcend the two extremes. 32 Rational-choice theorists also sought a middle ground between market and state in which development efforts would be based on community and civic engagement—or what was increasingly referred to in the 1990s as “civil society.” 33 The World Bank and other international agencies also plowed ahead with, as Colin Leys put it, “an increasingly incoherent discourse of opposites: the state is needed, after all, but not too much, and only when the market doesn’t work well, democracy is important but not if it leads to inappropriate demands for redistribution; and so on.” 34 But for many scholars, such eclecticism in policy reflected the fact that development theory had lost its way; a sense that its most basic premises appeared fundamentally flawed. Numerous efforts were initiated to try to move beyond the theoretical impasse and devise a new paradigm to anchor the field. 35 Such efforts, however, could not hide the fact that support for the developmentalist state had been profoundly, if not permanently, shaken. The neoliberal triumph marked the effective end of postwar development theory and policy as the dominance of international capital markets undermined the ability of national governments throughout the world to act as the prime movers of economic planning and social welfare. 36

The attacks of the market fundamentalists on developmentalism and the demise of the development state in most parts of the world seemed to have an intellectually liberating effect to the extent that from the late 1980s onward investigators began to look at development from a new angle: not from a partisan position within the various ideological camps but from a detached viewpoint which tried to denaturalize and contextualize development. The most radical challenge came from scholars who sought to move beyond the deadlock in development studies by formulating a critique of the problem of Third World poverty and underdevelopment based on poststructuralist analysis. In no uncertain terms, intellectuals such as Claude Alvares, Arturo Escobar, Gustavo Esteva, Ashis Nandy, Gilbert Rist, Wolfgang Sachs, and Vandana Shiva among others argued that the much-vaunted crisis was a reflection of development’s bankruptcy as a concept. 37 Indeed for some, as I noted earlier, it was time to sever its hold on global culture and to prepare the ground for the postdevelopment world to come. 38

To their credit, the efforts of the self-styled postdevelopment writers to undertake an “archaeology of development” helped open the door to the possibility of putting “the framework inside the frame” and making development the object of historical investigation. At the same time, however, the limitations of postdevelopment approaches need to be recognized. The charge most often made is that they aimed to critique rather than prescribe. 39 By jettisoning the idea of development in its entirety, they were unable to offer constructive ways forward. There had of course been substantive criticisms of development before, but what was distinctive about the 1990s was the almost universal rejection—from both the left and the right—of the state as an agent of progress and national liberation and, simultaneously, a renewed interest in social institutions and movements operating independently of and in opposition to the state. This reconfiguration of the debate around rolling back the state and championing new social movements (and “civil society” more generally) undoubtedly represented an important shift, signifying that development as a discourse was no longer framed by the logic of the post-1945 Cold War. 40 But in hindsight what is perhaps most striking is the consistent logic operating in many of the studies produced in the late 1980s and 1990s, irrespective of one’s ideological position.

Beneath the radical veneer of postdevelopmentalism lies an essentially nostalgic and conservative core that shares much in common with other responses to the crisis of development, in particular with neoliberalism. 41 As Jan Nederveen Pieterse pointed out in one of the more penetrating reviews at the time:

If we read critiques of development dirigism, such as Deepak Lal’s critique of state-centred development economics—which helped set the stage for the neoconservative turn in development—side by side with post-development critiques of development power . . . the parallels are striking. Both agree on state failure although for different reasons . . . Arguably, the net political effect turns out to be much the same. In other words, there is an elective affinity between neoliberalism and the development agnosticism of post-development. 42

To be clear, I am not suggesting we conflate the postdevelopmentalist literature with neoliberalism or that we see them as occupying identical ideological positions. Even though they both share a critical attitude toward the state, there are fundamental, philosophical differences that separate the two approaches. While neoliberal reformers saw greater market integration as a development alternative , antidevelopment critics proposed an alternative to development that rejected modernity altogether. 43 Nevertheless, given the specific historical conjuncture of the 1980s and 1990s, postdevelopment’s rejection of state intervention and embrace of grassroots movements and local self-reliance paradoxically aided the neoliberal project for restructuring global capitalism. The message that peasants and other local communities would be fine if we just left them alone was in many ways complementary to the argument that markets work best when free individuals are left to their own devices, undisturbed by the powers of the state. Even more critically, the romanticization of the rural Third World or “noble South” which informs much of the postdevelopment literature leads to a downplaying of conflict and divisions within local communities, especially the disregard of class interests and socioeconomic inequality. Such a neopopulist position, as Tom Brass has long argued, not only reifies peasant communities and indigenous culture, but also inadvertently reinforces the antistatist/pro-market policy agenda of neoliberalism. 44 It is for this reason that I think it is important to situate the first wave of historical writings on development, most of which were influenced by the postdevelopment critique in one way or another, within the same broad, historical moment as the neoliberal revolution. 45

The First Wave of Writing Development as History

One of the most influential critiques of the development industry to appear at this moment was James Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho . 46 Ferguson combined critical anthropology with a Foucauldian framework of analysis to explain the conceptual and institutional machinery of development and its operation in the small, land-locked African country of Lesotho between 1975 and 1984. For him, the most immediate questions that required explanation were, first, how “development” as a dominant problematic worked in practice, and second, what were its actual outcomes and social effects? Although Ferguson’s study focused on what might be called an archaeology of development in the present, in the preface to the book he suggested that the next logical step of critical inquiry was a “genealogy” or “detailed historical analysis of the origins and transformations” of development. “How and why this central value came to exist,” Ferguson opined, “is one question that is raised by the dominance of the `development’ problematic. . . . This book marks the beginning of an inquiry, not the end . . . but it may perhaps give an indication of why it is necessary to question such value in the first place.” 47

In the wake of Ferguson’s innovative study, a number of researchers sought to do just that. For the first time, scholars probed the larger questions surrounding the genesis and meaning of development and examined the wider political and historical context in which it was first conceived as a specific domain of inquiry. Their work represents the initial phase of development historiography, which spanned roughly the decade of the 1990s. Looking back we can discern several broad scholarly trends in the literature as a whole. In the remainder of part 1, I will look in some detail at what I see as the most pronounced of these trends, not only for what they tell us about the initial formulation of development history in the 1990s but also with an eye to the limitations that more recent studies—the subject of part 2 of the essay—have identified and are currently moving to address.

I. Development as an Intellectual and Ideological Project

The most significant feature of the first wave of development history was the predominate focus of researchers on the conceptual or intellectual framework of development, variously described as discourses, ideologies, doctrines, texts, and so on. This was particularly (though not exclusively) true of authors who described their writing as poststructuralist or postdevelopment. For the critical anthropologist Arturo Escobar, whose work on the “genealogy of development” in many ways anticipated Ferguson’s own thinking, development is a discursive field or regime that sought but failed to impose Western modernity on the rest of the world. 48 Although there are important differences between the work of Ferguson and Escobar, each conceives of development as a form of discourse or “conceptual apparatus” in the Foucauldian sense, not only comprising a set of theories and representations but also giving rise to an array of concrete practices, both discursive and nondiscursive, through which poverty is problematized. 49 And while Ferguson is careful to ground his analysis of what development does in a particular context, he too aspires to a more generalized critique of development as a global, historical project. As Ferguson concluded: “By uncompromisingly reducing poverty to a technical problem, and by promising technical solutions to the sufferings of powerless and oppressed people, the hegemonic problematic of `development’ is the principle means through which the question of poverty is de-politicised in the world today.” 50

The work of Michel Foucault, as well as that of the literary theorist Edward Said, influenced Ferguson and Escobar and many others whose work is associated, directly or indirectly, with the postdevelopment wave of the 1990s. Particularly important are Foucault’s conceptions of power and discourse, in which the construction of knowledge is inseparable from relations of power. 51 For Foucault, discourse is sui generis, which does not so much reflect as actually construct or invent reality and in so doing marginalizes alternative ways of thinking about the subject or object of its analysis. Projecting these ideas onto the Third World, Said conceives of the notion of Orientalism as a systematic discipline by which Western culture has been “able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.” 52 Under the impact of postmodernist and postcolonial thought a number of studies appeared which sought to interrogate what might be called the imaginary of development. 53

Two of the more notable contributions along these lines are Gilbert Rist’s The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith and Jonathan Crush’s edited volume The Power of Development . 54 The emphasis of these writers is on the metaphorical language of development, on viewing development as a form of writing or “text,” with narrative qualities, story plot lines, and various actors. Scrutinizing the discourse of development thus requires tracking its “master metaphors” and mapping the recurrence of its key ideas and imagery across various contexts. The aim for Rist is to “particularize” development, by rendering its universalizing conceptual claims and practices as “provincial” and even “exotic.” 55 His book provides a fairly descriptive account, piecing together the canon of “great texts” with “what seemed to us the most significant `episodes’ in the history of `development.'” 56 He takes his readers on a grand tour of the West’s preoccupation with the “myth” of development from antiquity and early Christianity to the twentieth-century “development era.” In the end, however, what we are left with is not so much a deconstruction of development as discourse, than a demonstration of the cultural and historical importance of a concept that has come to occupy a central place in what both Rist and Escobar term the anthropology of Western modernity. 57

Crush’s collection is more substantive, but he too conceives of development as fundamentally textual. Although careful to note that language is never self-referential and that discourse justifies very real interventions and practices, Crush focuses his analysis primarily on “the reports, plans, analyses, evaluations, assessments, consultancies, papers, books, policies, speeches, discussions, debates, presentations and conversations that circulate within and through the apparatus of agencies and institutions of the development machine.” 58 One of the most striking features of this language of development, as Crush observes, is its obliteration of the past: “Most [development] plans contain a formulaic bow to the previous plan period . . . But prior histories of the object of development—the people, country, region, sector or zone—are deemed irrelevant . . . The past is impervious to change, untouchable and irredeemable.” 59 This stripping away of the object’s history is accompanied by its reinsertion into standard typologies, or what Emery Roe has termed “development narratives,” that form blueprints for intervention. 60

Several of the essays in Crush’s book concentrate on tracing the central tropes and metaphors that lie at the heart of these development narratives. Timothy Mitchell examines how Egypt’s economic development since World War II has been invariably framed as a problem of geography versus demography. The Nile Valley is imagined as a narrow strip of fertile land, surrounded by desert and crowded with millions of rapidly multiplying inhabitants. The effect of this imagery, according to Mitchell, is to confine discussions of poverty in this country within the seemingly natural boundaries of overpopulation and land shortage, which in turn shapes the kinds of solutions that follow. Questions of unequal distribution and access to land, for example, are never raised in reports by leading development agencies such as USAID. Instead, programs emphasize the more efficient management of existing resources through greater mechanization, fertilizers, improved seed varieties, and new irrigation methods. 61 Michael Watts, in his essay, explores the various strands of modernity that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and later coalesced into the mid-twentieth-century meaning of development: from theories of linear progress and evolution, to the normative efforts to make society and subjects more legible and governable, to classical political economy’s legitimization of the desire for accumulation. In doing so Watts underscores the recurring imagery of “crisis,” which he stresses is not simply a preoccupation of today’s pundits but rather something that has been built into the process from its beginning. Development, Watts contends, is rooted in the paradoxical unity of modernity itself, in the “creative destruction” of capitalism, which, as Karl Marx put it, unleashes a storm of disintegration and renewal in its perpetual transformation of the means of production and exchange. 62 From this perspective, crisis must be seen as intrinsic to development itself, the consequence of its restlessness, as well as the precondition for its own inevitable reinvention in a distinctive and yet strangely familiar guise.

Poststructuralist and postdevelopment critics were not the only ones in search of development’s tangled and troubled past. Although somewhat delayed in their response, by the end of the decade, scholars interested in U.S. relations with Africa, Asia, and Latin America had launched their own, related set of inquiries into the history of “modernization.” Nick Cullather’s pioneering essay “Development? It’s History” set the tone. Cullather suggested that a historicist approach offered “a way of writing about development without accepting its clichés, and to see the record of Americans’ cynical, heroic, disastrous, occasionally inspired, and benevolent attempts at global humanitarianism in all of their moral and political complexity.” 63 Much like their postdevelopment counterparts, historians of U.S. foreign relations centered their analyses initially on modernization as an intellectual and cultural project. In this sense, their work is clearly reflective of the first wave of development historiography with its genealogical interest in discourses, languages, essential texts, and vocabularies. 64

The two texts that best capture the initial concerns of historical inquiry into the origins and influence of modernization theory in the United States are Michael Latham’s Modernization as Ideology and Nils Gilman’s Mandarins of the Future , both published in the early 2000s but conceived of during the 1990s. 65 Both Latham and Gilman concentrated their efforts on examining the intellectual and institutional context in which modernization emerged as the dominant social scientific paradigm within the American academy in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and how in turn it provided an ideological and conceptual framework that helped shape U.S. foreign policy, especially during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Both authors were clearly influenced by the work of predecessors such as Packenham and Gendzier, but as historians they grounded their work much more firmly in archival materials. Moreover, they were no longer interested in reforming political development studies or making its theories and practices more effective but rather in treating modernization as an ideological and cultural artifact, which needs to be analyzed on a deeper level than as a justification for American strategic and economic interests. As Latham put it, “By returning to the era in which modernization dominated the field of inquiry and examining its relationship to the conduct of American foreign relations, I have sought to show that it was not merely a social scientific formulation. Modernization, I argue, was also an ideology, a conceptual framework that articulated a common collection of assumptions about the nature of American society and its ability to transform a world perceived as both materially and culturally deficient.” 66 Similarly, Gilman surveys the major trends and great texts of postwar American social science, from Parsonian structural-functionalism to behavioralism and comparative politics to Rostovian economic growth theory; but more critically, he demonstrates how the question of modernity was central to these ideas and debates. It served as an interconnecting thread that linked, as Gilman puts it, “American social scientists’ efforts to build a comprehensive theory not only for understanding what was happening in postcolonial regions, but also for promoting change that would make these regions become more like `us’—and less like the Russians or the Chinese.” 67

This emphasis on the close linkages among knowledge, the exercise of power, and cultural meaning reflects the widespread influence of postmodern and postcolonial theory on historical scholarship at the time, which both authors acknowledged. 68 The influence is particularly strong for Latham, whose analysis turns on the significance of ideas and culture in shaping the objectives of American foreign policy. For Latham, modernization theory was important not simply as a rhetorical tool to justify particular strategic and economic imperatives. Its real power lay in its ideological functions, not in the sense of a conspiracy or reification of consciousness but as a broader worldview that resonated with long-held assumptions and beliefs about American identity and its historical mission in the world. 69 In the context of decolonization and the battle for hearts and minds at the height of the Cold War, modernization discourse provided an alternative framework to both the legacy of European colonialism and the revolutionary and radical challenge of communism. Moreover, by presenting America’s path to modernity as a liberal and consensual model to be emulated by others and facilitated by U.S. capital investment, technical assistance, and cultural influence, modernization theorists helped reaffirm the belief in American exceptionalism. They forged, as Latham remarks, “an appealing identity for America as a progressive nation assisting others in their fight against poverty, oppression, and debilitating fatalism.” 70 And by the same token, they suggested that the transformation of “traditional” cultural attitudes and forms of authority through exposure to and dissemination of “modern,” U.S. cultural values and practices was the key to Third World development.

Modernization theory, Latham argues, provided a perceptual and cognitive template that helped shape the goals and intended outcomes of U.S. policy making in the 1960s, playing a critical role in programs such as the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, the Peace Corps, and the Strategic Hamlet Program in Vietnam. It also constrained the way policy makers viewed social change in the Third World, forcing analyses into an inflexible framework that ignored the need for greater understanding of local conditions and their historical and cultural context. As these programs began to show signs of shortcomings, criticism was directed to questions of corruption, poor coordination, and administration, rather than to the deeper ideological assumptions that lay at the heart of the mission itself.

While less concerned with actual government programs, Gilman’s analysis also highlights the important intersection between U.S. foreign relations and American culture, noting that postwar intellectuals “took their ideas about `modernity’ from discourses about American national identity that were taking place at the same time as the formation of the modernization paradigm.” 71 The real strength of Gilman’s analysis lies in his careful attention to the way certain ideas were exchanged and elevated to hegemonic status, while others were marginalized, by the personal interactions and collaborations of scholars operating through specific institutional networks with strong ties to private funding organizations and government agencies and departments. At the heart of the book are three case studies of different academic institutional networks: the Harvard Department of Social Relations, the Social Science Research Council’s Committee on Comparative Politics, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies. Gilman shows how prominent liberal social scientists operating through these institutional channels were able to attract significant funding from private foundations such as Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie as well as from the federal government for policy-oriented research, training, and conferences. Through this closely spun web of institutions, academic experts, and public and private funding, ideas about modernization began to crystallize.

Contrary to common depictions of modernization as essentially a conservative ideology, Gilman shows that in the context of the 1950s it expressed the hopes and ideals of postwar American liberals “and that its history cannot be understood apart from the fate of that liberalism.” 72 Although they agreed that economic growth stood at the core, modernization theorists believed that making people and societies modern involved a much more sweeping transformation of their entire social, political, psychological, and cultural forms of organization. In their view, the state—guided by technical experts and social planners—was the best means for rationally ordering and directing the potentially destabilizing changes that marked the transition to modernity. In seeking to explain the hold that such theories had on postwar academics and policy makers, Gilman argues that modernization theory was not simply a response to external challenges but reflected wider domestic sentiments about American identity. In many ways, their attitudes and perceptions about non-Western peoples tell us as much about how Americans see themselves as about how they see those living abroad. “Modernization theory,” Gilman astutely observes, “was thus the foreign policy counterpart to `social modernism’ at home, namely the idea that a meliorist, rationalizing, benevolent, technocratic state could solve all social and especially economic ills . . . In large measure the rise and decline of modernization theory mirrored the rise and decline of faith in welfare-state modernism in the United States.” 73

As important as the work of Latham and Gilman was in opening up modernization theory to historical analysis, their focus, like the poststructuralist approach to the wider history of the idea of development, remained squarely on the discourse rather than how this discourse may have affected the lives of people living in the Third World, or how such theories were put into practice in the form of specific projects or policy initiatives. The emphasis on the discursive side of development has remained an enduring characteristic of many studies of development history right up to the present day. Although the historiography of development has become more cognizant of its fragmentary and multivariant nature, it is still the case that, in one form or another, many writers remain predominantly concerned with development as an intellectual and conceptual project. 74 But what is even more pertinent, and what is surveyed in some detail below, is the way this focus on the discursive nature and power of modernization and development came to so thoroughly prescribe both the parameters and limitations of the field during the first phase of development historiography.

II. Development as Monolithic and Unchanging

Perhaps the most contentious outcome of the initial preoccupation with discourse and language has been the tendency for analysts to overgeneralize, and to render development crudely as an undifferentiated and unvarying hegemonic force. Most research produced in the 1990s depicted development in totalizing and unchanging terms. Arturo Escobar’s portrait of development as a homogenizing, disciplinary power is perhaps the example that comes most immediately to mind, but Escobar was not alone. 75 Another influential contributor was James C. Scott, whose highly acclaimed book Seeing Like a State criticizes what Scott terms “authoritarian high modernism,” by which he means both the dream of administratively ordering nature and society and the unrestricted use of modern state power as an instrument for fulfilling such an ambition. 76

The work of both authors is ambitious in scope. The subject of Escobar’s study, for example, is nothing less than how development has come to define, and even produce, the Third World. He describes development as not merely a combination of various elements (e.g., the process of capital formation, new cultural attitudes, and new institutions and planning agencies) but, more importantly, a system of relations that “establishes a discursive practice that sets the rules of the game: who can speak, from what points of view, with what authority, and according to what criteria of expertise; it sets the rules that must be followed for this or that problem, theory, or object to emerge and be named, analyzed, and eventually transformed into a policy or a plan.” 77 Moreover, as his critics have pointed out, Escobar’s analysis leaves us with a paradigm that is not only all-encompassing and all-consuming but also conspiratorial in design. 78 For Escobar, development is implicitly an intentional imposition and assertion of control by Western institutions and policy elites over the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

For Scott, it is the unquestioning faith in scientific and technical progress and in the ability to rationally order, plan, and control all aspects of human society and the natural world that distinguishes the high modernist’s creed. 79 It is a belief that appeals to bureaucratic elites, planners, engineers, and technicians of all political stripes, but especially to those who see their goals as progressive or revolutionary, in the sense of wanting to bring about changes for the betterment or improvement of humanity. And yet it is this ideology in combination with the unleashing of modern state power that was responsible for some of the most tragic episodes of social engineering of the twentieth century, including the collectivization of Soviet agriculture and the ujaama villagization schemes in Tanzania. The hubris of state officials, planners, and experts, Scott suggests, leads them to accept abstract, technical knowledge uncritically and to dismiss local, practical know-how and skills, or me;amtis as he refers to it, as backward and irrelevant. He sees this flagrant disregard of the important role of local knowledge and practice as the primary reason that so many of these schemes have ended in failure, often despite years of careful planning and research.

Anyone familiar with the history of Third World development can certainly appreciate Escobar’s and Scott’s frustration with the omnipotent/omniscient aspirations of development and the hubris of modernist ideology. One can point to an array of state projects where the kind of myopic approach they describe has led to unintended and often disastrous consequences for local communities and people. Few observers would object to Scott’s lauding of “the indispensible role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation.” 80 Indeed, critics of orthodox development economics and tropical agricultural science such as Michael Lipton, Roberts Chambers, and Paul Richards have been making this case since the 1970s and 1980s. 81

The difficulty with this kind of generalized rendering is its tendency to draw too sharp a distinction between modernity and the modernist faith on the one hand, and local practices and belief systems on the other. It tends to cast them, for heuristic purposes, as two opposing and mutually exclusive forms of knowledge and logic. This binary framework can be seen, for example, in Scott’s critique of modern scientific agriculture, which draws heavily on the work of Richards. 82 High modernist agriculture is driven by the logic of simplification and standardization, with crops grown in fixed, pure stands and bred for mechanization and the highest yields, whereas local practices are invariably more complex, based on shifting cultivation and polycropping techniques that give farmers greater flexibility and adaptability and fulfill a diversity of aims. In a similar way, Escobar portrays development as an all-encompassing “knowledge-power regime” fabricated by the West—a vaguely defined and undifferentiated entity—which stands in sharp contrast to Third World communities and grassroots actors, whose local cultures and non-Western belief systems, by their very nature as the other, are defined as countermodernist alternatives.

Ironically, given their principled stance against imperializing metanarratives, Escobar and Scott, as well as other poststructuralist and neopopulist writers, have found themselves in the awkward and contradictory position of reverting to metanarratvives of their own. For Escobar, at least, there is a recognition that the problems that development has been designed to address are, after all, real (and not simply social fabrications), and thus “the process of deconstructing and dismantling has to be accompanied by that of constructing new ways of seeing and acting.” 83 In his postdevelopment paradigm, the state, along with various intergovernmental and international agencies, has become the adversary, while grassroots social movements, indigenous peoples, and peasant farmers are the would-be protagonists.

Similarly with Scott, one gets the sense that if only the maligned and invasive state would get out of the way, then independent peasant farmers, rural villagers, and indigenous hill peoples would be empowered to live autonomously in self-sufficient and locally appropriate ways. 84 Thus, despite Scott’s and Escobar’s ardent wish to challenge the totalizing claims of modernity, their scholarship oddly tends to reinforce, by inversion, the same essentialized dichotomies. As Arun Agrawal observes: “In posing the dualisms of local and global, indigenous and western, traditional and scientific, society and state—and locating the possibility of change only in one of these opposed pairs—one is forced to draw lines that are potentially ridiculous, and ultimately indefensible.” 85

What is more, the logic of Western modernity appears unyielding and unchanging. Despite the many twists and incarnations of the past sixty years, development for Escobar was and remains in essence a project designed to bring about the conditions for the reproduction of the world capitalist system, and more generally the Westernization of the Third World. Escobar is quite clear on this point: “To be sure, new objects have been included, new modes of operation introduced, and a number of variables modified . . . yet the same set of relations among these elements continues to be established by the discursive practices of the institutions involved. Moreover, seemingly opposed options can easily coexist within the same discursive field . . . In other words, although the discourse has gone through a series of structural changes, the architecture of the discursive formation laid down in the period 1945–1955 has remained unchanged, allowing the discourse to adapt to new conditions.” 86 Scott takes a strikingly similar position on the logic of high modernism, which in his narrative is always the same, no matter the context, be it central Europe in the late eighteenth century or Soviet Russia in the 1930s or postcolonial Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. In all of these cases, Scott sees the central problem as one of legibility; in other words, the goal of modern statecraft is to make society legible (and thus easier to manage and control), through processes of rationalization, standardization, and simplification.

The stark contrasts and sweeping generalizations that underpin such arguments simply do not hold up to closer scrutiny. Much of Seeing Like a State , as Mark Tauger strikingly demonstrates, is flawed by Scott’s misreading of his own evidence or the omission of conflicting evidence, such that it is difficult to take the work seriously as a piece of historical (rather than polemical) writing. 87 He downplays or disregards cases where the state provides resources and assistance to its constituents, just as he misconstrues the actions of grassroots movements as resistance against the state when often they are just the opposite: attempts to engage the state and make it more responsive to their interests and needs. 88 Escobar, as noted above, also minimizes the importance of diverse and multiple discourses of development, seeing it instead as one unitary and undifferentiated mass. 89 “Ironically,” as Dane Kennedy remarks in reference to postcolonial theory generally, “this stress on the power of the West countenances the neglect of the power as it was actually exercised in [specific contexts], ignoring `its plural and particularized expressions.’ Further, it fails to appreciate the uncertainties, inconsistencies, modifications, and contradictions that afflicted Western efforts to impose its will on other peoples.” 90

For both authors, development projects and schemes of modern statecraft are designed sui generis “from above and from the center.” Local and native peoples, conversely, are antithetically opposed to the imposition of the state’s unwanted modernity and desire nothing more than to be left alone. Their first response to such interventions, according to Scott, is evasion, and for this reason they must then be “captured” through the creation of sharply demarcated and controlled state spaces. 91 In the process, preexisting communities and ways of life are not only reconfigured; they are dislocated and very often eliminated. What this kind of Manichaean analysis overlooks, however, is the fact that very often state projects are themselves responses to social, economic, and political crises, either real or imagined, that threaten the legitimacy and authority of the regime. Historically, as Cowen and Shenton have argued persuasively, development as an intentional practice, as opposed to development as an immanent process of “natural” or spontaneous change, has been invoked by state officials and agents as a way to reassert order over the uncertainty and societal crises brought on by material, usually capitalist, transformations. 92

Despite such criticisms, similar notions of development as a unitary and unvarying enterprise have continued to influence the way many scholars conceptualize the problem. In the introduction to Seeing Like a State , Scott noted that an early draft of his manuscript contained a case study of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which was ultimately omitted out of concern for the book’s length. 93 Perhaps it is fitting, then, to end this section with a more recent analysis in which the TVA does feature prominently, David Ekbladh’s Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order . 94 Ekbladh stresses the importance of analyzing the domestic roots of U.S. modernization, which he sees originating well before the watershed of World War II, as well as placing American versions of development within a broader, global dialogue involving a multiplicity of approaches. In part 2 of this essay I will return to Ekbladh’s proposal of taking a “wider and longer view” of development, but for now my focus is on the heart of his argument: his interpretation of the TVA as an influential, exportable model of development.

The real crucible for Ekbladh is the social and economic crises unleashed by the Great Depression. New rival ideologies of modernity emanating from Benito Mussolini’s regime in Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union all seemed to point toward the state as the instrument best equipped to harness the powers of science, technology, and rational planning for the benefit of humanity. In the face of such challenges, liberals and internationalists searched for an alternative model of redemption and found it, according to Ekbladh, in the American South with that wonder of hydraulic engineering and regional development planning, the TVA. The TVA was a total, multipurpose project involving flood control through the construction of some thirty dams, hydroelectric power, irrigation, river navigation, public health programs, malaria control, new housing, community planning, education, library services, and the resettlement of flooded areas to new model towns. It also involved innovative forms of coordination between federal agencies, state and local governments, and regional universities, which, as one of its directors, David Lilienthal recognized, allowed the TVA to be promoted as something exceptionally American—a new kind of decentralized administration that was more adaptable and inclusive of local participation. In addition, Ekbladh observes, “The experiment in the valley did more than inspire discussion; it brought action. Various groups, particularly NGOs already invested in development missions, gravitated to the TVA concept . . . Partisans at the Rockefeller Foundation took that faith a step further, seeing it as a template for economic and social development they could actively export across the globe.” 95

World War II delayed such actions, but it also inspired new thinking about the building of a liberal international order once it was over. The older discourse of reconstruction was supplanted by a more expansive view of development, one increasingly referred to as “modernization,” to which the TVA as a liberal model of large-scale planning and development was tightly yoked. The transition from world war to Cold War elevated the stakes, motivating the U.S. government to assume a far more active role in what was increasingly referred to as the “underdeveloped areas.” The region of the world where the U.S. modernization mission would be most keenly felt, according to Ekbladh, was Asia: first China, then South Korea, and eventually Vietnam. Asia was the Cold War’s key ideological battleground, where the largest subvention of U.S. economic and technical assistance was expended to contain the specter of communism.

In this global struggle, the TVA model was conjured up as a Cold War weapon. Numerous large multipurpose projects, modeled directly on the TVA and often with TVA experts, were built across the Third World, from India to the Middle East to Ghana. But perhaps the most fateful TVA-inspired proposal was one that never materialized. A multilateral plan for the development of the Mekong River, which spanned across several Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam, was originally devised with backing from the UN and the Mekong Committee in the 1950s. It was not, however, until 1965 that the Johnson administration embraced it as a means of dealing with the social and political fallout of the escalation of the war in Vietnam. A U.S.–South Vietnamese Joint Development Group, led by Lilienthal, was set up to create the blueprints for the postwar reconstruction of the country. It envisioned remaking the Mekong Delta region into the breadbasket of Southeast Asia through a proposed Mekong Delta Development Authority (MDDA), modeled directly on the TVA. The MDDA would be responsible for executing large-scale plans for flood control, irrigation, distribution of chemical fertilizers, and the introduction of the new “miracle rice” varieties being developed at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. It would impact and transform the lives of millions of Vietnamese villagers. However, the reality of war, especially in the wake of the 1968 Tet Offensive, derailed the scheme, as safety in the countryside and the mass exodus and resettling of refugees made development work impossible.

The project died a slow death, capped by the North Vietnamese victory in 1975, and with it, Ekbladh suggests, so too did America’s faith in the modernization mission begin to crumble. The complicit involvement in the war of Lilienthal, Rostow, USAID, and various university programs and NGOs was a discreditable stain that led many to question the purpose of foreign aid policy and development more generally. Lilienthal’s Development and Resources Corporation was now seen as an agent of a new form of imperialism. The TVA brand, along with other large-scale multipurpose programs, was harshly criticized as socially and environmentally disastrous. The broad consensus in favor of liberal statist modernization, both at home and abroad, that had been forged in the 1930s and 1940s was permanently fractured, ushering in a protracted state of crisis and impasse in development policy and thinking.

However, echoing Escobar and Scott, Ekbladh stresses the underlying continuity and lasting legacy of the American modernization mission, noting: “Undoubtedly, the period brought an end to a set of approaches and a discourse on the subject but not to a commitment to the idea . . . despite the upheaval, key institutions born of the consensus remained the primary executors of development internationally.” 96 Indeed, as the above synopsis indicates, Ekbladh makes the case for there being a continuation of U.S. policy approaches as well as a broadly conceived and adopted consensus on development “prevailing from roughly the 1930s through the 1970s.” 97 This was a consensus forged around the TVA, which Ekbladh sees as “a grand synecdoche, standing in for a wider liberal approach to economic and social development both domestically and internationally.” 98

Ekbladh’s claim that there existed a broad, unchanging consensus in support of a unitary, American model of development has been widely challenged by reviewers. “Are we really to believe,” writes Nils Gilman, “that the American missionaries, businesspeople, NGOs, international bureaucrats, policy intellectuals, government policymakers, and military officials—who, as The Great American Mission points out, all came to the idea of modernization with very different backgrounds and underlying motives—were in fact all animated by a shared vision of a globalized New Deal?” 99 Beneath the seeming coherence at the level of rhetoric and policy pronouncements, Gilman stresses the importance of disjunctures and conceptual shifts across historical periods, and the discrepancies between the TVA vision and the many variations and complexities of its “practical reception.” Brad Simpson echoes this sentiment, noting that “given its centrality to his analysis Ekbladh gives inadequate attention to the question of whether or not the TVA actually measured up to the flattering rhetoric of its many admirers.” 100 And this really goes to the heart of the problem. Although The Great American Mission purports to provide a global, synthetic account of the origins and nature of postwar American development discourse and practice, in the end—constrained and handicapped by its reliance on U.S-based archival sources—it fails to deliver. It remains, as Simpson observes, an “avowedly U.S.-centric approach with its emphasis on what myriad commentators, foundation officers and American officials proposed and said.” 101 Ultimately, as Corinna Unger points out, the book’s shortcomings are tied to its methodology: it is a book about the import of big ideas, and as such it conceives of development as predominantly a policy-based discourse. “Ekbladh is very successful in convincing readers that ideas matter,” Unger remarks, “but we do not receive much information on what happened when those ideas hit the ground . . . If we were to include the perspectives of those who actually experienced modernization projects, we might find that the path toward global American hegemony was more complicated.” 102

To be fair, Ekbladh’s book makes several innovative and significant contributions to the field, to which I will return in the second part of this essay. What I have sought to highlight here are the aspects that his approach shares with much of the earlier scholarship of the 1990s. Indeed, the concerns raised by reviewers of The Great American Mission are strikingly reminiscent of those made of what I have billed as the first wave of writing the history of development.

III. Development from a Western and Elitist Perspective

One of the consequences of restricting one’s field of vision to the level of discourse, as reviewers of Ekbladh’s book are quick to point out, is a tendency to see development predominantly as a Western (especially American) invention. There is a heavy bias in much of the earlier historical literature toward examining development from a Western perspective, and especially through a U.S.-centered Cold War lens. The concern is largely with the intentions of political and social theorists, prominent statesmen, diplomats, experts, and policy makers and the doctrines they espoused. In other words, most of the early writings on the history of development tend to view the subject from above and from the center.

For postdevelopment critics such as Wolfgang Sachs and Arturo Escobar, for example, it is possible to speak of the fabrication of development in the late 1940s as a radical new strategy for dealing with the problems of what were termed the “underdeveloped areas.” A number of factors coalesced at this historical conjuncture, including the founding of the United Nations in 1945, the consolidation of U.S. hegemony in the world economy through the Marshall Plan and the formation of the Bretton Woods system, and the onset of the Cold War and fear of international communism. The key symbolic moment came with President Truman’s unveiling of the Point Four Program in his 1949 inauguration address. 103 Truman’s Point Four, according to Gilbert Rist, constitutes the “opening act” that officially launched the “development age,” introducing a new term, “underdevelopment,” to describe the common condition of the inhabitants of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and in the process, transforming the meaning of development from an intransitive and spontaneously occurring phenomenon into a transitive act that could be willed to happen. 104 It was here, postdevelopment writers agree, that the professionalization and institutionalization of development first began, with the establishment of development studies programs, technical assistance missions, international organizations, and ever expanding networks of expertise.

These accounts see development as something devised by American and Western European policy makers and experts sometime between 1945 and 1955 and within a few years rapidly diffused throughout the newly independent nations of the Third World. The dynamic for change emanated from U.S. power elites, whose will it was to remake the world in their own image, based on their own country’s historical experience as the model. One corollary of this view is to explain the intentions behind development in terms of U.S. strategic and economic interests. The offer of technical and financial assistance was invariably tied to the U.S.-led campaign to counteract communist influence in the newly emerging nations. As Escobar relates: “The cold war was undoubtedly one of the single most important factors at play in the conformation of the strategy of development. The historical roots of development and those of east-west politics lie in one and the same process: the political rearrangements that occurred after World War II. In the late 1940s, the real struggle between east and west had already moved to the Third World, and development became the grand strategy for advancing such rivalry and, at the same time, the designs of industrial civilization. The confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union thus lent legitimacy to the enterprise of modernization and development; to extend the sphere of political and cultural influence became an end in itself.” 105

Postdevelopment critics were not the only scholars to suggest that development was invented in the immediate postwar years. David B. Moore, for example, also chose to mark the year 1945 as the beginning of the “modern age” of the development project because it was after the end of World War II that the United States began to give serious consideration to the Third World and its relationship to the new discourse of political and economic development. 106 As he notes: “In the wake of the Marshall Plan, the Soviet-Stalinist model of industrialization, the Cold War, the Chinese revolution, and the emergence of the politically independent `third world,’ western policy-makers—led by the United States—had quite a number of problems facing them as they considered how to deal with the former colonial subjects. The word `development’ was the perfect hegemonic catch-all for capturing the goals and aspirations of all parties to the situation. Its basic elements were constructed in the years between 1945 and 1955.” 107

With the exception of one or two scholars such as Ekbladh, historians of U.S. foreign relations interested in examining the history of modernization as an ideological and cultural force have been particularly drawn to the idea of development as a post-1945, Cold War doctrine. 108 For many the correlation between modernization and the Cold War seems obvious. Michael Latham, for example, while acknowledging that modernization drew on Enlightenment models and imperial ideals, begins his study in 1961 at the height of the Cold War and sees the Cold War context as the essential political setting which led to the theory’s genesis. 109 Nils Gilman echoes this view. Although he sees important intellectual affinities with earlier European intellectual traditions, especially the Enlightenment’s view of progress as a human-guided, universal phenomenon, Gilman nevertheless maintains that modernization theory was a uniquely American creation conceived in response to the unprecedented challenges and opportunities that faced U.S. policy makers and social scientists in the early postwar years. Analysts and theorists drew on American discourses of national identity forming at the same time, and they strove consciously to break with the past by deliberately disregarding European colonial antecedents and knowledge, looking instead to homegrown solutions such at the Tennessee Valley Authority and the European Economic Recovery Program as models and prototypes. 110

Seeing development through the “Cold War lens,” as Matthew Connelly puts it, is in part a reflection of the type of historical actors whose vantage point historians choose to privilege and articulate. 111 And this brings me to my final point about the way the fixation on discourse and the importance of ideas determined the contours of the field in its initial stages. That is, most studies initially concentrated not just on Western models of development but on analyzing the viewpoints of Western political and intellectual elites. In a way, this made perfect sense. If one situates both the source of continuity and innovation in development discourses as located within dominant international organizations and government institutions, then one’s focus will tend to be on the center or metropole, and by extension, on metropolitan archives and actors, and on the authoritative statements they produce in policy documents, official memoranda, project reports, and various other texts. In other words, if one focuses on the power of the West, then one will naturally focus on its “hegemonic texts” and on the prominent statesmen, policy makers, and academics who were associated with the most iconic theories and doctrines of the time, because this is what actually happens in the metropole. 112

Both Latham and Gilman, for example, focus on the perceptions and attitudes (and the personal papers and archives) of U.S. high officials, policy makers, prominent experts, and social scientists. In Latham’s case the concern is more with the key players within the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the programs they helped to devise and implement. For Gilman, the spotlight is much more on the leading intellectual figures within the American social scientific community of the 1950s and 1960s, including Talcott Parsons, Edward Shills, Gabriel Almond, Lucien Pye, and Walter Rostow, among many others. While more ambivalent about the question of agency, postdevelopment scholars such as Esteva and Escobar also tend to assign blame for the “development regime” on Western-, and especially U.S-., based or trained policy elites and technocrats, variously referred to as “planners,” “experts,” “developers,” “elites,” “economists,” “Western promoters,” and so on. 113 Escobar sees the pioneers of development economics such as Rostow and Ragnald Nurkse, with their penchant for model building, as well as the World Bank with its missions of foreign experts, as particularly instrumental in constructing the object and “discursive space” of development. 114


I began this exposition with the observation that development studies has long maintained a dialogical conversation with history, but it was only in the wake of the global debt crisis, the demise of the developmentalist state, the end of the Cold War, and above all the rise of neoliberalism that the historicization of development was itself constituted as a field of critical inquiry and examination. A plethora of books and articles in the 1990s—many inspired by poststructuralist analysis and neopopulist sentiments—fixed on the idea of development as a hegemonic discourse of Western design. Important and productive insights were revealed, not the least of which was a greater understanding of the politics and of the intimate relationship between power and knowledge within international efforts for promoting development.

But if most analysts in the 1990s viewed development from the perspective of Western (especially American) policymaking elites and saw it in terms of Cold War dynamics, there were some who dissented from this general disposition. Perhaps the most significant opposition came from Africanist historians, who approached the history of development from the vantage point of the political economy of colonialism. In different ways, the scholarship of Michael Cowen and Robert Shenton on the one hand, and Frederick Cooper on the other, made the case for moving past the post-1945 “age of development” consensus by examining both the earlier roots and deeper complexities of development’s history. By way of closing Part I of this extended essay, then, it might be useful to conclude with a comparison of a set of transitional texts written by Cowen and Shenton and Cooper in the mid-1990s. Though they chronologically fall within the first wave of development histories, they anticipate many of the key programmatic themes of more recent literature. Their work, thus, stands as a necessary bridge to cross to reach the post-9/11 phase of development historiography that the sequel to this essay takes up.

Cowen and Shenton’s academic partnership began with their shared interest in the history of Fabian colonialism in Africa, which reached its high water mark with the postwar Labour government’s colonial development offensive in response to the 1947 sterling crisis. They came to realize, however, “that the conceptual roots of the intention to develop had to be understood before we could give an account of the historical practice of development in Africa. Development practice in Africa could not be separated from what was purported to be development in Britain itself.” 115 The result of their intellectual detour was a series of related articles and a densely written but nevertheless pathbreaking study entitled, simply, Doctrines of Development. Their research situates the genesis and invention of development not in 1949 with President Truman, but in nineteenth-century Western Europe. 116 This nineteenth-century conception of development, according to Cowen and Shenton, can be followed through various iterations: from the question of how to govern India under the British Raj, to the national ideal of development in Australia and Canada in the mid-nineteenth century, to the fin-de-siècle imperial ambitions of Joseph Chamberlain as a way of resolving “underdevelopment” in Britain itself, to the negation of Chamberlainite development in Africa (in the form of the failed Fabian colonial offensive of 1947–50) and its replacement in Kenya by the postwar practice of agrarian development as a way of alleviating unemployment caused by surplus population.

The work of Frederick Cooper also challenged the primacy of the Cold War genesis of ideas about development and modernization. Instead of Truman’s Point Four, Cooper finds the source of many contemporary development policies and projects in the planning and interventionist practices introduced by various colonial states in the 1930s and 1940s. In an extensive study of the labor question in late colonial Africa, as well as in an influential edited collection produced with Randall Packard, Cooper makes the case for linking the crises of late colonialism with the emergence of development as a global project. 117 According to Cooper and Packard, “The form of the development idea that captured the imagination of many people across the world from the 1940s onward had quite specific origins—in the crisis of colonial empires . . . What was new in the colonial world of the late 1930s and 1940s was that the concept of development became a framing device bringing together a range of interventionist policies and metropolitan finance with the explicit goal of raising colonial standards of living.” 118

More than any other scholar, Cooper has been instrumental in drawing attention to the colonial roots of postwar development thinking. At the same time, Cooper’s main concern has been to locate the development initiative in the imperial crisis of the 1930s and 1940s, and as such he pays only passing attention to comparable crises and debates that transpired earlier. For Cowen and Shenton, on the other hand, the 1940s development concept was not the beginning but rather the crest of a much older and multilayered debate. As noted above, they contend that this more extensive intellectual genealogy needs to be delineated if the reasons behind the current impasse in development are to be understood. Unlike most scholars who routinely trace the conceptual heritage of development back to the Enlightenment’s belief in infinite progress or improvement, Cowen and Shenton suggest instead that the starting point for the modern intention to develop is more accurately found in the reaction to Enlightenment. They insist that the idea of development as a means by which the state could impose order on society emerged first in Europe in the early nineteenth-century, not as the equivalent of progress but “as the counterpoint to progress . . . based upon the idea that `development’ may be used to ameliorate the disordered faults of progress.” 119

Despite their different starting points, Cooper agrees with Cowen and Shenton that development discourse was conceived in response to real-life material contradictions and crises, and should not be dismissed as a sui generis or idealist fabrication. For Cooper, it is the crises of the Great Depression, followed by World War II, that form the key political-economic context. The depression of the 1930s had a profound impact on the colonial world, much of which was made up of primary commodity producing regions. The collapse of exports triggered a sharp fall in overall wage employment and rates, resulting in a dramatic decline in real incomes and living standards for colonial wage-earners as the cost of food, imported goods, and urban rents rose sharply. World War II exacerbated the situation, generating new pressures for the mobilization of colonial resources that drastically reduced local consumption thanks to higher taxes and cut imports. Social unrest in the form of strikes, riots and disturbances erupted throughout the colonies in the wake of the depression, and continued to spread in waves across the vital ports and communication centers of empire during the war. 120

These crises marked a critical stage in the colonial encounter, setting off a far-reaching process of official introspection and restructuring. Significantly, Cooper argues, both French and British governments confronted the upsurge of strikes and riots in the colonies not as a “labor problem” directly, but rather as a quandary of technical planning. British colonial officials and experts in particular attempted to assert control over the “labor question” by subsuming it under the framework of development and welfare. “Centralisation,” Cooper observes, “was justified in the name of British scientific knowledge and the need for coordination rather than by the opposition of class interests.” 121 The decisive breakthrough in the development idea, according to Cooper, came with the passing of the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940. For the first time, officials at the Colonial Office recognized the need for subventions of imperial funding not only to build infrastructure and boost production but also to provide social services and to elevate the standards of living of colonial subjects. For France, the 1940s also brought about a symbolic, though less decisive, break with past policies. In 1946 it created the Fonds d’investissement pour le développement économique et social (FIDES), which provided matching metropolitan funding to colonial states to undertake programs of social and economic development. What Cooper demonstrates most clearly is that development as official doctrine was adopted by Imperial Britain and France prior to President Truman’s embrace of the idea in 1949. What is more, it was taken up with the intent of forestalling popular discontent and thus providing European colonial rule a new lease on life and legitimacy, not for the sake of a Cold War-inspired, anticommunist alternative to imperialism.

Crisis also lies at the heart of Cowen and Shenton’s analysis, only in their case it is the economic crises and social turmoil that gripped early industrial England and France that form the essential backdrop. The turmoil and disorder of early industrialization appeared to confirm Malthus’s pessimism that surplus population would lead to scarcity, and in turn, unemployment and immiseration of the poor. It was here, amidst the fear of revolution and anarchy springing from the crisis of surplus population and growing popular discontent that, Cowen and Shenton contend, the idea of development was born. Beginning with the Saint-Simonians and Auguste Comte in France, and adapted by J.S. Mill in England, an idea of development was formulated that attempted to reconcile progress with order. Central to this was the principle of “trusteeship” as the political means of “development.” Only if those who understood the laws of social order and who possessed the scientific knowledge of how to make progress orderly were able to act as “trustees” for humanity would the application of positivist science be realised and the improvement of progress follow. 122 When the idea of intentional development is linked to the agency of the state and forms the basis of state policy, Cowen and Shenton surmise, it becomes a “doctrine of development.”

Much more could be written about this richly complex book, a substantial part of which is taken up with examining various manifestations of development doctrine. Despite their contrarian positioning, however, there is a sense in which Cowen and Shenton’s work remains very much a product of the time in which it was written, and thus open to many of the same criticisms made of the first phase of development historiography. Its frame of reference remains firmly fixed on the metropolitan center and on a European intellectual ambiance. Development for Cowen and Shenton is a quintessentially and unapologetically Eurocentric conception. It is also—by its very nature as a Eurocentric idea—depicted by Cowen and Shenton as something conceived by and for intellectual and political elites.

But despite their constricted lens, Cowen and Shenton’s book should nonetheless be credited for anticipating some of the pivotal thematic concerns of more recent historical writing on development. Like Cooper’s more focused investigation of late colonialism in Africa, their thick empirical description and theoretical “genealogy” of the European origins of state-led development practices challenged the widely accepted view at the time that development was the invention of a post-1945 American world order designed primarily with the imperatives of the Cold War in mind. Taken together, the work of Cowen and Shenton and Cooper opened up the possibility of a much more firmly rooted and deeply complex history of development, one that would examine not just the European backdrop but also the colonial antecedents and afterlives of many postwar development policies. It is these themes of a “longer” and “deeper” (as well as a more broadly conceived) history of development that have come to mark the field over the last decade or so. It is these themes that form the subject of the second part of this essay, the bulk of which is devoted to analysing the historiographical moves that followed in the wake of the the dramatic events of September 11, 2001.

I would like to thank Nils Gilman for commissioning this essay and assisting with its gestation, and two external reviewers for their comments.

  • Wolfgang Sachs, “Introduction,” in The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power , ed. Wolfgang Sachs (London: Zed Books, 1992), 1.
  • Frederick Cooper, “Writing the History of Development,” Journal of Modern European History 8, no. 1 (2010): 5–23; Corinna Unger, “Histories of Development and Modernization: Findings, Reflections, Future Research,” in H-Soz-u-Kult , September 12, 2010, accessed June 21, 2015,; Marc Frey and Sönke Kunkel, “Writing the History of Development: A Review of Recent Literature,” Contemporary European History 20, no. 2 (May 2011): 215–32; Daniel Immerwahr, “Modernization and Development in U.S. Foreign Relations,” Passport: The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review 43, no. 2 (2012): 22–25.
  • Nick Cullather, “Development? It’s History,” Diplomatic History 24, no. 4 (Fall 2000): 462.
  • Colin Leys, Rise and Fall of Development Theory (London: James Murray, 1996), 25.
  • Robert Bates, “Lessons from History, or the Perfidy of English Exceptionalism and the Significance of Historical France,” World Politics 40, no. 4 (July 1988): 499.
  • W.W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960). In many ways, Rostow’s entire academic agenda can be viewed as an exercise in applying economic theory to economic history. As an undergraduate, Rostow majored in history at Yale before attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He wrote his doctoral thesis on British trade fluctuations in the nineteenth century, and he returned to England several times, first as a professor of American history at Oxford, 1946–47, and Cambridge, 1949–50, and then again on a year’s sabbatical to Cambridge in 1958 where he lectured on the process of industrialization. From 1950 until 1961, Rostow was a professor of economic history, as well as a member of the Center for International Studies (CENIS), at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. See Walt Whitman Rostow, “Development: The Political Economy of the Marshallian Long Period,” in Pioneers in Development , ed. Gerald M. Meier and Dudley Seers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 229–61.
  • This is especially true for critics of Rostovian modernization theory such as Paul Baran, Alexander Gerschenkron, Andre Gunder Frank, and Walter Rodney, to name just a few, who criticized the basic assumption that there exists a single, linear pattern of economic growth through which all societies progress and can be classified according to their position on the historical spectrum. See Paul Baran, The Political Economy of Growth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957), and The Longer View: Essays toward a Critique of Political Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969); Alexander Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective: A Book of Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962), Andre Gunder Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967); Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1972).
  • Rob Jenkins, “Where Development Meets History,” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 44, no. 1 (March 2006): 10–13.
  • M. Kenny and D. Williams, “What Do We Know about Economic Growth? Or, Why Don’t We Know Very Much?,” World Development 29, no. 1 (2001): 1–22; Michael Woolcock, Simon Szreter, and Vijayendra Rao, “How and Why Does History Matter for Development Policy?,” Brooks World Poverty Institute Working Paper 68, University of Manchester, 2009.
  • Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James R. Robinson, “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation,” American Economic Review 91, no. 5 (December 2001): 1369–401.
  • See, for example, David B. Abernethy, The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415–1980 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000); Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (London: Penguin Books, 2005); Gita Subrahmanyam, “Ruling Continuities: Colonial Rule, Social Forces and Path Dependence in British India and Africa,” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 44, no. 1 (March 2006): 84–117; Matthew Lange, Legacies of Despotism and Development: British Colonialism and State Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  • Cullather, “Development? It’s History,” 642.
  • Robert Nisbet, Social Change and History: Aspects of the Western Theory of Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), and History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980).
  • See H. W. Arndt, “Development Economics before 1945,” in Development and Planning: Essays in Honor of Paul N. Rosenstein-Rodan , ed. Jagdish Bhagwati and Richard S. Eckaus (London: Allen and Unwin, 1972), 13–29; Arndt, “Economic Development: A Semantic History,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 29, no. 3 (April 1981): 457–66; Arndt, Economic Development: The History of an Idea (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). Another early historical survey of development economics, written around the same time as Arndt’s and Hirschman’s, was Paul Streeten, “Development Ideas in Historical Perspective,” in Toward a New Strategy for Development , Rothko Chapel Colloquium (New York: Pergamon Press, 1979), 21–52.
  • Albert O. Hirshman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977); Hirschman, “The Rise and Decline of Development Economics,” in Albert O. Hirschman, Essays in Trespassing: Economics to Politics and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 1–24.
  • Albert O. Hirschman, “A Dissenter’s Confession: `The Strategy of Economic Development’ Revisited,” in Pioneers in Development , ed. Gerald M. Meier and Dudley Seers (New York: Oxford University Press/ IBRD, 1984), 96–98.
  • Another important contribution, published around the same time as Hirschman’s and Arndt’s work, was the World Bank–sponsored retrospective of ten pioneer development economists who wrote many of the central books, articles, and official reports that shaped the field during the formative period of the late 1940s and 1950s. In addition to Hirschman, noted above, the “pioneers” included in the volume are P. T. Bauer, Colin Clark, W. Arthur Lewis, Gunnar Myrdal, Raúl Prebisch, Paul N. Rosenstein-Rodan, Walt Whitman Rostow, H.W. Singer, and Jan Tinbergen. See Gerald M. Meier and Dudley Seers, eds. Pioneers in Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).
  • Robert A. Packenham, Liberal America and the Third World: Political Development Ideas in Foreign Aid and Social Science (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973); Irene L. Gendzier, Managing Political Change: Social Scientists and the Third World (London: Westview Press, 1985).
  • Packenham, Liberal America and the Third World , 6.
  • Ibid., 111–60.
  • Gendzier, Managing Political Change , 49.
  • Ibid., 3–4.
  • Arndt, Economic Development , 177.
  • Email correspondence with Nils Gilman, September 14, 2012. The metaphor, of course, is taken from the nineteenth-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who famously wrote, “The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk,” by which he meant that philosophy only comes to understand a historical epoch in hindsight, after it has passed.
  • Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).
  • Eric Helleiner, “From Bretton Woods to Global Finance: A World Turned Upside Down,” in Political Economy and the Changing Global Order , ed. Richard Stubbs and Geoffrey R. D. Underhill (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1994), 163–75.
  • The major exceptions to this trend were the Newly Industrializing Countries (NICs) of Southeast Asia (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong), which together accounted for almost half of all Third World exports of manufactures between 1980 and 1992, and China and India, who also grew faster in the 1980s. See P.W. Preston, Development Theory: An Introduction (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), chaps. 13 and 14.
  • Helleiner, “From Bretton Woods to Global Finance,” 170.
  • Michael P. Todaro and Stephen C. Smith, Economic Development , 8th ed. (Boston, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 2002), 128–32. See, for example, Ian Little, Economic Development: Theories, Policies, and International Relations (New York: Basic Books, 1982); Deepak Lal, The Poverty of Development Economics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985); Polly Hill, Development Economics on Trial: The Anthropological Case for a Prosecution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  • P. T. Bauer, Equality, the Third World and Economic Delusion (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981), chap. 5. See also P. T. Bauer, Dissent on Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972); Bauer, Reality and Rhetoric: Studies in the Economics of Development (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984).
  • Chistopher Colclough and James Manor, eds., States or Markets? Neo-Liberalism and the Development Policy Debate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).
  • John Toye, Dilemmas of Development: Reflections on the Counter-Revolution in Development Economics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987).
  • See, for example, Douglas North, Structure and Change in Economic History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981); Jon Elster, ed., Rational Choice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986); Robert Bates, ed., Toward a Political Economy of Development: A Rational Choice Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Bates, Beyond the Miracle of the Market (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Bates, “Social Dilemmas and Rational Individuals: An Assessment of the New Institutionalism,” in The New Institutional Economics and Third World Development , ed. John Hariss et al. (London: Routledge, 1995); Pranab Bardhan, ed., The Economic Theory of Agrarian Institutions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
  • Leys, Rise and Fall of Development Theory , 25–26. See also Gavin Williams, “Modernizing Malthus: The World Bank, Population Control, and the African Environment,” in The Power of Development ed. Jonathan Crush (New York: Routledge, 1995), 170.
  • See, for example, Frans J. Schuurman, ed., Beyond the Impasse: New Directions in Development Theory (London: Zed Books, 1993); Norman Long, “From Paradigm Lost to Paradigm Regained? The Case for an Actor-Oriented Sociology of Development,” in Battlefields of Knowledge: The Interlocking of Theory and Practice in Social Research and Development , ed. Norman and Ann Long (New York: Routledge, 1994), 16–46; M. J. Griesgraber and B. G. Gunter, eds., Development: New Paradigms and Principles for the 21st Century (London: Pluto, 1996); Ronald Munck and Denis O’Hearn, eds., Critical Development Theory: Contributions to a New Paradigm (London: Zed Books, 1999).
  • Leys, Rise and Fall of Development Theory , 23–24. See also Michael Watts, “`A New Deal in Emotions’: Theory and Practice and the Crisis of Development,” in Crush, ed., Power of Development , 58.
  • For some of the most important works of the postdevelopment genre, see Claude Alvares, Science, Development and Violence: The Revolt against Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995); Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash, “Beyond Development, What?,” Development in Practice 8, no. 3 (August 1998): 280–96; Ashis Nandy, ed., Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Gilbert Rist, The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith (London: Zed Books, 1997); Sachs, The Development Dictionary ; Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (London: Zed Books, 1988).
  • Rajni Kothari, Rethinking Development: In Search of Humane Alternatives (Delhi: Ajanta, 1988); F. Appfel Marglin and S. A. Marglin, eds., Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture, and Resistance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); Sachs, The Development Dictionary ; Richard Norgaard, Development Betrayed: The End of Progress and a Coevolutionary Revisioning of the Future (London: Routledge 1994); Arturo Escobar, “Imagining a Post-Development Era,” in Crush, ed., Power of Development , 211–27; Majid Rahnema and Victoria Bawtree, Post-Development Reader (London: Zed, 1997).
  • See, for example, Arun Agrawal, “Poststructuralist Approaches to Development: Some Critical Reflections,” Peace & Change 21, no. 4 (October 1996): 464–77.
  • Watts, “`A New Deal in Emotions,'” 47.
  • See Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard, eds., International Development and the Social Sciences (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 3–4; Jan Nederveen Pieterse, “My Paradigm or Yours? Alternative Development, Post-Development, Reflexive Development,” Development and Change 29, no. 2 (April 1998): 343–73; Ray Kiely, “The Last Refuge of the Noble Savage? A Critical Assessment of Post-Development Theory,” European Journal of Development Research 11, no. 1 (June 1999): 30–55; Michael Watts, “Development at the Millennium: Malthus, Marx and the Politics of Alternatives,” Geographische Zeitschrift 88, no. 2 (2000): 67–93.
  • Pieterse, “My Paradigm or Yours?” 364.
  • Watts, “`A New Deal in Emotions,'” 45.
  • Tom Brass, “The Agrarian Myth, the `New’ Populism and the `New Right,” Economic and Political Weekly , January 25–31, 1997; Brass, Peasants, Populism and Postmodernism: The Return of the Agrarian Myth (London: Frank Cass, 2000); Brass, “Scott’s `Zomia,’ or a Populist Post-modern History of Nowhere,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 42, no. 1 (2012): 123–33.
  • My position is similar to that of Stuart Hall, who has described, with penetrating insight, the political history of Britain since the 1970s as the “neoliberal revolution.” “Each crisis since the 1970s,” Hall explains, “has looked different, arising from specific historical circumstances. However, taken together, they seem to share some consistent underlying features. . . . Paradoxically, opposed political regimes all contributed in different ways to expanding this project.” See Stuart Hall, “The Neo-Liberal Revolution,” Soundings 48 (Summer 2011): 9–10.
  • James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  • See Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine , xiv–xvi.
  • See, for example, Arturo Escobar, “Discourse and Power in Development: Michel Foucault and the Relevance of his Work to the Third World,” Alternatives 10, no. 3 (1984): 377–400; Escobar, Encountering Development .
  • One of the main differences between Ferguson and Escobar is how they see development arising. For Ferguson, specific ideas about development are generated in practice and their primary goal is to neutralize poverty by depoliticizing it. In contrast, for Escobar, development is first conceived in the minds of policymakers in Washington or London and then later imposed, top down, on the Third World. In Escobar’s view, poverty is a myth. It does not exist prior to this moment but is invented as an object of intervention by the West.
  • Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine , 256.
  • In terms of postcolonial theory and postdevelopment studies, some of the most influential works by Foucault include The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Routledge, 1972); Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1977); Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977 , ed. Colin Gordon, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980); and “Governmentality,” in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality , ed. Graham Burchell et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 87–104.
  • Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978), 3. See also Edward W. Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983); and Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).
  • The term “imaginary of development” is taken from Jonathan Crush. See Crush, “Introduction: Imagining Development,” in Crush, ed., Power of Development , 7.
  • Gilbert Rist, The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith (London: Zed Books, 1997); Crush, ed., Power of Development.
  • The influence of postcolonial studies scholars such as Dipesh Chakrabarty is quite evident here. See Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for `Indian’ Pasts?,” Representations 37 (Winter 1992): 1–26; Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000). Provincializing or demythologizing development by exposing it as a Eurocentric discourse is an idea that runs throughout the critical literature of the 1990s. See, for example, Ozay Mehmet, Westernizing the Third World: The Eurocentricity of Economic Development Theories (New York: Routledge, 1995); Vincent Tucker, “The Myth of Development: A Critique of a Eurocentric Discourse,” in Critical Development Theory , 1–26.
  • Rist, The History of Development , 4.
  • In this respect, Rist’s work is not all that different from earlier studies by Nisbet and Arndt, who also surveyed the key ideas and moments in Western thinking about progress and development. Escobar’s approach is more theoretical, and his periodization is far more truncated, but he too conceptualizes development “as a chapter of what can be called an anthropology of modernity, that is, a general investigation of Western modernity as a culturally and historically specific phenomenon.” See Escobar, Encountering Development , 11.
  • Crush, “Introduction: Imagining Development,” in Crush, ed., Power of Development , 5.
  • “One of the principal ways practitioners, bureaucrats, and policy makers articulate and make sense of [development’s] uncertainty is to tell stories or scenarios that simplify the ambiguity . . . broad explanatory narratives that can be operationalized into standard approaches with widespread application.” See Emery Roe, “Development Narratives, or Making the Best of Blueprint Development,” World Development 19, no. 4 (April 1991): 288.
  • Timothy Mitchell, “The Object of Development: America’s Egypt,” in Crush, ed., Power of Development , 130.
  • Watts, “`A New Deal in Emotions,'”46–47. For Marx’s view on capitalist transformation and modernity, see Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982).
  • Daniel Immerwahr makes a similar argument, describing the decade or so following Michael Latham’s Modernization as Ideology “as marking the first wave of writing on U.S. development.” See Immerwahr, “Modernization and Development in U.S. Foreign Relations,” 23.
  • Michael Latham’s Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Nils Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).
  • Latham, Modernization as Ideology , 5.
  • Gilman, Mandarins of the Future , 3.
  • Latham, Modernization as Ideology , 15–16; Gilman, Mandarins of the Future , 8, 28, 30.
  • Latham, Modernization as Ideology , 13–17.
  • Gilman , Mandarins of the Future , 16.
  • Ibid., 16–17.
  • To give just a sampling, we might mention Alberto Arce and Norman Long, who have raised the importance of multiple modernities, countertendencies, and the appropriation, “fragmentation and dispersal of modernity into constantly proliferating modernities.” Suzanne Bergeron has also highlighted the fragmentary nature of development and is one of the few scholars to integrate gender into her analytical framework. Benjamin Zacharia has provided us with a fascinating account of nationalist debates surrounding notions of development in India in the late colonial period. These are all worthwhile investigations that have enriched our understanding of development. Yet all of these authors continue to define and examine development primarily on the level of ideas, concepts, texts, etc. See Alberto Arce and Norman Long, “Reconfiguring Modernity and Development from an Anthropological Perspective,” in Anthropology, Development, Modernities: Exploring Discourse, Counter-Tendencies and Violence , ed. Alberto Arce and Norman Long (London: Routledge, 2000); Suzanne Bergeron, Fragments of Development: Nation, Gender, and the Space of Modernity (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004); Benjamin Zacharia, Developing India: An Intellectual and Social History, c. 1930–50 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • Most of those whose work falls within the poststructuralist rubric hold similar views to Escobar’s. See, for example, Alvares, Science, Development and Violence ; Kothari, Rethinking Development ; Sachs, The Development Dictionary ; Shiva, Staying Alive .
  • It also requires, according to Scott, a poorly defined or severely constrained civil society that is unable to effectively resist the designs of the state to exert its will. See Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 88–89.
  • Escobar, Encountering Development , 41.
  • Tana Murray Li, for example, argues that the concept of conspiracy is implicit in Escobar’s critique of development. See Tana Murray Li, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007), 287, n. 22. Also see Arun Agrawal, “Poststructuralist Approaches to Development: Some Critical Reflections ,” Peace and Change 21, no. 4 (October 1996): 464–77.
  • Scott, Seeing Like a State , 4–5, 88–90.
  • Michael Lipton, Why Poor People Stay Poor: Urban Bias in World Development (London: Temple Smith, 1977); Robert Chambers, Rural Development: Putting the Last First (Harlow: Longman, 1983); Paul Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution: Ecology and Food Production in West Africa (London: Hutchinson, 1985).
  • Scott, Seeing Like a State , 262–306.
  • Escobar, Encountering Development , 17.
  • If anything, this theme has become even more pronounced in Scott’s more recent writing. See James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Southeast Asia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009). For a scathing critique of the book, see Tom Brass, “Review Article: Scott’s `Zomia,’ or a Populist Post-modern History of Nowhere,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 42, no. 1 (February 2012): 123–33.
  • Agrawal, “Poststructuralist Approaches to Development,” 476.
  • See Escobar, Encountering Development , 42.
  • Mark B. Tauger, “The Moral Agronomy of the Peasant v. the Moral Economy of the Town,” review of James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State , H-Net Reviews, April 1999.
  • See Brass, “Scott’s `Zomia’ or a Populist Post-modern History of Nowhere,” 126.
  • Agrawal, “Poststructuralist Approaches to Development,” 475.
  • Dane Kennedy, “Imperial History and Post-Colonial Theory,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 24, no. 3 (September 1996): 353. A similar critique is made by Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard. See Cooper and Packard, “Introduction,” in International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge , ed. Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 10.
  • Scott, Seeing Like a State , 186–87.
  • Cowen and Shenton, Doctrines of Development , viii–ix.
  • Scott, Seeing Like a State , 6.
  • David Ekbladh , Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010).
  • Ibid., 255–56.
  • Nils Gilman, review of David Ekbladh, The Great American Mission , H-Diplo Roundtable Review 11, no. 35 (2010): 9, accessed July 21, 2015,


  • Brad Simpson, review of Ekbladh, The Great American Mission , H-Diplo Roundtable Review 11, no. 35 (2010): 15.
  • Corinna R. Unger, review of Ekbladh, The Great American Mission , H-Diplo Roundtable Review 11, no. 35 (2010): 25.
  • Escobar, Encountering Development , 31–39. Wolfgang Sachs’s position is almost identical to Escobar’s: “We propose to call the age of development that particular historical period which began on January 20, 1949, when Harry S. Truman for the first time declared, in his inauguration speech, the Southern Hemisphere as `underdeveloped areas.’ The label stuck and subsequently provided the cognitive base for both arrogant interventionism from the North and pathetic self-pity in the South.” See Sachs, “Introduction,” in The Development Dictionary , 2.
  • Rist, The History of Development , 72–73.
  • Escobar, Encountering Development , 33–34.
  • David B. Moore, “Development Discourse as Hegemony: Towards an Ideological History, 1945–1995,” in Debating Development Discourse: Institutional and Popular Perspectives , ed. David B. Moore and Gerald G. Schmitz (London: Macmillan, 1995). Another example is Philip McMichael’s Development and Social Change , in which he writes: “The proclamation by President Truman divided the world discursively between those who were modern and `developed,’ and those who were not. Modern became the standard against which other societies were judged. This was a new way of looking at the world. It assumed that with the end of colonialism the `underdeveloped’ world had only to follow the example of the `modern’ world. This new paradigm produced a strategy for improving the condition of the Third World. It is the premise for what we shall call the development project .” See Philip McMichael, Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective (Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Pine Forge Press, 1996), 24.
  • Moore, “Development Discourse as Hegemony,” 22.
  • Another historian who has written on the deeper origins of American modernization ideas and practices is Michael Adas. See Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), 402–18; Adas, “Modernization Theory and the American Revival of the Scientific and Technological Standards of Social Achievement and Human Worth,” in Staging Growth: Modernization, Development, and the Global Cold War , ed. David C. Engerman et al. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), 25–46.
  • See Latham, Modernization as Ideology , 1–5, 23–30.
  • Gilman, Mandarins of the Future , 16, 34, 38–39
  • Matthew Connelly, “Taking Off the Cold War Lens: Visions of North-South Conflict during the Algerian War of Independence,” American Historical Review 105, no. 3 (June 2000): 739–69.
  • Correspondence with Nils Gilman, September 14, 2012.
  • See Esteva, “Development,” and Escobar, “Planning,” in The Development Dictionary , 6–25; 132–45. The ambivalence toward and neglect of the agency behind discourse is a common weakness of poststructuralist approaches in general and is rooted in Foucault’s conception of power as grid-like ubiquitous and all encompassing. See Kiely, “The Last Refuge of the Noble Savage?,” 36–37.
  • As Escobar writes: “The development economist played a special role in this new universe of discourse. To him (he was almost invariably a male) belonged the expertise that was most avidly sought; it was he who knew what was needed, he who decided on the most efficient way to allocate scarce resources, he who presided over the table at which—as if they were his personal entourage—demographers, educators, urban planners, nutritionists, agricultural experts, and so many other development practitioners sat in order to mend the world . . . The system as a whole rested on the economist’s shoulders.” See Escobar, Encountering Development , 85.
  • Cowen and Shenton, Doctrines of Development , x.
  • Ibid. See also M.P. Cowen and R.W. Shenton, “The Origin and Course of Fabian Colonialism in Africa,” Journal of Historical Sociology 4, no. 2 (June 1991): 143–74; Cowen and Shenton, “The Invention of Development,” in Crush, ed., Power of Development , 27–43; Cowen and Shenton, “Agrarian Doctrines of Development: Part I,” Journal of Peasant Studies 25, no. 2 (January 1998): 49–76; Cowen and Shenton, “Agrarian Doctrines of Development: Part II,” Journal of Peasant Studies 25, no. 3 (April 1998): 31–62.
  • Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Cooper, “Modernizing Bureaucrats, Backward Africans, and the Development Concept,” in International Development and the Social Sciences , ed. Cooper and Packard, 64–92.
  • Cooper and Packard, “Introduction,” in International Development and the Social Sciences , ed. Cooper and Packard, 7.
  • Cowen and Shenton, Doctrines of Development , 7.
  • Cooper, Decolonization and African Society , chap. 4.
  • Ibid., 68–69.
  • Cowen and Shenton, Doctrines of Development , 34–35.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Current Issue

research and development historical background

Our long-awaited issue of Humanity journal is out! Its special dossier, Iran under Sanctions, examines the myriad and devastating impacts of international sanctions on society, culture, and politics. The issue includes an essay on the legal case  Herero and Nama v. The Federal Republic of Germany  to theorize reparations for German colonialism and slavery as they became linked with the aftermath of the Shoah. It also includes essays on T.H. Marshall and the right of access to justice; visual representations of Armenian genocide survivors; and, the concept of radical friendship in relation to the Farmers’ Protests in India.

Humanity Follow

An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development


📘'Choose Your Bearing: Édouard Glissant, Human Rights and Decolonial Ethics' is now available for pre-order! ❕Grab your copy and save 30% OFF using the code NEW30 at checkout : @HumanityJ


Human Rights, Revolutionary Humanitarianism, and African Liberation in 1970, from Meredith Terretta @MTerretta

The Jurisprudence of Decolonization, from Rohit De @itihaasnaama

Harvard’s “Project Tanganyika” and a Nodal Perspective on Decolonization’s Itineraries, from Andrew Ivaska

Login Status

  • University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Research Guides
  • Introduction to Historical Research

Introduction to Historical Research : Home

  • Archival sources
  • Multimedia sources
  • Newspapers and other periodicals
  • Biographical Information
  • Government documents

Subject-Specialist Librarians

There are librarians on campus that can help you with your specific area of research.

Subject Librarian Directory Subject-specialist/ liaison librarians are willing to help you with anything from coming up with research strategies to locating sources.

Ask a Librarian

or click for more options ...

This guide is an introduction to selected resources available for historical research.  It covers both primary sources (such as diaries, letters, newspaper articles, photographs, government documents and first-hand accounts) and secondary materials (such as books and articles written by historians and devoted to the analysis and interpretation of historical events and evidence).

"Research in history involves developing an understanding of the past through the examination and interpretation of evidence. Evidence may exist in the form of texts, physical remains of historic sites, recorded data, pictures, maps, artifacts, and so on. The historian’s job is to find evidence, analyze its content and biases, corroborate it with further evidence, and use that evidence to develop an interpretation of past events that holds some significance for the present.

Historians use libraries to

  • locate primary sources (first-hand information such as diaries, letters, and original documents) for evidence
  • find secondary sources (historians’ interpretations and analyses of historical evidence)
  • verify factual material as inconsistencies arise"

( Research and Documentation in the Electronic Age, Fifth Edition, by Diana Hacker and Barbara Fister, Bedford/St. Martin, 2010)

This guide is meant to help you work through these steps.

Other helpful guides

This is a list of other historical research guides you may find helpful:

  • Learning Historical Research Learning to Do Historical Research: A Primer for Environmental Historians and Others by William Cronon and his students, University of Wisconsin A website designed as a basic introduction to historical research for anyone and everyone who is interested in exploring the past.
  • Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students by Patrick Rael, Bowdoin College Guide to all aspects of historical scholarship—from reading a history book to doing primary source research to writing a history paper.
  • Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates Rutgers History Department guide to writing historical essays
  • History Study Guides History study guides created by the Carleton College History Department

Profile Photo

  • Next: Books >>
  • Last Updated: Mar 4, 2024 12:48 PM
  • URL:

Oxford Martin School logo

The brief history of artificial intelligence: The world has changed fast – what might be next?

Despite their brief history, computers and ai have fundamentally changed what we see, what we know, and what we do. little is as important for the future of the world, and our own lives, as how this history continues..

To see what the future might look like, it is often helpful to study our history. This is what I will do in this article. I retrace the brief history of computers and artificial intelligence to see what we can expect for the future.

How did we get here?

How rapidly the world has changed becomes clear by how even quite recent computer technology feels ancient today. Mobile phones in the ‘90s were big bricks with tiny green displays. Two decades before that, the main storage for computers was punch cards.

In a short period, computers evolved so quickly and became such an integral part of our daily lives that it is easy to forget how recent this technology is. The first digital computers were only invented about eight decades ago, as the timeline shows.

research and development historical background

Since the early days of this history, some computer scientists have strived to make machines as intelligent as humans. The next timeline shows some of the notable artificial intelligence (AI) systems and describes what they were capable of.

The first system I mention is the Theseus. It was built by Claude Shannon in 1950 and was a remote-controlled mouse that was able to find its way out of a labyrinth and could remember its course. 1 In seven decades, the abilities of artificial intelligence have come a long way.

research and development historical background

The language and image recognition capabilities of AI systems have developed very rapidly

The chart shows how we got here by zooming into the last two decades of AI development. The plotted data stems from a number of tests in which human and AI performance were evaluated in different domains, from handwriting recognition to language understanding.

Within each of the domains, the initial performance of the AI system is set to –100, and human performance in these tests is used as a baseline set to zero. This means that when the model’s performance crosses the zero line is when the AI system scored more points in the relevant test than the humans who did the same test. 2

Just 10 years ago, no machine could reliably provide language or image recognition at a human level. But, as the chart shows, AI systems have become steadily more capable and are now beating humans in tests in all these domains. 3

Outside of these standardized tests, the performance of these AIs is mixed. In some real-world cases, these systems are still performing much worse than humans. On the other hand, some implementations of such AI systems are already so cheap that they are available on the phone in your pocket: image recognition categorizes your photos and speech recognition transcribes what you dictate.

From image recognition to image generation

The previous chart showed the rapid advances in the perceptive abilities of artificial intelligence. AI systems have also become much more capable of generating images.

This series of nine images shows the development over the last nine years. None of the people in these images exist; all were generated by an AI system.

The series begins with an image from 2014 in the top left, a primitive image of a pixelated face in black and white. As the first image in the second row shows, just three years later, AI systems were already able to generate images that were hard to differentiate from a photograph.

In recent years, the capability of AI systems has become much more impressive still. While the early systems focused on generating images of faces, these newer models broadened their capabilities to text-to-image generation based on almost any prompt. The image in the bottom right shows that even the most challenging prompts – such as “A Pomeranian is sitting on the King’s throne wearing a crown. Two tiger soldiers are standing next to the throne” – are turned into photorealistic images within seconds. 5

Timeline of images generated by artificial intelligence 4

research and development historical background

Language recognition and production is developing fast

Just as striking as the advances of image-generating AIs is the rapid development of systems that parse and respond to human language.

Shown in the image are examples from an AI system developed by Google called PaLM. In these six examples, the system was asked to explain six different jokes. I find the explanation in the bottom right particularly remarkable: the AI explains an anti-joke specifically meant to confuse the listener.

AIs that produce language have entered our world in many ways over the last few years. Emails get auto-completed, massive amounts of online texts get translated, videos get automatically transcribed, school children use language models to do their homework, reports get auto-generated, and media outlets publish AI-generated journalism.

AI systems are not yet able to produce long, coherent texts. In the future, we will see whether the recent developments will slow down – or even end – or whether we will one day read a bestselling novel written by an AI.

Output of the AI system PaLM after being asked to interpret six different jokes 6

research and development historical background

Where we are now: AI is here

These rapid advances in AI capabilities have made it possible to use machines in a wide range of new domains:

When you book a flight, it is often an artificial intelligence, no longer a human, that decides what you pay. When you get to the airport, it is an AI system that monitors what you do at the airport. And once you are on the plane, an AI system assists the pilot in flying you to your destination.

AI systems also increasingly determine whether you get a loan , are eligible for welfare or get hired for a particular job. Increasingly they help determine who gets released from jail .

Several governments have purchased autonomous weapons systems for warfare, and some use AI systems for surveillance and oppression .

AI systems help to program the software you use and translate the texts you read. Virtual assistants , operated by speech recognition, have entered many households over the last decade. Now self-driving cars are becoming a reality.

In the last few years, AI systems helped to make progress on some of the hardest problems in science.

Large AIs called recommender systems determine what you see on social media, which products are shown to you in online shops, and what gets recommended to you on YouTube. Increasingly they are not just recommending the media we consume, but based on their capacity to generate images and texts, they are also creating the media we consume.

Artificial intelligence is no longer a technology of the future; AI is here, and much of what is reality now would have looked like sci-fi just recently. It is a technology that already impacts all of us, and the list above includes just a few of its many applications .

The wide range of listed applications makes clear that this is a very general technology that can be used by people for some extremely good goals – and some extraordinarily bad ones, too. For such “dual-use technologies”, it is important that all of us develop an understanding of what is happening and how we want the technology to be used.

Just two decades ago, the world was very different. What might AI technology be capable of in the future?

What is next?

The AI systems that we just considered are the result of decades of steady advances in AI technology.

The big chart below brings this history over the last eight decades into perspective. It is based on the dataset produced by Jaime Sevilla and colleagues. 7

The rise of artificial intelligence over the last 8 decades: As training computation has increased, AI systems have become more powerful 8

research and development historical background

Each small circle in this chart represents one AI system. The circle’s position on the horizontal axis indicates when the AI system was built, and its position on the vertical axis shows the amount of computation used to train the particular AI system.

Training computation is measured in floating point operations , or FLOP for short. One FLOP is equivalent to one addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division of two decimal numbers.

All AI systems that rely on machine learning need to be trained, and in these systems, training computation is one of the three fundamental factors that are driving the capabilities of the system. The other two factors are the algorithms and the input data used for the training. The visualization shows that as training computation has increased, AI systems have become more and more powerful.

The timeline goes back to the 1940s, the beginning of electronic computers. The first shown AI system is ‘Theseus’, Claude Shannon’s robotic mouse from 1950 that I mentioned at the beginning. Towards the other end of the timeline, you find AI systems like DALL-E and PaLM, whose abilities to produce photorealistic images and interpret and generate language we have just seen. They are among the AI systems that used the largest amount of training computation to date.

The training computation is plotted on a logarithmic scale so that from each grid line to the next, it shows a 100-fold increase. This long-run perspective shows a continuous increase. For the first six decades, training computation increased in line with Moore’s Law , doubling roughly every 20 months. Since about 2010, this exponential growth has sped up further, to a doubling time of just about 6 months. That is an astonishingly fast rate of growth. 9

The fast doubling times have accrued to large increases. PaLM’s training computation was 2.5 billion petaFLOP, more than 5 million times larger than AlexNet, the AI with the largest training computation just 10 years earlier. 10

Scale-up was already exponential and has sped up substantially over the past decade. What can we learn from this historical development for the future of AI?

Studying the long-run trends to predict the future of AI

AI researchers study these long-term trends to see what is possible in the future. 11

Perhaps the most widely discussed study of this kind was published by AI researcher Ajeya Cotra. She studied the increase in training computation to ask at what point the computation to train an AI system could match that of the human brain. The idea is that, at this point, the AI system would match the capabilities of a human brain. In her latest update, Cotra estimated a 50% probability that such “transformative AI” will be developed by the year 2040, less than two decades from now. 12

In a related article , I discuss what transformative AI would mean for the world. In short, the idea is that such an AI system would be powerful enough to bring the world into a ‘qualitatively different future’. It could lead to a change at the scale of the two earlier major transformations in human history, the agricultural and industrial revolutions. It would certainly represent the most important global change in our lifetimes.

Cotra’s work is particularly relevant in this context as she based her forecast on the kind of historical long-run trend of training computation that we just studied. But it is worth noting that other forecasters who rely on different considerations arrive at broadly similar conclusions. As I show in my article on AI timelines , many AI experts believe that there is a real chance that human-level artificial intelligence will be developed within the next decades, and some believe that it will exist much sooner.

Building a public resource to enable the necessary public conversation

Computers and artificial intelligence have changed our world immensely, but we are still in the early stages of this history. Because this technology feels so familiar, it is easy to forget that all of these technologies we interact with are very recent innovations and that the most profound changes are yet to come.

Artificial intelligence has already changed what we see, what we know, and what we do. This is despite the fact that this technology has had only a brief history.

There are no signs that these trends are hitting any limits anytime soon. On the contrary, particularly over the course of the last decade, the fundamental trends have accelerated: investments in AI technology have rapidly increased , and the doubling time of training computation has shortened to just six months.

All major technological innovations lead to a range of positive and negative consequences. This is already true of artificial intelligence. As this technology becomes more and more powerful, we should expect its impact to become greater still.

Because of the importance of AI, we should all be able to form an opinion on where this technology is heading and understand how this development is changing our world. For this purpose, we are building a repository of AI-related metrics, which you can find on .

We are still in the early stages of this history, and much of what will become possible is yet to come. A technological development as powerful as this should be at the center of our attention. Little might be as important for how the future of our world – and the future of our lives – will play out.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank my colleagues Natasha Ahuja, Daniel Bachler, Julia Broden, Charlie Giattino, Bastian Herre, Edouard Mathieu, and Ike Saunders for their helpful comments to drafts of this essay and their contributions in preparing the visualizations.

On the Theseus see Daniel Klein (2019) – Mighty mouse , Published in MIT Technology Review. And this video on YouTube of a presentation by its inventor Claude Shannon.

The chart shows that the speed at which these AI technologies developed increased over time. Systems for which development was started early – handwriting and speech recognition – took more than a decade to approach human-level performance, while more recent AI developments led to systems that overtook humans in only a few years. However, one should not overstate this point. To some extent, this is dependent on when the researchers started to compare machine and human performance. One could have started evaluating the system for language understanding much earlier, and its development would appear much slower in this presentation of the data.

It is important to remember that while these are remarkable achievements — and show very rapid gains — these are the results from specific benchmarking tests. Outside of tests, AI models can fail in surprising ways and do not reliably achieve performance that is comparable with human capabilities.

The relevant publications are the following:

2014: Goodfellow et al.: Generative Adversarial Networks

2015: Radford, Metz, and Chintala: Unsupervised Representation Learning with Deep Convolutional Generative Adversarial Networks

2016: Liu and Tuzel: Coupled Generative Adversarial Networks

2017: Karras et al.: Progressive Growing of GANs for Improved Quality, Stability, and Variation

2018: Karras, Laine, and Aila: A Style-Based Generator Architecture for Generative Adversarial Networks (StyleGAN from NVIDIA)

2019: Karras et al.: Analyzing and Improving the Image Quality of StyleGAN

AI-generated faces generated by this technology can be found on .

2020: Ho, Jain, and Abbeel: Denoising Diffusion Probabilistic Models

2021: Ramesh et al: Zero-Shot Text-to-Image Generation (first DALL-E from OpenAI; blog post ). See also Ramesh et al. (2022) – Hierarchical Text-Conditional Image Generation with CLIP Latents (DALL-E 2 from OpenAI; blog post ).

2022: Saharia et al: Photorealistic Text-to-Image Diffusion Models with Deep Language Understanding (Google’s Imagen; blog post )

Because these systems have become so powerful, the latest AI systems often don’t allow the user to generate images of human faces to prevent abuse.

From Chowdhery et al. (2022) –  PaLM: Scaling Language Modeling with Pathways . Published on arXiv on 7 Apr 2022.

See the footnote on the chart's title for the references and additional information.

The data is taken from Jaime Sevilla, Lennart Heim, Anson Ho, Tamay Besiroglu, Marius Hobbhahn, Pablo Villalobos (2022) – Compute Trends Across Three eras of Machine Learning . Published in arXiv on March 9, 2022. See also their post on the Alignment Forum .

The authors regularly update and extend their dataset, a helpful service to the AI research community. At Our World in Data, my colleague Charlie Giattino regularly updates the interactive version of this chart with the latest data made available by Sevilla and coauthors.

See also these two related charts:

Number of parameters in notable artificial intelligence systems

Number of datapoints used to train notable artificial intelligence systems

At some point in the future, training computation is expected to slow down to the exponential growth rate of Moore's Law. Tamay Besiroglu, Lennart Heim, and Jaime Sevilla of the Epoch team estimate in their report that the highest probability for this reversion occurring is in the early 2030s.

The training computation of PaLM, developed in 2022, was 2,700,000,000 petaFLOP. The training computation of AlexNet, the AI with the largest training computation up to 2012, was 470 petaFLOP. 2,500,000,000 petaFLOP / 470 petaFLOP = 5,319,148.9. At the same time, the amount of training computation required to achieve a given performance has been falling exponentially.

The costs have also increased quickly. The cost to train PaLM is estimated to be $9–$23 million, according to Lennart Heim, a researcher in the Epoch team. See Lennart Heim (2022) – Estimating PaLM's training cost .

Scaling up the size of neural networks – in terms of the number of parameters and the amount of training data and computation – has led to surprising increases in the capabilities of AI systems. This realization motivated the “scaling hypothesis.” See Gwern Branwen (2020) – The Scaling Hypothesis ⁠.

Her research was announced in various places, including in the AI Alignment Forum here: Ajeya Cotra (2020) –  Draft report on AI timelines . As far as I know, the report always remained a “draft report” and was published here on Google Docs .

The cited estimate stems from Cotra’s Two-year update on my personal AI timelines , in which she shortened her median timeline by 10 years.

Cotra emphasizes that there are substantial uncertainties around her estimates and therefore communicates her findings in a range of scenarios. She published her big study in 2020, and her median estimate at the time was that around the year 2050, there will be a 50%-probability that the computation required to train such a model may become affordable. In her “most conservative plausible”-scenario, this point in time is pushed back to around 2090, and in her “most aggressive plausible”-scenario, this point is reached in 2040.

The same is true for most other forecasters: all emphasize the large uncertainty associated with their forecasts .

It is worth emphasizing that the computation of the human brain is highly uncertain. See Joseph Carlsmith's New Report on How Much Computational Power It Takes to Match the Human Brain from 2020.

Cite this work

Our articles and data visualizations rely on work from many different people and organizations. When citing this article, please also cite the underlying data sources. This article can be cited as:

BibTeX citation

Reuse this work freely

All visualizations, data, and code produced by Our World in Data are completely open access under the Creative Commons BY license . You have the permission to use, distribute, and reproduce these in any medium, provided the source and authors are credited.

The data produced by third parties and made available by Our World in Data is subject to the license terms from the original third-party authors. We will always indicate the original source of the data in our documentation, so you should always check the license of any such third-party data before use and redistribution.

All of our charts can be embedded in any site.

Our World in Data is free and accessible for everyone.

Help us do this work by making a donation.

U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

The .gov means it’s official. Federal government websites often end in .gov or .mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you’re on a federal government site.

The site is secure. The https:// ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

  • Publications
  • Account settings

Preview improvements coming to the PMC website in October 2024. Learn More or Try it out now .

  • Advanced Search
  • Journal List
  • Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol
  • v.2(11); 2010 Nov

Historical Development of Origins Research

Following the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, many naturalists adopted the idea that living organisms were the historical outcome of gradual transformation of lifeless matter. These views soon merged with the developments of biochemistry and cell biology and led to proposals in which the origin of protoplasm was equated with the origin of life. The heterotrophic origin of life proposed by Oparin and Haldane in the 1920s was part of this tradition, which Oparin enriched by transforming the discussion of the emergence of the first cells into a workable multidisciplinary research program.

On the other hand, the scientific trend toward understanding biological phenomena at the molecular level led authors like Troland, Muller, and others to propose that single molecules or viruses represented primordial living systems. The contrast between these opposing views on the origin of life represents not only contrasting views of the nature of life itself, but also major ideological discussions that reached a surprising intensity in the years following Stanley Miller’s seminal result which showed the ease with which organic compounds of biochemical significance could be synthesized under putative primitive conditions. In fact, during the years following the Miller experiment, attempts to understand the origin of life were strongly influenced by research on DNA replication and protein biosynthesis, and, in socio-political terms, by the atmosphere created by Cold War tensions.

The catalytic versatility of RNA molecules clearly merits a critical reappraisal of Muller’s viewpoint. However, the discovery of ribozymes does not imply that autocatalytic nucleic acid molecules ready to be used as primordial genes were floating in the primitive oceans, or that the RNA world emerged completely assembled from simple precursors present in the prebiotic soup. The evidence supporting the presence of a wide range of organic molecules on the primitive Earth, including membrane-forming compounds, suggests that the evolution of membrane-bounded molecular systems preceded cellular life on our planet, and that life is the evolutionary outcome of a process, not of a single, fortuitous event.

Research on life's origins started with naturalists following in Darwin's footsteps. It has since given us the “prebiotic soup,” the “RNA world,” and the notion that life resulted from a process, not an event.

It is generally assumed that early philosophers and naturalists appealed to spontaneous generation to explain the origin of life, but in fact, the possibility of life emerging directly from nonliving matter was seen at first as a nonsexual reproductive mechanism. This changed with the transformist views developed by Erasmus Darwin, Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon, and, most importantly, by Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, all of whom invoked spontaneous generation as the mechanism that led to the emergence of life, and not just its reproduction. “Nature, by means of of heat, light, electricity and moisture”, wrote Lamarck in 1809, “forms direct or spontaneous generation at that extremity of each kingdom of living bodies, where the simplest of these bodies are found”.

Like his predecessors, Charles Darwin surmised that plants and animals arose naturally from some primordial nonliving matter. As early as 1837 he wrote in his Second Notebook that “the intimate relation of Life with laws of chemical combination, & the universality of latter render spontaneous generation not improbable.” However, Darwin included few statements about the origin of life in his books. He avoided the issue in the Origin of Species , in which he only wrote “… I should infer from analogy that probably all organic beings which have ever lived on this Earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed” ( Peretó et al. 2009 ).

Darwin added few remarks on the origin of life his book, and his reluctance surprised many of his friends and followers. In his monograph on the radiolaria, Haeckel wrote “The chief defect of the Darwinian theory is that it throws no light on the origin of the primitive organism—probably a simple cell—from which all the others have descended. When Darwin assumes a special creative act for this first species, he is not consistent, and, I think, not quite sincere …” ( Haeckel 1862 ).

Twelve years after the first publication of the Origin of Species , Darwin wrote the now famous letter to his friend Hooker in which the idea of a “warm little pond” was included. Mailed on February 1st, 1871, it stated that “It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and Oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts—light, heat, electricity &c. present, that a proteine compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter w d be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.” Although Darwin refrained from any further public statements on how life may have appeared, his views established the framework that would lead to a number of attempts to explain the origin of life by introducing principles of historical explanation ( Peretó et al. 2009 ). Here I will describe this history, and how it is guiding current research into the question of life’s origins.

The Search for the Physicochemical Basis of Life

In 1805 the German naturalist Lorenz Oken wrote a small booklet titled The Creation, in which stated that “all organic beings originate from and consist of vesicles of cells.” Several decades later the jellylike, water-insoluble substance that was found inside all cells was termed “protoplasm” by the physician Johann E. Purkinje and the botanist Hugo von Mohl, who like others argued that it was the basic physicochemical component of life. This was followed by Thomas Graham’s 1861 proposal that the protoplasm was a colloid formed by a homogenous, proteinaceous substance, which was understood by many as implying, as Thomas Henry Huxley would write a few years later, that the basic traits of life could be understood in terms of the chemical and physical properties of the molecules that made up protoplasm.

The birth and development of organic chemistry as a prominent scientific field very rapidly helped to bridge the gap separating organisms from the nonliving, paving the way to biochemistry. In 1827 Berzelius had written that “art cannot combine the elements of inorganic matter in the manner of living nature”, but one year later his friend and former student Friedich Wöhler showed that urea could be formed in high yield by heating ammonium cyanate “without the need of an animal kidney” ( Leicester 1974 ).

Wöhler’s work represented the first synthesis of an organic compound from inorganic starting materials and signals the tremendous advances in organic chemistry that would play a key role in our understanding of biology. Although it was not immediately recognized as such, a new era in chemical research had been begun: in 1850 Adolph Strecker achieved the laboratory synthesis of alanine from a mixture of acetaldehyde, ammonia and hydrogen cyanide. This was followed by the experiments of Alexander M. Butlerov showing that the treatment of formaldehyde with strong alkaline catalysts, such as calcium hydroxide, leads to the synthesis of sugars.

The laboratory synthesis of biochemical compounds was soon extended to include more complex experimental settings, some of which attempted to explain biological synthesis. For example, in 1877 Mendeleyeev, who was skeptical of the biological origin of oil, reported the synthesis of hydrocarbons from hot metallic carbides and water. By the end of the 19th century a large amount of research on organic synthesis had been performed, which showed the abiotic formation of fatty acids and sugars using electric discharges with various gas mixtures. This trend continued into the 20th century by Walther Löb, Oskar Baudish, and others, who reported the synthesis of amino acids by exposing wet formamide (CHO-NH 2 ) to a silent electrical discharge and to UV light (cf. Bada and Lazcano 2003 ).

In retrospect, these efforts to produce simple organic compounds heralded the dawn of what is termed today prebiotic chemistry. However, there are no indications that the researchers who performed these studies were interested in how life began on Earth, or in the synthesis of biochemical molecules under primitive conditions. It was generally assumed that that the first living beings had been autotrophic, plantlike organisms, so the abiotic synthesis of organic compounds did not appear to be a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of life. These organic syntheses were not conceived as laboratory simulations of Darwin’s warm little pond, but rather as attempts to understand the autotrophic mechanisms of nitrogen assimilation and CO 2 fixation in green plants.

Spontaneous Generation or Cosmic Origins?

The Origin of Species was published in 1859, the very same year in which Pasteur began the experiments that would lead him to disprove spontaneous generation of living organisms. His results had implications that went well beyond the limits of academia. Since the times of Lamarck and Buffon, spontaneous generation had been associated in France not only with evolutionary theory but also with secular attitudes and radical political views. The publication in 1862 of the French translation The Origin of Species by the notorious atheist and republican Madame Clémence Royer rekindled the debate. Her version included a lengthy preface that was, in essence, a fierce attack against the Catholic Church, by then a powerful ally of Napoleon III. In such entangled atmosphere, spontaneous generation embodied not only support for evolution, but also a radical, anticlerical political stance ( Farley 1977 ; Fry 2002 ; Strick 2009 ).

Pasteur was fully aware of the ideological implications of his discoveries. In a famous lecture delivered at La Sorbonne in 1864, he not only denied the possibility that inanimate matter could organize itself into living systems, but also stated that “what a victory for materialism if it could be affirmed that it rests on the established fact that matter organizes itself, takes on life itself; matter which has in it already all known forces. Ah! If we could add to it this other force which is called life … what could be more natural than to deify such matter? Of what good would it be then to have recourse to the idea of a primordial creation? To what good the would be the idea of a Creator God? … if we admit the idea of spontaneous generation, than it would not be surprising to assume that living beings “transformed themselves and climb from rank to rank, for example to insects after 10,000 years and no doubt to monkeys and man after 100,000 years” (cf. Farley 1977 ).

Regardless of their political ramifications, Pasteur’s results made it difficult to advocate spontaneous generation as an explanation for the ultimate origin of life. As a result, a number of philosophers and naturalists promptly dismissed the study of the origins of life as senseless speculation, whereas the willful distortion of Pasteur’s results by others raised vitalistic expectations once again. Several devoted materialists like Emil du Bois-Reymond, Karl von Nageli, and August Weismann continued to support the idea of spontaneous generation, but others, like Hermann von Helmholtz, felt that they could side-step the issue by assuming that viable microbes—“cosmozoa”—had been delivered to the primitive Earth by meteorites, thus maintaining the significance of evolution.

Cosmozoa became an alternative for those unwilling to accept the idea of a nonmaterial basis for life, but also for staunch opponents of evolution like Lord Kelvin, who since 1871 had argued for the extraterrestrial origin of life. Toward the end of the 19th century, the belief that life on Earth had evolved from extraterrestrial organisms elicited a number of proposed mechanisms that could have transported microbes between planets, but little attention was given to the central issue of the actual origin of the life forms ( Kamminga 1982 ; Fry 2002 ). With formidable disregard for plausibility, the panspermia hypothesis has been repeatedly proposed in a variety of contexts, but of course does not solve the problem of the origin of life, instead merely transferring its origin to another habitable planet in our galaxy.

Life and the Single Molecule

Not surprisingly, the idea that living organisms were the historical outcome of gradual transformation of lifeless matter became widespread soon after the publication of The Origin of Species . Despite their diversity, most of these explanations went unnoticed, in part because they were incomplete, speculative schemes largely devoid of direct evidence and not subject to fruitful experimental testing. Although some of these hypotheses considered life as an emergent feature of nature and attempted to understand its origin by introducing principles of historical explanation, the dominant view was that the first forms of life were structureless droplets of protoplasm endowed with the ability fix atmospheric CO 2 and to use it with water to synthesize organic compounds.

The ideas of Jerome Alexander, Stephane Leduc, and Alfonso L. Herrera epitomize this trend. Like many of his contemporaries, the Mexican A.L. Herrera was convinced that life could be created in the laboratory, and proposed an autotrophic theory known as plasmogenesis. Herrera devoted more than 50 yr to experimenting with different kinds of substances, attempting to “illustrate the physico chemical concomitants of life” ( Herrera 1902 ). At first he used mixtures of water and oil (or gasoline) to understand the shape, size and movement of cell-like structures. He would later refined his ideas and, despite the academic isolation in which he worked, developed his theory of “plasmogeny,” which attempted to explain the origin of primitive photosynthetic protoplasm. This led him to experiment with formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide derivatives like NH 4 SCN ( Herrera 1942 ), a combination that we now know produces sugars and highly colored polymers, which unfortunately he mistook for photosynthetic pigments ( Perezgasga et al. 2003 ).

The rapid development of biochemistry and the characterization of an increasingly large number of proteins signaled the idea that life could be associated with specific enzymes and that submicroscopic colloidal aggregates or micelles could show the properties of life. Enzymes were seen as colloidal catalysts, which led to the hypothesis that entities smaller and simpler than protoplasm itself could be alive (cf. Fry 2006 ). In 1917 Felix D’Herelle discovered a self-propagating filterable “substance” that attacked and dissolved bacilli, which were later identified as bacteriophage viruses, and these supposedly simple submicroscopic particles were assumed to be primordial entities ( D’Herelle 1926 ; Summers 1999 ).

Some investigators proposed even smaller structures as primordial. For instance, in a series of papers published between 1914 and 1917, the American physicist Leonard Troland suggested that the first living entity had been nothing more than a self-replicating enzymelike molecule that had suddenly appeared in early oceans. This primordial enzyme was assumed by Troland to be endowed with autocatalytic properties that allowed it to self-multiply, as well as having heterocatalytic abilities that could alter its surroundings, therefore giving rise to metabolism. Troland’s hypothesis is hindered both by its highly reductionist nature and by the impossibility of empirical analysis of a proposal that depends on the chancelike association of a “living molecule.” As summarized by Fry (2006) , although Troland had originally proposed a primordial enzyme as the starting point of life, he modified his hypothesis to speak of a “genetic enzyme” which he eventually identified with nucleoproteins present in nuclei ( Troland, 1914 , 1916 , 1917 ).

It did not take long for Hermann J. Muller, an American geneticist who would play an important role in the understanding of Mendelian heredity, to modify Troland’s hypothesis and propose that the ancestral molecule had been, in fact, a gene. Even more explicitly than Troland, Muller argued that the first living material was formed abruptly and consisted of little more than a mutable gene, or set of genes, endowed with catalytic and autoreplicative properties, which, he hinted, were autotrophic ( Muller 1922 , 1926 ).

It is easy to understand Muller’s proposal in terms of his commitment to Mendelian genetics. Muller was a founding member of Thomas Hunt Morgan’s fly room in Columbia Uiversity, where he had spent several years working with Calvin Bridges, Alfred Sturtevant and Morgan himself, on the linear arrangement of genes in the Drosophila chromosomes ( Carlson 1981 ). He had been pondering for some time on the autocatalytic properties of chromatin ( Ravin 1977 ), and his appreciation of genetic mutation as the fundamental mechanism of evolutionary novelties developed at a time when the appeal of Darwin’s ideas on the role of natural selection had diminished. Accordingly, given the appearance of a genetic material capable of replication, mutation and further replication of mutant forms, “evolution would automatically follow” ( Pontecorvo 1982 ). Muller’s explanation of the origin of life reveals a mutationist’s attitude, not a Darwinian one.

Toward the Primitive Soup

In November 1923 a small book titled The Origin of Life was published in Moscow by the young Russian biochemist Alexander Ivanovich Oparin. Like many of his contemporaries, Oparin (1924) accepted the idea of a primordial protoplasm but proposed that life had been preceded by a lengthy period of abiotic syntheses and accumulation of organic compounds that had led to the accumulation of what we call today the primitive soup. Oparin’s central thesis was that the first organisms to emerge in the anaerobic environment of the primitive Earth must have been heterotrophic bacteria.

As a young student at the University of Moscow, Oparin had joined the laboratory of Alexei N. Bakh, an eminent scientist and political figure at the Karpov Physicochemical Institute. There he worked on photosynthesis and, like most biochemists of his generation, quickly adopted the idea that metabolism was the outcome of oxidation and reduction reactions that were coupled inside cells. By then Oparin was also a convinced evolutionist. As an undergraduate he had attended the lectures given regularly by Kliment A. Tymiriazev, a renowed plant physiologist, agronomer, and the main advocate of Darwinism in Russia. Starting in 1865, Tymiriazev actively promoted Darwin’s idea, an effort that would play a major role in the secularization of Russian society, and endeared him to both the liberal and the revolutionary intelligentsia ( Vucinich 1988 ).

Tymiriazev had left the university and, because of his ill-health, did not teach but limited his meetings with students and colleagues to small gatherings in his Moscow flat. By the time Oparin graduated, he had an academic background that combined natural history, biochemistry, and plant physiology, a knowledge acquired within a research tradition strongly committed to integral approaches in the analysis of natural phenomena. He was not only familiar with nearly all the literature on evolution available in Russia but, perhaps even more important, with the Darwinian method of comparative analysis and historical interpretation of life features ( Lazcano 1992 ).

Like many of his fellow students and colleagues, Oparin was well acquainted with Haeckel’s work, in which the transition of the nonliving to the first organisms was discussed but always under the assumption that the first forms of life had been autotrophic microbes. Analysis of Oparin’s writings shows that throughout his entire life he remained faithful to the Haeckelian division of life into plants, animals and protists. However, from the very beginning it was impossible for him to reconcile his biochemical understanding of the sophistication of photosynthesis and the Darwinian credence in a gradual, slow evolution from the simple to the complex, with the suggestion that life had emerged already endowed with an autotrophic metabolism that included enzymes, chlorophyll and the ability to synthesize organic compounds from CO 2 and water.

Because a heterotrophic anaerobe is metabolically simpler than an autotrophic one, Oparin argued, the former would necessarily have evolved first. Thus, based on the simplicity and ubiquity of fermentative reactions, he proposed that the first organisms must have been heterotrophic bacteria that could not make their own food but obtained organic material present in the primitive milieu. To buttress his intuition, Oparin needed to show that organic material could form in the absence of living beings. Two important pieces of evidence supported his claim that the first organisms were more likely to have been heterotrophic. First, hydrocarbons and other organic material were known to be present in meteorites, and perhaps even in comets. These facts had been known since the middle of the 19th century. Second, his proposal was sustained by the striking 19th century experimental synthesis of organic compounds discussed earlier, including the 1877 abiotic formation of long chain hydrocarbons reported by Mendeleyeev.

Careful reading of Oparin’s 1924 book shows that, in contrast to common belief, at first he did not assume an anoxic primitive atmosphere. In his original scenario he argued that whereas some carbides, i.e., carbon-metal compounds, extruded from the young Earth’s interior would react with water vapor leading to hydrocarbons, others would be oxidized to form aldehydes, alcohols, and ketones (such as acetone). These molecules would then react among themselves and with NH 3 originating from the hydrolysis of nitrides (nitrogen-metals),

to form “very complicated compounds,” as Oparin (1924) wrote, from which proteins and carbohydrates would form, that would rapidly form droplets of gel-like material ancestral to the first cells.

Similar proposals for a heterotrophic origin were also published in 1924 by the geochemist Charles Lipman and the microbiologist R.B. Harvey, although they were not as refined as Oparin’s book. Quite significantly, Harvey argued that life had first evolved in a hot spring, where the high temperature would allow chemical reactions to proceed at a significant rate even if the first living beings were endowed with just a few enzymes. The most significant proposal, however, came from John B.S. Haldane, a versatile British biologist who became one of the founding fathers of neodarwinism. Haldane, like Oparin, argued that the origin of life had been preceded by the synthesis of organic compounds ( Haldane, 1929 ). Based on experiments by the British chemist E.C.C. Baly, who claimed that he had synthesized amino acids ( Baly 1924 ) and sugars by the UV irradiation of a solution of CO 2 in water ( Baly et al. 1927 ), Haldane suggested that the absence of oxygen in a CO 2 -rich primitive atmosphere had led to the synthesis of organic compounds and the formation of a “hot dilute soup.” Haldane was also influenced by D’Herelle’s discovery of phages, and suggested that viruses represented an intermediate step in the transition from the prebiotic soup to the first heterotrophic cells. Life may have remained, wrote Haldane (1929) “in the virus stage for many millions of years before a suitable assemblage of elementary units was brought together in the first cell.”

The Painful Maturation of the Heterotrophic Theory

Oparin belonged to a generation that was experiencing the liberal, high-bourgeois cultural and scientific circles of Saint Petersburg and Moscow formed by broad-minded scholars like Pavlov and Vernandsky. He was also encouraged to develop and support materialistic ideas by the secular atmosphere that followed the 1917 Bolschevik revolution. His 1924 book can be read as the work of a young, bold, and talented researcher with abundant enthusiasm and free of intellectual prejudices, who was able to look beyond the boundaries separating different scientific fields. In retrospect, it can be also considered the harbinger of his major work, a 1936 volume in Russian also called Origin of Life , whose English translation became available 2 years later ( Oparin 1938 ).

The new volume was far more mature and profound in its philosophical and evolutionary analysis, as argued forcefully by Graham (1972) , reflecting the changes in a society that was attempting to develop science, art and culture within the framework of dialectical materialism. In his second book Oparin (1938) not only abandoned his naïve and crude materialism, but also provided a thorough presentation and extensive analysis of the literature on the abiotic synthesis of organic material. His original proposal was revised, leading to the assumption of a highly reducing primitive mileu in which iron carbides of geological origin would react with steam to form hydrocarbons. Their oxidation would yield alcohols, ketones, aldehydes, etc., that would then react with ammonia to form amines, amides and ammonium salts. The resulting proteinlike compounds and other molecules would form a dilute solution, where they would aggregate to form colloidal systems from which the first heteretrophic microbes evolved ( Oparin 1938 ).

Oparin further argued that coacervate drops represented the optimal mechanism to concentrate organic material on the primitive Earth. Coacervates are charged, microscopic organic colloidal droplets that can concentrate organic materials existing in the medium. Because coacervates form spontaneously when two solutions of macromolecules with opposite charges are mixed, it is quite possible that they were present in the prebiotic milieu. However, they lack the lipid bilayers, present in all cells that retain organic matter in high concentrations inside a self-constructed boundary. Therefore, coacervates are no longer considered as potentially ancestral to life itself. Coacervates were the favorite model for a considerable time after Oparin’s views became widely known, because they were perceived as mimicking the surmised properties of precellular systems, but the development of a more sophisticated understanding of cells led to their dismissal as constituting any step toward the origins of life ( Deamer 1977 ).

A highly reducing atmosphere would be, for Oparin, a mixture of CH 4 , NH 3 , and H 2 O with or without added H 2 . The atmosphere of Jupiter contains these chemical species, with H 2 in large excess over CH 4 . Oparin’s proposal of a primordial reducing atmosphere was a brilliant inference from the then fledging knowledge of solar atomic abundances and planetary atmospheres, as well as from Vernadsky’s idea that the early Earth would be anoxic in the absence of life because molecular oxygen is a product of photosynthesis. As summarized elsewhere ( Miller et al. 1997 ) the benchmark contributions of Oparin’s 1938 book include not only the hypothesis that heterotrophs and anaerobic fermentation were primordial and the proposal of a reducing atmosphere for the prebiotic synthesis and accumulation of organic compounds, but also the idea that the association of molecules in precellular systems was a necessary prerequisite for their evolution ( Miller et al. 1997 ). Oparin was aware that the significance of coacervates as laboratory models of such polymolecular systems had been diminished by more recent developments. When he visited Mexico to receive an honorary degree that my university had granted him, Celia Ramírez and I gave him a copy of Light Transducing Membranes, which David W. Deamer (1977) had edited two years before. “If I had the chance to start all over again,” he remarked, “I would work on liposomes rather than on coacervates as models of precellular systems.”

As Farley (1977) wrote, Oparin’s 1938 book may be the most significant work ever published on the origin of life. It is true that many of his original ideas have been superseded. However, over the years it has become clear that the open character of his theory of chemical evolution has allowed the incorporation of new discoveries and the development of more accurate descriptions of possible primitive scenarios without destroying its overall structure and premises. The heterotrophic theory has not been belittled, for instance, but magnified by the recognition of the key role that genetic material must have placed in the origin of life. Perhaps the most important scientific achievements of Oparin may be his insistence that life is the evolutionary outcome of a process and not of a single event, as well as the methodological breakthrough that transformed the study of the origin of life from a purely speculative problem into a workable multidisciplinary research program.

The Miller-Urey Experiment: The Birth of Prebiotic Chemistry

The English translation of Oparin’s second book caught the attention of biologists such as Norman Horowitz and Cornelius van Niel, but during the next 10 years, while World War II raged, little progress was made in research on the origins of life. Driven by his interest in evolutionary biology, Melvin Calvin attempted to simulate the synthesis of organic compounds under primitive Earth conditions using the high-energy radiation sources available at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He and his group had limited success: The irradiation of CO 2 solutions with the Crocker Laboratory’s 60-inch cyclotron led only to formic acid, albeit in fairly high yields ( Garrison et al., 1951 ).

By the time Calvin and his colleagues published their results, Harold C. Urey had already moved from Columbia to the University of Chicago, where he started to work on cosmochemistry. He rapidly became convinced the Earth’s earliest atmosphere was highly reducing, with CH 4 and NH 3 instead of CO 2 and N 2 . In 1951 Urey gave a seminar dealing with the origin of the Solar System, and argued that the reducing conditions on the early Earth may have been important to the emergence of life. As he wrote in his 1952 book The Planets: Their origin and development , “if half the present surface carbon existed as soluble organic compounds and only 10 per cent of the water of the present oceans existed on the surface of the primitive earth, the primitive oceans would have been approximately a 10 per cent solution of organic compounds. This would provide a very favorable situation for the origin of life” ( Urey 1952 ).

Stanley L. Miller, who had arrived to Chicago in the spring of 1951 after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, attended Urey’s lecture, who like Oparin suggested that it would be interesting to simulate the proposed reducing conditions of the primitive Earth to test the feasibility of organic compound synthesis. “Urey’s point immediately seemed valid to me,” wrote Miller many years afterward. “After this seminar someone pointed out to Urey that in his book Oparin had discussed the origin of life and the possibility of synthesis of organic compounds in a reducing atmosphere. Urey’s discussion of the reducing atmosphere was more thorough and convincing than Oparin’s; but it is still surprising that no one had by then performed an experiment based on Oparin’s ideas” ( Miller 1974 ).

Almost a year and a half after Urey’s lecture, Miller approached Urey about the possibility of doing a prebiotic synthesis experiment using a reducing gas mixture. After overcoming Urey’s initial resistance, he designed three apparatuses meant to simulate the ocean-atmosphere system on the primitive Earth by investigating the action of electric discharges acting for a week on a mixture of CH 4 , NH 3 , H 2 , and H 2 O; racemic mixtures of several protein amino acids were produced, as well as hydroxy acids, urea, and other organic molecules ( Miller 1953 , 1955 ; Johnson et al. 2008 ).

Miller achieved his results by means of an apparatus in which he could simulate the interaction between an atmosphere and an ocean. To activate the reaction, Miller used an electrical spark, which was considered to be a significant energy source on the early Earth in the form of lightning and coronal discharges. The apparatus was filled with various mixtures of methane, ammonia, and hydrogen as well as water, the latter being heated to boiling during the experiment. A spark discharge between the tungsten electrodes was produced by a high frequency Tesla coil with a voltage of 60,000 V. The reaction time was usually a week or so and the maximum pressure 1.5 bars. With this relatively simple experimental setup, Miller (1953) was able to transform almost 50% of the original carbon (in the form of methane) into organic compounds. Although most of the synthesized organic material was an insoluble tarlike solid, he was able to isolate amino acids and other simple organic compounds from the reaction mixture. Glycine, the simplest amino acid, was produced in 2% yield (based on the original amount of methane carbon), whereas alanine, the simplest amino acid with a chiral center, showed a yield of 1%. Miller was able to show that the alanine was a racemic mixture (equal amounts of d - and l -alanine). This provided convincing evidence that the amino acids were produced in the experiment and were not biological contaminants somehow introduced into the apparatus.

DNA versus Coacervates? The Reshaping of an Old Debate

The Miller paper (1953) was published only a few weeks after Watson and Crick’s (1953) classic article revealed their double helix model for the structure of DNA. With few exceptions, like Sidney W. Fox’s work on thermal polypeptides (cf. Fox and Dose 1977 ), modern attempts to understand the origin of life have been shaped by our burgeoning knowledge of DNA replication and protein biosynthesis. Prebiotic chemistry and molecular biology began to converge, albeit slowly, when Oró (1960) showed the remarkable ease with which adenine could be produced through the oligomerization of HCN.

Hermann J. Muller quickly used the developments in molecular genetics and the success in prebiotic syntheses to update his gene-first proposal by arguing that what had emerged in the primitive oceans had been, in fact, a primordial DNA molecule : “… it is to be expected that at last, just before the appearance of life, the very ocean had become, in Haldane’s (1929 , 1954 ) vivid phraseology, a gigantic bowl of soup,” wrote Muller, and added “drop into this a nucleotide chain and it should eventually breed!” ( Muller 1961 ). A few years later he would state that “…life as we know it, if stripped of all its superstructures, lies in the three faculties possessed by the gene material. These may be defined as, firstly, the self-specification, after its own pattern, of new material produced by it or under its guidance; secondly, of performing this operation even when it itself has undergone a great succession of permanent pattern changes which, taken in their totality, can be of a practically unlimited diversity; thirdly, of, through these changes, significantly and (for different cases) diversely affecting other materials and, therewith, its own success in genetic survival.” Muller added that “the gene material alone, of all natural materials, possesses these faculties, and it is therefore legitimate to call it living material, the present-day representative of the first life” ( Muller 1966 ). In other words, for Muller (and many others) the essence of life lies in the combination of autocatalysis, heterocatalysis, and mutability, i.e., evolvability.

Muller’s proposal was brilliantly reductionist, and was soon contested by Oparin and others in a now largely forgotten debate. Although Muller (1947) had once expressed sympathy to Oparin’s idea, they soon became engaged in an entangled debate in which science, philosophy, and politics mixed in an excruciating discussion that was shaped in part by the Cold War atmosphere ( Lazcano 1992 , 1995 ; Fry 2002 ). In sharp contrast with Muller’s ideas, Oparin (1938) had argued that the essence of life was metabolic flow. For Oparin, life is “a special form of the motion of matter,” always in flow, which included enzymatically based assimilation, growth, and reproduction, but not nucleic acids, whose genetic role was not even suspected during the 1930s. Biological inheritance was assumed by Oparin to be the outcome of growth and division of the coacervate drops he had suggested as models of precellular systems, a view that led Muller (1966) to state that “the Russian Oparin has since the early 1930s espoused this view and has followed the official Communist Party line by giving the specific genetic material a back seat.”

Oparin and Muller came from different scientific backgrounds and almost opposite intellectual traditions. Their common interest in the origin of life did nothing to assuage their opposing views and their ideological clashes. Oparin was a convinced evolutionist, and, like many of his contemporaries, his original genetics were pre-Mendelian. Oparin’s Darwinism had been nurtured by Tymiriazev, who had famously identified in 1912, many years before the Lysenko affair, Mendelians and mutationists as the opponents to be defeated in the war against anti-Darwinism ( Vucinich 1988 ). For Muller, who remained bitterly disillusioned by Stalin’s regime and Lysenko’s tragic affair, life could be so well-defined that the exact point at which it started could be established with the sudden appearance of the first DNA molecule. Oparin, on the other hand, refused to admit that life could arise all at once by a spontaneous generation, and argued that it was the outcome of a slow, stepwise evolutionary developmental process.

Oparin’s refusal to assume that nucleic acids had played a unique role in the origin of life resulted not only from his unwillingness to assume that life can be reduced to a single compound such as the “living DNA molecule” advocated by Muller and others, but also within the framework of Cold War politics, his complex relationship with Lysenko, and his long association with the Soviet establishment. As shown by his extensive work with RNA-containing coacervates ( Oparin and Yevreinova, 1947 ; Oparin and Serebroskaya, 1963 ; Oparin et al. 1961 , 1963 , 1964 ) and his complete acceptance, based on the suggestions of Belozerskii (1959) , Brachet (1959) , and others, that RNA could have preceded DNA as genetic material, Oparin (1961) eventually acknowledged the role of nucleic acids in the origin of life and assumed, until the very end, that protein synthesis was the evolutionary outcome of the interaction of primordial polypeptides and polynucleotides within the boundaries of precellular systems ( Oparin 1972 ).

Paving the Road to the RNA World

The launching of the Sputnik in 1957 signaled not only the start of space exploration but also a new epoch in the study of the origins of life, which acquired a novel perspective, as shown by the publication of Life in the Universe , a book by Oparin and Fesenkov (1961) . The first chapter, written by Oparin, examined the conditions under which life was assumed to have originated on Earth, and the rest of the book by Vasily Fesenkov, an astronomer with considerable following in the USSR. The premise that life appeared throughout the Universe whenever the conditions for its appearance were present set the tone the book, and reflected optimistic views regarding the possibility of inhabited planets shared by many astronomers both in the Soviet Union and in Western countries. By then, the development of space programs and agencies had started to play a key role not only in transforming the issue of extraterrestrial life into a legitimate scientific question, but also to shape the study of origin and early evolution of life in new ways ( Dick 1998 ; Wolfe 2002 ; Strick 2004 ).

If the onset of the so-called Space Age (which led to substantial funding from NASA to the origins-of-life community) set the emergence of living systems within a cosmic context, the work of Elso S. Barghoorn and his students and associates pushed the microbial fossil record back in time to the early Precambrian ( Cloud 1983 ). Although it seems that life appeared as soon as environmental conditions permitted, identification of the oldest paleontological traces of life remains a contentious issue. Although it is not possible to assign a precise chronology to the origin and earliest evolution of cells, the recognition that life is a very ancient phenomenon runs parallel to the limits imposed by a geological record that becomes increasingly blurred as we go back in time ( Schopf 1999 ; Knoll 2003 ).

Direct information is lacking not only on the composition of the terrestrial atmosphere during the period of the origin of life, but also on the temperature, ocean pH values, and other general and local environmental conditions which may or may not have been important for the emergence of living systems. However, the lack of detailed understanding of the conditions of the primitive environment did not stop prebiotic chemists from attempting the synthesis of a wide number of compounds of biochemical significance under highly reducing conditions but with few other environmental constraints. The robustness of this type of chemistry is supported by the occurrence of most of these biochemical molecules in the Murchison meteorite, reinforcing, but not proving, the idea that comparable compounds were present in the primitive Earth ( Ehrenfreund et al. 2002 ).

From the late 1960s onward, however, it became clear that our understanding of the origin of life was troubled by two major issues: The possibility that the young Earth had been endowed with a highly reducing atmosphere was viewed with considerable skepticism by most planetary scientists, whose preference for a CO 2 -rich atmosphere weakened the assumption that the primitive soup had formed by the accumulation of organic compounds synthesized under highly reducing conditions. Secondly, the emergence of nucleic acid-directed protein synthesis, which is recognized as a central feature of all extant life, appeared to be an insurmountable problem. At the time, few molecular biologists were inclined to evolutionary explanations and many, like Muller, relied on chance events to understand the basic molecular traits of cells. As the influential French biologist Jacques Monod wrote in his 1970 book Chance and Necessity, “… it might be thought that the discovery of the universal mechanisms basic to the essential properties of living beings would have helped solve the problem of life’s origins. As it turns out, these discoveries, by almost entirely transforming the question, have shown it to be even more difficult than it formerly appeared” ( Monod 1971 ). Monod’s attitude had far reaching consequences; as summarized by Fry (2002) , it would eventually lead the philosopher Karl Popper (1974) and his followers to argue that the emergence of life is “an impenetrable barrier to science and a residue to all attempts to reduce biology to chemistry and physics.”

A possible solution to the problem posed by the lack of understanding of the relationship between nucleic acids and proteins was suggested by Carl Woese (1967) , Leslie Orgel (1968) , and Francis Crick (1968) , who independently proposed the idea that the first living entities were based on RNA as both the genetic material and as catalyst. Surprisingly, these pioneering proposals of an RNA world received little attention. The relationship between evolutionary issues and molecular biology was slow to develop, and during several decades was embittered by frequent clashes during which evolutionary analysis was frequently dismissed as little more than useless speculation.

This skeptical attitude changed with the awareness that genes and proteins are rich historical documents from which a wealth of evolutionary information can be retrieved ( Zuckerkandl and Pauling 1965 ). A major achievement of this approach was the use of small subunit ribosomal RNA as a phylogenetic marker, which led Carl Woese and his associates to the construction of a trifurcated, unrooted tree in which all known organisms can be grouped in one of three major cell lineages, i.e., eubacteria, archaeabacteria, and the eukaryotic nucleocytoplasm, all of which share a common ancestry ( Woese and Fox 1977 ). The variations of traits common to extant species can be explained as the outcome of divergent processes from an ancestral life form that existed before their separation of the three major biological domains, i.e., the last common ancestor. Although no evolutionary intermediate stages or ancient simplified versions of the basic biological processes have been discovered in contemporary organisms, the differences in the structure and mechanisms of gene expression and replication among the three lineages have provided insights on the stepwise evolution of the replication and translational apparatus, including some late steps in the development of the genetic code. All of a sudden, it deemed possible to distinguish the origin of life problem from a whole series of other issues, often confused, that belong to the domain of the evolution of microbial life.


So far from the origin of life, so close to the rna world.

It is difficult to see how inferences based on universal phylogenies can be extended beyond a threshold that corresponds to a period of cellular evolution in which protein biosynthesis was already in operation, i.e., an RNA/protein world. Older stages are not yet amenable to molecular phylogenetic analysis ( Becerra et al. 2007 ). A cladistic approach to the origin of life itself is not feasible, because all possible intermediates that may have once existed have long since vanished, and the temptation to do otherwise is best resisted. The most basic questions pertaining to the origin of life relate to much simpler entities predating by a long (but not necessarily slow) series of evolutionary events the oldest branches in universal phylogenetic trees.

Nevertheless, the examination of the prokaryotic branches of unrooted rRNA trees had already suggested that the ancestors of both Bacteria and Archaea were extreme thermophiles growing optimally at temperatures in the range of 90 o C or above ( Achenbach-Richter et al. 1987 ). Rooted universal phylogenies appeared to confirm this possibility, because heat-loving prokaryotes occupied short branches in the basal portion of molecular cladograms ( Stetter 1994 ). Attempts to correlate the antiquity of hyperthermophiles with extreme environments such as those found today in deep-sea vents ( Holm 1992 ) or in other sites in which mineral surfaces may have fueled the appearance of primordial chemoautolithotrophic life forms ( Wächtershäuser 1988 , 1992 ) became almost unavoidable.

Wächtershäuser’s explicit adherence to Karl Popper’s philosophical stand ( Popper 1959 ) played a major role in his idea that life began with the appearance of an autocatalytic two-dimensional autochemolithotrophic metabolic system based on the formation of pyrite. His insightful prediction that ferrous sulfide in the presence of hydrogen sulfide (H 2 S) is an efficient reducing agent should not be understated. Pyrite formation can produce molecular hydrogen, promote the formation of ammonia from nitrogen nitrogen, and can reduce a few organic molecules under mild conditions. However, compared with the surprising variety of biochemical compounds that are readily synthesized in one-pot Miller-Urey type simulations, the suite of molecules produced under the conditions suggested by Wächtershäuser is quite limited.

Based on the hypothesis that core metabolic processes have not changed since the emergence of life, Morowitz (1992) has argued that intermediary metabolism recapitulates prebiotic chemistry. He maintains that the basic traits of metabolism could only evolve after the closure of an amphiphilic bilayer membrane into a vesicle, that is, that the appearance of membranes represents the discrete transition from nonlife to life. According to his hypothesis, reverse Krebs cycle-dependent life appeared with “minimal protocells” formed by bilayer vesicles made up of small amphiphiles and endowed with pigments capable of absorbing radiant energy stored as a chemiosmotic proton gradient across the membrane.

These and other explanations of the origin of life are based on the idea that the emergence of autocatalytic “metabolic” cycles in the primitive Earth was an essential prerequisite for the appearance of genetic systems. According to this approach, life can be considered an emergent interactive system endowed with dynamic properties that exist in a state close to chaotic behavior. Some of these proposals reflect a (healthy) reaction against molecular biology reductionism, as well as the adherence to all-encompassing views based on complexity theories and self-assembly phenomena that are quite popular among physical scientists. In fact, the background of current metabolism-based explanations of the origin of life lies not in Oparin’s proposals, but in the attempts to extrapolate to biology the deeply rooted tendency in physical sciences to search for all encompassing laws that can be part of grand theory which explain many, if not all, complex systems.

The many examples of self-organizing physical systems that lead to highly ordered structures show that, in addition to natural selection, other mechanisms of ordered complexity can come into play. Self-assembly is not unique to biology, and may indeed be found in a wide variety of systems, including cellular automata, the complex flow patterns of many different fluids, in cyclic chemical phenomena (such as the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction) and, quite significantly, in the self-assembly of amphiphilic lipid-like molecules in bilayers, micelles, and liposomes (cf. Lazcano 2009 ). There are indeed some common features among these systems, and it has been claimed that they follow general principles that are in fact equivalent to universal laws of nature ( Kauffman 1993 ). Perhaps this is true. The problem is that such all-encompassing principles, if they exist at all, have so far remained undiscovered ( Farmer 2005 ).

As discussed elsewhere, the experimental evidence that has been recently used to argue in favor of the metabolism-first theory is equally consistent with a genetic-first description of life ( Lazcano 2009 ). What the metabolic-first approaches require is the confirmation that metabolic (or protometabolic) routes can replicate and evolve. So far, there are no indications that this is the case: As summarized by Leslie Orgel in a posthumous paper, theories that advocate the emergence of complex, self-organized biochemical cycles in the absence of genetic material are hindered not only by the lack of empirical evidence, but also by a number of unrealistic assumptions about the properties of minerals and other catalysts required to spontaneously organize such sets of autocatalytic chemical reactions ( Orgel 2008 ).


The remarkable coincidence between the monomeric constituents of living organisms and those synthesized in laboratory simulations of the prebiotic environment appears to be too striking to be fortuitous. Although we are far from understanding how life appeared, the available experimental evidence strongly suggest that the prebiotic environment was already endowed with a wide range of monomers of biochemical significance, many organic and inorganic catalysts, purines and pyrimidines, i.e., the potential for template-directed polymerization reaction, and membrane-forming compounds. Nevertheless, at present the hiatus between the primitive soup and the RNA world is discouragingly enormous.

There are many definitions of the RNA World. However, the discovery of ribozymes does not imply that wriggling autocatalytic nucleic acid molecules ready to be used as primordial genes were floating in the primitive oceans, or that the RNA world emerged completely assembled from simple precursors present in the prebiotic broth. Although it is true that genetic-first proposals do not require enclosure within compartments, the emergence of life may be best understood in terms of the dynamics and evolution of sets of chemical replicating entities. Whether such entities were enclosed within membranes is not yet clear, but given the prebiotic availability of amphiphilic compounds this may have well been the case ( Deamer 2002 ). Indeed, the evidence supporting the presence of lipidic molecules in the prebiotic environment and their natural ability to self-organize into vesicular compartments underlines the significance of theoretical models of simple cells involving an evolving ribozymic RNA polymerase ( Szostak et al. 2001 ; Deamer and Dworkin 2005 ) and increasingly sophisticated laboratory models of precellular systems ( Mansy et al. 2008 ).

For obvious methodological reasons, experimental simulations of prebiotic events have concentrated on the empirical analysis of single variables. The study of more specific conditions, including the laboratory simulation of localized environments such as volcanic islands, tidal zones and microenviroments, including liposomes, clays and mineral surfaces, and volcanic ponds, which could have been prevalent in the primitive environment, are likely to yield promising results. It is reasonable to assume that the association and interplay of different biochemical monomers and oligomers in more complex experimental settings would lead to physicochemical properties not shown by their isolated components ( Deamer et al. 2002 ). This is not purely speculative; that interactions between liposomes and different water-soluble polypeptides lead to major changes in the morphology and permeability of liposomes of phosphatidyl- l -serine, and to a transition of poly- l -lysine from a random coil into an α-helix that shows hydrophobic bonding with the lipidic phase, has been documented in the laboratory ( Hammes and Schullery 1970 ).

Additional examples include experimental models of compartmentalized catalytic RNA ( Mansy et al. 2008 ), which, although they do not necessarily correspond to particular stages in the origin of life, nonetheless illustrate how individual components of a system dynamically interact and lead to unexpected new properties. This approach, which falls within the venerable tradition of synthetic biology ( Peretó and Catalá 2007 ), complements the attempts to work backward to reduce extant cell genomes and achieve the laboratory synthesis of minimal life forms.

There are inevitable gaps in the story, but reports on the death of the heterotrophic theory have been greatly exaggerated. The remarkable coincidence between the surprising variety of biochemical constituents that can be readily synthesized in experiments simulating the prebiotic environment and those found in some carbon-rich meteorites appears to be too striking to be fortuitous. The Earth’s primitive atmosphere may have not been as strongly reducing as assumed by the early proponents of the prebiotic broth, but there is experimental evidence showing that amino acids can be synthesized in a CO 2 ‐rich model atmosphere ( Cleaves et al. 2008 ). It is true that the classical recipe for cooking a primitive soup needs to be updated to acknowledge, in an eclectic fashion, the contribution of extraterrestrial organic compounds, the role of catalytic minerals like pyrite, and the synthesis of organic molecules in hydrothermal vents, however limited it may have been, but this poses no threat to the idea of chemical evolution as a prerequisite to an heterotrophic origin of life.

We will never know how life first appeared. However, the study of the appearance of life is a mature, well-established field of scientific inquiry. As in other areas of evolutionary biology, answers to questions on the origin and nature of the first life forms can only be regarded as inquiring and explanatory rather than definitive and conclusive. This does not imply that all origin-of-life theories and explanations can be dismissed as pure speculation, but rather that the issue should be addressed conjecturally, in an attempt to construct not a mere chronology but a coherent historical narrative by weaving together a large number of miscellaneous observational findings and experimental results. It is probably useful to remember the line from Goethe’s Faust that Oparin included in his 1924 book, “My worthy friend, gray is all theory, and green alone is life’s golden tree.”


This article was completed during a sabbatical leave in which I enjoyed the hospitality of Professor Jeffrey L. Bada and his associates at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego. Support from a UC Mexus-CONACYT Fellowship is gratefully acknowledged.

Editors: David Deamer and Jack W. Szostak

Additional Perspectives on The Origins of Life available at

  • Achenbach-Richter L, Gupta R, Stetter KO, Woese CR 1987. Were the original eubacteria thermophiles? System Appl Microbiol 9 : 34–39 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Bada JL, Lazcano A 2003. Prebiotic soup: Revisiting the Miller experiment . Science 300 : 745–746 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Baly ECC 1924. Photosynthesis . Industrial Eng Chem 16 : 1016–1018 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Baly ECC, Davies JB, Johnson MR, Shanassy H 1927. The photosynthesis of naturally occurring compounds. 1. The action of ultraviolet light on carbonic acid . Proc Roy Soc London A 116 : 197–208 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Becerra A, Delaye L, Islas A, Lazcano A 2007. Very early stages of biological evolution related to the nature of the last common ancestor of the three major cell domains . Annu Rev Ecol Evol Syst 38 : 361–379 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Belozerskii AN 1959. On the species specificity of the nucleic acids of bacteria . In Oparin A.I., Pasynskii A.G., Braunshtein A.E., Pavloskaya T.E. (Eds.), The Origin of Life on Herat Pergamon Press, New York, pp. 322–321 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Brachet J 1959. Les acides nucléiques et l’origine des protéines . In Oparin A.I., Pasynskii A.G., Braunshtein A.E., Pavloskaya T.E. (Eds.), The Origin of Life on Earth New York: Pergamon Press; pp. 361–367 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Carlson EA 1981. Genes, radiation, and society: The life and work of H J Muller Ithaca: Cornell University Press [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Cleaves JH, Chalmers JH, Lazcano A, Miller SL, Bada JL 2008. Prebiotic organic synthesis in neutral planetary atmospheres . Origins Life Evol Biosph 38 : 105–155 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Cloud P 1983. Early biogeologic history: The emergence of a paradigm . In Schopf J.W. (ed), Earth’s earliest biosphere: Its origin and evolution Princeton: Princeton University Press pp. 14–31 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Crick FHC 1968. The origin of the genetic code . J Mol Biol 39 : 367–380 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Deamer DW 1977. (ed.) Light transducing membranes New York: Academic Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Deamer DW, Dworkin JP 2005. Chemistry and physics of primtive membranes . In Walde P. (ed.), Prebiotic chemistry: From simple amphiphiles to protocell models pp. 1–27 Berlin: Springer [ Google Scholar ]
  • Deamer DW, Dworkin JP, Sanford SA, Bernstein MP, Allamandola LJ 2002. The first cell membranes . Astrobiology 2 : 371–382 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Dick SJ 1998. Life on other worlds Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • D’Herelle F 1926. The Bacteriophage and its behaviour Baltimore: William and Wilkins [ Google Scholar ]
  • Ehrenfreund P, Irvine W, Becker L, Blank J, Brucato J, Colangeli L, Derenne S, Despois D, Dutrey A, Fraaije H, Lazcano A, Owen T, Robert F 2002. Astrophysical and astrochemical insights into the origin of life . Reports Prog Phys 65 : 1427–1487 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Farley J 1977. The spontaneous generation controversy from Descartes to Oparin Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Farmer DJ 2005. Cool is not enough . Nature 436 : 627–628 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Fox SW, Dose K 1977. Molecular evolution and the origin of life New York: Marcel Dekker Inc [ Google Scholar ]
  • Fry I 2002. The emergence of life on earth New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Fry I 2006. The origins of research into the origins of life . Endeavour 30 : 24–28 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Garrison WM, Morrison DC, Hamilton JG, Benson A, Calvin M 1951. Reduction of carbon dioxide in aqueous solutions by ionizing radiation . Science 114 : 416. [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Graham LR 1972. Science and philosophy in the Soviet Union New York: :Alfred A. Knopf [ Google Scholar ]
  • Haeckel E 1862. Die Radiolarien (Rhizopoda Radiaria) Eine Monographie Berlin: Druck und Verlag Von Georg Reimer [ Google Scholar ]
  • Haldane JBS 1929. The origin of life . Rationalist Annual 148 : 3–10 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Haldane JBS 1954. The origins of life . New Biol 16 : 12–27 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Hammes GG, Schullery SE 1970. Structure of molecular aggregates. II. Construction of model membranes from phospholipids and polypeptides . Biochemistry 9 : 2555–2558 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Herrera AL 1902. Note sur l’imitation du protoplasme . Bull Soc Zoo France 26 : 144 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Herrera AL 1942. A new theory on the origin and nature of life . Science 96 : 14. [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Holm N.G., ed. 1992. Marine hydrothermal systems and the origin of life Dordrecht: Klüwer Academic Publ [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Johnson AP, Cleaves HJ, Dworkin JP, Glavin DP, Lazcano A, Bada JL 2008. The Miller volcanic spark discharge experiment . Science 322 : 404. [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Kauffman SA 1993. The Origins of Order: Self organization and selection in evolution New York: Oxford University Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Kamminga H 1982. Life from space—a history of panspermia . Vistas in Astronomy 26 : 67–86 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Knoll AH 2003. Life on a young planet: The first three billion years of evolution on Earth Princeton: Princeton University Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Lazcano A 1992. La Chispa de la Vida: Alexander I. Oparin Editorial Pangea/CONACULTA, México, D.F: (in Spanish) [ Google Scholar ]
  • Lazcano A 1995. Aleksandr I. Oparin, the man and his theory . in Poglazov B.F., Kurganov B.I., Kritsky M.S. (eds), Frontiers in Physicochemical Biology and Biochemical Evolution Bach Institute of Biochemistry and ANKO, Moscow, p. 49–56 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Lazcano A. Which way to life? Origins Life. Evol Biosph. 2009 (in press) [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Leicester HM 1974. Development of Biochemical Concepts from Ancient to Modern Times Cambridge: Harvard University Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Mansy SS, Schrum JP, Krishnamurthy M, Tobé S, Treco DA, Szostak JJW 2008. Template-directed synthesis of a genetic polymer in a model protocell . Nature 454 : 122–125 [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Miller SL 1953. A production of amino acids under possible primitive Earth conditions . Science 117 : 528. [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Miller SL 1955. Production of some organic compounds under possible primitive Earth conditions . J Am Chem Soc 77 : 2351–2361 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Miller SL 1974. The first laboratory synthesis of organic compounds under primitive conditions . In: Neyman J. (ed) The Heritage of Copernicus: Theories “more pleasing to the mind” pp 228–24 Cambridge: MIT Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Miller SL, Schopf JW, Lazcano A 1997. Oparin’s “Origin of Life”: Sixty years later . J Mol Evol 44 : 351–353 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Morowitz HJ 1992. Beginnings of Cellular Life: Metabolism Recapitulates Biogenesis Binghamton: Yale University Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Monod J 1971. Chance and Necessity Glasgow: Fontana Books [ Google Scholar ]
  • Muller HJ 1922. Variation due to change in the individual gene . The American Naturalist , 56 : 32–50 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Muller HJ 1926. The gene as the basis of life . Proceedings of the 1st International Congress of Plant Sciences, Ithaca, p. 897–921 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Muller HJ 1947. The gene . Proc Royal Soc B134 : 1–37 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Muller HJ 1961. Genetic nucleic acid: Key material in the origin of life . Persp Biol Med 5 : 1–23 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Muller HJ 1966. The gene material as the initiator and the organizing basis of life . Am Naturalist 100 : 493–502 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oparin AI 1924. Proiskhozhedenie Zhizni Mosckovskii Rabochii, Moscow,. Reprinted and translated in J. D. Bernal (1967) The Origin of Life London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oparin AI 1938. The Origin of Life New York: McMillan [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oparin AI 1961. Life: Its nature, origin, and development New York: Academic Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oparin AI 1972. The appearance of life in the Universe . In Ponnamperuma C. (Ed.), Exobiology pp 1–15Ámsterdam: North-Holland [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oparin AI, Fesenkov V 1961. Life in the Universe . New York: Twayne Publishers [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oparin AI, Serebroskaya KB 1963. Formation of coacervates drops during the synthesis of polyadenylic acid by polynucleotide phosphorylase . Dokl Akad Nauk SSSR 148 : 943–947(in Russian) [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oparin AI, Yevreinova TN 1947. The effect of nucleic acid on thermostability of proteins . Dokl Akad Nauk SSSR 58 : 253–259(in Russian) [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oparin AI, Serebroskaya KB, Auerman TL 1961. Synthesizing effect of polynucleotide phosphorylase of Micrococcus lyzodeikticus in solution and in coacervate systems . Dokl Akad Nauk SSSR 126 : 499–504(in Russian) [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oparin AI, Serebroskaya KB, Pantskhava SN, Vasil’yeva NV 1963. Enzymatic synthesis of polyadenylic acid in coacervate drops . Biokhimiya 28 : 671–673(in Russian) [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oparin AI, Serebroskaya KB, Vasil’yeva NV, Balayevskaya TO 1964. The formation of coacervates from polypeptides and polynucleotides . Dokl Akad Nauk SSSR 154 : 407–412(in Russian) [ Google Scholar ]
  • Orgel LE 1968. Evolution of the genetic apparatus . J Mol Biol 38 : 381–392 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Orgel LE 2008. The implausibility of metabolic cycles in the primitive Earth . PLoS Biol 6 : e18. [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oró J 1960. Synthesis of adenine from ammonium cyanide . Biochem Biophys Res Comm 2 : 407–412 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Oró J 1961. Comets and the formation of biochemical compounds on the primitive earth . Nature 190 , 442–443 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Peretó J, Catalá J 2007. The renaissance of synthetic biology . Biological Theory 2 : 128–130 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Peretó J, Bada JE, Lazcano A 2009. Charles Darwin and the origin of life . Origins Life Evol Biosph 39 : 395–406 [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Perezgasga L, Silva E, Lazcano A, Negrón-Mendoza A 2003. Herrera’s sulfocyanic theory on the origin of life: A critical reappraisal . Int Jour Astrobiol 2 : 1–6 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Pontecorvo G 1982. Who was H. J. Muller (1890–1967)? Nature 298 : 203–204 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Popper K 1959. The logic of scientific discovery . New York: Basic Books [ Google Scholar ]
  • Popper K 1974. Reduction and the incompleteness of science . In Ayala F., Dobzhanzky T. (eds), Studies in the Philosophy of Biology University of California Press, Berkeley, pp 251–267 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Ravin AW 1977. The gene as catalysts; the gene as organism . Coleman W., Limoges C. (eds) Studies in the History of Biology 1 : 1–45 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Schopf JW 1999. The Cradle of Life: The discovery of Earth’s earliest fossils . Princeton: Princeton University Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Stetter KO 1994. The lesson of archaebacteria . In Bengtson S. (ed), Early Life on Earth: Nobel Symposium No 84 Columbia University Press, New York: 114–122 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Strick JE 2004. Creating a cosmic discipline: The crystallization and consolidation of exobiology , 1957–1973 Jour History Biol 37 : 131–180 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Strick JE 2009. Darwin and the origin of life: Public versus private science . Endeavour (in press) [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Summers WC 1999. Felix d’Herelle and the origins of molecular biology New Haven: Yale University Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Szostak JW, Bartel DP, Luisi PL 2001. Synthesizing life . Nature 409 :387–390 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Troland LT 1914. The chemical origin and regulation of life . The Monist 22 : 92–133 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Troland LT 1916. The enzyme theory of life . Cleveland Me Jour 15 : 377–385 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Troland LT 1917. Biological enigmas and the theory of enzyme action . Am Naturalist 51 : 321–350 [ Google Scholar ]
  • Urey HC 1951. On the early chemical history of the Earth and the origin of life . Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 38 : 351–363 [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Urey HC 1952. The planets: their origin and development Chicago: University of Chicago Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Vucinich A 1988. Darwin in Russian Thought Berkeley: University of California Press [ Google Scholar ]
  • Wächtershäuser G 1988. Before enzymes and templates, a theory of surface metabolism . Microbiol Rev 52 : 452–84 [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Wächtershäuser G 1992. Groundwork for an evolutionary biochemistry: The iron-sulphur world . Prog Biophys Molec Biol 58 : 85–201 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Watson JD, Crick FHC 1953. Molecular structure of nucleic acids . Nature 171 : 737. [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Woese CR 1967. The Genetic Code: the molecular basis for gene expression . New York: Harper and Row [ Google Scholar ]
  • Woese CR, Fox GE 1977. The concept of cellular evolution . J Mol Evol 10 :1–6 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Wolfe A 2002. Germs in space: American life scientists, space policy, and the public imagination, 1958–1963 . Isis 93 : 183–205 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]
  • Zuckerkandl E, Pauling L 1965. Molecules as documents of evolutionary history . J Theor Biol 8 : 357–366 [ PubMed ] [ Google Scholar ]

History of Development: Towards Human Development

  • First Online: 16 March 2017

Cite this chapter

Book cover

  • Tadashi Hirai 2  

611 Accesses

2 Citations

This chapter overviews the conceptual shift in development after the Second World War to delve into the historical background of human development. Although human development officially began in 1990 with a direct contribution by Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, the idea has evolved over time and been greatly influenced by preceding events (e.g. Bandung Conference, North-South Roundtable) and figures (e.g. U Thant, Robert McNamara). With a particular focus on its comparison with basic needs, an alternative approach to the orthodoxy prior to human development, it finds that both approaches have much more in common than often believed, not only in practice but also in concept. To this extent, the success of human development cannot be attributed solely to its conceptual ground.

  • Human Development
  • United Nations
  • United Nations Development Programme
  • International Labour Organization
  • Capability Approach

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info
  • Durable hardcover edition

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions

Alkire, S. (2002). Valuing freedoms: Sen’s capability approach and poverty reduction . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Book   Google Scholar  

Anand, S., & Ravallion, M. (1993). Human development in poor countries: On the role of private incomes and public services. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 7 (1), 133–150.

Article   Google Scholar  

Committee for Development Planning (CDP). (1988). Human resources development: A neglected dimension of development strategy. Views and recommendations of the Committee for Development Planning . New York: United Nations Publications.

Google Scholar  

CDP. (1989). Elements of an international development strategy for the 1990s. Views and recommendations of the Committee for Development Planning . New York: United Nations Publication.

Crocker, D. A. (1992). Functioning and capability: The foundations of Sen’s and Nussbaum’s development ethic. Political Theory, 20 (4), 584–612.

Crocker, D. A. (2008). Ethics of global development: Agency, capability, and deliberative democracy . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Doyal, L., & Gough, I. (1991). A theory of human need . Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Emmerij, L., Jolly, R., & Weiss, T. G. (2001). Ahead of the curve?: UN ideas and global challenges . Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Esman, M. J. & Montgomery, J. D. (1980). The administration of human development . World Bank Staff Working Paper 403: Implementing programs of human development (A background paper for World Development Report 1980), 183–234.

Gasper, D. (2004). The ethics of development: From economism to human development . Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Gasper, D. (2006). What is the point of development ethics? Éthique et économique/Ethics and Economics, 4 (2), 1–30.

Gasper, D. (2008a). Denis Goulet and the project of development ethics: Choices in methodology, focus and organization. Journal of Human Development, 9 , 453–474.

Goulet, D. (1971a). An ethical model for the study of values. Harvard Educational Review, 41 (2), 205–227.

Goulet, D. (1971b). The cruel choice: A new concept in the theory of development . New York: Atheneum.

Grant, J. P. (1977). Foreword. In ILO, Employment, growth and basic needs: A one-world problem: The international ‘basic needs strategy’ against chronic poverty prepared by the ILO International Labour Office, and the decisions of the 1976 World Employment Conference (pp. v–xi). New York: Praeger for the Overseas Development Council in cooperation with the International Labour Office.

Grant, J. P. (1981). A new way of measuring progress in living standards. World Health Forum, 2 (3), 373–384.

Griffin, K., & Knight, J. (1989). Introduction. In K. Griffin & J. Knight (Eds.), Human development and the international development strategy for the 1990s (pp. 1–7). Basingstoke: Macmillan in association with the United Nations.

Griffin, K., & Knight, J. (1989). Human development: The case for renewed emphasis. In K. Griffin & J. Knight (Eds.), Human development and the international development strategy for the 1990s (pp. 9–40). Basingstoke: Macmillan in association with the United Nations.

Haq, K., & Jolly, R. (2008). Global development, poverty alleviation, and north-south relations. In K. Haq & R. Ponzio (Eds.), Pioneering the human development revolution: An intellectual biography of Mahbub ul Haq (pp. 63–87). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haq, K., & Kirdar, Ü. (Eds.). (1986). Human development: The neglected dimension . Islamabad: North South Roundtable.

Haq, K., & Kirdar, Ü. (Eds.). (1987). Human development, adjustment and growth . Islamabad: North South Roundtable.

Haq, K., & Kirdar, Ü. (Eds.). (1988). Managing human development . Islamabad: North South Roundtable.

Haq, K., & Kirdar, Ü. (Eds.). (1989). Development for people: Goals and strategies for the year 2000 . Islamabad: North South Roundtable.

Haq, K., & Massad, C. (1984). Appendix: Santiago Statement. In K. Haq & C. Massad (Eds.), Adjustment with growth: A search for an equitable solution (pp. 325–329). Islamabad: North South Roundtable.

Haq, M. U. (1989a). Human dimension in development. Journal of Development Planning, 19 , 249–258.

Haq, M. U. (1994). The new deal. New Internationalist, 262 , 1–4.

Hicks, N., & Streeten, P. (1979). Indicators of development: The search for a basic needs yardstick. World Development, 7 , 567–580.

Howe, J. W. (1974). The U.S. and the developing world: Agenda for action 1974 . New York: Published for the Overseas Development Council [by] Praeger Publishers.

International Labour Office (ILO). (1977). Employment, growth and basic needs: A one world problem: The international ‘basic needs strategy’ against chronic poverty prepared by the ILO International Labour Office, and the decisions of the 1976 World Employment Conference . New York: Praeger for the Overseas Development Council in cooperation with the International Labour Office.

Jolly, R. (1989b). A future for UN aid and technical assistance? Development, 89 (4), 21–26.

Jolly, R. (2000). False attack: Misrepresenting the human development report and misunderstanding the need for rethinking global governance. World Economics, 1 (3), 1–15.

Jolly, R., Emmerij, L., Ghai, D., & Lapeyre, F. (2004). UN contributions to development thinking and practice . Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jolly, R., Emmerij, L., & Weiss, T. G. (2009). UN ideas that changes the world . Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kahin, G. M. (1956). The Asia-African Conference, Bandung, Indonesia, April 1955 . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kirdar, Ü. (1986). International institutions and human development: A critique. In K. Haq & Ü. Kirdar (Eds.), Human development: The neglected dimension (pp. 421–436). Islamabad: North South Roundtable.

Kirdar, Ü. (1989). A review of past strategies. In K. Haq & Ü. Kirdar (Eds.), Development for people: Goals and strategies for the year 2000 (pp. 181–200). Islamabad: North South Roundtable.

Liser, F. B. (1977). Statistical annexes. In J. W. Sewell (Ed.), The United States and world development: Agenda 1977 (pp. 143–246). New York: Praeger for the Overseas Development Council.

Max-Neef, M. (1992). Development and human needs. In P. Ekins & M. Max-Neef (Eds.), Real-life economics: Understanding wealth creation (pp. 197–214). London: Routledge.

McLaughlin, M. M. (1979). The United States and world development: Agenda 1979 . New York: Praeger for the Overseas Development Council.

McNamara, R. S. (1981). The McNamara Years at the World Bank: Major policy addresses of Robert S. McNamara 1968–1981 . Baltimore: Published for the World Bank [by] the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Meerman, J. 1980. Paying for human development . World Bank Staff Working Paper 403: Implementing programs of human development (A background paper for World Development Report 1980): 109-182.

North South Roundtable (NSRT) & UNDP. (1983, August 29–September 1). Statement from Istanbul: A report on the Istanbul Roundtable on world monetary, financial and human resource development issues . Istanbul.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2000). Women and human development: The capabilities approach . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nyerere, J. K. (1967). Freedom and unity . London: Oxford University Press.

Nyerere, J. K. (1973). Freedom and development . Dar es Salaam: Oxford University Press.

Ponzio, R. (2008). The advent of the Human Development Report. In K. Haq & R. Ponzio (Eds.), Pioneering the human development revolution: An intellectual biography of Mahbub ul Haq (pp. 88–111). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rist, G. (1997). The history of development: From western origins to global faith . London: Zed.

Rogers, E. M., Colletta, N. J. & Mbindyo, J. (1980). Social and cultural influences on human development . World Bank Staff Working Paper 403: Implementing programs of human development (A background paper for World Development Report 1980): 235–310.

Rostow, W. W. (1960). The stages of economic growth: A non-communist manifesto . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sen, A. K. (1983). Development: Which way now? The Economic Journal, 93 (372), 745–762.

Sen, A. K. (1984). Resources, values and development . Oxford: Blackwell.

Sen, A. K. (1989). Development as capabilities expansion. Journal of Development Planning, 19 , 41–58.

Sen, A. K. (1997). Development thinking at the beginning of the XXI century. In L. Emmerij (Ed.), Economic and social development into the XXI century (pp. 531–551). Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank.

Sen, A. K. (2009). The idea of justice . London: Allen Lane.

Sewell, J. W. (1977). The United States and world development: Agenda 1977 . New York: Praeger for the Overseas Development Council.

Singh, A. (1979). The “basic needs” approach to development vs the New International Economic Order: The significance of third world industrialization. World Development, 7 , 585–606.

Stewart, F. (1985). Planning to meet basic needs . London: Macmillan.

Stewart, F. (2006). Basic needs approach. In D. Clark (Ed.), The Elgar companion to development studies (pp. 14–18). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Stewart, F., & Deneulin, S. (2002). Amartya Sen’s contribution to development thinking. Studies in Comparative international Development, 37 (2), 61–70.

Streeten, P. 1977. The distinctive features of a basic needs approach to development. International Development Review (1977), reprinted in Development , 40: 49–56.

Streeten, P. (1984). Basic needs: Some unsettled questions. World Development, 12 (9), 973–978.

Streeten, P. (1994). Human development: Means and ends. The American Economic Review, 84 (2), 232–237.

Streeten, P. (1995a). Foreword. In M. U. Haq (Ed.), Reflections on human development: How the focus of development economics shifted from national income accounting to people-centred policies told by one of the chief architects of the new paradigm (pp. ix–xvi). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Streeten, P. (1995b). Human development: The debate about the index. International Social Science Journal, 47 (143), 25–37.

Streeten, P., Burki, S. J., Haq, M. U., Hicks, N., & Stewart, F. (1981). First things first: Meeting basic human needs in the developing countries . New York: Published for the World Bank [by] Oxford University Press.

Tinbergen, J., Dolman, A. J., & Ettinger, J. V. (1977). Reshaping the international order: A report to the Club of Rome . London: Hutchinson.

UN. (1970). Yearbook of the United Nations 1970, New York.

UN. (1976). Yearbook of the United Nations 1976, New York.

UNDP. (1990–2015). Human Development Report, New York.

UNDP. (1990). Human Development Report, New York.

UNDP & NSRT. (1985, September1–4). Istanbul Statement on development: The human dimension . Istanbul.

Uphoff, N. (1980). Political considerations in human development . World Bank Staff Working Paper 403: Implementing programs of human development (A background paper for World Development Report 1980): 1–108.

U Thant. (1962). Foreword to the United Nations Development Decade: Proposals for action. In A. W. Cordier & M. Harrelson (Eds.), Public papers of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations [volume VI] U Thant 1961–1964 (pp. 140–145). New York: Columbia University Press.

World Bank. (1980). World Development Report 1980 . DC: Washington.

Download references

Author information

Authors and affiliations.

The University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan

Tadashi Hirai

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2017 The Author(s)

About this chapter

Hirai, T. (2017). History of Development: Towards Human Development. In: The Creation of the Human Development Approach. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Download citation


Published : 16 March 2017

Publisher Name : Palgrave Macmillan, Cham

Print ISBN : 978-3-319-51567-0

Online ISBN : 978-3-319-51568-7

eBook Packages : Political Science and International Studies Political Science and International Studies (R0)

Share this chapter

Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:

Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.

Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative

  • Publish with us

Policies and ethics

  • Find a journal
  • Track your research

Universal Teacher

  • Mobile Phone
  • Advertising

Brief History of Operations Research

Operations Research (Operational Research, O.R., or Management science) includes a great deal of problem-solving techniques like Mathematical models, Statistics and algorithms to aid in decision-making. O.R. is employed to analyze complex real-world systems, generally with the objective of improving or optimizing performance.

In other words, Operations Research is an interdisciplinary branch of applied mathematics and formal science which makes use of methods like mathematical modeling, algorithms statistics and statistics to reach optimal or near optimal solutions to complex situations.

It is usually worried about optimizing the maxima (for instance, profit, assembly line performance, bandwidth, etc) or minima (for instance, loss, risk, cost, etc.) of some objective function. Operational Research aids the management to accomplish its objectives utilizing scientific methods.

Origin and History of Operations Research in Brief

While researching for operations research (O.R.) history , I discovered that history is not clear cut, different people have diverse views of the same event.

Based on the history of Operations Research , it is believed that Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is the father of Operational Research due to the fact that his research into the cost of transportation and sorting of mail resulted in England’s universal Penny Post in 1840.

The name operations research evolved in the year 1940 . During World War 2, a team of scientist (Blackett’s Circus) in UK applied scientific techniques to research military operations to win the war and the techniques thus developed was named as operation research.

As a formal discipline, operations research originated from the efforts of army advisors at the time of World War II. In the years following the war, the methods started to be employed extensively to problems in business, industry and society. Ever since then, OR has developed into a subject frequently employed in industries including petrochemicals, logistics, airlines, finance, government, etc.

Thus, the Operational Research began during World War II in great Britain with the establishment of groups of scientists to analyze the strategic and tactical problems associated with military operations. The aim was to discover the most efficient usage of limited military resources by the application of quantitative techniques.

Figure – O.R. Origin

At the conclusion of war different things happened to O.R. in the Great Britain and in the United States. In the UK expenses on defense research were lowered; this resulted in the discharge of numerous Operational Research workers from the military at a time when business managers were facing the need to restore much of Britain’s production facilities which had been ruined in war. Professionals in the nationalized basic industries, specifically, needed assistance from the OR men leaving the military organization.

To the contrary, defense research in US was increased and O.R. was expanded at the conclusion of war. The majority of the experienced workers stayed in the service of the army. The ultimate involvement of science in industrial problems of the executive type in the US is a result of the advent of Second Industrial revolution.

World war II had sparked scientific advances in the study of communication, computation, & control which produced the technological grounds for automation. In early 1950s industry started to take in a few of the Operational Research workers who left the army. Thus O.R. started to spread and expand in the United States.

Read Also: Origin of Operations Research

Video: Introduction to Operational Research

India was among the few nations which began utilizing O.R. In 1949, the first Operational Research unit was established at Hyderabad which was named Regional Research Laboratory located. At the same time an additional unit was launched in Defense Science Laboratory to fix the Stores, Purchase and Planning Problems.

In 1953 at Calcutta, an O.R. unit was established in Indian Statistical Institute. The objective was to use O.R. techniques in National Planning and Survey. In 1955, Operations Research Society of India was created, which is among the first members of International Federation of Operations Research societies. Today, the utilization of O.R. techniques have spread out from army to a wide range of departments at all levels.

Read Also: Best E-book on Operations Research

In this article, we discussed about the historical development of Operations Research in  brief  . In case we have missed something then post in comments section.

Great article on History of Operations Research. if you are posting on additional places, I’d like to follow you. Would you post a list of the complete urls of your social community sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

Thanks for providing the resource on operational research history.

Thanks for much drawing at least to the conclusion aspect of the origin and history of OR

Thanks for the historic origin of operation research, it really made me understand more of O.R. Thanks…

Thank you for providing history in detail and in very effective manner.

Thank you for giving us d history O.R God bless u

Thanks for brief history about O..R,but could you also continue and elaborate on the historical development of O.R in Africa

brief but well detailed , keep up

Thanks so much, this was helpful. brief and well detailed…

wow!!! very educative that for unvailing the history of opeartional research

Great article thanks for the brief history of operation research it really help.

Thanks for the explanation. Currently i am doing operating research as a unit in mathematics at MARIST INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY COLLEGE NAIROBI, KENYA AFRICA. I hope this will go a long way in assisting me more and more.

It is really helpful

Very helpful but I need to know more about the development of OR. Currently taking a course on it . Would be helpful. Caio

This Just Helped Me Answer My Assignment Questions in Entirety, Thank You

Tq really it is more informatic

Well, i really like, it, it is informative and educative to ma, just made me to answer my assignment, more kudos.

Thanks so much for helping me to understand what operation research is all about and it’s history

Very interesting

Interesting facts, which softwares under the OR are available for logistical use and planning

Speak Your Mind

Return to top of page

Privacy Policy   Copyright © 2024 ·

  • Privacy Policy

Buy Me a Coffee

Research Method

Home » Background of The Study – Examples and Writing Guide

Background of The Study – Examples and Writing Guide

Table of Contents

Background of The Study

Background of The Study


Background of the study refers to the context, circumstances, and history that led to the research problem or topic being studied. It provides the reader with a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter and the significance of the study.

The background of the study usually includes a discussion of the relevant literature, the gap in knowledge or understanding, and the research questions or hypotheses to be addressed. It also highlights the importance of the research topic and its potential contributions to the field. A well-written background of the study sets the stage for the research and helps the reader to appreciate the need for the study and its potential significance.

How to Write Background of The Study

Here are some steps to help you write the background of the study:

Identify the Research Problem

Start by identifying the research problem you are trying to address. This problem should be significant and relevant to your field of study.

Provide Context

Once you have identified the research problem, provide some context. This could include the historical, social, or political context of the problem.

Review Literature

Conduct a thorough review of the existing literature on the topic. This will help you understand what has been studied and what gaps exist in the current research.

Identify Research Gap

Based on your literature review, identify the gap in knowledge or understanding that your research aims to address. This gap will be the focus of your research question or hypothesis.

State Objectives

Clearly state the objectives of your research . These should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).

Discuss Significance

Explain the significance of your research. This could include its potential impact on theory , practice, policy, or society.

Finally, summarize the key points of the background of the study. This will help the reader understand the research problem, its context, and its significance.

How to Write Background of The Study in Proposal

The background of the study is an essential part of any proposal as it sets the stage for the research project and provides the context and justification for why the research is needed. Here are the steps to write a compelling background of the study in your proposal:

  • Identify the problem: Clearly state the research problem or gap in the current knowledge that you intend to address through your research.
  • Provide context: Provide a brief overview of the research area and highlight its significance in the field.
  • Review literature: Summarize the relevant literature related to the research problem and provide a critical evaluation of the current state of knowledge.
  • Identify gaps : Identify the gaps or limitations in the existing literature and explain how your research will contribute to filling these gaps.
  • Justify the study : Explain why your research is important and what practical or theoretical contributions it can make to the field.
  • Highlight objectives: Clearly state the objectives of the study and how they relate to the research problem.
  • Discuss methodology: Provide an overview of the methodology you will use to collect and analyze data, and explain why it is appropriate for the research problem.
  • Conclude : Summarize the key points of the background of the study and explain how they support your research proposal.

How to Write Background of The Study In Thesis

The background of the study is a critical component of a thesis as it provides context for the research problem, rationale for conducting the study, and the significance of the research. Here are some steps to help you write a strong background of the study:

  • Identify the research problem : Start by identifying the research problem that your thesis is addressing. What is the issue that you are trying to solve or explore? Be specific and concise in your problem statement.
  • Review the literature: Conduct a thorough review of the relevant literature on the topic. This should include scholarly articles, books, and other sources that are directly related to your research question.
  • I dentify gaps in the literature: After reviewing the literature, identify any gaps in the existing research. What questions remain unanswered? What areas have not been explored? This will help you to establish the need for your research.
  • Establish the significance of the research: Clearly state the significance of your research. Why is it important to address this research problem? What are the potential implications of your research? How will it contribute to the field?
  • Provide an overview of the research design: Provide an overview of the research design and methodology that you will be using in your study. This should include a brief explanation of the research approach, data collection methods, and data analysis techniques.
  • State the research objectives and research questions: Clearly state the research objectives and research questions that your study aims to answer. These should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
  • Summarize the chapter: Summarize the chapter by highlighting the key points and linking them back to the research problem, significance of the study, and research questions.

How to Write Background of The Study in Research Paper

Here are the steps to write the background of the study in a research paper:

  • Identify the research problem: Start by identifying the research problem that your study aims to address. This can be a particular issue, a gap in the literature, or a need for further investigation.
  • Conduct a literature review: Conduct a thorough literature review to gather information on the topic, identify existing studies, and understand the current state of research. This will help you identify the gap in the literature that your study aims to fill.
  • Explain the significance of the study: Explain why your study is important and why it is necessary. This can include the potential impact on the field, the importance to society, or the need to address a particular issue.
  • Provide context: Provide context for the research problem by discussing the broader social, economic, or political context that the study is situated in. This can help the reader understand the relevance of the study and its potential implications.
  • State the research questions and objectives: State the research questions and objectives that your study aims to address. This will help the reader understand the scope of the study and its purpose.
  • Summarize the methodology : Briefly summarize the methodology you used to conduct the study, including the data collection and analysis methods. This can help the reader understand how the study was conducted and its reliability.

Examples of Background of The Study

Here are some examples of the background of the study:

Problem : The prevalence of obesity among children in the United States has reached alarming levels, with nearly one in five children classified as obese.

Significance : Obesity in childhood is associated with numerous negative health outcomes, including increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.

Gap in knowledge : Despite efforts to address the obesity epidemic, rates continue to rise. There is a need for effective interventions that target the unique needs of children and their families.

Problem : The use of antibiotics in agriculture has contributed to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which poses a significant threat to human health.

Significance : Antibiotic-resistant infections are responsible for thousands of deaths each year and are a major public health concern.

Gap in knowledge: While there is a growing body of research on the use of antibiotics in agriculture, there is still much to be learned about the mechanisms of resistance and the most effective strategies for reducing antibiotic use.

Edxample 3:

Problem : Many low-income communities lack access to healthy food options, leading to high rates of food insecurity and diet-related diseases.

Significance : Poor nutrition is a major contributor to chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Gap in knowledge : While there have been efforts to address food insecurity, there is a need for more research on the barriers to accessing healthy food in low-income communities and effective strategies for increasing access.

Examples of Background of The Study In Research

Here are some real-life examples of how the background of the study can be written in different fields of study:

Example 1 : “There has been a significant increase in the incidence of diabetes in recent years. This has led to an increased demand for effective diabetes management strategies. The purpose of this study is to evaluate the effectiveness of a new diabetes management program in improving patient outcomes.”

Example 2 : “The use of social media has become increasingly prevalent in modern society. Despite its popularity, little is known about the effects of social media use on mental health. This study aims to investigate the relationship between social media use and mental health in young adults.”

Example 3: “Despite significant advancements in cancer treatment, the survival rate for patients with pancreatic cancer remains low. The purpose of this study is to identify potential biomarkers that can be used to improve early detection and treatment of pancreatic cancer.”

Examples of Background of The Study in Proposal

Here are some real-time examples of the background of the study in a proposal:

Example 1 : The prevalence of mental health issues among university students has been increasing over the past decade. This study aims to investigate the causes and impacts of mental health issues on academic performance and wellbeing.

Example 2 : Climate change is a global issue that has significant implications for agriculture in developing countries. This study aims to examine the adaptive capacity of smallholder farmers to climate change and identify effective strategies to enhance their resilience.

Example 3 : The use of social media in political campaigns has become increasingly common in recent years. This study aims to analyze the effectiveness of social media campaigns in mobilizing young voters and influencing their voting behavior.

Example 4 : Employee turnover is a major challenge for organizations, especially in the service sector. This study aims to identify the key factors that influence employee turnover in the hospitality industry and explore effective strategies for reducing turnover rates.

Examples of Background of The Study in Thesis

Here are some real-time examples of the background of the study in the thesis:

Example 1 : “Women’s participation in the workforce has increased significantly over the past few decades. However, women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions, particularly in male-dominated industries such as technology. This study aims to examine the factors that contribute to the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in the technology industry, with a focus on organizational culture and gender bias.”

Example 2 : “Mental health is a critical component of overall health and well-being. Despite increased awareness of the importance of mental health, there are still significant gaps in access to mental health services, particularly in low-income and rural communities. This study aims to evaluate the effectiveness of a community-based mental health intervention in improving mental health outcomes in underserved populations.”

Example 3: “The use of technology in education has become increasingly widespread, with many schools adopting online learning platforms and digital resources. However, there is limited research on the impact of technology on student learning outcomes and engagement. This study aims to explore the relationship between technology use and academic achievement among middle school students, as well as the factors that mediate this relationship.”

Examples of Background of The Study in Research Paper

Here are some examples of how the background of the study can be written in various fields:

Example 1: The prevalence of obesity has been on the rise globally, with the World Health Organization reporting that approximately 650 million adults were obese in 2016. Obesity is a major risk factor for several chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. In recent years, several interventions have been proposed to address this issue, including lifestyle changes, pharmacotherapy, and bariatric surgery. However, there is a lack of consensus on the most effective intervention for obesity management. This study aims to investigate the efficacy of different interventions for obesity management and identify the most effective one.

Example 2: Antibiotic resistance has become a major public health threat worldwide. Infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria are associated with longer hospital stays, higher healthcare costs, and increased mortality. The inappropriate use of antibiotics is one of the main factors contributing to the development of antibiotic resistance. Despite numerous efforts to promote the rational use of antibiotics, studies have shown that many healthcare providers continue to prescribe antibiotics inappropriately. This study aims to explore the factors influencing healthcare providers’ prescribing behavior and identify strategies to improve antibiotic prescribing practices.

Example 3: Social media has become an integral part of modern communication, with millions of people worldwide using platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Social media has several advantages, including facilitating communication, connecting people, and disseminating information. However, social media use has also been associated with several negative outcomes, including cyberbullying, addiction, and mental health problems. This study aims to investigate the impact of social media use on mental health and identify the factors that mediate this relationship.

Purpose of Background of The Study

The primary purpose of the background of the study is to help the reader understand the rationale for the research by presenting the historical, theoretical, and empirical background of the problem.

More specifically, the background of the study aims to:

  • Provide a clear understanding of the research problem and its context.
  • Identify the gap in knowledge that the study intends to fill.
  • Establish the significance of the research problem and its potential contribution to the field.
  • Highlight the key concepts, theories, and research findings related to the problem.
  • Provide a rationale for the research questions or hypotheses and the research design.
  • Identify the limitations and scope of the study.

When to Write Background of The Study

The background of the study should be written early on in the research process, ideally before the research design is finalized and data collection begins. This allows the researcher to clearly articulate the rationale for the study and establish a strong foundation for the research.

The background of the study typically comes after the introduction but before the literature review section. It should provide an overview of the research problem and its context, and also introduce the key concepts, theories, and research findings related to the problem.

Writing the background of the study early on in the research process also helps to identify potential gaps in knowledge and areas for further investigation, which can guide the development of the research questions or hypotheses and the research design. By establishing the significance of the research problem and its potential contribution to the field, the background of the study can also help to justify the research and secure funding or support from stakeholders.

Advantage of Background of The Study

The background of the study has several advantages, including:

  • Provides context: The background of the study provides context for the research problem by highlighting the historical, theoretical, and empirical background of the problem. This allows the reader to understand the research problem in its broader context and appreciate its significance.
  • Identifies gaps in knowledge: By reviewing the existing literature related to the research problem, the background of the study can identify gaps in knowledge that the study intends to fill. This helps to establish the novelty and originality of the research and its potential contribution to the field.
  • Justifies the research : The background of the study helps to justify the research by demonstrating its significance and potential impact. This can be useful in securing funding or support for the research.
  • Guides the research design: The background of the study can guide the development of the research questions or hypotheses and the research design by identifying key concepts, theories, and research findings related to the problem. This ensures that the research is grounded in existing knowledge and is designed to address the research problem effectively.
  • Establishes credibility: By demonstrating the researcher’s knowledge of the field and the research problem, the background of the study can establish the researcher’s credibility and expertise, which can enhance the trustworthiness and validity of the research.

Disadvantages of Background of The Study

Some Disadvantages of Background of The Study are as follows:

  • Time-consuming : Writing a comprehensive background of the study can be time-consuming, especially if the research problem is complex and multifaceted. This can delay the research process and impact the timeline for completing the study.
  • Repetitive: The background of the study can sometimes be repetitive, as it often involves summarizing existing research and theories related to the research problem. This can be tedious for the reader and may make the section less engaging.
  • Limitations of existing research: The background of the study can reveal the limitations of existing research related to the problem. This can create challenges for the researcher in developing research questions or hypotheses that address the gaps in knowledge identified in the background of the study.
  • Bias : The researcher’s biases and perspectives can influence the content and tone of the background of the study. This can impact the reader’s perception of the research problem and may influence the validity of the research.
  • Accessibility: Accessing and reviewing the literature related to the research problem can be challenging, especially if the researcher does not have access to a comprehensive database or if the literature is not available in the researcher’s language. This can limit the depth and scope of the background of the study.

About the author

' src=

Muhammad Hassan

Researcher, Academic Writer, Web developer

You may also like

Data collection

Data Collection – Methods Types and Examples


Delimitations in Research – Types, Examples and...

Research Process

Research Process – Steps, Examples and Tips

Research Design

Research Design – Types, Methods and Examples

Institutional Review Board (IRB)

Institutional Review Board – Application Sample...

Evaluating Research

Evaluating Research – Process, Examples and...


  1. Research and development

    The concept of research is as old as science; the concept of the intimate relationship between research and subsequent development, however, was not generally recognized until the 1950s. Research and development is the beginning of most systems of industrial production. The innovations that result in new products and new processes usually have ...

  2. PDF Research or Development? A Short History of Research and Development as

    A Short History of Research and Development as Categories. Benoît Godin 385 rue Sherbrooke Est Montreal, Quebec Canada H2X 1E3. [email protected]. Joseph Lane Center for Assistive Technology School of Public Health and Health Professions SUNY, Buffalo. [email protected].

  3. Research and development

    Research and development ( R&D or R+D; also known in Europe as research and technological development or RTD) [1] is the set of innovative activities undertaken by corporations or governments in developing new services or products, and improving existing ones. [2] [3] Research and development constitutes the first stage of development of a ...

  4. The state of development studies: origins, evolution and prospects

    This article examines the origins and evolution of development studies, as well as its status and prospects in the coming decades. Footnote 1 The first section traces the history of development studies over more than two centuries, and identifies three distinct traditions focused on poor places abroad, progress at home and global interdependencies. The second section shows that development ...

  5. Evolution of Clinical Research: A History Before and Beyond James Lind

    The evolution of clinical research traverses a long and fascinating journey. The recorded history of clinical trials goes back to the biblical descriptions in 500 BC. The journey moves from dietary therapy - legumes and lemons - to drugs. After basic approach of clinical trial was described in 18th century, the efforts were made to refine ...

  6. The historical roots of economic development

    Traditionally, research into contemporary economic development has taken a primarily ahistorical approach. The study of the past was relegated to the separate field of economic history, and connections between historical factors and present-day economic outcomes were seldom made. In recent decades, there has been a rapidly growing body of ...

  7. Sustainable development: Meaning, history, principles, pillars, and

    Abstract. Sustainable development (SD) has become a popular catchphrase in contemporary development discourse. However, in spite of its pervasiveness and the massive popularity it has garnered over the years, the concept still seems unclear as many people continue to ask questions about its meaning and history, as well as what it entails and implies for development theory and practice.

  8. History of Research

    The origins of research, including a historical background on the application of its theories to current and evidence-based practice, are explored in this chapter. Also considered are some recent drivers of research in radiography and why research is an important part of the role of radiographers whatever their scope of practice ...

  9. A History of Development and Development as History

    Abstract. Any assessment of development requires a distinction be made between two interrelated, though distinct, issues. On the one hand, development refers to an actual historical and material occurrence: a significant change in the economic, social, political, and cultural conditions affecting large groups of people.

  10. An Introduction to Research and Development (R&D)

    Research and development (R&D) refers to two intertwined processes of research (to identify new knowledge and ideas) and development (turning the ideas into tangible products or processes). Companies undertake R&D in order to develop new products, services, or procedures that will help them grow and expand their operations.

  11. A Brief Conceptual History of Sustainable Development

    Footnote 55 His background is hermeneutic, as he is interested in human perception and sees historical research as an effort to identify ourselves with past groups and individuals. His central idea is that experience of the past and expectations about the future constitute all history, that history takes place between the space of experience ...

  12. The History of Artificial Intelligence

    The Logic Theorist was a program designed to mimic the problem solving skills of a human and was funded by Research and Development (RAND) Corporation. ... Rockwell Anyoha is a graduate student in the department of molecular biology with a background in physics and genetics. ... I like the fact that it touches on the history and development of ...

  13. The History of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology: From Chemical-Physical

    The development of nanoscience can be traced to the time of the Greeks and Democritus in the 5th century B.C., when scientists considered the question of whether matter is continuous, and thus infinitely divisible into smaller pieces, or composed of small, indivisible and indestructible particles, which scientists now call atoms.

  14. Writing the History of Development (Part 1: The First Wave)

    Writing the History of Development (Part 1: The First Wave) February 10, 2016 by Joseph Morgan Hodge. 3 comments. Today . . . the idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape. Delusion and disappointment, failures and crimes have been the steady companions of development and they tell a common story: it did not work.

  15. Introduction to Historical Research : Home

    This guide is an introduction to selected resources available for historical research. It covers both primary sources (such as diaries, letters, newspaper articles, photographs, government documents and first-hand accounts) and secondary materials (such as books and articles written by historians and devoted to the analysis and interpretation of historical events and evidence).

  16. The brief history of artificial intelligence: The world has changed

    Scale-up was already exponential and has sped up substantially over the past decade. What can we learn from this historical development for the future of AI? Studying the long-run trends to predict the future of AI. AI researchers study these long-term trends to see what is possible in the future. 11

  17. Historical Development of Origins Research

    Abstract. Following the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, many naturalists adopted the idea that living organisms were the historical outcome of gradual transformation of lifeless matter. These views soon merged with the developments of biochemistry and cell biology and led to proposals in which the origin of protoplasm was equated ...

  18. History of Development: Towards Human Development

    This chapter overviews the conceptual shift in development after the Second World War to delve into the historical background of human development. Although human development officially began in 1990 with a direct contribution by Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, the...

  19. PDF Perspectives on the History of Global Development

    History of Global Development Perspectives on the History of Global Development Editors-in-Chief Iris Borowy (Shanghai University), Nicholas Ferns (Monash University), ... The obligation to research and clear permission lies solely with the party re-using the material. Library of Congress Control Number: 2022939969

  20. Historical Research

    Law: Historical research is used in legal proceedings to provide evidence and context for cases involving historical events or practices. It can also be used to inform the development of new laws and policies. Genealogy: Historical research can be used by individuals to trace their family history and to understand their ancestral roots.

  21. Brief History of Operations Research

    The name operations research evolved in the year 1940. During World War 2, a team of scientist (Blackett's Circus) in UK applied scientific techniques to research military operations to win the war and the techniques thus developed was named as operation research. As a formal discipline, operations research originated from the efforts of army ...

  22. How do I write the background of a research in a historical and

    The background is the first part of the introduction and has to set the context for the research. So, you need to talk about the existing research in the area and the gaps in this research. Based on this, the background has to lead to the purpose of the research and thus talk about the goals of the research. Therefore, in your case, you could ...

  23. Background of The Study

    Here are the steps to write the background of the study in a research paper: Identify the research problem: Start by identifying the research problem that your study aims to address. This can be a particular issue, a gap in the literature, or a need for further investigation. Conduct a literature review: Conduct a thorough literature review to ...