James C. Scott

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James C. Scott
James C Scott 2016.jpg
Scott in 2016
Born (1936-12-02) December 2, 1936 (age 85)
Alma mater
Scientific career
FieldsPolitical science, anthropology
Doctoral studentsBen Kerkvliet
Melissa Nobles
Erik Ringmar
Eric Tagliacozzo
InfluencesMarc Bloch • Alexander Chayanov • John Dunn • Antonio Gramsci • Eric Hobsbawm • C. Wright Mills • Barrington Moore • Karl Polanyi • E.P. Thompson • Eric Wolf • Pierre Clastres • Ranajit Guha

James C. Scott (born December 2, 1936)[2] is an American political scientist and anthropologist specializing in comparative politics. He is a comparative scholar of agrarian and non-state societies, subaltern politics, and anarchism. His primary research has centered on peasants of Southeast Asia and their strategies of resistance to various forms of domination.[3] The New York Times described his research as "highly influential and idiosyncratic".[4]

Scott received his bachelor's degree from Williams College and his MA and PhD in political science from Yale. He taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison until 1976 and then at Yale, where he is Sterling Professor of Political Science. Since 1991 he has directed Yale's Program in Agrarian Studies.[5] He lives in Durham, Connecticut, where he once raised sheep.[3][6]

Early life and career[edit]

Scott was born in Mount Holly, New Jersey, in 1936.[7] He attended the Moorestown Friends School, a Quaker Day School, and in 1953 matriculated at Williams College in Massachusetts.[6] On the advice of Indonesia scholar William Hollinger he wrote an honors thesis on the economic development of Burma.[6] Scott received his bachelor's degree from Williams College in 1958, and his PhD in political science from Yale University in 1967.[7]

Upon graduation, Scott received a Rotary International Fellowship to study in Burma, where he was recruited by an American student activist who had become an anti-communist organizer for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Scott agreed to do reporting for the agency, and at the end of his fellowship, took a post in the Paris office of the National Student Association, which accepted CIA money and direction in working against communist-controlled global student movements over the next few years.[8]

Scott began graduate study in political science at Yale in 1961. His dissertation on political ideology in Malaysia, which was supervised by Robert E. Lane, analysed interviews with Malaysian civil servants. In 1967, he took a position as an assistant professor in political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. As a Southeast Asia specialist teaching during the Vietnam War, he offered popular courses on the war and peasant revolutions.[9] In 1976, having earned tenure at Madison, Scott returned to Yale and settled on a farm in Durham, Connecticut with his wife. They started with a small farm, then purchased a larger one nearby in the early 1980s and began raising sheep for their wool.[9] Since 2011, the pastures on the farm have been grazed by two Highland cattle, named Fife and Dundee.

Scott's first books were based on archival research. He is an influential scholar of ethnographic fieldwork.[10] He is unusual for conducting his primary ethnographic fieldwork only after receiving tenure. To research his third book, Weapons of the Weak, Scott spent fourteen months in a village in Kedah, Malaysia between 1978 and 1980.[11] When he had finished a draft, he returned for two months to solicit villagers' impressions of his depiction, and significantly revised the book based on their criticisms and insight.[9][11]

Major works[edit]

James Scott's work focuses on the ways that subaltern people resist domination.

The Moral Economy of the Peasant[edit]

During the Vietnam War, Scott took an interest in Vietnam and wrote The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (1976) about the ways peasants resisted authority. His main argument is that peasants prefer the patron-client relations of the "moral economy", in which wealthier peasants protect weaker ones. When these traditional forms of solidarity break down due to the introduction of market forces, rebellion (or revolution) is likely. Samuel Popkin, in his book The Rational Peasant (1979), tried to refute this argument, showing that peasants are also rational actors who prefer free markets to exploitation by local elites. Scott and Popkin thus represent two radically different positions in the formalist–substantivist debate in political anthropology.[12]

Weapons of the Weak[edit]

In Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1985) Scott expanded his theories to peasants in other parts of the world. Scott's theories are often contrasted with Gramscian ideas about hegemony. Against Gramsci, Scott argues that the everyday resistance of subalterns shows that they have not consented to dominance.[11]

Domination and the Arts of Resistance[edit]

In Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (1990) argues that subordinate groups employ strategies of resistance that go unnoticed. He terms this "infrapolitics." Scott describes the public interactions between dominators and oppressed as a "public transcript" and the critique of power that goes on offstage as a "hidden transcript." Groups under domination—from bonded labor to sexual violence—thus cannot be understood merely by their outward appearances. In order to study the systems of domination, careful attention is paid to what lies beneath the surface of evident, public behavior. In public, those that are oppressed accept their domination, but they always question their domination offstage. On the event of a publicization of this "hidden transcript", oppressed classes openly assume their speech, and become conscious of its common status.[13]

Seeing Like a State[edit]

Scott's book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998) saw his first major foray into political science. In it, he showed how central governments attempt to force legibility on their subjects, and fail to see complex, valuable forms of local social order and knowledge. A main theme of this book, illustrated by his historic examples, is that states operate systems of power toward 'legibility' in order to 'see' their subjects correctly in a top-down, modernist, model that is flawed, problematic, and often ends poorly for subjects. The goal of local 'legibility' by the state is 'transparency' from the top down, from the top of the tower or the center/seat of the government, so the state can effectively operate upon their subjects. The details and arguments amplify Foucault's central notions of governmentality and operations of power.

Scott uses examples like the introduction of permanent last names in Great Britain, cadastral surveys in France, and standard units of measure across Europe to argue that a reconfiguration of social order is necessary for state scrutiny, and requires the simplification of pre-existing, natural arrangements. In the case of last names, Scott cites a Welsh man who appeared in court and identified himself with a long string of patronyms: "John, ap Thomas ap William" etc. In his local village, this naming system carried a lot of information, because people could identify him as the son of Thomas and grandson of William, and thus distinguish him from the other Johns, the other children of Thomas, and the other grandchildren of William. Yet it was of less use to the central government, which did not know Thomas or William. The court demanded that John take a permanent last name (in this case, the name of his village). This helped the central government keep track of its subjects, but it lost local information.

Scott argues that in order for schemes to improve the human condition to succeed, they must take into account local conditions, and that the high-modernist ideologies of the 20th century have prevented this. He highlights collective farms in the Soviet Union, the building of Brasilia, and Prussian forestry techniques as examples of failed schemes.[14]

The Art of Not Being Governed[edit]

In The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Scott addresses the question of how certain groups in the mountainous jungles of Southeast Asia managed to avoid a package of exploitation centered around the state, taxation, and grain cultivation. Certain aspects of their society seen by outsiders as backward (e.g., limited literacy and use of written language) were in fact part of the "Arts" referenced in the title: limiting literacy meant lower visibility to the state. Scott's main argument is that these people are "barbaric by design": their social organization, geographical location, subsistence practices and culture have been carved to discourage states to annex them to their territories. Addressing identity in the Introduction, he wrote:

... All identities, without exception, have been socially constructed: the Han, the Burman, the American, the Danish, all of them ... To the degree that the identity is stigmatized by the larger state or society, it is likely to become for many a resistant and defiant identity. Here invented identities combine with self-making of a heroic kind, in which such identifications become a badge of honor ...

— (pp. xii-iii.)

Against the Grain[edit]

Published in August 2017, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States is an account of new evidence for the beginnings of the earliest civilizations that contradict the standard narrative. Scott explores why we avoided sedentism and plow agriculture; the advantages of mobile subsistence; the unforeseeable epidemics arising from crowding plants, animals, and grain; and why all early states are based on millets, cereal grains and unfree labor. He also discusses the “barbarians” who long evaded state control, as a way of understanding continuing tension between states and non subject peoples.[15]

Other works[edit]

In Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play from 2012 Scott says that "Lacking a comprehensive anarchist worldview and philosophy, and in any case wary of nomothetic ways of seeing, I am making a case for a sort of anarchist squint. What I aim to show is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle. It will also become apparent that anarchist principles are active in the aspirations and political action of people who have never heard of anarchism or anarchist philosophy."[16]

Awards and fellowships[edit]

Scott is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has been awarded resident fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the Science, Technology and Society Program at M.I.T.[17] He has also received research grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and was president of the Association for Asian Studies in 1997. In 2020 he was elected to the American Philosophical Society.[18]

Selected bibliography[edit]

(Note: excludes edited volumes.)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Munck, Gerardo L.; Snyder, Richard (2007). "Peasants, Power, and the Art of Resistance". Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-8464-1.
  2. ^ "James C. SCOTT". Secretariat of the Fukuoka Prize Committee. Retrieved August 10, 2017.
  3. ^ a b Schuessler, Jennifer (December 5, 2012). "James C. Scott: Farmer and Scholar of Anarchism". New York Times. Retrieved February 24, 2015.
  4. ^ Schuessler, Jennifer (December 4, 2012). "James C. Scott, Farmer and Scholar of Anarchism". The New York Times. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
  5. ^ "Academic Prize 2010, Award Citation". Fukuoka Prize. 2010. Retrieved February 24, 2015.
  6. ^ a b c Scott, James C. (March 26, 2009). "James Scott interviewed by Alan Macfarlane" (Interview: video). Vol. 1. Interviewed by Alan Macfarlane. Cambridge, England. Retrieved November 26, 2014.
  7. ^ a b Munck, Gerardo L.; Snyder, Richard (2007). Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 352. ISBN 978-0-8018-8464-1.
  8. ^ Paget, Karen M. (2015). Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA's Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. pp. 235, 395, 407–408. Retrieved April 22, 2015.
  9. ^ a b c Scott, James C. (March 26, 2009). "James Scott interviewed by Alan Macfarlane" (Interview: video). Vol. 2. Interviewed by Alan Macfarlane. Cambridge, England. Retrieved November 26, 2014.
  10. ^ Wedeen, Lisa (May 1, 2010). "Reflections on Ethnographic Work in Political Science". Annual Review of Political Science. 13 (1): 255–272. doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.11.052706.123951. ISSN 1094-2939.
  11. ^ a b c Scott, James C. (1985). Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-03641-1.
  12. ^ Scott, James C. (September 10, 1977). The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. ISBN 978-0-300-18555-3.
  13. ^ Scott, James C. (1990). Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. ISBN 978-0-300-05669-3.
  14. ^ Scott, James C. (1998). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  15. ^ "Against the Grain". yalebooks.yale.edu. Yale University Press. Retrieved September 12, 2017.
  16. ^ Scott, James C. (2012). Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  17. ^ "James Scott | Department of Political Science". Archived from the original on 9 November 2012. Retrieved 5 December 2012.
  18. ^ "The American Philosophical Society Welcomes New Members for 2020". American Philosophical Society. May 5, 2020.

External links[edit]