Seeing Like a State

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AuthorJames C. Scott
PublisherYale University Press

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed is a book by James C. Scott critical of a system of beliefs he calls high modernism, that centers on governments' overconfidence in the ability to design and operate society in accordance with purported scientific laws.[1][2][3]

The book makes an argument that states seek to force "legibility" on their subjects by homogenizing them and creating standards that simplify pre-existing, natural, diverse social arrangements. Examples include the introduction of family names, censuses, uniform languages, and standard units of measurement. While such innovations aim to facilitate state control and economies of scale, Scott argues that the eradication of local differences and silencing of local expertise can have adverse effects.

The book was first published in March 1998, with a paperback version appearing in February 1999.


Scott shows 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 book 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. While, in earlier times, a field could be measured in the amount of cows it could sustain or the types of plants it could grow, post centralization, its size is measured in hectares. This allows governors who have little to no local knowledge to immediately understand the outline of the area but simultaneously blinds the state to the complex interactions which happen within nature and society. In agriculture and forestry, for example, it led to monoculture, or the sole focus on cultivating a single crop or tree at the cost of all others. While monoculture is easy to measure, manage, and understand, it is also less resilient to ecological crises than polyculture is.

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, at the cost of a more nuanced yet fuzzy and less legible understanding of local conditions.

Schemes that successfully improve human lives, Scott argues, 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 forced villagization in 1970s Tanzania as examples of failed schemes which were led by top-down bureaucratic efforts and where officials ignored or silenced local expertise.

Scott takes great effort to highlight that he is not necessarily anti-state. At times, the central role played by the state is necessary in order to carry out programs such as disaster response or vaccinations. The flattening of knowledge which goes hand-in-hand with state centralization can have disastrous consequences when officials see centralised knowledge as the only legitimate information that they should consider, ignoring more specialised but less clearly defined indigenous and local expertise.

Scott delves into the intricacies of "metis," a term referring to practical knowledge derived from experience, often transmitted orally and shaped by individual contexts. It contrasts this form of knowledge with "epistemic" knowledge, which is more formalized and often associated with scientific methods and institutionalized education. Unlike epistemic knowledge, which tends to be standardized and centralized, metis is characterized by its adaptability and diversity. It arises from the accumulated experiences of individuals within specific contexts, leading to a rich tapestry of localized knowledge systems. This inherent flexibility allows metis to evolve and respond to changing circumstances, making it highly relevant in various practical domains. However, he also discusses the challenges facing metis in contemporary society, particularly in the context of industrialization and state control. He argues that efforts to standardize knowledge and impose universalist ideologies often undermine the rich tapestry of metis, leading to the marginalization of localized knowledge systems in favor of more centralized and standardized forms of knowledge production. He also criticizes authoritarian attempts to impose rigid frameworks of knowledge, arguing that such efforts overlook the nuanced and context-dependent nature of metis. Instead of recognizing the value of diverse forms of knowledge, these authoritarian approaches seek to homogenize and control knowledge production, often to serve political or economic interests. Scott advocates for the preservation and recognition of metis alongside epistemic knowledge. He emphasizes the importance of embracing the dynamic and diverse nature of practical knowledge derived from experience, highlighting its relevance in addressing complex challenges and promoting resilience in the face of change.

Scott explores the shortcomings of high-modernist urban planning and social engineering, arguing that these approaches often lead to unsustainable outcomes and diminish human autonomy and skills. Scott contrasts the rigid, centralized designs of high modernism with the adaptable, diverse nature of institutions shaped by practical wisdom, or "metis." Scott criticizes the monocultural, one-dimensional nature of high-modernist projects, suggesting that they fail to account for the complexity and dynamism of real-life systems. Examples from agriculture, urban planning, and economics are used to illustrate how rigid, top-down approaches can lead to environmental degradation, social dislocation, and a loss of human agency. Furthermore, he emphasizes the importance of diversity, flexibility, and adaptability in human institutions, arguing that these qualities enhance resilience and effectiveness. He highlights the role of informal, bottom-up practices in complementing and sometimes subverting formal systems, demonstrating how metis-driven institutions can thrive in complex, ever-changing environments. Scott advocates for institutions that are shaped by the knowledge and experience of their participants, rather than imposed from above. He suggests that such institutions are better equipped to navigate uncertainty, respond to change, and foster the development of individuals with a wide range of skills and capabilities.


Book reviews[edit]

Stanford University political scientist David D. Laitin described it as "a magisterial book." But he said there were flaws in the methodology of the book, saying the book "is a product of undisciplined history. For one, Scott’s evidence is selective and eclectic, with only minimal attempts to weigh disconfirming evidence... It is all too easy to select confirming evidence if the author can choose from the entire historical record and use material from all countries of the world."[4]

John Gray, author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, reviewed the book favorably for the New York Times, concluding: "Today's faith in the free market echoes the faith of earlier generations in high modernist schemes that failed at great human cost. Seeing Like a State does not tell us what it is in late modern societies that predisposes them, against all the evidence of history, to put their trust in such utopias. Sadly, no one knows enough to explain that."[2]

Economist Brad DeLong wrote a detailed online review of the book. DeLong acknowledged Scott's adept examination of the pitfalls of centrally planned social-engineering projects, which aligns with the Austrian tradition's critique of central planning. Scott's book, according to DeLong, effectively demonstrates the limitations and failures of attempts to impose high modernist principles from the top down. However, DeLong also suggested that Scott may fail to fully acknowledge his intellectual roots, particularly within the Austrian tradition. DeLong argued that while Scott effectively critiques high modernism, he may avoid explicitly aligning his work with the Austrian perspective due to subconscious fears of being associated with certain political ideologies.[5][6] DeLong's interpretation of the book was critiqued by Henry Farrell on the Crooked Timber blog,[7] and there was a follow-up exchange including further discussion of the book.[8][9]

Economist Deepak Lal reviewed the book for the Summer 2000 issue of The Independent Review, concluding: "Although I am in sympathy with Scott’s diagnosis of the development disasters he recounts, I conclude that he has not burrowed deep enough to discover a systematic cause of these failures. (In my view, that cause lies in the continuing attraction of various forms of 'enterprises' in what at heart remains Western Christendom.) Nor is he right in so blithely dismissing the relevance of classical liberalism in finding remedies for the ills he eloquently describes."[10]

Political scientist Ulf Zimmermann reviewed the book for H-Net Online in December 1998, concluding: "It is important to keep in mind, as Scott likewise notes, that many of these projects replaced even worse social orders and at least occasionally introduced somewhat more egalitarian principles, never mind improving public health and such. And, in the end, many of the worst were sufficiently resisted in their absurdity, as he had shown so well in his, Weapons of the Weak and as best demonstrated by the utter collapse of the soviet system. "Metis" alone is not sufficient; we need to find a way to link it felicitously with—to stick with Scott's Aristotelian vocabulary—phronesis and praxis, or, in more ordinary terms, to produce theories more profoundly grounded in actual practice so that the state may see better in implementing policies."[11]

Michael Adas of Rutgers University reviewed the book for the Summer 2000 issue of the Journal of Social History.[12]

Russell Hardin, a professor of politics at New York University, reviewed the book for The Good Society in 2001, disagreeing with Scott's diagnosis somewhat. Hardin, who believes in collectiveness (collective actions) concluded: "The failure of collectivization was therefore a failure of incentives, not a failure to rely on local knowledge."[13]


The September 2010 issue of Cato Unbound was devoted to discussing the themes of the book.[14] Scott wrote the lead essay.[15] Other participants were Donald Boudreaux, Timothy B. Lee, and J. Bradford DeLong. A number of people, including Henry Farrell and Tyler Cowen, weighed in on the discussion on their own blogs.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Scott, James C. (1998). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-30007016-3. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  2. ^ a b Gray, John (April 19, 1998). "The Best-Laid Plans: Throughout history, efforts to improve humanity's lot have often done just the opposite". The New York Times. Retrieved February 18, 2014.
  3. ^ King, Loren (2015-12-10). Levy, Jacob T (ed.). "James Scott, Seeing Like a State". The Oxford Handbook of Classics in Contemporary Political Theory. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198717133.013.35. ISBN 978-0-19-871713-3. Retrieved 2020-12-05.
  4. ^ Laitin, David D. (1999-05-01). "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (review)". Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 30 (1): 177–179. doi:10.1162/jinh.1999.30.1.177. ISSN 1530-9169. S2CID 34700862.
  5. ^ DeLong, J. Bradford. "Forests, Trees, and Intellectual Roots... (review of Seeing Like a State)". Retrieved February 18, 2014.
  6. ^ DeLong, J. Bradford (October 24, 2007). "James Scott and Friedrich Hayek". Retrieved February 18, 2014.
  7. ^ Farrell, Henry (October 31, 2007). "DeLong, Scott and Hayek". Crooked Timber. Retrieved February 18, 2014.
  8. ^ DeLong, J. Bradford (December 29, 2007). "DeLong Smackdown Watch Update: Henry Farrell". Retrieved February 18, 2014.
  9. ^ Farrell, Henry (February 5, 2008). "Seeing Like "Seeing Like a State"". Crooked Timber. Retrieved February 18, 2014.
  10. ^ Lal, Deepak (Summer 2000). "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott (book review)". The Independent Review. Retrieved February 18, 2014.
  11. ^ Zimmermann, Ulf (December 1998). "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott (book review)". Retrieved February 18, 2014.
  12. ^ Adas, Michael (Summer 2000). "Seeing Like a State". Journal of Social History. 33 (4): 959–963. doi:10.1353/jsh.2000.0050. JSTOR 3789172. S2CID 145358975.
  13. ^ Hardin, Russell (2001). "Books in Review: James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State" (PDF). The Good Society. 10 (2): 36–39.
  14. ^ "Seeing Like a State: A Conversation with James C. Scott". Cato Unbound. September 2010. Retrieved February 18, 2014.
  15. ^ Scott, James C. (September 8, 2010). "The Trouble with the View from Above". Cato Unbound. Retrieved February 18, 2014.
  16. ^ "Seeing Like a State: Best of the Blogs". Cato Unbound. September 17, 2010. Archived from the original on 2022-11-28. Retrieved February 18, 2014.