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date: 16 May 2021

Abstract and Keywords

States see the world in a particular way, simplifying their domains to better rule them. By the early twentieth century, these ordering imperatives coincided with progressive ideals grounded in hopes that scientific and technological progress could shape the world for good. That conceit—that we should use the formidable power of the state to forge grand rational schemes for human improvement—blinded planners to the critical importance of local, cumulative, practical knowledge. This is Scott’s core thesis in Seeing Like a State, which he supports with a rich (if selective) body of evidence. If we defend Scott’s book as political theory, then we might worry that he has simply rediscovered skeptical themes (specifically, worries about coercive power and rational planning) long-evident in counter-enlightenment, anarchist, libertarian, and postcolonial thought. These worries, while reasonable, should not obscure the great value of Scott’s book as grounded political theory: there are lessons here, both methodological and substantive, for political theory.

Keywords: James Scott, skepticism, anarchism, states, maps, progress, planning, power

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