James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State is a magisterial work of exceptional quality. By compelling us to conceptualize state agency as predicated on creating a certain sort of “legible” knowledge about its subjects and environment, it has transformed our understanding of the nature of state authority and power. While the book has been highly influential across many areas of political science, and its author is at home in the wider discipline and in a number of related disciplines as well, we consider his voice in the central argument of this book (presented and honed originally in articles in prominent political theory publications) to have had an enduring significance for political theory in particular. Indeed this work demonstrates the value of political theory that is drawn out of meditation on exempla from a very wide range of contexts, comparative and historical. While the general form of the contrast between particular knowledge and oversimplifying generalizations, and the role of states in imposing those generalizations to the detriment of genuine social life, had been previously observed, Scott’s framing of the issue revealed how the very effort by states to produce knowledge of certain privileged kinds can also disable other crucial kinds of memory, insight, and political possibility. Seeing Like a State remains the indispensable source on the subject; we regard it as a classic work of political theory in our time.
Melissa Lane, Princeton University
Bob Goodin, The Australian National University, Canberra
Robert Gooding-Williams, Columbia University
James C. Scott, Yale University. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998)