The Books That Have Shaped My Thinking: Development

It’s the summer, so I have time to read, both for work and for pleasure, and I have time to read books instead of just journal articles and blog posts. This made me realize that while a lot of my thinking has been shaped by things that I have read in journal articles (economics is an article-based field, after all) and in blog posts, a large part of my thinking has been shaped by books, which often contain more exciting ideas than journal articles–because they face less strict of a review process, books can be more daring in their claims, and thus have more chances of causing you to change how you view the world.

So I decided to start this series of posts on books that shaped my thinking. Because a lot of people are here for the development aspects, I thought I should start with development books. Some recommendations are very general; others are eminently personal. I just hope you can find one or two that will also shape your own thinking. I’m sure I am forgetting a lot of important books I have read and which have also shaped my thinking, but I made this list by taking quick look at the bookshelves in my office.

Pranab Bardhan, The Economic Theory of Agrarian Institutions. There was a time when development took theory seriously, and this book came out of that time. This book is a bit uneven (it’s an edited volume), but the introductory chapter by Joseph Stiglitz is probably the single, most important statement peasants in developing countries as rational human beings. In short: Whenever you find yourself thinking that some behavior you observe in a developing country is stupid, think again. People behave the way they do because they are rational. and If you think they are stupid, it’s because you have failed to recognize a fundamental feature of their economic environment.

Pranab Bardhan and Chris Udry, Development Microeconomics. This book is getting on in age (it was published in 1999), and it should be supplemented with more recent papers, but as far as concise statements of theory that underlies the study economic underdevelopment at a micro level, it does not get better. In the PhD-level course we co-teach on development microeconomics, Paul Glewwe and I still use this book as the core text. If you are a development student, I encourage you to read and digest the contents of this book. The field of development has been largely a-theoretical for the past 10 years. Something tells me this is changing and we will see the return of theory, because people are starting to care a lot more about the mechanisms through which stuff works or not. Another such book is Kaushik Basu’s Analytical Development Economics, which I enjoyed but is a bit more narrow.

Chris Barrett, Overseas Research. That being said, the field of development has become very much an applied field, which means that if you want to make a meaningful contribution, you will have to use data. And if you want to make a really interesting contribution, you are most likely going to want to collect your own data. This book is the fieldwork bible, as it covers all of the practical aspects of collecting your own data in developing countries, from how to get funding to how to get permission from local authorities, and from how to compensate subjects to how to readjust to life back home after fieldwork. This has been the single most important book I brought to Madagascar with me when I did my dissertation fieldwork there in 2004… along with the Guide du Routard for Madagascar, of course. There is a second, updated edition of this book, which you can find here.

Bob Bates, Markets and States in Tropical Africa. Why are poor food producers taxed and relatively wealthier food consumers subsidized in Africa? Why isn’t it the other way around? How is agricultural and food policy determined in most African countries? Bates had the answers as far back as 1980, and his book has become a classic for those of us interested in food policy in developing countries. And don’t let the title fool you: though his evidence is African, Bates’ analytical framework applies almost universally to all developing countries.

Angus Deaton, The Analysis of Household Surveys. Seen by many as the bible of empirical development economics, this book is getting on in age, but it remains a classic. If you know how to design an experiment but are looking for information on how to collect observational control variables (e.g., income measures, demographic information, etc.), this is where you will learn how. A good companion text is the three-volume World Bank book by my colleague Paul Glewwe and Margaret Grosh on Designing Household Survey Questionnaires.

Robert Ellickson, Order without Law. Life in developing countries is often dictated by social norms which we are not familiar with. How do social norms emerge and evolve? Ellickson makes the case that social norms arise to maximize welfare and minimize transaction costs, and that they evolve for the same reasons. He builds his case masterfully and illustrates it with a case study of the cattle ranchers of Shasta County, California. Because Ellikcson is a legal scholar, he writes wonderfully, and this practically reads like a novel.

Marcel Fafchamps, Market Institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. What enables agents to trade with each other in a setting where legal enforcement is often not an option? What institutions develop to sustain transactions in those settings? What is the role of traders? Marcel Fafchamps develops a simple theoretical framework to answer those questions, and he then discusses the evidence. Again, don’t let the title fool you: This is about much more than Africa, as the model and conclusions apply to most if not all developing countries.

TJ Byres, Sharecropping and Sharecroppers. Two thirds of my dissertation were on sharecropping. When I began reviewing the literature for my dissertation in the summer of 2002, I decided to read as broadly as I could, which meant going as far back in time as Adam Smith (who did have a few things to say about sharecropping, it turns out) and going as far as reading what other social sciences had to say. This book is a very nice collection of essays on sharecropping throughout history and all over the world, from which I learned a great deal. It’s often in books like this that you can find new ideas for your own research.

Peter Little and Michael Watts, Living under Contract. The remaining third of my dissertation was about the institution of contract farming, or grower-processor contracts, i.e., production contracts between a processing firm and (usually) a (smallholder) farmer. Most economists love contract farming, many think it can do no wrong. Little and Watts present several case studies of contract farming, many of which discuss situations where contract farming went wrong.

James Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant. While most people are quicker to mention Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which I also hold in high esteem, the former provides a different view of economic life in rural areas of developing countries, one that is a far cry from the Walrasian model where market clear cleanly. Though the theoretical framework is pretty outdated here (if you’ve ever heard of “safety-first” models, you know why I say it’s outdated), there is a lot to learn from the moral economy concept, and from the evidence Scott cites in making his case. Indirectly, this might have influenced my work on food riots.

Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen. For me, this is the classic among classics. Weber explores how France went from a loose collection of villages that had little in common with one another culturally in the mid-1800s to the strong, centralized, and culturally unified state we now know in the 1920s. This is the best social science text I have ever read, and it is development with a capital D. A French exchange doctoral student I was hosting this year read it on my recommendation, and when she returned to France last week, she said she could not believe she had to come to Minnesota to learn so much about her own country.

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