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Publisher's Summary

Compulsory ujamaa villages in Tanzania, collectivization in Russia, Le Corbusier's urban planning theory realized in Brasilia, the Great Leap Forward in China, agricultural "modernization" in the Tropics - the twentieth century has been racked by grand utopian schemes that have inadvertently brought death and disruption to millions. Why do well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition go tragically awry?

In this wide-ranging and original audiobook, James C. Scott analyzes failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields. Centrally managed social plans misfire, Scott argues, when they impose schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies that are not - and cannot - be fully understood. Further, the success of designs for social organization depends upon the recognition that local, practical knowledge is as important as formal, epistemic knowledge. The author builds a persuasive case against "development theory" and imperialistic state planning that disregards the values, desires, and objections of its subjects. He identifies and discusses four conditions common to all planning disasters: administrative ordering of nature and society by the state; a "high-modernist ideology" that places confidence in the ability of science to improve every aspect of human life; a willingness to use authoritarian state power to effect large-scale interventions; and a prostrate civil society that cannot effectively resist such plans.

©2018 James C. Scott (P)2018 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

What listeners say about Seeing Like a State

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    3 out of 5 stars

Beats a dead horse and then beats it again

This book could probably gotten its point across in a quarter of its length. Most of the examples make the same points over and over again, each adding really nothing new.

Some of the author's criticism of science is egregious. It's not true that science requires testing only one variable at a time. Yes, it's nice when you can do that, but what's more important is that you're able to measure all the other variables, not necessarily keep them the same. There are a variety of statistical techniques you can use to measure how each variable contributes to the observed result.

Also, the local farmers whose ability supposedly exceeds that of scientific methods is himself using a form of science, so you really can't assert that there are "other ways of knowing". There is just good science and bad science. Bad science is being practiced when there isn't a feedback mechanism for how well scientific methods work in the real world, but, from the book's own narrative, that's more typically the fault of political decisions than scientific ones.

3 people found this helpful

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Beyond Creaming

There are two necessary AND sufficient conditions for a theory to become a fact. It must be internally consistent (logical) and have predictive capacity. Most ideas seemingly leap the first hurdle, and, at first clear the second... until...

The problem comes with the testing. It is a weakness of policy makers to latch onto persuasive arguments and then... well their commitment demands success. So they fix the tests by creaming. Creaming? Un-huh, they load up the first application of a theory by releasing it into a controlled world. Take the infinite lineup of educational "reforms", each promising to overcome some impediment or to affect the success of a targeted group. So the testers find subjects most likely to succeed in the experimental environment. They choose the cream over the milk.

James Scott proves the point. Few policy makers want to fool funders. No, they're aspirations are wonder-filled, each hoping to improve our human condition. But once convinced of the internal consistency... the argument of the debate... they develop a vested interest in its predictive capacity. It brings to mind the term... "blind sided".

Michael Kramer does a fine job of making Mr. Scott's argument accessible... Here's an important book which oughta' be required reading for every giver-of-funds, private or public.

2 people found this helpful

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James c Scott at his best

James c Scott is one of the greatest political historians of all time and his understanding of the relationship between the state and regular people is unparalleled. regardless of one ideological leanings this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand why imperial, communist, capitalist and high modern social engineering has at times spectacularly failed. this book sets out to show that informal, local and illegible networks and practices are essential to the smooth functioning of society and that imposed simplicity and legibility can destroy the informal networks and practices that uphold the official system.

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magnificent book!

it's core social science literature but also incredibly interesting. read and listen to the book! The narrator does a great job.

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The new logic of all behavior

Just the headline idea: that every entity seeks to bend the world into legibility to itself, often obliterating things outside of this logic -- is worth the price of admission. The writing is peppered with insight, on levels of behavioral logic, cognitive science, philosophy, ecology, politics, economics and more. Whether or not that was the author's intention, I see all this in it. And I see the way humanity will probably have its most large-scale failures. This is a worthy milestone in human awareness, even if we end up watching it play out with devastating consequences.

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Excellent and far reaching

Good prose, good performance, and an engaging subject. Should be mandatory reading for anyone who votes!

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great ideas, but long winded and one sided

really enjoyed the questioning of abstraction at the core of the book: optimization on the map might screw with the territory. the examples it uses are well explained and vivid. but, i found the length of each / number of examples a bit long winded, and the lack of consideration for counterpoints a bit disheartening.

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Good content, but a bit dry

This book is very engaging at times and overall contains some interesting content. However, there definitely some slow patches that I found myself grinding through. Nonetheless, I learnt quite a bit so perhaps there was a trade off for that hard work.

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most excellent study and narration

this was a very excellent study about how certain States, whether they be capitalistic or socialistic, have attempted to improve the human condition but utterly fail in their efforts. as an overall analysis, it is also an excellent rating about State formation in a comparative perspective

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boring. overstuffed with argicultural history.

entirely too much focus on agricultural history and not enough on the political/ social implications

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 01-16-19

Once seen, can it be unseen?

Scott's book is a monumental paean to anarchist and anti-hierarchical wisdom. Although it stretches and extends across multiple disciplines - agriculture, forestry, city planning, industrial organization, etc. - it manages to weave them into a surprisingly coherent and compelling narrative.

The key boogeymen are the predictable (and sometimes unpredictable) shortcomings of technocratic hubris. Scott amply documents, mostly from primary sources, how such hubris has been a defining feature of modernistic statecraft - from Le Corbusier to Lenin.

The takeaway message of the book is that the preservation of bottom-up experimentation, and the harnessing of local knowhow, should inform all sustainable central planning. You should let cities and communities evolve on their own, rather than imposing a system of conformity.

The end result is an eye-opening, powerful narrative about the excesses of human optimism. All utopian schemers should read this book. They should think twice about the consequences of their actions - lest they risk becoming the supervillains of tomorrow.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 02-20-19

Excellent Book

A most insightful book. Very well read. I'm astonished that this book hasn't been much more influential. If I'd read it when it first came out I'd have predicted that it would have had as much impact as Small is Beautiful did in the '70s.