This print conversation accompanies a This View of Life Podcast episode. Listen: SpotifyGoogleAppleStitcher

The thesis of the Third Way is that all three ingredients of an evolutionary process—the target of selection, variation oriented around the target, and the identification and replication of best practices--must be managed at a systemic scale to produce positive cultural change. This is in contrast to the two dominant models of social change, laissez-faire, and centralized planning. Laissez-faire doesn’t work because it simply is not the case that the lower-level pursuit of self-interest robustly benefits the common good. Centralized planning doesn’t work because the world is too complex for a group of experts to formulate and implement a grand plan.

While the focus of the series of conversations is on entrepreneurship, the thesis of the Third Way applies to all forms of social change at all times in history. One form of social change, called Development, refers to a conscious attempt by governments and other agencies to produce positive social change. Our guide is Scott J. Peters, a distinguished scholar on the topic and a Professor in the Department of Global Development at Cornell University. His books include In the Struggle: A History of Politically Engaged Scholarship in California’s San Joaquin Valley (with Daniel O’Connell), Jumping into Civic Life: Stories of Public Work from Extension Professionals (with Theodore Alter and Timothy Shaffer), Democracy and Higher Education: Traditions and Stories of Civic Engagement, and Engaging Campus and Community: The Practice of Public Scholarship in the State and Land-Grant University System (with Nicholas Jordan, Margaret Ademek, and Theodore Alter).


David Sloan Wilson: Greetings Scott! Please introduce yourself and your disciplinary area, keeping in mind that our audience is exceptionally diverse.

Scott J. Peters: As I’ve often said to my colleagues and students, I’m a historian by urgent necessity.  The urgency came slowly.  From the mid-1980s to the early 90s, I worked for the University YMCA, an independent, non-profit organization that aspires to engage faculty, staff, and students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in public work—on and off-campus—as scholars and citizens.  I began to notice during my time on the staff that when people criticized the University, they would often do so in a way that included the phrase “land-grant mission.” People would say that the University shouldn’t be doing some allegedly terrible thing—or, that it should be doing some allegedly good thing—because of its “land-grant mission.” I got increasingly interested in this rhetorical move.  I sensed the potential power of interpreting and leveraging the significance of UIUC’s designation as a land-grant university.  Surprisingly, however, I couldn’t find anyone who could give me anything more than a vague description of what, exactly, the “land-grant mission” is.  I remember feeling at the time that the work of learning how, why, and in what ways people have interpreted and debated the meaning of this phrase isn’t merely “academic” in the narrow, intellectual sense.  It felt—and still feels—like urgent work, with cultural and political dimensions and consequences.  It was this sense of urgency that led me to graduate school at the University of Minnesota to study with Harry Boyte.  With Harry as my mentor and colleague, I began what is now a twenty-five-year study of land-grant history.  From the beginning I have consciously approached my work as a politically engaged scholar, using conceptual tools and methods from history, political theory, public philosophy, development sociology, and narrative inquiry and analysis.  I came to Cornell as an assistant professor in 1999.  Today I’m a professor in a multidisciplinary department that was just established at Cornell this year: The Department of Global Development.

DSW: Thanks! I’m intrigued by how the phrase “land-grant mission” conveys a systemic target of selection and how it can have staying power, surviving as a kind of North Star in the minds of people who know little else about it. And I’m glad that you can comment on global development in addition to the specific case of land-grant colleges. Let’s map out the general topic area. How do you define “development” and does it contrast with other genres of social change—such as grass-roots activism or entrepreneurship as typically imagined?

SJP: What most people think of when they hear the term “development” is, in essence, some form of the post-World War II project of forced or induced “modernization” in countries located in the so-called “Global South.”  Proponents of this continuing (and deeply contested) project use a number of simplifications and proxies—inscribed in a set of measurable indicators related to economics, health, natural resources, and physical infrastructures—to narrow our understanding of the process of “improving” the well-being of human life, cultures, societies, and geographic territories.  Development as a kind of work within this project is centered on the transfer and induced adoption of “modern” scientific and industrial knowledge, habits, mindsets, preferences, behaviors, policies, and technologies.  It didn’t take long for me to see in my study of the history of land-grant colleges and universities that they have functioned as agents of this kind of development from their very beginning in 1862, particularly but not only in agriculture, and particularly but not only through their off-campus “extension” work.  Before World War II, the contributions of these institutions to “development” were mainly focused on rural sectors of the United States.  (This was formally institutionalized in 1914 through the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, which established the national Cooperative Extension System.)  In the post-war era, land-grant administrators and scientists increasingly focused their attention on countries in the “Global South.”

Top-down, forced or induced development has been privileged and incentivized throughout the history of land-grant universities by many administrators and scientists, in and beyond their extension work.  But what makes these institutions so interesting to me, and so important for the conversation we’re having today, is the existence throughout land-grant history of different perspectives and practices that are closely linked to competing views of their “public” purposes, mission and work.  While some women and men who have studied at and worked for these institutions embraced and practiced a top-down induced view of development that limits what is included in their “public” purposes, mission and work to measurable economic and material matters, many did not.  If we look carefully at their disagreements, we can see elements of what you are calling the “Third Way.”  What we see is an embrace of a key “public” purpose that isn’t merely or mainly economic and material in nature: the purpose of building and sustaining a democratic culture, one in which everyone has the opportunity and capacity to participate in a constructive, co-creative politics in their everyday lives and work.  This purpose functions as a kind of standard that is meant to be lived up to.  As such, it has challenging implications for the identity and work of academic professionals who are employed by these institutions.  But it also opens avenues for deep satisfaction and meaning.

I have a favorite passage that captures the spirit of all this.  I’ll use it to answer your question about how I define development.

In 1949, a history of the extension work of my own university—Cornell—was published.  It was authored by Ruby Green Smith, under an evocative title: The People’s Colleges.  I wrote a forward to a new edition of this book that Cornell University Press published in 2013, in relation to Cornell’s sesquicentennial.

“The paramount consideration in Cornell University’s extension teaching,” Smith wrote in her book, “should be not merely production, manufacture, and marketing of foods, fiber, and machines, or adequate housekeeping and homemaking, but the progressive development of the greatest asset of any state or nation—the people.”  To pursue and realize this “ultimate purpose,” as she described it, extension workers needed to have more than scientific knowledge and technical expertise to extend and apply.  In her words:

Extension workers need to have faith in spiritual values and to recognize the human relationships that contribute to what the ancient Greeks called “the good life.”  They should believe that in the kind of homes, farms, and industries which are the goals of extension service “man cannot live by bread alone”; that it is not enough for people to have food, shelter, and clothing—that they aspire also to find appreciation, respect for individuality and human dignity, affection, ideals, and opportunities.  These are the satisfactions that belong to democratic living.

This passage communicates the essence of a participatory view of development that I embrace wholeheartedly.  It not only includes, but also centers cultural and political aspirations and commitments that are typically bracketed out of instrumental, top-down views of development.  In doing so, it positions academic professionals in the land-grant system inside the project of building and sustaining a democratic culture.  To use Albert Dzur’s terminology, it positions them as democratic professionals who are called to embrace, learn, and practice a set of civic or political responsibilities, dispositions, and capacities.

DSW: Let me make sure I have this straight. You are outlining two genres of development efforts. One is quite chauvinistic about the cultural superiority of those prescribing the development, compared to those being developed. The other is more committed to an egalitarian relationship between the developer and developee and the co-production of what gets developed. It would be wrong to say that the first genre is not democratic because democratic governance is no doubt part of the package of “modern” practices that are being implanted. But the actual process of development is relatively authoritarian in the first genre and much more democratic in the second genre. Also, in both cases, there is a systemic target of selection, which is more predetermined for the first genre and co-produced for the second genre. Do I understand you correctly?

SJP: Broadly speaking, yes.  But to understand the distinction between these two genres of development we need to investigate the ways they are linked to different public philosophies, different conceptions of self- and public interests, and complex dynamics of power.  Let’s use the example of land-grant colleges and universities to illuminate all this.  I’ll begin by posing three questions.

Why were these institutions established?  What ends and purposes were they supposed to be working to achieve, and whose interests were they supposed to be advancing?  What means were they supposed to be using in doing so?

In short, answers to all of these questions have always been—and continue to be—contested.  What I’ve discovered in my study of archival artifacts, oral histories, and historical and other literatures is a drama that reflects and is part of a larger societal drama.  The larger drama is both philosophical and political.  It includes disagreements about the nature and meaning of politics, democracy, and what Ruby Green Smith, following the ancient Greeks, referred to as “the good life.”  It includes disagreements about the ends and means of education and science.  And it includes the clash of competing self- and “public” interests, and the exercise of multiple forms of power to shape, advance, or thwart them.

DSW: I’d like to reinforce the point that you are making. Actions in the world are highly dependent upon symbolic systems that reside inside our heads. We describe these symbolic systems with words such as “philosophy”, “worldview”, “theory”, “religion” or “meaning system”.  Often these are disparaged as superficial, as in “mere” philosophizing and theorizing, but in fact, they are of the essence. Modern evolutionary theory makes this point by conceptualizing symbolic systems as an inheritance system that operates alongside the genetic inheritance system. Just as each of us is a collection of genes (our genotype) that partially determines our observable properties (our phenotype), each of us is also a collection of symbols (our symbotypes, to coin a new term) that partially determines our phenotypes. This is called dual inheritance theory (go here and here for more) and it reveals the necessity of understanding and altering our symbolic systems to alter how we behave. Returning to the theme of this series, the narratives of laissez-faire, centralized planning, and the Third Way cause different actions to “make sense”. Substantive changes in behavior require changes in the narrative. Please continue.

SP: The dominant, top-down, induced genre of development is extractive.  It’s fundamentally colonial in nature.  It seeks to discipline and control a population to advance the economic interests and power of a nation-state, and/or wealthy private interests.  The project in this genre is mainly economic, although it has also long included attention to ecological issues, and it has serious (but often overlooked) cultural and political dimensions and implications.  We can most readily see this in land-grant institutions by tracing the ways in which they have supported a national “cheap food” policy that sought to industrialize agriculture in and beyond the United States.  If we build all this out, we can see a particular way of answering questions about why land-grant institutions were established, which ends and interests they are supposed to pursue and advance, and what “the good life” looks like and means.

The other genre of development is fundamentally participatory and democratic in nature, and the project it aims to advance includes attention to economic and material concerns.  But the project in this genre has a key additional element: it also includes the aim of building and sustaining a democratic culture.  This is important and significant not only or mainly for its instrumental value in pursuing and achieving economic and material ends, but also for its value in pursuing the many “satisfactions” that Ruby Green Smith named in the passage I quoted from her book, along with related principles of equity and justice.  If we build all this out, we can see a different way of answering questions about why land-grant institutions were established, and which ends and interests they are supposed to pursue and advance, and what “the good life” looks like and means.

You may be wondering what I mean by “public philosophy,” and how it’s relevant to what I’ve been trying to communicate.  Put all too briefly, public philosophy has to do with the ways we understand the nature and meaning of politics, democracy, citizenship, justice, and other key ideas.  We can understand these things in narrow, procedural, transactional, government-centered ways, or we can understand them in more expansive and relational ways.  The top-down genre of development maps onto the former, and the participatory genre maps onto the latter.  A quote from pragmatist philosopher John Dewey helps us see just how expansive the public philosophy is in the latter.  Dewey once argued that “we have taken democracy for granted,” forgetting that it “has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every year and day, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.”  This is the public philosophy that Ruby Green Smith, and many others in land-grant history, embraced.  It’s what I embrace as well.  In doing so, we must also embrace a high standard for defining and assessing the cultural and political as well as material and ecological dimensions of the “development” work professionals who are employed by all of our institutions take up—including land-grant colleges and universities.

DSW: Great! Your account maps nicely onto Dual Inheritance Theory and my conversation with Trygve Throntveit in the first conversation of this series. Now I’m eager to know how well these two different genres of development succeed at accomplishing their goals. Is it the case that one is consistently superior to the other, or can both succeed or fail in different ways?

SJP: I would say both succeed and fail.  There is no guarantee of “good” outcomes in either genre.  All judgments about superiority or inferiority have to be viewed in relation to the specific goals and purposes people have in mind, along with the ones they are overlooking or dismissing.

The technocratic, extractive, colonial genre of development has succeeded in producing certain kinds of short-term successes that have benefitted some people.  But it also has failed by co-producing things that have harmed people, and other forms of life.  In agriculture, for example, it may in some situations be “superior” in increasing—for the short term—the “bushels per acre” productivity of some crops.  But that “success” may come—and often has—at the expense of ecological and human health, taste, nutrition, and economic and political equity and justice.

The more participatory and democratic genre of development can succeed and fail in similar ways, and in different ways.  It can be successful or harmful in material, economic, ecological, and human terms.  But judgments about its success or shortcomings shouldn’t be made by using the same limited standards that are used to assess the technocratic genre.  The democratic genre calls for additional standards because it includes additional goals related to cultural and political ideals and principles.  And these latter goals and standards aren’t to be understood merely as the byproducts of material and economic development: they are to be understood as indispensable elements of the actual work and process of development.  (This is at the core of what Amartya Sen means by “development as freedom.”)  To add to the complexity, it’s important to point out that “democracy” and “participation” can be understood and practiced in widely different ways—narrowly or expansively, poorly or competently.

DSW: Another question concerns how the two genres compete against each other. For example, it is possible for the more democratic genre to be superior as a development method but still lose in competition to the more autocratic genre due to special interests, etc.?

SJP: Yes.  That’s a pretty accurate way of characterizing the history of development during the past 200 years!

DSW: Right! Another case of lower-level selection resulting in higher-level dysfunction. Now let’s bring some of these abstract ideas to life with some case studies. Can you describe some development success stories and train wrecks and relate them to the thesis of the Third Way?

SJP: I’ve been teaching a graduate seminar on that theme for twenty years now, so I could talk about this for hours!  For examples of what you’re referring to as train wrecks, the best single source is James C. Scott’s excellent book, Seeing Like a State.  He examines several large-scale, centrally planned, authoritarian development disasters in the twentieth century.  All feature horrendous human suffering and ecological damage.  They include Soviet collectivization, forced “Villagization” in Tanzania, and urban planning in Brazil.

DSW: I want to know more! Please flesh out the example of “Villagization” in Tanzania.

SJP:  A short version of the story Scott tells is that from 1973-76, the national government of post-colonial Tanzania—led by a socialist named Julius Nyerere, who had a Master of Arts degree from Edinburgh University—planned and imposed a forced resettlement campaign that was largely motivated by humanitarian aims.  Prior to 1973, Nyerere had proposed and attempted to establish socialist cooperatives (named “Ujamaa villages”) on a voluntary basis.  His plans were met with resistance at the local level, so his administration decided to force people to participate.  As Scott argues, they used standard top-down colonial methods to impose highly detailed plans onto villagers, including exact designs and instructions for buildings, streets and roads, schools, and farms.  Animating the whole project was a conviction that people didn’t know what was good for them, so they had to be forced to do the right thing.  The train wreck aspects of this example include brutal violence against those who resisted, and huge declines in agricultural productivity along with an increase in hunger.  A whole set of ecological and human disasters occurred that Scott frames as a result of imposing a technocratic and bureaucratic logic, which disregarded ecological context and dismissed people’s intelligence and knowledge.

I should say that there are significant backstories to this example that should be taken into account when assessing its significance.  Also, I need to point out that many disagree with Scott’s framing and analysis, offering a more sympathetic view of Nyerere’s leadership.  There are important debates over all this that should be engaged as we sharpen our judgments about the failure of projects that fit within the top-down, technocratic genre of development.

DSW: All of this accords with my conversation with Geoff Hodgson, including the fact that some train wrecks begin with the best of intentions.

SJP: While there’s a vast literature on the train wrecks, the literature on success stories from the democratic genre of development is much thinner.  Thankfully, it has been growing over the past few decades.  For a broad range of good stories, see From Clients to Citizens: Communities Changing the Course of their Own Development, or From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World.  The stories and cases of participatory, bottom-up, people-centered development in these books—and many other works—feature approaches that align remarkably well with the thesis of the Third Way.  Importantly, they come from every continent (except Antarctica, as far as I know!), including North America and Europe.

DSW: I want to know more! Please pick one success story to relate to us in more detail.

SJP: I’ll pick a domestic example.  I’m really impressed and inspired by the work and accomplishments of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN).  Since it was founded in 2006, it has set a leading edge in the international food sovereignty, security, and justice movement.  Detroit has deep poverty issues, particularly among black people in the inner city.  As most people know it has suffered from a whole series of troubles related to deindustrialization and corruption, which combined to push the city into bankruptcy in 2013.  In the midst of all this, DBFSN has built a powerful program of economic self-determination centered on food and urban farming.  Its work is a superb exemplar of experimental, cross-sector, bottom-up development.  It operates D-Town Farm on seven city-owned acres they license for $1 per year, a victory based on two years of intensive organizing in and with neighborhoods, the Detroit City Council, and the City’s Planning, General Services, and Recreation Departments.

While DBCFSN’s work includes nutrition programs and community markets, it also has a vigorous political and public policy agenda.  Its leaders see its work as part of the historical black freedom movement, and its many successes and challenges as such have been widely documented.  For examples, see the documentary film, Urban Roots, the TED talk by Devita Davison, and Monica White’s excellent book, Freedom Farmers.

There’s one thing I’d like to stress here.  I’ve learned from my research and experience that the two genres of development that we’ve been talking about don’t always—maybe even don’t usually—appear in the world in their “pure” form.  The institutions, programs, and people engaged in “development” are full of contradictions, compromises, uncertainties, ambiguities, misunderstandings, and well-meaning (if not also sometimes misguided) motivations.  Therefore, it’s usually not helpful to frame the topic we’re discussing as a Manichean clash of good versus evil.  Our energy is better used to look for and cultivate openings and possibilities for public work that moves us in democratic, participatory directions.  The goal isn’t perfection.  It’s to be more rather than less democratic, in ways that are more rather than less productive.  For insights into how people are navigating all this in creative and productive ways, I don’t know anything better to learn from than DBCFSN.

DSW: Much as I’m a fan of democratic governance, I know that consensus processes can get hopelessly bogged down, especially when the stakeholders are protecting their own interests. Here is an example from academia that I’m sure you can relate to. The traditional silos of academic departments are hopelessly outdated and need to evolve in a trans-disciplinary direction, but they are extraordinarily resistant to change. Arizona State University is a leader in this regard, but the way it happened was primarily autocratic. ASU’s President, Michael Crow, had a lot of power and used it—luckily in an enlightened fashion. Is this kind of benign bullying required sometimes to move cultures out of their ruts?

SJP: My view of politics isn’t centered on consensus.  That’s not the ideal for me.  I also happen to think that in most situations, it isn’t realistic, and can even be dangerous if it ends up papering over or silencing dissent and disagreement.  In my view politics is always going to be contentious.  Its essence is the work of understanding and dealing—in nonviolent ways—with difference.  In this view, stakeholders seeking to stand for and advance their own self-interest is a good thing (though never automatically and always, of course).  But so is engaging in ways that illuminate broader common and public interests, so that decisions about what to do aren’t just based on narrow and harmful conceptions of self-interest.  In fact, in the best organizing work people’s self-interests are transformed in ways that help to advance larger common and public interests.  That kind of work takes a lot of skill, practice, and perseverance.  Bold top-down leadership like the Michael Crow example has a place in the contentious give and take of democratic politics.  It isn’t automatically bad.  We need to understand it in context and pursue ways to engage it from below.  It can, as you note, help us move out of ruts that the inertia and momentum of structures and systems reinforce.

DSW: I would like to restate what you just said in Third Way language. Cultural evolution is inherently a contest among alternatives. If that’s what we mean by “dissent”, “disagreement”, “contentious” and “difference”, then bring them on! And yes, a given alternative will often be motivated by the self-interest of its proponents, who are looking out for themselves more than the system as a whole, if only because that is the part of the system that they know best. But the only way that the process can lead to whole-system improvement is by “engaging in ways that illuminate broader common and public interests” as you put it. If that’s not the criterion for selecting some alternatives over others, then cultural evolution will still take place but will result in outcomes that are “just based on self-interest” as you also put it. Somehow, someway, the common good must be the criterion for which alternative wins the Darwinian contest. That’s what requires “a lot of skill, practice, and perseverance” and can include “bold, top-down leadership” as long as there is a process for selecting, monitoring, and correcting the conduct of the leader when necessary. Have I accurately preserved your meaning in my own language?

SJP: In broad terms, yes.  One place to look for insights about the nature and meaning of the process that you mention at the end of what you just said—"selecting, monitoring, and correcting the conduct of the leader”—is the broad-based organizing of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF).  (See Kathleen Staudt’s excellent new book on the IAF in Texas, Hope for Justice and Power.)  But as you know I prefer to use the term “politics” to name what we’re discussing, not understood as government or elections but rather the work of citizens in everyday places.  That’s how the IAF sees it.  I think politics understood this way is a critically important part of the vocabulary we should be using when we discuss the “third way” work you’re trying to advance through cultural evolution.  There is a view associated with “scientism” that politics is somehow an immature activity that will be abandoned when we fully embrace science.  I think that’s not just wrong, it’s dangerous.

DSW: I’d like to finish up our conversation by focusing on the third ingredient of a managed cultural evolutionary process, which is the replication of best practices. It might seem that once a best practice is identified, then keeping it going and replicating it elsewhere will be straightforward. In reality, however, the world is full of cultural practices that work well but don’t survive or spread! This is partly because in a complex world, what works in one location or context must be modified to work in other locations or contexts. Cookie-cutter solutions won’t work. Also, implementing a best practice requires a degree of work and coordination that doesn’t always materialize. An example from my conversation on urban planning with Dan O’Brien concerns 311, a three-digit number that residents of a city can call to report minor dysfunctions such as potholes, fallen trees, or failed trash pickup. It’s a great idea that has been developed in cities such as Boston, but efforts to replicate it in other towns and cities in Massachusetts had very mixed results. It’s not as if 311 wouldn’t have been useful, but the work and coordination required to implement it only came together in a few locations. Based on your extensive knowledge of development efforts, what are your views on the “replication” part of a managed process of cultural evolution? Are there some replication processes that themselves deserve to be replicated?

SJP: Here’s a little story that gets at what you’re asking.  There’s a professor (now emeritus) at the University of Wisconsin (UW) named Stephen Small, who has expertise in adolescent health.  When he first started working at UW, which is a land-grant, he had an extension appointment that obligated him to work with and for the people of Wisconsin.  He went out and told people what he knew about drug use and sexual behavior among adolescents, based on national survey data.  What happened stunned him: people in Wisconsin communities rejected his expertise.  “That’s not our kids,” they said to him.  “Your data is about kids in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and those kinds of places.”  In essence, people in Wisconsin told him they didn’t have any use for him, or his expertise.  His experience sent him into a period of depression, self-reflection, and study.  It led him to discover action research.  As a result, he developed, with Wisconsin communities, a new initiative called the Teen Assessment Project (TAP).  Instead of providing communities with data from large national surveys about the negative behaviors of youth in general, TAP engages communities in designing, implementing, and interpreting the results of surveys about the positive assets and strengths (as well as problematic behaviors) of their own youth in their own community.  TAP helps communities learn how to effectively support the healthy development of their own youth.

The reason I bring this story up is that organizers have had great success in replicating this program by getting it adopting in many, many states across the country—including New York (here’s an example).  In this case, what’s being replicated is a set of steps and principles that enable rather than disabling people’s agency, voice, and ownership.  It’s not a scripted intervention that’s meant to implemented “to the letter.”  It supports and encourages improvisation, adaptation, and tailoring to fit particular situations and places.  It’s incredibly powerful and full of lessons, which Small and his colleagues have written about.

DSW: That’s a great example to end with! I’m delighted to have included the broad topic area of development as part of the Third Way series. Thanks for serving as our guide!

SJP: It’s been a pleasure to talk with you!