- Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development by Daniel Immerwahr
The publication of Thinking Small brings Northwestern University historian Daniel Immerwahr’s important 2011 Berkeley dissertation to [End Page 594] the broad readership that it deserves. While the book is fundamentally a contribution to the study of twentieth-century American history, that readership ought to include Southeast Asianists.
Thinking Small presents little less than a compelling alternative intellectual history of public policy in the United States over the course of the past eight decades. That history centres on “the quest for community … an effort to shore up small-scale social solidarities, to encourage democratic deliberation and social action on a local level, and to embed politics and economics within the life of the community” (p. 4). This American quest also helped prompt an intense vogue for community development programmes in what the book calls, somewhat jarringly, “the global South” (p. 8) starting in the 1950s. As Immerwahr tells the story, the international community development vogue had its roots, at least in part, in the concern over the atomizing impact of mass society in the United States of the 1930s. This concern gave rise to an interest in the dynamics of the small group and in the possibility — pace Norman Jacobs (1971) — of “development without modernization” (p. x). Figures ranging from Walt Disney, Sinclair Lewis, E.B. White, Norman Rockwell, Thornton Wilder and Granville Hicks to Lewis Mumford, Frank Capra, David Riesman, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Whyte, Robert Redfield and Jacob Levy Moreno shared this interest. Moreno even established an academic journal, Sociometry, to give the study of “‘networks’ of social relations between individuals” institutional standing in American social science (p. 26).
What Riesman would later call “groupism” (p. 37) motivated the work both of rural sociologists in the Division of Farm and Rural Welfare of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Agricultural Economics in the same years that saw Washington undertake the vast, centralized, technocratic programme that was the Tennessee Valley Authority. It also informed the work of the Community Analysis Section of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), responsible for running internment camps for Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. The work of these agencies thus exemplified the manner in which small-scale efforts rooted in communitarianism and sweeping programmes defined by bureaucratic centralization [End Page 595] coexisted; in Immerwahr’s words, “the urge to modernize and the quest for community shared space” (p. 71). And, as the communitarian quest fell out of fashion domestically, the United States began in the 1950s to export to the rest of the world both the ideology that underlay it and the “rural experts” (p. 53) who had pursued it.
In 1954, America’s foreign-assistance bureaucracy gained a Division of Community Development. Soon, the governments of tens of countries in the developing world initiated community development programmes, the majority of which seem to have drawn on the ideas of American advisors. Thinking Small devotes a pair of chapters to close studies of “the rise and fall of community development” (Holdcroft 1976) in two among those countries. One of these chapters focuses on India, the other on the Philippines. Each is rich and rewarding, though the Southeast Asianist reader will learn more from and perhaps have fewer misgivings about the former chapter than the latter. Each of the two chapters narrates a story of the failure of community development to live up to the extravagant hopes first associated with it.
In the case of India, where American involvement in community development actually dated from the late 1940s, what grew into a gigantic programme covering every village in the country foundered on two realities. First, emphasis on mobilizing villages as units of development had the perverse effect of reinforcing the power and influence of village elites. Second, in the early 1960s New Delhi shifted its priorities in the countryside away from “nurtur[ing] community participation” to “generat[ing] abundant harvests” (p. 97). In effect, in Immerwahr’s narrative...