An Interview with James C. Scott | Harry G. West and Celia Plender

from Gastronomica 15:3

SOAS FOOD STUDIES CENTRE DISTINGUISHED LECTURE

On December 11, 2014, James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and founding director of the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University, gave a Distinguished Lecture in the Food Studies Centre at SOAS, University of London (co-organized by the Agrarian Change and Development Research Cluster at SOAS). Lectures in this series are co-sponsored by Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. On the following day, Scott answered questions put to him by Harry G. West, Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Food Studies Centre; Celia Plender, doctoral student in anthropology; and other SOAS students.

For decades, Scott has been a key figure in Southeast Asian Studies and in the comparative study of agrarian societies and peasant politics. His best-known works examine the state, hegemony, revolution, resistance, and anarchism, and include The Moral Economy of the Peasant (Yale University Press, 1976), Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale University Press, 1980), Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998), and The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2008).

james_scott_featured
Photograph courtesy of James C. Scott

In this session, Scott reflects on his intellectual precursors and his place in the landscape of academic disciplines; the significance of food and agriculture in his work; the tenuous future of peasant agriculture and agrarian societies; globalization and the rise of corporate agriculture and the food industries; poverty and the struggle for justice; and his own experiences with farming and farm land conservation.

PANEL:

JAMES C. SCOTT [JS]

HARRY G. WEST [HW]

CELIA PLENDER [CP]



HW:

Jim, what drew you to “agrarian studies”—specifically with a focus on the peasantry and its relationship with the state—and what drew you to Southeast Asia? Is there a backstory that you can share with us that gives us a sense of this emergent intellectual agenda?

JS:

I stumbled into Southeast Asia. I had bungled my honors thesis as an undergraduate, my professor dismissed me, and if I wanted an honors degree, I had to find someone who would adopt me. I was an economics major and someone said, well, I think I’d like to understand more about the economic development of Burma and if you do this I will adopt you as an honors student. And I said fine, and then when I closed the door behind his office I said to myself, where’s Burma? I got a Rotary Fellowship to go to Burma and one thing led to another and I became a Southeast Asianist. As far as agrarian studies is concerned, that’s actually a simpler story and maybe typical of my generation. I started to teach as a Southeast Asianist during the middle of the Vietnam War and the expansion of the Vietnam War at the University of Wisconsin. The university had a long progressive tradition, which was one reason why I took a job there. The fall of 1967 when I arrived to begin teaching there were the so-called “Dow Riots” protesting the war and the manufacture and use of napalm ordnance by Dow as well as the contract research for the Department of Defense conducted on campus. These riots convulsed the campus and coincided with a strike by teaching assistants to secure unionization rights. The police responded badly and a good many students were beaten and arrested. The turmoil led to a series of all-faculty meetings in which I took an active part, speaking against the war and for the rights of the protestors. As a budding Southeast Asianist I spent a good deal of the following two years speaking against the war in Wisconsin and elsewhere. I became interested in peasant rebellion—understanding the Viet Cong and how peasant rebellions happened. I taught a course on peasant rebellion with a China specialist friend, Edward Friedman, and in those days we had 400, 500 students in the class who were fighting for the microphone to denounce us as insufficiently progressive. Finally I decided that since peasants were the largest segment of the world’s population, it would be an honorable and worthy career to devote my life to the study of peasants and agriculture. So when I finally went to Yale, we began something called the Program in Agrarian Studies and it brought together all those people who were interested in rural life generally: land tenure, agriculture, now food and environment. For me it was a wonderful interdisciplinary community in which I learned a tremendous amount. I think of the book Seeing Like a State as the book that agrarian studies helped me write, just by attending all of the seminars that we had—including ones which Harry presented.

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