Social Development: Unrefined or Undefined?
Economics Open University Milton Keynes, UK
"Economic development" and "political development" have been relatively easy to define, measure, theorise and advocate. Even if it has been difficult to reach agreement on what causes them, and how best to promote them, there is broad agreement on what constitutes economic progress (towards greater prosperity) and political progress (towards democracy and civil society). Economic and political science owe much of their intellectual legitimacy and policy influence to this definitional success. "Social development" has, this paper argues, not been open to the same consensus definition, measurement or advocacy. This has sidelined sociology's central concept of modernization, causing the discipline to lose influence despite the centrality of social problems and policy to contemporary debate. Successive social, psychological and anthropological studies - including the recent cluster of Happiness and Capability projects - constantly undermine any attempt to rank societies as more or less socially developed, challenge any suggestion of a social development as correlated with economic or political development, and rule out the measurable pursuit of social development as an end in itself.
This paper identifies eight main approaches to social development, all emerging from the original Modernization theory: Utilitarianism, Evolution, Mobility/Meritocracy, Equality/Citizenship, Growth of Knowledge, Risk/Security and Human Rights. It shows that each, though sometimes attaining initial acceptance, has later become contested to the point where it loses intellectual or popular acceptance. The paper then reviews more recent attempts to connect social development with economic or political development, but argues that any synthesis has been achieved only by submerging the social element. Relativism, postmodernism, path-dependency and reflexivity, among the most powerful discoveries of social enquiry and therefore readily appropriated by social theory, are shown as inherently obstructive to defining social development, and even to preserving the "social" as a meaningful category. The paper concludes by considering whether sociology could gain greater influence by filling-in this gap in theories of development, or owes its remaining influence to the persistence of the gap.