1.2.4 Issues of history
The dominant approaches to development noted in Chapter 2 each became prominent at particular points in history, i.e. as a result of a particular set of social, economic and political contexts. The importance of historical context explains why it is argued at the beginning of the chapter that studying development is, to some extent, about asking Eric Hobsbawn’s ‘key historical question’:
how did humanity get from caveman to space-traveller, from a time when we were scared by sabre-toothed tigers to a time when we are scared of nuclear explosions?
There is value in taking a historical perspective as it provides us with evidence of what has occurred before enabling us to consider how things might happen in the future.
Now I’d like you to reflect a little more on the usefulness of a historical perspective and the place of individual’s within historical processes and thus development activities.
Watch the clip below, which discusses how an individual’s life in Shanghai has shaped and has been shaped by events around them throughout their life.
Take notes as you listen particularly around the following issues:
- What are the key historical events that have shaped Madame Yao’s and Ms Fu’s lives?
- What are the historical events that they have helped shape?
Transcript: Shanghai clip (15 minutes)
There are a number of historical events that you could have noted down after watching this film that introduces us further to Madame Yao and her daughter, Ms Fu. Some of these are momentous events that are well-known such as the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s or China’s economic transformation from the 1980s. The former impacted Ms Fu’s education and the way she could dress and express her personality while the transition of China to a market economy provided Ms Fu with greater job opportunities and security at a time when her friends were losing their jobs. Other historical events are perhaps less well known such as the famine of 1958–1962 known by Madame Yao as the ‘Natural Catastrophe’. Indeed, this example highlights the differences that are evident throughout history which means some people are cushioned more from natural disasters than others. Madame Yao and her family where not sheltered from the worst of the famine because of their monetary wealth but because her husband was in the army and therefore she benefited from additional support. However, as Madame Yao alludes to in the film, while the army provided a safety net for her and her family, it meant she had other problems to contend with related to the fact that she was often having to look after her children and the family home on her own while her husband was away in the army or at sea.
The second question might feel like a trick question; there is no obvious answer that presents itself when watching the film. However, if we interrogate the information we are given it is possible to see how one individual is part of a greater whole. For example, Madame Yao has helped shape her daughter’s life as much as any parent does; Ms Fu’s participation in criticising her teachers during the Cultural Revolution may have impacted others around her; and the business decisions Ms Fu takes in her position as a sales manager of a major sports retailer will have implications on the way her company operates (the customers it has, the number of orders it receives) which in turn impacts other workers in the company in terms of their work load and job security. History doesn’t just take place on a large scale and in terms of major events. We can think of history at a range of scales (personal, family, community, national as well as international) and one’s place within history as being influenced by the degree of power and agency a person has.
Now review all your notes that you have made so far and draw a spray diagram that helps collate your notes around the issue of history.