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Development Studies



UJ Development Studies is concerned with change. We are interested in what we can do to change the world, but also with understanding a world that is changing.  Our ethos in research, teaching and activism is based upon a deep recognition of the tensions between development as aspiration to  create a better world, and as a normative and powerful (state or non-state) process of intervention into people’s lives. Here idealism and practicality meet. Even as our ideological commitments mean that we maintain an eye on people’s long-term futures, we insist on engaging with immediate realities and the need to deliver prompt, meaningful change through services, resources and opportunities. 

Understanding how contemporary transformation is predicated upon earlier regimes of planned social intervention (both colonial and post-colonial) is crucial. Development scholars and practitioners inevitably confront the widespread persistence of gross inequalities and precarity, despite decades of global, regional and state interventions. Such interventions target measures such as GDP, poverty, life expectancy, health care and human rights and, in recent decades, democratization, governance, and participation. 

Alarm bells were first sounded about environmental destruction nearly 50 years ago, and the need for ‘sustainability’ (however contested) has been cemented firmly into development discourses. Since then, climate change research has exposed both the environmental implications of all human activity in the ‘anthropocene’, and their inevitable entanglement with social, political and economic questions of inclusion/exclusion, rights and justice. Despite this growing recognition of the consequentiality of human imbrication in changing ecologies, the trajectory of global, regional and national elites, privileged groups, and corporate capital exploiting resources to the exclusion of others, and to the detriment of local and global environments, has not altered.

We conceptualise development studies’ concern with managing and understanding change as a far broader quest than the implementation of technical solutions, or new forms of local inclusionary and sustainable participation. This aim necessarily involves matters of economic, social and political structural transformation and environmental change. UJ Development Studies thus incorporates both Marxist critiques of structures and hegemony at one end of the continuum, and economically conservative or neo-liberal approaches built around ideals of entrepreneurship, free market principles, and civil society activism on the other. Such an approach includes everything in between, such as established critiques of the ‘apolitical’, technocratic solutions that are increasingly promoted by local and global NGO elites. 

A further key component within our field of enquiry demands critical and sustained engagement with broader philosophical and political questions to do with postcoloniality and the decolonisation of knowledge, as well as persistent questions of social justice and transformation. This is in recognition of the long, problematic history of “development” processes as deeply normative and highly political. Therefore while an ethos of activism pervades our research and teaching, we are also alert to the need for critical reflection and self-awareness of our own positionality and complicity within the contexts that we study. 

We have research experience in a wide range of topics including: urban agriculture and food security; human rights and water politics; environmental justice and corporate responsibility; land reform and wildlife management; youth unemployment and labour organisation; civil society-state relations; long-term studies of particular African social formations; and theoretical debates in the field of development studies itself. Our ambition is to deepen our expertise in critical, African theories of technology, change, decoloniality and ‘indigenous’ knowledge systems, in the context of the anthropocene and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We understand teaching, research and activism as mutually beneficial, intertwined activities. From our unique location in Johannesburg, much of our research is grounded in the sharp realities of Southern Africa, while straddling both the African continent and the wider global South, and seeking the nexus of global, regional and local forces of social change and justice. 

Development Studies

Why study Development?  To understand processes in society that create, maintains and overcomes poverty, inequality and marginalisation. It enables us to see how a different economic and political system can come about with greater impact on the quality of life of ordinary people. These insights can be applied to global systems, local and national systems and in the workplace and in organisations.
Possible careers include:

Practitioners – social development and social change programmes.

Researchers of social change.

Activists who struggle and campaign for a different world and system.

Can support journalism, foreign service, enterprise and organisational development.

Majors and elective modules to combine with your major include:Economics, politics, philosophy, social work, history, sociology, anthropology, public governance.