“Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind: The Latin American Case” by Lawrence E. Harrison delves into the intricate socio-cultural factors that have contributed to the economic stagnation of many Latin American countries, contrasting them with the successes seen in the United States, Western Europe, and parts of Asia. Published in 1985, the book is a direct challenge to the prevailing economic determinist narratives that primarily attribute underdevelopment to external economic factors.
Harrison’s central argument is that culture—values, beliefs, and attitudes—plays a significant role in economic development. He posits that certain cultural characteristics hinder the progress of Latin American nations, particularly their attitudes towards work, innovation, and the role of individuals in society.
- Refreshing Perspective: At a time when economic determinism dominated the discourse on development, Harrison’s focus on the influence of culture provided a fresh and much-needed perspective. His work sparked an important debate about the significance of cultural factors in economic outcomes.
- In-depth Analysis: Harrison combines empirical data with historical narratives and qualitative accounts, providing a comprehensive overview of the cultural traits and their historical contexts in different Latin American countries.
- Comparative Approach: By contrasting Latin American nations with more economically successful countries, Harrison provides a clearer picture of how differing cultural values can influence development trajectories.
- Potential Cultural Determinism: While Harrison critiques economic determinism, he risks veering into a form of cultural determinism. The emphasis on cultural traits as primary hindrances to development can be seen as overly simplistic, ignoring the multifaceted nature of development and the interplay of various factors.
- Sensitivity and Generalizations: The book has faced criticism for sometimes relying on broad generalizations about entire cultures or nations, which can come across as reductionist or even insensitive. This could perpetuate stereotypes and not account for the diversity within these nations.
- Lack of Agency: Harrison’s focus on deep-seated cultural traits might suggest a lack of agency for Latin American nations to overcome their economic challenges. While culture is undoubtedly influential, nations have shown the ability to evolve and adapt over time.
- External Factors: By focusing intensely on internal cultural traits, Harrison might not give due weight to external factors, such as colonial histories, global economic systems, and geopolitical dynamics, which have also played pivotal roles in shaping Latin America’s economic landscape.
“Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind” is a provocative and groundbreaking work that highlights the importance of cultural factors in economic development, a perspective often overshadowed by more traditional economic analyses. While Harrison’s arguments are compelling, readers should approach the book with an awareness of its potential biases and oversimplifications. It’s essential to view culture as one of many elements influencing economic trajectories, rather than as a deterministic force. Still, Harrison’s work serves as a valuable starting point for discussions about the complex interplay of culture and economics in the development discourse.