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Using Foucault’s history of madness to examine the international development industry

Nolan, Erica (2014) Using Foucault’s history of madness to examine the international development industry. Masters by Research thesis, Murdoch University.

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Many theorists have attempted to explain the lack-lustre performance of the United Nations (UN) and other international development bodies in their work to reduce global poverty. Furthermore many of these initiatives have been largely unresponsive to a growing body of criticism from a variety of discourses. The work of contemporary French philosopher Michael Foucault has been used extensively to problematize and thereby lay open for examination the hidden assumptions and mechanisms behind the West’s ongoing development agenda. Such works draw heavily on Foucault’s theories of Knowledge and Power and Biopower. This research attempts to demonstrate that Foucault’s earliest work, “The History of Madness”, provides an inclusive and far reaching framework from which to critique development initiatives. In his theory, Foucault analyses the history of madness and details the emergence of a psychiatric movement whose role was not to cure but to reinterpret madness in order to contain and control it. This research draws links between the key elements of Foucault’s theory and the capitalist, neoliberal history of international development. It begins with linking the concept of the Noble Savage with the Divine Fool and continues by comparing Foucault’s Doctor/patient relationship with the development “expert,” and the creation of the early asylum with the activities of UN operations in developing nations. The discussion is supported through the analysis of a series of photographs taken from the UN website in which these similarities are foregrounded. The research concludes with the assertion that if we apply Foucault’s theory of madness to UN development activities, the knowledge and expertise of the development experts is illusory, and experts serve only as “rational” representatives of Western capitalist ideals. The relationship of the expert with developing nations remains static and functions purely as a mechanism to label and control. This theory highlights the importance of maintaining unequal power relations and precludes the possibility of transformation. It is hoped that creating an awareness of this dynamic will allow practitioners to reassess the assumptions behind their own programs and encourage the consideration of more fundamental development needs such as affordable healthcare.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters by Research)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Education
United Nations SDGs: Goal 1: No Poverty
Supervisor(s): Perry, Laura
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