Instrumental Culturalism: The Work of Comparisons across Japan, “the West” and Myanmar

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As ‘emerging donors' push alternative paradigms of development cooperation ‘beyond aid' onto the global agenda, some scholars discuss those from Asia as presenting culturally specific approaches. These observations echo the claims that aid practitioners and policy makers themselves make about, for example, Japanese forms of development. In this article, I caution against scholars repeating these culturally essentialising arguments that promote certain political interests. Instead, I propose that we ‘take seriously' these aid actors’ instrumental culturalist views as ethnographic artefacts—that is, as logics and practices that our interlocutors use. By taking what I call instrumental culturalism as the object of study, rather than the analytical frame, this article shows that the work of comparisons plays a central role in producing culturalist worldviews. In short, culturalism is performative, creating that which it names. If we are to understand the “beyond aid” agenda, we need to attend to the ways that the production of culturalisms through the work of comparisons informs development actors’ understandings of social organisation and global interaction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-45
JournalTRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia
Issue number1
Early online date2 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2 Nov 2017


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