Development Studies
Papia Lahiri, 26 May 2015
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OVER the last few years, the word ‘development’ has returned as a buzzword among large sections of the population in India. No public discussion can be complete without reference to ‘development’. But the origin of study of development is decades old and began after the second World War itself.

Originating in Economics it is now best characterized as a multidisciplinary field with contributions from demography, ecology, anthropology, geography, history, international relations, philosophy, political science, public management and sociology.

Subject matter
“A student of Development Studies should always remember that every society – say, a village in Chhattisgarh or a municipal ward in Jalandhar - has its own needs and inclinations. If you want to study it or give a sound policy advice that is supposed to cover both the village and municipal ward, the differences between the two locations must be kept in mind. This requires a grasp of the concrete situations as well as the generalities of issues,” says Professor Amiya Bagchi, Director, Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata. The institute offers MPhil and PhD in the arena of Development Studies.

It is difficult to provide a crystal-clear definition of Development Studies. For long, it has been perceived as a part of Development Economics or Applied Economics. Development Studies and Applied Economics were known to share several features. “Both these streams share some of the intellectual lineages and methodologies, though there are discernible differences in seeing the reality and abstracting it,” says Associate Professor Bino Paul, School of Management and Labour Studies, which offers a Master’s course in the subject.  However, for the uninitiated we would say that Development Studies is the study of change in developing countries.
Development Studies (DS) is a relatively young field of academic study within social sciences. It is believed that the nomenclature ‘development studies’ was not used until World War II. It became a designated subject between 1960s and 1970s. Many argue that it was born as a result of decolonisation process of 1950s and 1960s as the newly independent countries tried to ‘catch up’ with the industrialized nations. The dominance of ‘economic thinking’ in the early years of Development Studies was, therefore, beyond question.

The context in which DS shaped up as an academic subject was certainly economic. There are some scholars who believe that DS originated in Great Britain as a leftover from the old field of colonial economics (that is, how to run a colony, which is a subject matter that the modern field of Development Economics claims no association with). To put it simply, Development Economics is mostly a hard-core, quantitative enterprise and DS is mostly a theoretical, comprehensive and soul-searching enterprise.

“Economics forms the bedrock of Development Studies, but the latter also incorporates insights from politics and sociology,” says Pulapre Balakrishnan, Director, Centre for Development Studies (CDS-Thiruvananthapuram). There, DS is covered, interestingly, under Applied Economics which is offered through MPhil and PhD programmes. It is important to note here that DS is not usually found in the undergraduate curriculum; it is essentially a discipline for postgraduate level and above.


The course provides a thorough academic grounding besides

initiating debates, discussions and generates practical


Stuti Pant

Student MA(DS), TISS

Viewing Development
As stated eloquently by Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, human development refers to the goal of providing people the freedom to make their lives better. While that may seem to be a desirable objective, we live in a complex world with inherent contradictions. For instance, since the 19th century, average income per person has gone up nearly 10-fold in real terms, but we now have more people living in dire poverty.

These contradictions characterize a global social, economic and political context that needs to be addressed through scholarship and practice. Natural science and technology can surely provide answers, but their scope is necessarily limited. “Human relationships with each other and physical world are challenging domains. To analyse and address these issues requires knowledge and skills from across the social sciences, which is what Development Studies seeks to do,” says Professor Sudhir Chella Rajan, Head, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Madras.

Development Studies intends to study the improvement in people’s lives. It is committed to practical or policy relevance of teaching and research in the domain. There is also growing interest among DS teachers to focus on local and global inequalities. This could be with respect to inequality of wealth, resources or even gender.

Development has often been perceived to be concerned with providing a "voice" to those living in poverty around the world.  Likewise, there are those who would say the field ought to be focused on agrarianism, leading to inclusion of the natural sciences into the field. Thus, there is quite a lot of diversity in the content of DS. It believes in multidisciplinary approach to ‘multidimensional development’. 

“Development Studies is a challenging approach to two things - the historical and highly uneven processes of structural change and socio-economic change in a largely capitalist international context; and the set of policies, institutions, and direct interventions to secure development outcomes by a wide array of agencies,” says Christopher Cramer, Head of Department, Development Studies, The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

Why should students pursue it?
Even though she had commerce background, Stuti Pant chose to graduate in social work. She wanted to specialize in a course that gave her insights into development theory, research and an understanding of the structural issues and questions of development. Postgraduation in Development Studies was the most viable option.

“The curriculum gives an equal platform to students from varied backgrounds. Courses like philosophy of development research; perspectives in science and technology; history and theories of development; women history, development economics, provide the students with a thorough academic grounding. In addition to these, courses like urban planning; law and development; culture and development; agriculture and rural development and sustainable development encourage debates and discussions from a practical viewpoint,” says Stuti, a student of MA Development Studies, TISS.

DS students are needed for jobs in United Nations organisations, inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), NGOs, the World Bank, private sector consultancy and aid firms, journalistic jobs, and research institutions. Many pursue higher studies in policy studies, economics, urban studies, environmental studies or development studies itself.

After the completion of his senior secondary school with Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, Raunaq Sahu felt that it would be worthwhile to sit for entrance exam of an integrated Master’s programme in Development Studies at IIT-Madras.

“In a country like ours with the whole rural-urban dynamic and the associated problems that come with it, it looks like lot is to be done in order to find appropriate solutions. With so much scope, DS became an obvious choice,” he says. It is important to understand that the subject is not all theory, as commonly perceived. There are field trips, case studies, dissertations and projects, which lend practical approach to DS. “We get ample opportunity of engaging outside the classroom as well,” says Kavitha Narayanan, a student of DS at IIT-Madras. While Raunaq intends to complete his PhD in the subject, Kavitha is looking at working in social sector or with research organizations.

The future of DS
The GDP of most of the developing countries including India is rapidly increasing. But the gap between the rich and the poor is widening too. The theory that benefits tend to ‘trickle down’ is seriously in question. The problems of development look much more than simply the problems of GDP growth statistics and something that can be dealt with in narrow disciplines.

DS provides the type of “liberal education” that can serve us well in an era when change – economic, technological, social and cultural – has been seismic in its speed and impact on human civilization. It is an impact that has manifested itself in complex and non-linear ways. “Changes, which emanate from diverse contexts such as global warming, economic global order, emerging forms of transnational corporations, multiplex information sharing systems, a globally connected civil society and new  global economic order, entail multidisciplinary approach of Development Studies in understanding the contemporary and future worlds,” adds Bino Paul.

Given the breadth of concerns relating to development (from anthropology through communication, cultural studies, economics, environmental studies, gender studies, geography, history, language and literature, politics, sociology and urban studies), “generalists” rather than “specialists” are needed to gain a full understanding of developmental issues. A course in DS should thus be an option for those who fancy themselves as generalists.





Tata Institute of Social Sciences


Madras Institute of Development Studies


Centre for Development Studies


Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research






School of Oriental and African Studies

United Kingdom

International Institute of Social Sciences

The Hague, Holland


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‘It’s more inter-disciplinary than Economics’

Christopher Cramer
HoD, Development Studies,
The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS),
University of London

Understand the main areas of concern of Development Studies and its relationship with Development Economics.

Q: How would you describe ‘Development Studies’ as a subject? Why is it relevant in the present scenario?
A: Development Studies is a challenging, inter-disciplinary approach to two things: the historical and highly uneven processes of structural change and socio-economic change in a largely capitalist international context and the set of policies, institutions, and direct interventions to secure development outcomes by a wide array of agencies. Development Studies is more relevant than ever in a world of persistent poverty, staggeringly high levels of inequality, rapid changes, and huge social and political challenges.

Q: What are the disciplines one should ideally build a sound base in for postgraduation in Development Studies?
A: Development Studies has a multidisciplinary approach. A student with background in any of the following subjects would be able to adapt easily in studying Development Studies as a postgraduation subject - Economics, Political Science, Geography, Anthropology, and Sociology.

Q: Development Studies is an important part of Applied Economics. Please comment.
A: This statement is true, at least for development economics. Not Development Studies as a whole. As the subject takes inputs from other social sciences, it typically involves a more inter-disciplinary approach than Economics is really cut out for. Applied Economics is to an extent similar to Development Economics. But the latter has a
wider ambit.

Q: What career options do students have after completion of the course? Do many students take up further studies/research in the arena?

A: A proportion of students go on to study for research degrees. As for the rest, there is a huge variety of career paths, including working for national development agencies, international multilateral UN agencies, NGOs, trade unions and social movements, research institutes, private corporations

Q: Development Studies is a fairly novel discipline. Do you feel its scope is going to increase in the near future?
A: Its scope has increased and will increase. The number of different degree programmes within the broad rubric of development studies (e.g. violence, conflict and development; mobility, migration and development; globalization and development; labour, social movements and development) has expanded. With the current disparities and inequalities looming large, its scope will only increase in the near future.


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