American political scientist James C. Scott today receives the 2021 A.SK Social Science Award from the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. The award, donated by Chinese entrepreneurs Angela and Shu Kai Chan, is one of the world’s largest awards in the social sciences based on its $200,000 endowment.
In honoring Scott, the center notes his work — based on his field research on rural communities in Southeast Asia — transcends disciplinary boundaries and explores the limits of government intervention and economic policy. Scott, the Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University and a co-founder of its Agricultural Studies Program, accepted the award on November 2 in Berlin.
The international A.SK jury, chaired by Dorothea Kübler, a director at WZB, calls Scott “one of the most important analysts of non-governance,” who emphasizes the ability of people to self-organize in their local communities. Scott has pointed out the limits of state action and planning, for instance, in relation to urban development and the economy. His book Seeing Like a State (1998), which depicts the narrowness of the planning state’s gaze through numerous case studies, is one of the most influential social science works of the past 50 years.
At the core of his attention lies the organization and self-organization of humans within a society. His account of processes of domestication runs counter to conventional narratives which render settlement and arable farming as civilizational advances. In his 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Scott describes the emergence of states to be chiefly a cause of epidemics and slavery. His overall concern is with subjects’ resistance to dominion and with anarchy. A 2012 New York Times profile of Scott, “Professor Who Learns From Peasants,” described the life the self-described “mediocre farmer” leads with his family on farmland in Connecticut.
Scott was born in New Jersey in 1936. He studied political economy in Massachusetts, Burma, and Paris and earned a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University, where he’s been the Sterling Professor of Political Science since 1976. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has been a Fellow of both the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and the Guggenheim Foundation. He received the Benjamin E. Lippincott Award from the American Political Science Association in 2015; the Prize for High Achievement in Political Science for his lifetime accomplishment in 2018; and the 2020 Albert O. Hirschman Prize from the Social Science Research Council.
The A.SK Social Science Award, awarded by the WZB every two years since 2007, goes to researchers from the social sciences who have made an important contribution to political and economic reform. Previous laureates include Sir Anthony Atkinson, Martha Nussbaum, Transparency International, Paul Collier, Esther Duflo, John Ruggie, and Raj Chetty.