Development and Surplus Populations

Development, rendering technical, and practices of assemblage Through this research theme I have explored a set of interventions, from the colonial period to the present, devised by experts and authorities who have diagnosed deficiencies in Indonesian society, and set out to rectify them. I pay particular attention to the practices through which experts define a problem and circumscribe its boundaries in such a way that social forces can be managed, and technical solutions applied. Through this process, which I call “rendering technical,” experts exclude from their diagrams the processes that impoverish people, and focus on the conduct of the poor. I find this approach alive and well in the contemporary apparatus of “poverty reduction” that highlights symptoms and correlations (e.g. the poor lack education, they lack assets, they live in isolated locales), rather than exploring the social relations that cause these conditions. Too often, the result is to confirm that poor people are responsible for their own fate, and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and/or take the initiative to move to areas of high growth and new opportunity. The practices through which these anti-political formations are assembled and defended is another question I have attempted to subject to rigorous, empirical analysis.

Surplus populations, agrarian transitions, and new forms of welfare. I started to rethink the question of agrarian transition in the context of my involvement in a major collaborative research program The Challenges of Agrarian Transition in Southeast Asia. My ethnographic work, and the synthetic work three of us undertook in  Powers of Exclusion, confirmed that the old way of life on the land was becoming increasingly difficult across the region, but the assumed trajectory into waged work was not taking place. I developed this theme further in response to the World Bank’s Report on Agriculture (2008) which overlooked globalization to express a faith that agrarian transitions from farm to factory, and country to city, would  – sooner or later – take place in each country. The report’s faith seemed to me misplaced: some populations, nations, and parts of the globe are now, or will become, surplus to the requirements of globally circulating capital. For highlanders pushed off the land in Sulawesi, for example, the creation of manufacturing jobs in China is no help.  My ethnographic research in rural Indonesia, and my observations of young people struggling to find work in urban Canada as well, led me to question the notion that everyone who is willing to work can find a productive niche. New policies and politics are needed to distribute the means to secure a decent life. This is a theme I will continue to examine, both ethnographically and comparatively, as I consider it to be one of the most pressing issues of our time.


181643._UY475_SS475_The Will to Improve is a remarkable account of development in action. Focusing on attempts to improve landscapes and livelihoods in Indonesia, Tania Murray Li carefully exposes the practices that enable experts to diagnose problems and devise interventions, and the agency of people whose conduct is targeted for reform. Deftly integrating theory, ethnography, and history, she illuminates the work of colonial officials and missionaries; specialists in agriculture, hygiene, and credit; and political activists with their own schemes for guiding villagers toward better ways of life. She examines donor-funded initiatives that seek to integrate conservation with development through the participation of communities, and a one-billion-dollar program designed by the World Bank to optimize the social capital of villagers, inculcate new habits of competition and choice, and remake society from the bottom up.

Demonstrating that the “will to improve” has a long and troubled history, Li identifies enduring continuities from the colonial period to the present. She explores the tools experts have used to set the conditions for reform—tools that combine the reshaping of desires with applications of force. Attending in detail to the highlands of Sulawesi, she shows how a series of interventions entangled with one another and tracks their results, ranging from wealth to famine, from compliance to political mobilization, and from new solidarities to oppositional identities and violent attack. The Will to Improve is an engaging read—conceptually innovative, empirically rich, and alive with the actions and reflections of the targets of improvement, people with their own critical analyses of the problems that beset them.

Click here for more on The Will to Improve.


(2017). After Development: Surplus Population and the Politics of Entitlement. Development and Change, 48: 1247–1261.

(2017) Centering Labor in the Land Grab Debate. Journal of Peasant Studies 38(2):   281-298. *Italian translation published in Sociologia Del Lavoro no.128 2012)

(2015). Governing Rural Indonesia: Convergence on the Project System. Critical Policy Studies.10(1):79-94

(2013). Anthropological Engagements with Development / Les engagements anthropologiques vis-à-vis du développement. Anthropologie & développement 37-38-39:227-256

(2009). To Make Live or Let Die? Rural Dispossession and the Protection of Surplus Populations” Antipode 14(6):1208-1235.

(2009). Exit from Agriculture: A Step Forward or a Step Backward for the Rural Poor? Journal of Peasant Studies 36(3): 629-636.

(2007). Practices of Assemblage and Community Forest Management.  Economy and Society 36(2): 263-293.

(2005). Beyond “the State” and Failed Schemes. American Anthropologist 107(3): 383-394.

(2003). Situating resource struggles: Concepts for empirical analysis. Economic and Political Weekly, 5120-5128PDF

(1999). Compromising Power: Development, Culture and Rule in Indonesia” Cultural Anthropology 40(3): 277-309.


(2017). It can’t be revolution: an interview with Tania Li. Dialogues, Cultural Anthropology website. By Atreyee Majumder.


Interview at UTSC Critical Development Studies: Interview w/ Prof. Tania Li by Leslie Chan

After development: surplus population and the politics of entitlement
Development Studies Association Annual Conference, Oxford, September 2016

Interview: After development: surplus population and the politics of entitlement
Professor Tania Li in conversation with Murat Arsel, co-chair, Development and Change

Can experts solve poverty?

Centre for Citizenship. (2010). Identities and Governance (CCIG). Keynote Lecture: To Make Live or Let Die.