Legibility as a Weapon of the Weak

A massive body of work has documented the British fixation with categorization and measurement in colonial India; knowledge production is framed as integral to the processes of colonial rule, often with long-lasting effects on politics (for instance, Cohn and Pandey). Yet it’s crucial not to overstretch this important claim into a sweeping generalization about colonialism writ large. In colonial Ceylon, James Manor writes that the British adopted a radically different approach (The Expedient Utopian, p. 194):

“Efforts during this first phase after independence to assist the disadvantaged were hindered by a severe lack of statistical data on the condition of the island’s people. This was largely the result of a long-standing reluctance on the part of the British authorities to collect the kind of information which their counterparts in India had routinely gathered for decades.”

This continued in the post-colonial era: “Ten years after independence, the national political elite still had no satisfactory island-wide statistical profile of the rural masses. Even the leftists did not seek to learn how severe the problems of landlessness and rural poverty were.”

Scott’s Seeing Like a State and especially The Art of Not Being Governed portray an incessant, top-down state quest for legibility, categorization, and social control, but here we see elites choosing illegibility. Ironically enough, legibility would eventually emerge as a result of pressures from below for land reform and redistribution amidst the SLFP’s leftward tilt; in other words, it would become a Weapon of the Weak.

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