Development theories

This module critically examines the major approaches and theories that dominate thinking about development at present, and have done so in the past several decades. The focus here is on sustainable and equitable human development. The course adopts a multidisciplinary approach, discussing contributions by geographers as well as those by other development-oriented scholars. In reviewing different theoretical paradigms, the basic understanding is that each theory is embedded in a particular historical and societal context that inspires useful insights but also imposes certain limitations. No theoretical school has a definitive answer to the problems of human development, while on the other hand several key ideas persist or recur in different guises as newly formulated theoretical insights.

The following schools of development thinking will be discussed:

  • dualism, orientalism and the persistence of dichotomies in development thinking;
  • modernization theories viewing development as a unilinear process;
  • the dependencia school and political-economy approaches;
  • neoliberalism and globalization as a development paradigm;
  • (new) institutional approaches to development and the role of the state;
  • Structuralist versus actor-oriented approaches in development;
  • gender approaches to and in development;
  • postmodernism, post-development and postcolonialism;
  • Sen’s capabilities approach and development as freedom;
  • sustainable development and its critics;
  • social theories of development and the role of culture;
  • ethical approaches to development;
  • complexity theory and development;
  • Geopolitical perspectives on development.

Development themes

Globalization - enabling connections to be made between people and places on a world scale - is changing the world, and this is commonly assumed to have important implications for development processes, including the opportunities for poverty alleviation. According to the pessimists, globalization - though it has been benign for the majority of the developing world, is not working for the large majority of the poor. On the contrary, it is liable to make them more marginal. The more optimist group of scholars stress the positive aspects of globalization - facilitating people to use the newly created ‘ladders’ that will help them to escape from poverty. Others focus on the implications of globalization for ‘hybrid development’, showing that globalization will contribute to a new paradigm of development. In a globalizing world, local development is increasingly played out in a matrix of links that connect people and places with other places and people elsewhere. Globalization, after all, is connecting people and places that are distant in space but linked in such ways that what happens in one place has direct bearing on the other. Any locality can be viewed as a specific node in which numerous networks of different nature meet, possibly creating synergies, or perhaps clashing with each other. To what extent does globalization provide people with additional manoeuvring space, providing them with better opportunities to build sustainable lives and/or escape from poverty? How can local actors benefit from ‘global opportunities’ in such a way that this will provide a basis for sustainable development? How is the economic crisis resulting in deglobalization and what is the impact for local development?The course will start with a comparative overview of major development trends in Asia, Latin America and Africa, covering the overarching theme of: Translocal development in the global south: new scarcities, new mobilities. The course will then focus on a number of IDS’s research themes (which are linked to the internship programme):

  • Private sector development, global value chains and local economic development
  • Privatization of land, land grabbing and local implications
  • Sustainable urban futures? Issues of urbanization and urban governance
  • Public service delivery (education, health and sanitation) and local development
  • Deforestation and sustainable forest management
  • Climate change and natural resource management: Living on the edge
  • Responsible investments?
  • Transnationalism, migration and development

In addition to lectures by IDS-staff, a number of key-note speakers will be invited (‘meet the professional’); and IDS-students (who just returned from the field) will be invited to share their experience.

Advanced Methods and Techniques for International Development Studies

This module deals with research design (for IDS students) and advanced research methods and techniques (both for IDS and SUSD-ID students). It is conducted in close cooperation with the IDS staff and Methodology and Statistics section of the SGPL. During a series of lectures, tutorials and practicals students are introduced to a wide range of aspects pertaining to the design, conducting and analysis of research as well as actually working in other cultural settings. The students are trained in the hands-on implementation of a variety of methods and techniques as commonly applied during the various phases of the project cycle, such as data collection (e.g. interviewing and surveys) and analysis (qualitative and quantitative).
In addition, IDS students are trained in research design, including the clear formulation of the research problem, the research objective and the leading research questions; in the presentation of the relevant contextual information and theoretical perspectives, including the construction of a conceptual model and a set of working hypotheses. Guided by their internship supervisors, IDS students study a selection of literature that is relevant in terms of their internship, and provide a written and oral presentation of a proposal of the research project which is to be carried out during the student’s research – oriented internship at a professional organization in a developing or transition country.

Migration, Mobilities & Sustainable Futures

The course draws on perspectives from the 'new' mobilities paradigm to deepen students’ understanding of the (new) linkages, flows and circulations that shape our increasingly inter-connected world. Using human migration and mobilities (e.g. business trips, tourism) as the starting point, we will examine how these flows share complex and dynamic relations with others movements (of goods, capital, resources, institutions, knowledge and development paradigms etc.). We will pay particular attention to the ‘politics of mobility’ to investigate the patterns and experiences, causes and effects of these ‘mobility bundles’. With ample case-studies from diverse contexts, we will analyse how human mobilities and associate flows shape – in a relational manner - resource use, affect people’s ability to improve their livelihood, offer development opportunities or pose constraints to institutions (e.g. firms or public organisations) and places (cities, regions, countries etc.). We will examine and reflect on the ways in which diverse forms of mobilities are being framed, linked and managed in development discourses and directives (e.g. the Sustainable Development Goal framework or the ‘migration crisis’ narrative).
The course commences with a few sessions in which we learn about and reflect on the mobilities paradigm and politics of mobility perspective. Multi-disciplinary examples will be shared to illustrate important and emerging themes surrounding mobilities and development. The second part of the course explores how mobilities (and being ‘in place’) play a role in the notion and pursuance of ‘development’ and ‘sustainable futures’ in the various sub-disciplines within human geography and planning. We will then consider some inter-disciplinary approaches to understanding the complex dynamics that link mobilities to development. In turn we will examine the assumptions made in major governance frameworks, e.g. the Sustainable Development Goals or various bilateral migration deals, regarding different types of mobilities. Drawing on this, we examine if, and how an inter-disciplinary geographical approach that is informed by the politics of mobility perspective can contribute to existing governance frameworks in envisioning inclusive and sustainable futures for our mobile world.

Real Estate

Most human activities such as living, working, learning and relaxing take place in ‘real estate’ such as homes, schools, offices and shops. Real estate provision therefore follows the preferences and needs of these human activities. However, the users of real estate are not the only ones who determine where, when and how much real estate is provided, and at what price. Real estate developers, (institutional) investors, banks, housing associations and local authorities play a very important and often dominant role in such decisions. They play the game of real estate along different and sometimes conflicting formal and informal rules (i.e. institutions). For us, academics concerned with the spatial distribution of human activities, it is crucial to understand how real estate provision takes place. Or to put it plainly: how does something that gets built get built? This central question is addressed and reflected upon in the module. We particularly look at the interaction between different actors and institutions within different markets and market segments.

Healthy Cities

In this course, we apply a new theoretical paradigm (“exposome”) to conceptualise and understand the complex pathways between the urban environment and health from a life course and daily life perspective. We study relations of the built and social environment with health issues, both in developed and developing countries. Examples of important health issues are the obesity epidemic; unhealthy lifestyles, e.g. physical inactivity, unhealthy diets, smoking; mental health problems; transnational mobilities of diseases; health inequalities. A better understanding of how the urban environment impacts on health is important, since policy makers and urban planners are increasingly confronted with questions like: “How do we design neighbourhoods that encourage physical activity and self-reliance of elderly”? Or: “Why is the gap in healthy life expectancy between neighbourhoods of Utrecht enormous, with variations from 60 to 72 years?” Therefore, we also discuss how urban health issues could be (partly) addressed by means of ‘healthy’ urban design and planning. Methodological innovations and technologies that are needed to study associations between the urban environment and health (e.g. ecological momentary assessment, sensors, big data, Internet of Things) are discussed.

The students will directly apply the knowledge that they gain during the course to a case study. At the start of the course, small groups of students adopt a neighbourhood of their choice in the Netherlands. During the course, students write a neighbourhood report, including an overview of the demographic composition, environmental circumstances, and health issues in this neighbourhood; a literature review on the determinants of the health problems that are most significant to this neighbourhood; and a policy plan (based on theory and literature) with recommendations to the city council how to improve the environmental context, and with that, to contribute to an improvement of the health of residents of this neighbourhood. In the final week of the course, groups of students give a presentation of their case study and the policy plan.

With this, the two main assignments that students work on during the course are:

  • Neighbourhood report, which includes statistical analyses of secondary data sources, a literature review, and policy recommendations.
  • Presentation of an evidence-based policy plan.

Techniques of Futuring: imagining the city of the future

The course can be completed for 5EC or 7,5EC. Please contact the course coordinator to make the proper arrangements.

Starting November 2017 the Urban Futures Studio offers a ‘mixed classroom course’, an exciting new form of academic education for ambitious master students. In this course you will study techniques available for imagining and designing cities in view of the planetary crisis of the 21th century. You will do so together with policymakers, scientists and business representatives. The mixed classroom is both an elective Master course (5 ECTS/7.5 ECTS) for students and an interactive lecture series for policymakers.To get a sense of what to expect in this unique educational format, have a look at the "Uninvited Futuring" exhibition made by students of the first Mixed Classroom, and read this interview (Dutch) with the course's instructors Dr. Jesse Hoffman (course coordinator) and Dr. Peter Pelzer.

In this course students will develop a conceptual and practical understanding of the available techniques for imagining the future such as design thinking, scenario’s, creative writing, and the staging of public participation. During the course students and policymakers will work together toward an exhibition on the future of Dutch cities that will be held at the end of the course.The course will offer a mix of (guest) lectures, interviews, case exercises and discussions. Using the mixed classroom format, you will learn to apply the acquired theoretical knowledge in case studies on future cities. Participation in this course offers you the possibility to gain hands-on experience in connecting ideas to action in collaboration with policymakers, on topics that are both scientifically innovative and societally urgent. In addition, you will learn to use innovative forms for doing research and presenting research.

Please note: for this course deviant enrolment rules apply
Students must be registered in a Master's programme at Utrecht University, students in one of the Master's programs within the Faculty of Geosciences have priority. Max. 20 students will follow the course together with Dutch practitioners in urban and spatial policy making (e.g. from the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment). For following this course you need approval of the course coordinator. You can contact Dr. Jesse Hoffman (

The registration period for his course will be open up to and including Tuesday 24th October.

Urban Infrastructures

Networked infrastructures such as energy, water, wastewater, telecommunication, and transport systems guide and facilitate urban functioning and urban life in a multitude of ways. These socio-technical systems provide fundamental conduits through which modern cities operate as backbones for urban livelihoods and economies, they integrate (or splinter) cities socially and spatially and mediate resource flows between nature and the city. Much of the history of modern urbanism can be understood as a series of attempts to 'roll-out’, extend, multiply or integrate networks (e.g. the “sanitary city”, the “electric city”, the “autocity”, the “bike city” or the “smart city”). Urban planning is thus deeply rooted in infrastructure planning aiming at liveable and “modern” urban places through the intermediary of infrastructure. The seminar introduces into the history, the key (ecological, social and economic) characteristics of these urban support systems and into their co-evolution with urban environments. The focus will be on recent governance and planning challenges face to the splintering of urban infrastructure, public health concerns, risks of failing infrastructures, and to environmental degradation. Based on urban case studies in the Global North and South, the course identifies place-based development patterns of urban infrastructure, infrastructural crises and potential solutions to the sustainable development of cities and infrastructure. An excursion to an infrastructure provider and guest lecturers will provide practical insights into challenges of planning cities and their vital systems.

Urban Heritage

The theme of urban transformations is of growing relevance as physical growth of cities is increasingly giving way for reconstruction of existing urban environments. After the large-scale reconstructions of towns during the post-war years, the 1970s saw a move towards ‘urban renewal’ of 19th-century neighbourhoods, followed during the 1990s by reuse of factories and warehouses. In such transformations, heritage is one of the basics of quality management, has an economic value (tourism, housing prices) and is also a starting point for the involvement of the local population. Nowadays, reconstruction of existing town districts is seen as one of the main tasks of urban planning. This means that every new activity takes places in neighbourhoods that have a history and group of existing dwellers and users. Reconstruction is an interactive process, that involves experts, politicians, population and other stakeholders.

This course will focus on:

  • Theories on the role of heritage in society in general and in urban transformations in particular; relations with local identity, city branding, planning, conservation and redevelopment, sustainability.
  • Projects, in which groups of students investigate transformations processes in individual neighbourhoods or will compare processes in different cities, with a focus on Europe.

Master thesis / internship International Development Studies

The majority of the students conduct a research internship (of minimum 13 weeks) in the Global South on a topic related to the core research themes presented in the Development Themes course. Students are given a broad choice of internships with broad research themes to students during the first period (around October). Students are expected to execute the research plan that they have drafted for Advanced Methods & Techniques course, and work under the supervision of their supervisors at IDS, in close collaboration with the host organisations in the ‘field’. Essential parts of this internship constitute a critical understanding of the main opportunities and challenges of specific development practice, the application of skills in research methodology and data analysis and the gaining of direct experience into the design and implementation of strategic interventions to tackle problems, including the potentials, limitations and constraints thereof. Drawing on their fieldwork findings, students write their MSc thesis upon their return from the ‘field’.

For those of you who have just started their thesis or research the University Library offers short (2-hour) guided search sessions. These will give you a head start in finding information. Staff will ensure that you do not miss out on any new important databases with journal articles and other information sources. For information and registration go to:

Note the drop-down menu above.

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