The Power of Labelling in Development Practice

Published on 3 April 2006

We all label ourselves and others to signal different aspects of our identities. Labels are a means to construct our social world: they define norms in relation to others who bear similar or different labels. Similarly, labelling is commonplace within development practice. As policymakers, practitioners and researchers, we use ‘frames’ and ‘labels’ to help our analyses and to describe to others what we do.

We quantify and measure categories of people to define needs, justify interventions and to formulate and channel solutions to perceived problems. While they may be efficient, such labelling processes are also dynamic and political. Therefore, they can produce unintended, and sometimes, unwelcome consequences. For example, labelling may shift – or sustain – power relations in ways that trigger social dislocation and prejudice efforts to achieve greater equity.

This IDS Policy Briefing highlights key dimensions of the power of labelling in development, recommending greater self awareness from policy actors and more sensitive and nuanced responses to local political contexts.


Rosalind Eyben

Emeritus Fellow

Publication details

published by
Eyben, R. and Moncrieffe, J.
IDS Policy Briefing, issue 28


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