Although it has become an important focus of scholarship and a major global policy arena, there is not universal agreement on exactly what the field of international development encompasses. Generally speaking, there is consensus that it broadly focuses on policies and institutions involved in promoting certain core goals—economic growth, poverty reduction, better governance, quality of life improvements, and stronger human rights—in the poorer and less-developed countries of the world. The relative importance of these diverse, interrelated issues and how to approach studying and attaining them, however, has generated robust and evolving debates across disciplines and between academics and policymakers.
Since the end of World War II, an impressive volume of literature on what is known as development studies has accumulated. It can be argued that development, in itself, has gained the status of a field of study within, and beyond, the social sciences. From economics to anthropology, from sociology to environmental sciences, development has become a major intellectual concern. Development issues are also a focus in the field of public management, and social entrepreneurship in emerging and developing countries has become a prominent interest of some business schools.
Some scholars consider development as a separate discipline, characterized by having its own epistemological stance, theoretical frameworks, methodologies, and even a unique terminology. In contrast, other scholars view development as inherently interdisciplinary, in which none of the traditionally established disciplines can satisfactorily explain the multidimensional and dynamic character of development. Therefore, development can be viewed both as a discipline in its own right, and as particular social phenomenon which can be approached from different disciplinary perspectives. Another relevant debate in the development literature refers to the inherent particularities of developed countries when compared to the developing world with respect to issues such as culture, social capital, institutional change, and so forth, which affect the development process.
The international development field prepares doctoral students to undertake research in this broad-based area. Given its expansive and interdisciplinary nature, International Development is a customized doctoral field in which students design their own areas of study with strong faculty guidance. The field includes an overview component that focuses on foundational ideas in development thinking and the empirical research that has examined it. Beyond that, some students have elected to take a more institutional/public administration perspective, while others have focused more on discipline based social science theory and methods (economics and political economy have dominated). Many have tried to bridge disciplines and approaches to some extent.
Many students also focus on a particular aspect of development that brings together material drawn from multiple disciplines and methodological approaches as it relates to their focal research interests. Examples of more focused topics have ranged from the broad (poverty reduction, public finance, governance) to the more specific (access to financial services by poor households, fiscal decentralization, performance/outcome evaluation).