In Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott uses the concept of legibility to refer to the ability of a state or other large-scale bureaucratic organization to understand and control a complex society through the use of standardization and simplification. According to Scott, the state strives to make society legible by imposing order on it, often through the use of maps, statistics, and other forms of standardization.

However, Scott argues that this process of legibility often fails because it does not take into account the complexity and diversity of human societies. In trying to impose order on society, the state often oversimplifies and overlooks important details and nuances, leading to policies and practices that are ineffective or even harmful.

Scott uses the concept of legibility to illustrate the ways in which states and other large-scale bureaucratic organizations often attempt to impose their own order and understanding on society, and the often negative consequences that can result from these efforts.

Examples of the concept of legibility from the book

Standardized language: The state often attempts to make society legible by imposing a standardized language, such as through language academies or the promotion of a particular dialect as a national language. This can help the state to more easily communicate with and understand its citizens, but can also lead to the suppression of minority languages and cultures.

Statistical data collection: The state often collects statistical data on its citizens in order to better understand and control society. This can include data on population size, age demographics, economic activity, and more. However, these data can be incomplete or misleading, and can overlook important details and nuances.

Land registration and cadastral maps: The state often attempts to make land ownership and use legible by creating land registration systems and cadastral maps. This can help to clarify land ownership and facilitate the transfer of property, but can also lead to the dispossession of marginalized groups who may not have formal legal claims to their land.

Last names: The state often imposes last names on citizens as a way of making them more legible and easier to identify. However, this can lead to the suppression of traditional naming practices and the erasure of cultural identities.


Legibility of employees

Performance evaluations: A corporation might use performance evaluations to assess the productivity and effectiveness of its employees. These evaluations might include metrics such as the number of tasks completed, the quality of work produced, and feedback from supervisors and colleagues.

Talent management systems: Many corporations use talent management systems to track the skills and development of their employees. These systems can help the corporation to identify employees with high potential and tailor development opportunities to their needs.

Network analysis: Some corporations use network analysis tools to understand the relationships and connections among their employees. This can help the corporation to identify employees with strong internal networks and leverage these connections to achieve business objectives.

Data collection and analysis: Corporations might also use data collection and analysis techniques to gain insights into the behavior and performance of their employees. This might include tracking data on employee engagement, turnover, or other indicators of performance.

Legibility of customers

Customer data analysis: Corporations often collect data on their customers in order to gain insights into their behavior and preferences. This might include data on purchase history, online activity, demographic information, and more. By analyzing this data, the corporation can identify patterns and trends that can help them to better understand and target their customer base.

Customer segmentation: Some corporations use customer segmentation techniques to divide their customer base into distinct groups based on shared characteristics or behaviors. This can help the corporation to tailor marketing and sales efforts to specific segments of the customer base and improve the effectiveness of their campaigns.

Customer feedback and complaints: Corporations often seek to obtain feedback and complaints from their customers in order to identify areas for improvement and resolve issues. By tracking and analyzing this information, the corporation can gain a better understanding of customer needs and preferences and address any issues that may be causing customer dissatisfaction.

Customer lifetime value: Some corporations use customer lifetime value (CLV) analysis to understand the profitability of their customers over the long term. CLV analysis can help the corporation to identify their most valuable customers and tailor their marketing and service efforts accordingly.

Legibility of suppliers

Supplier performance evaluations: Corporations often use supplier performance evaluations to assess the performance of their suppliers. These evaluations might include metrics such as on-time delivery, product quality, cost efficiency, and responsiveness to issues or concerns.

Supplier risk assessments: Corporations may use supplier risk assessments to identify and mitigate potential risks associated with their suppliers. This might include evaluating the financial stability of the supplier, the security of their systems and processes, and their reputation in the industry.

Supplier relationship management: Some corporations use supplier relationship management (SRM) systems to track and manage their relationships with suppliers. SRM systems can help the corporation to better understand their suppliers and identify opportunities for collaboration or improvement.

Joint ventures: Corporations may seek to obtain greater legibility of potential joint venture partners by evaluating their strengths, capabilities, and fit with the corporation’s business objectives. This can help the corporation to identify potential partners who may be a good fit for a joint venture.

Further reading:


Will Bachman