Development in Political Economy Essay

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The emergence of the idea of development in western culture is closely linked to the evolutionary worldview that began to gain ground in Europe in the eighteenth century. Their common denominator can be seen in the idea of continuous social change usually proceeding in distinct stages and entailing an improvement of living conditions.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, major political upheavals throughout the world and the spread of industrialization in the west made social and political change the norm. Unlike static and undifferentiated ”traditional” societies, ”modern” society was increasingly seen as the product of progress resulting from such constant change. Both western sociology and anthropology embraced an evolutionary perspective and set themselves the task to identify the stages of development through which each society must pass in order to reach the western standard of civilization. Classical political economy concurred in this view by conceiving of modes of production as chronologically structured and nationally determined. In this understanding, development represented the outcome of an immanent historical process to be traversed by individual social organisms on their way to maturity — i.e., modern society.

In the 1950s, the multidisciplinary US modernization school identified the problem of third world countries in their ”traditionalism” and advocated modernization — a stage-by-stage replication of the economic development of Western Europe and North America — as a solution. Modernization theory saw societies as becoming increasingly similar in the course of a process of social change considered unidirectional, progressive, and irreversible, thus reviving basic premises of nineteenth-century evolutionary theory. In this variant, development became coterminous with planned economic growth and political modernization, to be implemented with the help of development agencies and foreign aid projects.

Rejecting both the main theoretical assumptions and the policy implications of the modernization school with respect to development, the neo-Marxist Latin American dependency theory focused instead on underdevelopment. Dependency theorists claimed that the modern world’s center-periphery structure mirrored an underlying international division of labor, established during the European colonial expansion and currently maintained through economic domination. In this view, the economies of the colonized regions had been reorganized so as to meet the needs of the colonizer countries, and ended up producing raw materials that served the latter’s interests. Unlike modernization theory, dependency theorists did not view underdevelopment as a ”stage” previous to development, but as a distinct historical process that industrialized economies had not experienced. In this view, development and under-development are different aspects of the same phenomenon, not different stages in an evolutionary continuum.

World-systems analysis expanded on this criticism of modernization studies and claimed that it was the current capitalist world system as a whole, not individual societies, that should constitute the basic unit of analysis. Reifying political-cultural units — i.e., states — into autonomously evolving entities led to ahistorical models of social transformation, as in the ”traditional” vs. ”modern” distinction. As with dependency theory, underdevelopment was viewed as a product of the international division of labor underlying the capitalist world economy. Upward mobility within the system (e.g., a semiperiphery’s rise to core status) was not considered development, but merely successful expropriation of world surplus. Both the dependency school and world-systems analysis retained a notion of development in which progress was represented by the transition to (world) socialism.

By the end of the twentieth century, development as a theme of academic research had lost ground. Treatment of the political and economic factors of macrostructural change increasingly occurred within the theoretical framework of globalization. In conceptual terms, this translated as a shift in the process of development from nationally organized economic growth to globally managed economic growth. At the same time, the notion of globalization as liberalization of market economies, democratization, or transition from the second to the first world, revealed the same teleological understanding of world history on which nineteenth-century evolutionary models were premised. The search for alternative developments included ”ethnodevelopment,” focusing on indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, ”sustainable development,” targeting the preservation of resources, and feminist development economics centered on gender-sensitive development policies, but also alternatives to development, fundamentally questioning the principle of economic growth and the model of modernity that has been based on it.


  1. Escobar,    (1995)  Encountering  Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  2. Frank, A. G. (1967) Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil. Monthly Review Press, New York.
  3. McMichael, P. (2005) Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective. Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  4. Wallerstein, I. (1979) The Capitalist World-Economy: Essays. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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