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Geographical Perspectives on Development Studies

Summary and Keywords

The history of development studies as a field of academic inquiry can be traced most directly back to the Cold War era when public funding for “development studies” went hand in hand with international development as a state project, particularly in the United States. Economists, sociologists, and planners began to take the development of the “Third World” as an object of analysis, partially in response to new funding opportunities and a discursive context legitimating it as a field of study. By the 1960s, geographers began to take (so-called) “Third World” modernization and development as an object of research. Geographers’ engagement with development as intervention, and eventually the exploration of uneven global development as part of the “ebb and flow of capitalism,” can be divided into three waves. The first wave, visible in the early 1960s, took the quantitative spatial models dominant at the time in geography, such as those concerning urbanization patterns, transportation linkages, regional development, and population movement, and began to apply them to “Third World” contexts. This second wave, linked to the turn toward Marxist theory by a new generation of geographers in the 1960s, explored the uneven geography of wealth and power produced by capitalism and launched a powerful critique of development intervention as imperialism. The third wave of debates emerged in the late 1980s–early 1990s and is associated with poststructural and postcolonial critiques gaining traction at the time in geography and related disciplines.

Keywords: development studies, geographers, geography, economic development, Third World


The word “development” has a vast array of connotations, even if we begin by limiting it to questions of socioeconomic development (broadly defined) and the often taken-for-granted labels of “Third World” and “First World” that seek to characterize uneven geographies of wealth and power across the globe. Three important contexts in which development is deployed are introduced here. First, as it is usually constructed within public discourse and media emanating from the Global North, development continues to be used as a marker of progress and modernity that distinguishes between an “us” who are civilized, modern, and progressive and a “them” who at worst are inherently backward, uncivilized, and threatening, or at best victims in need of tutelage and charity. Second, the notion of development as framed through development policy takes on additional meanings, although some would argue ones often not far from the assumptions embedded within most media representations of the subject. In short, development “experts” located within development institutions (from international development institutions to local nongovernmental organizations) tend to construct development as a set of active interventions within communities and regions assumed to be lacking – in opportunity, equality, wealth, or sustainability, among other factors.

Third, in the academic realm, researchers within “development studies” broadly defined seek to explore “the relationships between development as intervention and development as the ebb and flow of capitalism” (Bebbington 2003:306) from a range of theoretical and disciplinary perspectives. And although scholars have critiqued the many problematic assumptions embedded within the very concept of development (including those that reject the term altogether), most have not been able to escape “the will to improve” underlying the concept (Li 2007) nor the cartographies of North–South relations that usually frame development as something directed toward communities in the Global South. In this way, development studies, and development geography as one component of this interdisciplinary field, differs from other subfields (e.g., political geography) in that it is fundamentally constituted in normative terms – Li’s will to improve – and is discursively connected to a powerful and ongoing political economic project. While critical analysis of this ongoing political economic project is a central goal of many development theorists, it is a material and ideological project that is difficult to escape.

The age of development, as the term is currently understood, is seen by many as a post–World War II phenomenon linked to the rise of the United States as a hegemonic world power in the context of the Cold War (we turn to deeper historical roots in the next section). As Arturo Escobar argues (1997:31),

The notions of underdevelopment and Third World were the discursive products of the post–World War II climate. These concepts did not exist before 1945. They emerged as working principles within the process by which the West – and in different ways, the East – redefined itself and the rest of the world.

Although some scholars take issue with Escobar by tracing notions of development to the nineteenth century (a discussion explored later in this chapter), the establishment of the World Bank in 1947 and efforts to reconstruct Europe following WWII did serve as an institutional and ideological template for intervention in the “Third World” constructed as “undeveloped” and in need of modernization. As Cold War politics and rhetoric deepened in the 1950s, development interventions were seen as legitimate arenas (that is, interventions constructed as charitable, noble, and even natural) through which to exert US influence and promote capitalist integration, particularly after the waves of decolonization initiated in the 1960s.

Given this historical context, it is unsurprising that development studies as a field of academic inquiry (framed explicitly in terms of intervention and technical solutions) can be traced most directly back to the Cold War era when public funding for “development studies” went hand in hand with international development as a state project, particularly in the United States. Partially in response to new funding opportunities and a discursive context legitimating it as a field of study, economists, sociologists, and planners in particular began to take the development of the “Third World” as an object of analysis. This new academic arena also served to train a corps of development “experts” needed within new and expanding development institutions, both public and private. Geographers came into the game a little later than many of these other disciplines, yet by the 1960s an increasing number of geographers began to take (so-called) “Third World” modernization and development as an object of research.

In very general terms, over the second half of the twentieth century and into the early twenty-first century, geographers’ engagement with development as intervention, and eventually the exploration of uneven global development as part of the “ebb and flow of capitalism,” can be divided into three waves. Later in the essay these three waves are explored in more detail, but they are summarized here for purposes of an introduction. The first wave, visible in the early 1960s, took the quantitative spatial models dominant at the time in geography, such as those concerning urbanization patterns, transportation linkages, regional development, and population movement, and began to apply them to “Third World” contexts. Although some geographers continued to engage positivist spatial modeling approaches to “development” questions into the 1980s and 1990s (for example, see Brown and Lawson 1986), a second and more critical wave of thinking about development in geography emerged in the early 1970s and began quickly to overtake positivist approaches. This second wave, linked to the turn toward Marxist theory by a new generation of geographers in the 1960s, explored the uneven geography of wealth and power produced by capitalism and launched a powerful critique of development intervention as imperialism. Ultimately Marxist theory had a much deeper impact on the evolution of literature within development geography broadly defined, as it continues to have a strong presence in development geography to this day – particularly through fields that emerged in conversation with Marxist approaches, such as feminist development geography and political ecology.

A third wave of debates emerged in the late 1980s–early 1990s and is associated with poststructural and postcolonial critiques gaining traction at the time in geography and related disciplines. A growing number of geographers contributing to development studies began to embrace “post-development” perspectives that, while diverse in origin and orientation, questioned fundamental epistemological assumptions found not only within theories of modernization, but within classic Marxist perspectives on capitalist development. Profoundly influenced by poststructural understandings of the intersection of knowledge and power, the fragmentation of the subject, identity and subjection, as well as skepticism of metanarratives, post-development theorists turned a deconstructive eye toward development as a discourse that produced subjects of development in need of intervention. In other words, the institutions, practices, and languages of development naturalized the “need” for continued intervention into communities constructed as lacking. At the same time, scholars in geography and other disciplines linked these poststructural epistemological critiques to maturing debates within postcolonial theory, emphasizing the ways development discourse as a project of Western modernity constructed (western) expert knowledge and sub-jugated Third World subjects. Postcolonial scholarship, as produced particularly in the fields of history and cultural studies, inspired post-development geographers to place development discourse within the context of colonial and postcolonial hierarchies of race, nation, and gender as well as in relation to the subjugation of indigenous knowledges (for review of post-development perspectives see Sidaway 2007).

The bulk of this chapter is devoted to exploring these three waves of debate. The strategy is to highlight in some detail the work of a few contributors rather than attempt to cover – with less depth – a wider-range research in this rich subfield of geography (for in-depth monographs on the subfield see Lawson 2007; Power 2003). Before examining these waves, however, the section immediately following situates debates over development within a deeper historical context by reaching back to the Enlightenment and the emergence of geography as a discipline deeply implicated in the colonial project. The essay closes with a brief discussion of future directions in the subfield.

Historical Contexts

It would be incorrect to assume that we can understand the nature of development, development theory, or geographies of development without looking into the deeper discursive and political economic roots of post–WWII “development as intervention” introduced above. Michael Cowen and Robert Shenton, in their influential book Doctrines of Development (1996), explore the nineteenth century roots of development thinking. Although Cowen and Shenton’s deeper historical analysis has often been placed in opposition to Escobar’s focus on post–WWII discourses of development, both bring up important points that are not necessarily incompatible. Cowen and Shenton argue that notions of trusteeship put forth by positivists such as Malthus, Comte, and J.S. Mills in the early decades of the nineteenth century fed directly into twentieth century notions of development. Reviewing debates among positivists concerned with events and dynamics in Europe during the early nineteenth century, they argue that these positivist thinkers put forth the notion of trusteeship to counter what they considered to be the social chaos unleashed by industrialization. As perspectives on “social chaos” inside Europe were brought to bear on expanding colonial empires in the late nineteenth century, the notion of trusteeship was wedded to views on racial hierarchy to undergird and legitimize the colonial project. Colonial discourses – fundamentally constituted by assumptions about “natural” racial hierarchies and trusteeship – represent a discursive precursor to post–WWII discourses of development identified by Escobar (1997) that justify continued intervention in an array of places, the vast majority of which were once colonies.

In addition to colonialism functioning as an ideological precursor to twentieth century development discourses, colonial projects laid down the basic political economic patterns fundamental to the uneven geographies of wealth and power still visible across the globe – geographies that are often the target of development interventions. Colonial holdings were pursued and ultimately organized in such a way as to increase the political and economic power of the colonizer. Although this happened in different ways depending on the historical moment (sixteenth versus nineteenth centuries, for example) and on the geographical positioning of colonizers (French versus British) and the colonized (India versus Africa), several basic patterns can be identified. Most importantly, at some level all colonizers sought to orient the economies of their “holdings” to serve the economic and political power of the so-called mother country. This included the establishment of socioeconomic systems to facilitate the removal of valuable minerals and other raw materials (e.g., mines) and/or to cultivate cash crops for European consumption (e.g., plantation systems). For these new systems to function, strategies had to be developed to create a docile and available labor force. This was largely accomplished through the destruction or at least a re-articulation of subsistence livelihoods across the globe – in the context of land dispossession, forced labor, or taxation policies that forced communities to seek out wage labor (Wolf 1982; Porter and Sheppard 1998). As persuasively argued by Eric Wolf (ibid.), even those areas and communities seemingly untouched by direct resource appropriation or labor conscription witnessed a profound transformation in economic, political, and cultural relations through new, far-flung trade relationships constituted in the colonial era. The vast majority of places and communities that today are viewed as “undeveloped” or “underdeveloped” and in “need” of development intervention bear the legacy of colonial control, intervention, or influence.

Not coincidentally, as colonialism reached its apogee in the nineteenth century the discipline of geography was also formalized as an academic discipline. One of the “fathers” of geography, Alexander Von Humboldt (1769–1859), made it his life’s work to undertake global scientific expeditions to catalog the natural environment. Like many scientific expeditions at the time, his efforts both reflected the racist colonial gaze and furthered colonial projects. His work described a “new world” of natural wonders and biological diversity with few references to people in these places. And in those instances where people are mentioned or referred to obliquely, they are constructed as uncivilized and savage (Livingstone 1993; McClintock 1995). At the same time, the encyclopedic information gathered by Humbolt and others for ostensibly scientific purposes provided European colonial powers with understandings that facilitated the process of selecting places to colonize, ruling over colonized communities, and extracting wealth from colonial holdings (Power 2003). Thus, these kinds of expeditions were not only essential to the emergence of a range of academic disciplines – including but not limited to geography – but to the colonial project.

During the nineteenth century geography mapped the natural and cultural wonders of the world in ways that reinforced a sense of European superiority and that legitimized colonial systems as natural and beneficial. Most importantly, by the late nineteenth century geographers had fully embraced social Darwinism and based most work in human geography on the assumption that environment determines culture. Environmental determinism rationalized European trusteeship (via colonialism) by assuming that patterns of so-called inferiority and superiority were simply effects of climate and natural environments – naturalizing racial and colonial hierarchies as outside of history and human intention. While environmental determinism became discredited by the first third of the twentieth century, particularly in the wake of Nazism, its shadow continued to haunt geography for many decades.

Marcus Power, in his 2003 book Rethinking Development Geographies, argues that “geography of the tropics,” which emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century, represented an important precursor to development geography. One of the most important contributors to this tradition, French geographer Pierre Gourou, published work on the tropics and the colonial world throughout the first half of the twentieth century. His 1947 book Les Pays Tropicaux (published in English in 1953 as The Tropical World: Its Social and Economic Conditions and Future Status) encapsulated many of the prevailing assumptions and goals of tropical geography and its continued connection to colonial imaginaries and environmental determinism. It is useful to quote it here at some length (Gourou 1953:5):

It would be rash to affirm the human geography of the sparsely populated regions of the tropics has been due to the local factors of unhealthiness and the poverty of the soil. The very different human geography of the tropical parts of Asia shows us that no determinism of that kind exists in the tropical world. Yet the human geography of the sparsely peopled tropical regions, and particularly the difficulty experienced by these regions in reaching a high state of civilization or of maintaining such a state when they have reached it (as is exemplified by the Mayas, by Zimbabwe, Angkor, and Anuradhapura), must have been influenced by the physical conditions of the tropics.

At any rate it may be said that the progress made since the eighteenth century in controlling infectious diseases and in maintaining soil fertility in the temperate belt has been slow in reaching tropical countries. […] Whatever the explanation, geographers cannot fail to note that when under-development is viewed as a whole, the entire tropical world is seen to consist of under-developed countries.

While Gourou attempts to distance himself from environmental determinism, it clearly haunts his work, as do notions of European superiority and trusteeship. The foreword to the English edition, by translator E.D. Laborde, articulates these colonial dimensions more explicitly, commenting that “these questions are answered by M. Gourou in a book which should be in the hands of every colonial administrator and planter” (ibid.:vi).

Geography as a discipline has been implicated from the outset in unequal geographies of wealth and power at a global scale – from the role of early geographers in the furthering of the colonial project, to the rise of environmental determinism that fully embraced colonial hierarchies of race and nation in the late nineteenth century, to the treatment of “the tropics” in geography during the first half of the twentieth century. It is a history that must be seen as constitutive of the discipline. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, as argued by Power (2003), “tropical geography” had given way to a more explicit embrace of the idea of “development geography” or a “geography of modernization” by scholars who had begun to embrace positivist and quantitative scientific models as well as the post–WWII development as intervention paradigm.

Positivist Origins

Following World War II, just as discourses of development as intervention were taking shape in the shadow of the Cold War, geography as discipline began to turn to a positivist model of science and knowledge production. While the idea of scientific and technical solutions to development seemed to go hand in hand with such models, geographers were slow – as compared to economists and sociologists – to embrace questions of modernization and development in the “under-developed” world due in part to the comparative lack of data available to use within quantitative models of spatial processes. By the early 1960s, however, a growing number of geographers began to study the “geography of modernization.”

H.C. Brookfield, in his 1973 review of quantitative work on the “Third World” in geography, described this group of scholars as fully embracing modernization theory (1973:2–3):

They found their inspiration not in economics but in the more eclectic social sciences and hence were concerned not with “development” but with “modernization”, a more total social process of which economic growth is only a part. […] Modernization “theory” is universalist, and its dominant form implies a necessary dichotomy between “traditional” and “modern”, the latter being superimposed on and displacing the former.

Scholars of the “geography of modernization” relied most centrally on quantitative analysis and spatial modeling to explore transportation networks, patterns of urbanization, and the expansion of modern (read capitalist) economic linkages (for defense of modernization theory in geography see Chisholm 1982).

Edward Taafe et al.’s article “Transport expansion in underdeveloped countries: A comparative analysis” (1963) represents a classic example of early positivist approaches to development in geography. Using comparative data from Ghana and Nigeria, the study brings to light “certain broad regularities underlying the spatial diffusion processes […], which permit a descriptive generalization of an ideal-typical sequence of transportation development” in underdeveloped countries (p. 53). Using models to explore the relationship between road mileage, railroad mileage, and population density, the authors test factors that might predict the location of future transportation networks. Their language and approach are typical of positivist scientific norms at the time: the study is couched in a language of scientific truth and neutrality in which creating a generalizable model becomes the end goal. They end the article calling for future studies “at the same or higher level of generalization. This may be accomplished […] by the application of increasingly rigorous methods of analysis and model verification” (p. 529).

It is not as if colonial history and its impact on transportation networks is absent from Taafe et al.’s discussion, but it is treated as a taken-for-granted context situated at the periphery of their analysis. They write, for example, “perhaps the most important single phase in the transportation history of an underdeveloped country is the emergence of the first major penetration line from the seacoast to the interior” (p. 506). The authors recognize that the primary motivation for such “penetration lines” is political and military control or to reach areas of mineral exploitation or export agricultural production, but they do not critically interrogate these motives or their uneven impacts. Instead they are concerned with the ways in which “the development of a penetration line sets in motion a series of spatial processes and readjustments as the comparative locational advantages of all centers shift” (p. 506). By the late 1960s many geographers began to see such work as missing what a new generation saw as more profound social, political, and economic questions – structural and global in nature – related to transportation networks more specifically and geographies of inequality more generally.

A 1962 article on “Patterns of urbanization in Malaysia” by Hamzah Sendut represents a second example of early and positivist-oriented work on the geography of modernization. Sendut charts shifting urbanization patterns in Malaysia in the middle decades of the twentieth century by using census data and maps to demonstrate the distribution of large and medium-sized cities as well as the demographic structure (e.g., age, ethnicity, and gender) of urban populations over time. It reads as a history and description of urbanization patterns, one in which the focus is the elaboration of descriptive tables and maps of census data, rather than using modeling techniques to seek out causality or to predict future patterns such as the article by Taafe, Morrill, and Gould. Similar to the Taafe et al. article, however, Sendut situates his discussion in the context of colonial history, but does not question colonialism’s effects on urban development or the ways in which it politicized urban spaces in the country:

In recent times, towns have grown both in numbers and size following the consolidation of British interests in Malaya, which was accompanied by stable government, expanding trade in tin and rubber and a high rate of immigration (p. 114) […] a large number of people from India and China were imported to work in industry and the influx of these immigrants caused the urban ratio to rise sharply. Thus Malayan towns became centres of non-indigenous people while the Malays remained undisturbed by urbanization. (p. 115)

These observations are not connected to a passing reference to the political upheaval following World War II in Malaysia. He writes (p. 116),

Another important factor in post-war urbanization was the anti-terrorist struggle from 1948 to 1960, known locally as the “Emergency”. This campaign involved the physical removal of scattered families and communities into rural villages and urban settlements. Nearly 10 percent of the country’s population was affected, creating in the process seventy towns with a population of more than 2,000 people in each. Resettlement expedited the process of urbanization.

The “Emergency” in Malaysia was a counter-insurgency struggle on the part of the British against guerrilla operations launched by the Malaysian Communist Party in order to oust colonial rule, but the nature or impacts of that process are not further elaborated in the article. Again, while there was nothing incorrect about Sendut’s description of Malaysian urbanization, he did not ask the questions about power and inequality in colonial and postcolonial contexts that would become the hallmark of later work in development geography.

By the late 1960s–early 1970s positivism in geography, as an unquestioned model for research in the discipline, came under fire. In commenting on the “modernization” approach to development in the discipline, John Connell (1971:260) writes,

Almost all the variables used in the major geographical studies of the diffusion of “modernization” such as educational establishments, co-operatives and banks, may be seen Eurocentrically as agents of “development”, yet there are converse effects of “modernization” […] such as crime, landlords, outmigration, the breakdown of the local agricultural system, punitive taxation and unfair terms of trade are equally prevalent, but are less easily quantifiable and more easily ignored. The “new geography” [positivist, spatial science model] has obvious biases in favour of the quantitative and easily measurable.

Although Connell critiques the dominant model for its Eurocentricity and calls for micro-level, detailed empirical analysis of development processes, he does not situate this within a critique of capitalism, which soon became the hallmark of Marxist perspectives on development.

Marxist Development Geographies

The failure to distinguish between growth and development, and the neglect of imperialism and class structure, are manifestations of the same underlying capitalist ideology. It is this ideology which prevents development geography from effectively analyzing and explaining the spatial patterns and structures of underdevelopment. […] The above-criticized bourgeois theories and concepts must be abandoned and replaced by a theoretical approach which is rooted in social reality.

(Slater 1973:30)

The turn toward Marxism in geography marked a dramatic shift in the treatment of development in the discipline. Or, as Victoria Lawson (2007:121) argues, “critical work on uneven development, imperialism, and the ‘periphery’” represented a critical avenue through which Marxism in geography took shape. In short, Marxist geographies of development asked a profoundly different set of questions as compared to those studying the geography of modernization. They questioned understandings of progress underlying classic modernization perspectives and (drawing on the basic tenets of world systems theory) placed questions of development and underdevelopment in the context of a global capitalist system rooted in colonial and neocolonial structures (Peet 1983). Marxism also brought a more critical perspective on the role of the state and class-based social hierarchies as compared to studies on the geography of modernization.

Marxist geographies of development, however, should not be seen as monolithic in their approach or orientation. Examining the evolution of these debates in geography, one can see important shifts between early, more structuralist Marxist work on “the periphery” and the New International Division of Labor in the 1970s and the early 1980s (see Corbridge 1986; Peet 1987), and the flourishing of political ecological and feminist frameworks in the mid-1980s and beyond, which added a new set of questions and approaches to Marxist analyses of development in geography. Although by the mid-1990s many Marxist scholars began to embrace poststructural and eventually postcolonial perspectives (explored in the next section), the influence of Marxist theory is still profound within the subfield.

A 1982 article “Energy imperialism and a new international division of resources: The case of Indonesia” by Dean Forbes exemplifies the more structuralist-oriented work typical of the 1970s and early 1980s. In it Forbes seeks to build on theories of imperialism by exploring the changing economic relationship between Japan and Indonesia in the 1960s, particularly in the realm of energy-related natural resource investment and exploitation. Arguing that studies of the new international division of labor place perhaps too much emphasis on the supply of cheap labor from the periphery, rather than the continued importance of raw material production, Forbes explores what he terms the “international division of resources.” He writes (1982:105),

It is possible to detect a subtle change in the location and handling of the extractive sector in Indonesia. The bringing together by Japan on a global scale of capital, diverse raw materials, and segmented labor markets (the segmentation between skilled and unskilled labor is very apparent in the resource industry) in a location best suited to the strategic interests of capital and its maximal extraction of surplus value, has brought this about. […] What we will have in the Asian complex [a new aluminum process complex] is the joining together of Japanese capital, Australian alumina and Indonesian energy (and unskilled labor).

Forbes closes the article noting that while globally oriented production must be approached at the global scale, it was equally necessary to conduct more empirically grounded local/regional studies of these processes to determine how this restructuring relates to other social and economic relations in Indonesia.

That Forbes closes his article calling for linking global political economic analysis with local and empirically rich study of social and economic relations is not surprising. By the early 1980s a growing number of Marxist geographers focusing on questions of development in the “Third World” began to think in more complex ways about scale and place based dynamics (see Corbridge 1986) as well as difference and the environment. Here I focus on two literatures emerging from classic Marxist development studies in geography – political ecology and the work by feminist geographers on the “Third World” – as an entrée into these shifting debates.

Political ecology emerged in the 1980s at the intersection of scholarship in anthropology and geography, particularly the fields of cultural ecology and ecological anthropology. Early work in political ecology represented a reaction to Malthusian assumptions concerning the causes of environmental degradation in the “Third World” and the tendency to see technical solutions as the answer to environmental problems (Neumann 2005). Although a label for a diverse set of concepts and methodologies, at its core political ecology explores the linkages between political economic processes and ecological transformation. Blaikie and Brookfield’s (1987) classic political ecological text Land Degradation and Society traced how processes operating at different scales – from national policies to trade incentives – placed complex pressures on land managers and accelerated land degradation. Their groundbreaking work linked seemingly local, proximate causes of environmental degradation to a wider set of social, economic, and political relations, including a range of state and other institutional actors overlooked in previous approaches to environmental degradation (see also Bassett 1988). In taking this approach political ecologists questioned commonly held assumptions regarding the responsibility of rural communities for land degradation in the Global South.

In her groundbreaking 1985 article on development politics and deforestation in the Amazon, Susanna Hecht directly tackled commonly held assumptions about the origins and nature of environmental degradation in the Third World. In doing so, she undertook a critique and raised questions that became central to the then-emerging field of political ecology (although she does not use that particular term in the article). Hecht questioned three common paradigms for understanding Third World environmental degradation: the Malthusian overpopulation thesis; economic/market misallocation perspectives (including tragedy of the commons, externalities, and dependency theory); and the appropriate technology literature (which sought technological fixes to environmental problems). She writes (1985:667):

I will argue that environmental degradation in much of the Amazonia is not adequately explained by any of these three models. Rather than analyzing regional ecological problems as strictly endogenous, due to population increase or to the use of inappropriate technologies, one needs to examine the role that Amazonian development (especially via cattle ranching) played in Brazil after the military coup of 1964. In both substantive and ideological ways, the development of Amazonia addressed the strong national as well as international pressures that confronted the new military government. These pressures led policymakers to choose cattle ranching, the latifundia land use par excellence over all other alternative land uses, as the defining strategy of Amazonian occupation. […] The factors that triggered continued [forest] conversion, in spite of the dramatic environmental costs and productivity declines, require a new environmental analytic framework that is linked to specific patterns of capital accumulation.

Hecht then combines a detailed analysis of the Brazilian state and Amazonian development policy with results from her exhaustive study of soil chemistry shifts brought on by cattle ranching. She concludes that the extraordinary maldistribution of land combined with the effects of land speculation (both fostered by state development policies) to create the rapid degradation of Amazonian ecologies. Her work also paved the way for one of the hallmarks of political ecology – to combine natural and social scientific accounts of environmental change.

Political ecology was not the only literature to emerge from, and contribute new approaches to, Marxist development studies in geography during the 1980s and beyond. Feminist geographers, drawing on Marxist theory but critiquing reductionist and structuralist versions of it, also began to raise a new set of questions and methodologies during this period. In short, feminist geographers, joining feminists in a range of disciplines, questioned the exclusive focus on class issues in Marxist theory by arguing that sexism represents an additional and key axis of social exploitation. In doing so, feminists opened up new scales and spaces of analysis often downplayed or ignored within most strictly Marxist approaches to development.

By the mid to late 1980s feminist-Marxist geographers had begun to argue that women and gender dynamics were fundamental to the uneven geographies of wealth and power that have marked distinctions between the Global North and the Global South (bracketing for a moment more recent efforts to deconstruct the presumed differences between North and South). They contended that gender is fundamental to understanding the relationship between production and reproduction in capitalist systems – expanding classic and narrower definitions of “reproduction” found within Marxist theory to include informal and unpaid work. Moreover, feminist geographers began to examine the multiple ways that women experienced capitalist marginalization in ways distinct from their male counterparts, which included a critical exploration of how development interventions impacted men and women differently. They tended to find that these differences were rooted in gendered ideologies of women’s proper place and purity, as well as gendered divisions of labor. These conceptual shifts opened up new kinds of questions and methodologies in Marxist work on development, ones that emphasized – for example – intra-household processes and struggles, linkages between gendered divisions of labor and broader capitalist transformations, and/or women’s voices and experiences in these contexts (see Chant 1985; Momsen and Townsend 1987; Hart 1991; 1992; Momsen and Kinnaird 1993).

Sarah Radcliffe’s article “Gender relations, peasant livelihood strategies and mobility: A case study from Cuzco, Peru” (1986) represents an early contribution to this work. Drawing from intensive, qualitative work in rural communities, Radcliffe argued that mobility studies must move beyond treating women as an undifferentiated group and beyond an emphasis on individuals as rational actors rather than subjects situated in particular contexts. Correcting a bias in the literature toward studying migrants in urban areas, Radcliffe looked at intra-household negotiations and livelihood strategies in rural sending communities, arguing that “a peasant women’s migration history is a function of the interrelating dynamics of household strategies and gender-associated activities” (1986:42). As important as these conceptual conclusions, Radcliffe demonstrates the analytical importance of methodologies that highlight women’s voices and experiences in geographic inquiry.

Judith Carney’s 1992 article on “Peasant women and economic transformation in The Gambia” is another example of this early work in feminist-Marxist geographies of development. In it she explores the gendered impacts of development schemes designed to expand access to irrigated agriculture in The Gambia, policies that represented a response to the 1968–73 Sahelian drought and were part of a broader effort to expand foreign exchange earnings by producing more winter vegetables for European markets. Women were deeply affected by these policies not only because they had traditionally been in control of rice and vegetable production, but also because of gender-equity provisions in the development policies themselves – provisions that had contradictory impacts. Carney concludes (1992:83):

Women were to become the principal beneficiaries of Gambian irrigated rice and vegetable projects [funded by international agencies] and thus benefit from commercialized production of their traditional crops. But the donors’ equity concerns were inscribed within a broader policy context that aimed to restructure and intensify labour routines through contract farming. The convergence of equity with productivity objectives has unfolded with contradictory consequences for women’s labour, income opportunities and access to land for independent farming.

Carney demonstrates not only how women farmers in general had difficulty capturing the benefits of contract farming, but she unpacks the category of “women” by showing how development polities actually increased access by some but landlessness among others. Finally, Carney illustrates how women in her study were challenging these processes through labor withdrawal and the formation of work groups for hire. Work by feminist-Marxist geographers not only challenged Marxist development geographers to understand the importance of women and gender in the production of uneven development, but to include questions of agency and resistance in their analyses.

Scholarship linking Marxist and feminist perspectives also contributed to a rethinking of how capitalism and the social relations of production operated in a range of global contexts. A 1990 special issue on Latin American cities, edited by Thomas Klak and Victoria Lawson, wove together classic Marxist approaches to urbanization with feminist perspectives on reproduction and women’s role in the workforce:

Our intention, through examples of conceptual linkages, is to stimulate research at the intersections of issues such as informal production, maquila-type investment and production, women in the workforce, housing deficiencies, and the state’s role in urban redevelopment and expansion.

(Klak and Lawson 1990:306)

The set of articles edited by Klak and Lawson showcased how Marxist theories of urbanization are enriched by feminist perspectives, creating an understanding of urban space in which production and reproduction, public and private, paid and unpaid labor, are mutually constituted (see also Freidberg 2001; Hays-Mitchell 1995).

In sum, the early work in political ecology and feminist-Marxist geography – particularly from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s – offered new conceptual tools and methodologies to classic Marxist studies of development even as Marxist political economic analysis remained at the core of their work. Both political ecologists and feminists provided new insight into the operation of scale within capitalist systems, highlighting in particular the importance of analyses that linked multi-scaled processes. Moreover, both groups paid more attention to questions of agency and resistance than did classic structuralist Marxist approaches to development. These contributions and engagements notwithstanding, by the early to mid 1990s a deeper shift away from Marxist perspectives became visible within development studies in geography as a growing number of scholars in the field embraced “post-development” frameworks emerging in a range of disciplines.


The notion of development as solution must be turned on its head because it is development that has caused modern poverty. Our case against economic development is the following: poverty is a form of development-induced social scarcity. To eradicate poverty we must seek not the promotion but the abolition of the development project as we know it today. […] To solve the poverty problem we should first dissolve the language of the poverty sector and replace it with more appropriate analytical tools. To do so we intend to use a concept called the nexus of production relations.

(Yapa and Wisner 1995:105, 109)

As reflected in this quotation from Yapa and Wisner’s article “Building a case against economic development,” the turn toward so-called “post-development” frameworks represented a fundamental rejection of development discourse as produced not only within classic modernization perspectives, but within Marxist/socialist versions of it as well. Post-development, while representing a clear epistemological break with these previous approaches, is nevertheless not a single, coherent framework or literature as the term encompasses a range of debates and issues. Many scholars within this wave combine Marxist, poststructuralist, feminist, and postcolonial questions and methodologies (for extended reviews see Lawson 2007; Simon 1997).

The emergence of post-development perspectives in geography and other disciplines in the late 1980s and early 1990s lies at the intersection between a particular historical moment – the consolidation of neoliberal globalization and the end of the Cold War – and theoretical debates on poststructuralism and postcolonialism. Each is addressed briefly before we turn to specific examples of post-development work in geography.

By the mid 1980s and up to the early 1990s, most countries of the Global South were or would soon be in the throes of painful debt crisis restructuring that dramatically reconfigured not only economies, but the meaning of development as well as citizenship.

Neoliberal restructuring, most often designed and enforced through debt renegotiation agreements with the International Monetary Fund, dramatically reduced the size of the state, shredded existing social and educational services, opened up domestic economies to the international market by dismantling trade and investment barriers, and promoted export production as the key to economic development. It accelerated an ongoing process of low-wage industrialization and globalization begun in the 1960s (Peet 1987). The debt crisis put countries of the Global South in competition with each other for markets and foreign direct investment, creating downward pressure on wages as well as a range of social and environmental protections (Corbridge 1993). Around the same time, the end of the Cold War shifted the parameters of debates over development and modernity, as socialism and Marxism became less feasible options in political and ideological terms. In this discursive vacuum, neoliberal globalization increasingly became taken for granted as a panacea for development – at least by the most powerful development actors and institutions (Peet and Watts 1993).

The political, economic, and social changes brought on by debt crisis restructuring, globalization, and neoliberalism raised a new set of questions for development geographers – whether they continued to be rooted in positivist, Marxist, or post-development approaches. Geographers increasingly began to examine how the shift toward deregulation and “free” trade operated upon, and created new, patterns of uneven development (Goodman and Watts 1994; Klak 1998; Yeoh and Willis 1997; Samatar 1993). Others focused on how the retreat of the state brought to the fore questions of state–society relations, civil society, and the role of NGOs in development as intervention (Bebbington 1997; Mohan 2002; Slater 1995; Yeoh and Huang 1999). Finally, the upheaval generated by neoliberal restructuring and globalization more broadly created new social and political spaces in which social movements and a range of new identity politics flourished, topics that also became the object of geographical analysis (Nagar 1997; Nelson 2004; Slater 1994; Lawson 1999; Perreault 2003).

Even as neoliberal globalization transformed the kinds of questions asked by geographers interested in development, many of these same scholars began to embrace poststructural and postcolonial approaches to these questions. A full accounting and discussion of poststructuralism or postcolonial thought is beyond the scope of this essay, yet it is important to review basic tenets of these perspectives before turning to the question of how geographers pursuing development studies engaged these debates from the early 1990s to today.

Poststructuralism is a term that loosely defines the work of a group of philosophers and social theorists who, beginning in the 1960s, articulated a critique of structuralism, particularly the relationship between meaning and text. In destabilizing a fixed understanding of meaning, poststructuralists such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault questioned metanarratives typical of structuralist approaches. Geographers engaging their work foregrounded detailed historical analyses of social institutions and norms; theorized a “self” that is not separate, singular, or coherent but a “subject” that is produced at the intersection of multiple identities and discourses; and emphasized the primacy of language in the construction of our social and material worlds (see Dear 1994). The shift toward poststructuralism was based on a seismic epistemological shift away from the certainty and singularity of “truth” assumed not only in the context of positivist science but classic Marxism as well.

The impact of poststructuralism on development geography was apparent by the mid 1990s as a growing number of development geographers, such as Yapa and Wisner quoted at the opening of this section, began to embrace a Foucaultian understanding of development as a discourse that produces an understanding of poverty and a Third World in need of intervention. Outside of geography, this perspective is perhaps most closely associated with the work of Arturo Escobar, who writes that in the immediate post–WWII context (1997:24),

Poverty became an organizing concept and the object of a new problematization […that] brought into existence new discourses and practices that shaped the reality to which they referred. That the essential trait of the Third World was its poverty and that the solution was economic growth and development became self-evident, necessary, and universal norms.

For many development geographers in this period, focusing on discursive processes – how knowledges are produced, maintained, and contested across space – became a central analytical concern (see Slater 1992; Watts 1995). Questions of capitalist transformation and uneven development did not disappear, but often those processes did not take center stage. Instead, questions of meaning and identity, local–global connections, civil society, and social movements came to the fore.

Engagements with postcolonialism, from the work of Edward Said to that of Homi Bhabha and Chandra T. Mohanty, also added particular patina to development geographies in the 1990s and 2000s. As Sarah Radcliffe (2005:291–2) describes it,

Post-colonialism speaks to the fact that different imperial and colonial encounters are embedded within expectations of modernity and hierarchy. […] Post-colonial approaches speak to the violence towards, and the marginalization of, post-colonial subjects and knowledges whose exclusion from metropolitan status is embedded in notions of cultural and racial difference.

Postcolonial theory emphasizes the impacts of Western modernity on postcolonial spaces and subjects, highlighting in particular the dispossession of indigenous knowledges as well as the contradictory subject positions and discourses produced during colonial encounters. Although most draw on a poststructural epistemology, postcolonial theorists move beyond poststructuralism by centering the politics of knowledge production in relation to the colonial and postcolonial histories through which Western hegemony is reproduced. This translates to a deep concern for representation, voice, difference, and expertise within the production of academic knowledges (in development geography see, for example, Briggs and Sharp 2004; McEwan 2003; Raghuram and Madge 2006).

As compared to the discussions earlier in this essay of modernization perspectives and Marxist approaches to development, the task of using a few representative examples to illustrate this “third wave” of development geography is much more challenging. Development geography over the past 15+ years has become much more varied than in previous decades – in terms of substantive topics, theoretical frameworks, and methodological approaches. The three examples presented below cannot adequately represent this diversity, but they do serve to highlight some of the ways new theoretical approaches and a “new” era of neoliberal globalization have reshaped the work of geographers interested in development issues.

A 1994 article by Sarah Radcliffe on gendered representations of nation and territory in Ecuador highlights important characteristics of this third wave of development geography. It also contrasts significantly from her 1986 article on gender, peasant livelihoods, and mobility examined in the previous section, helping to illustrate the different kinds of questions that emerged in this period. The differences between the two pieces elucidate the changing debates within the subfield, even though Radcliffe by no means jettisons Marxist-feminist orientations in this or later work. In short, her 1996 article draws primarily on textual analysis of national development documents and newspaper reports to examine how (different) women are positioned within Ecuadoran narratives of nation, development, and territory.

[A]lthough all women are called to take part in national development, the range of activities seen as appropriate for this integration of women is limited. The identification of rural women in these discourses goes beyond the (highly problematic) aim of “integrating women into development”. Rather these discourses pinpoint rural campesina women as figures whose characteristics and behaviours not only prevent their integration into “national life”, but which also, crucially, hold back the development of the rest of the country. In the discussions of development in press and government plans, indigenous women in particular areas appear as subjects who almost “block” development, preventing the progress of modernity throughout the national space.

(Radcliffe 1996:15)

Radcliffe’s piece illustrates the growing importance of discursive analysis to work within development geography in the 1990s and beyond, as well as how questions of identity and difference have become crucial to understanding the operation of power in the Global South.

Feminists such as Radcliffe were not the only group of Marxist development geographers to shift toward poststructural and postcolonial perspectives in the 1990s. Political ecologists were also expanding their theoretical and methodological repertoire by linking classic concerns about environment and political economy to questions of discourse, power, identity, and social movements. This shift was articulated most clearly in Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements (1996). As editors Richard Peet and Michael Watts write,

Liberation Ecologies highlights, in other words, new theoretical engagements between political ecology and poststructuralism on the one hand, and a practical political engagement with new movements, organizations, and institutions of civil society challenging conventional notions of development, politics, democracy, and sustainability on the other. (1996:3)

This approach is reflected by a chapter in the same volume by Karl Zimmerer, which examines discourses over soil loss in Bolivia (ibid.:112):

Applying a political ecology approach to the language-rich realm of articulated perceptions about erosion requires a focus on discourses representing the ideas and ideologies held by groups of individuals and institutions. […] Processes of resistance and contestation as well as accommodation and agreement guided their elaboration of environmental ideas.

While political ecologists continued to examine the environmental dimensions of capitalist transformation, and particularly the linkages between local environmental degradation, social inequality, and broader political economic dynamics, as a result of their engagement with poststructuralism they brought these issues into close conversation with analysis of the struggles over the meaning of development, environment, and sustainability (see Bebbington and Batterbury 2001; Broch-Due and Schroeder 2000).

Finally, Rachel Silvey and Rebecca Elmhirst (2003) explore the gendered impacts of Indonesia’s economic crisis following the Asian financial crash of 1997, focusing in particular on rural to urban migrant social networks and young women factory workers’ “place” in those networks. They critically examine whether the social capital embedded within these networks serves as a social safety net, an assumption found within much of the mainstream development literature on social capital. Using a feminist lens, Silvey and Elmhirst (2003:872) argue that rural–urban migrant networks both support and constrain women:

The social capital in their networks simultaneously promoted increases in aggregate family income, improved the household’s ability to meet its domestic needs, and placed gender-specific burdens on women. […] for young women in the two case studies, stronger networks included heightened parental control over behavior.

Moreover, through comparative analysis of young women migrants in different regions of Indonesia, they demonstrate how particular geographical contexts foster distinct networks, power relations, and dynamics of “social capital” production. The article demonstrates how a focus on difference, power, and ideology has become fundamental to understanding political economic transformation in the Global South.

By the 1990s development geography began to fully embrace a range of methodological and analytical approaches and issues that lay at the intersection of neoliberal globalization and maturing theoretical debates in poststructural and postcolonial theory. More complex understandings of identity, power, and meaning gave development geographers new tools for understanding the socio-spatial dimensions of capitalist transformation and development policy. Despite these new tools and foci, development geographers on the whole did not reject political economic analysis rooted in Marxist theory, as questions of material inequality continued to lie at the center of their work.

Future Directions

The future of development geography will again hinge on its engagement with specific historical-geographical events currently unfolding, and new or maturing theoretical issues within geography, as well as the interdisciplinary field of development studies broadly defined. Here two key historical-geographical moments are identified that will have a lasting impact on the future of development geography: the current global economic crisis and climate change. The essay closes with a brief discussion of the influence of actor network theory on development geography, as one area of recent and expanding theoretical engagement in the subfield.

As this essay is being written, the world finds itself in the throes of a global economic crisis that will have profound short- and long-term effects on communities throughout the Global North and Global South. If the election of left-of-center leaders in South America since 2000 began to signal the end of the “Washington Consensus” on (neoliberal) development, as did Malaysia’s economic successes following its rejection of IMF assistance in the wake of the Asian economic crisis, then the current global economic situation could be the death knell of neoliberalism as it has been known for the past 30 years. Perhaps that is an overly optimistic reading. But with stunning speed the belief in (so-called) free markets and unregulated capitalism has imploded at the highest levels, leaving global political and economic elites scrambling for explanations and a path forward. Although a wide range of social movements, alternative development actors, and a range of communities across the globe have questioned and resisted neoliberalism for decades, the effect of the current economic crisis on neoliberalism as the hegemonic development discourse could be profound.

Over the next decade or longer, development geographers will undoubtedly explore (1) the uneven material impacts of the current economic crisis on communities and ecologies across the globe, (2) the aftermath of the (potential) ideological meltdown of neoliberalism on “development as intervention,” and (3) the place-based political negotiations, accommodations, and resistances to these dynamics that open up new debates and offer alternatives to development imposed from above.

In conjunction with the current economic crisis, the second contemporary issue that will have a lasting impact on the subfield is global climate change. Over the past decade physical geographers and other scientists have continued to strengthen the scientific case for climate change and refined their ability to model its uneven impacts. This scientific consensus has brought to the fore questions concerning how climatic change maps onto geographies of inequality at a global scale (for the treatment of these issues by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change see Smit and Pilifosova 2001). In a 2003 collection, Karl Zimmerer and Thomas Bassett suggest that one future direction of political ecology is for political ecologists to contribute the “how” and the “why” to global environmental change analysis, particularly to questions of land use and land cover transformation. Mark Pelling (2003:240) argues that global climate change is the epitome of a process by which “local adaptation is being framed as an alternative to global mitigation.” Despite these calls, development geographers have not systematically taken climate change as a topic of analysis (for exceptions see Klooster and Masera 2000; Meadows and Hoffman 2003; Liverman 2009; Appendini and Liverman 1994; O’Brien and Leichenko 2000). It is crucial for development geographers to build on this work by exploring in detail geographies of vulnerability to climate change, linkages between climate politics and development policies, the North–South geopolitics of climate change policy, as well as adaptations and responses to climate change in a range of regions and locales.

Development geographers will continue to refine the theoretical and methodological tools used to explore the empirical questions sketched above as well as geographies of development more generally. Although the field will continue to be comprised of an eclectic range of theoretical and methodological approaches, work over the past several years suggests that development geographies will take the best of positivist, Marxist, and post-development traditions as strict adherence to any one of these approaches has waned. Most development geographers continue to reject the grand narratives and singular truths of classic positivist work, but many are nevertheless finding new ways to break out of methodological or theoretical orthodoxy, linking concerns for social justice and sustainability to quantitative analysis and geographic information systems (for an early example see Weiner and Harris 1999).

As part of this process, more geographers interested in development have moved away from an exclusive focus on discursive and symbolic processes inspired by poststructuralism. The emphasis on deconstructing development narratives or celebrating the symbolic impacts of social movements, which reached its apogee in the 1990s, has given way to more sustained efforts to link poststructural understandings of meaning and identity to political economic dynamics operating at different scales. One of the most fruitful arenas for analyzing these material and symbolic (inter)connections has been the use of network theory, which theorizes social relationships and flows across space and time. As argued by Tony Bebbington (2003), network theory provides geographers new opportunities to link development as intervention to development “as the ebb and flow of capitalism,” and in ways that avoid the traps of treating individuals or institutions as fixed entities. Expanding on his work, Dianne Rocheleau (2007) calls for thinking about “rooted networks” – networks of human and non-human actors and the territories produced by them. Rocheleau contends that thinking and acting through networks helps transcend binaries between local/global, quantitative/qualitative, and social science/ecological science. Like many development geographers, Bebbington and Rocheleau seek to engage real-world issues and concerns about development (which is still a salient concept for many communities) through careful analysis that brings together the local and the global, the social and the ecological, as well as space and place.


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                                                                                                                                                          United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). At, accessed June 10, 2009. The global development network for the United Nations, this site contains important global development policy information and documents, including the Millennium Development Goals. The Human Development Report available on the site examines important development issues on an annual basis (e.g., climate change, international migration) and is a source for development and sustainability data at the country and regional scales.

                                                                                                                                                          Critical Development Studies Network. At, accessed June 10, 2009. This network of scholars promotes critical perspectives on development rooted in a direct critique of capitalism and neoliberal globalization. Scholars and institutions that join the network have access to course modules, shared bibliographic databases, human resources, and (for students of these institutions) an annual critical development studies summer school.

                                                                                                                                                          La Via Campesina. At, accessed June 10, 2009. Via Campesina is a network of small- and medium-sized farmer organizations that advocate for sustainability, food sovereignty, indigenous cultural survival, and social justice in rural areas across the globe. Primarily an advocacy organization, the site provides information about rural struggles across the globe, access to research on these topics, blogs, and videos.

                                                                                                                                                          Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN). At, accessed June 11, 2009. Founded by scholars and activists from the Global South, DAWN contributes to, and advocates for, feminist critiques of mainstream development. The organization maintains a presence in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Pacific, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. The website provides networking and advocacy opportunities, and promotes research on four themes: political economy of globalization, sexual and reproductive health and rights, political restructuring and social transformation, and sustainable livelihoods.

                                                                                                                                                          International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of Tropical Forests (IAITPTF). At, accessed June 11, 2009. The IAITPTF is a worldwide network of organizations representing indigenous and tribal peoples living in tropical forest regions (Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Americas). They work on capacity building at the regional scale, and advocacy for indigenous people’s rights in relation to international treaties and organizations such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

                                                                                                                                                          Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First. At, accessed June 11, 2009. Food First conducts research on the root causes of global hunger, poverty, and ecological degradation, and advocates to transform these conditions in partnership with social movements. The site provides access to an array of publications and fact sheets on food and development issues, and opportunities for advocacy.

                                                                                                                                                          Eldis/Institute of Development Studies (Sussex) knowledge service. At, accessed June 11, 2009. This website supports the documentation, exchange, and use of evidence-based development research and brings together researchers, practitioners, and policy makers.

                                                                                                                                                          Mountain Forum. At, accessed June 11, 2009. The Mountain Forum is a network of individuals and organizations that promote sustainable development and cultural survival in mountain environments. The website provides networking and advocacy opportunities, as well as access to publications and data on the subject.

                                                                                                                                                          Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment (CWPE). At, accessed June 11, 2009. An alliance of community organizers, scholars, and health practitioners, CWPE promotes the social and economic empowerment of women globally. The side provides articles, fact sheets and educational materials on a range of issues, from militarism to population policy.