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Communication and the Global South

Summary and Keywords

The Global South–North divide has been conceptualized in political, cultural, economic, and developmental terms. When conceptualizing this divide, issues of economic growth/progress, technology, political and press freedom, and industrialization have all been used as indicators to delineate between the “North” and the “South.” The North has traditionally been seen as more economically, technologically, politically, and socially developed, as well as more industrialized and having more press freedom, for example; the South has been linked with poverty, disease, political tyranny, and overall lack of development. This conceptualization privileges development efforts in the Global South based on democratic government, capitalist economic structures with their attendant neoliberal agenda and processes of globalization. This negative view of the South is a site of contest with people of the South offering alternative and more positive views of the situation in the South and alternatives to globalization strategies. While there may be some identifiable difference between some of the countries in the identified Global South and Global North, globalization (economic, political, technological, etc.) is changing how the very Global South–North divide is understood. To best understand the implications of this divide, and the inequalities that it perpetuates, we scrutinize the Global South, detailing the background of the term “Global South,” and examine the effect of globalization upon subaltern groups in the Global South. We also discuss how academic research using frameworks of the Global North can exacerbate the problems faced by subaltern groups rather than offer them alternative development trajectories by empowering such groups to represent themselves and their own development needs. The culture-centred approach to such research is offered as alternative to overcome such problems. The terms usage in the communication discipline is also explained and the complexity of the term and its future is explored.

Keywords: Global South, Global North, globalization, international communication, media systems, communication and critical studies


The term Global South is the latest in a list of terms used to describe differences between the developed nations of the North, the United States, Canada, and Europe, and “less” developed countries found in Latin America, Asia, Oceania, and Africa. Other terms have included the developed and less developed, core and periphery, and First and Third World. The term Global South has its beginnings in the 1970s, becoming widely accepted following the collapse of the Communist second world and the United Nations Development Program initiative of 2003, “Forging a Global South” (Dirlik, 2007, p. 13). The term gained more prominence after the publishing of the Brandt Report (Brandt, 1980). In this report, published by the Brandt Commission, a series of recommendations for mutually beneficial cooperation between poor and wealthy nations are outlined. The report discusses economic hardship in nations located in the Southern Hemisphere, typical of rhetoric around Global South nations. The Global South is regularly used to describe societies that appear to face “difficulties in achieving the economic and political goals of either capitalist or socialist modernity” (Dirlik, 2007, p. 13). Labeling the Global South in such terms often privileges democratic government and capitalist economic structure with its attendant neoliberal agenda as the preferred type of development for countries of the Global South. Alternative paradigms of development are often marginalized and critiqued. For example, the economic development by China in recent years, although not without its problems, has managed to work in the global neoliberal economy while still maintaining its independence. This development and moves toward South to South cooperation among Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) are seen by the United States as a threat rather than a viable alternative to Global South development (Dirlik, 2007).

Global South categorizes not only countries but also groups of people within countries in terms of their economic and geopolitical power (Dirlik, 2007). While the term is useful in highlighting global economic and political inequalities, caution is needed to avoid glossing over increasing political and economic power differentials among nations of the Global South (Willems, 2014). Dados and Connell (2012) suggested the terms Global North and Global South have provided “an alternative to the concept of ‘globalization’ contesting the belief in a growing homogenization of cultures and societies” (p. 12). Also contested is the neoliberal promise of globalization, to raise the standard of living for all through a world integrated by the global market and global capitalism (Lopez, 2007). The Global South has become a term of contestation and emancipation against the forces of postcolonial globalization.

Lopez (2007) suggested the linkages between the Global North and the Global South are far more complex than simply labeling a country as either belonging to one or the other. Many nations of the Global South face increasing economic marginalization along with other problems of uneven development caused by neoliberalism (Dirlik, 2007; Motta & Nilson, 2011). Before the hegemonic rise of neoliberalist globalization, the goal of economic development was for the whole nation (Dirlik, 2007). However, neoliberal policies have seen economic development come to mean development only for those parts of a nation’s economy that can successfully compete in the global economy (Dirlik, 2007). This results in particular urban elites having increased levels of prosperity while others in the country are marginalized. The increased prosperity for these urban elites often means their interests are more aligned with those of the Global North rather than their own country. This has led to clashes between these elites and those who have neoliberal development imposed upon them (Gray & Gills, 2016).

Rather than revitalising stagnant economies, globalization’s moves to return to the free market economy have seen a decline in economic growth since the 1970s (Harvey, 2005). Globalization’s benefits have been distributed very unevenly in different countries, and some people in the Global South have been further marginalized through the process of globalization (Stiglitz, 2002). The effects of neoliberal policies have seen wealth redistributed rather than grown and people dispossessed through a number of mechanisms, for example privatization. These measures have seen the loss of job security for the middle classes and decreased provision to medical, educational, and housing to subaltern communities. In terms of employment these changes saw increases in unemployment and underemployment in Latin American, Middle Eastern, and African countries throughout the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in over a billion people either unemployed or underemployed by the late 1990s, most from the Global South (Bayat, 2000). This economic marginalization was further exacerbated by deregulation on prices, rents, and utilities and the removal of subsidies on commodities like bread, petrol, and public transport fares (Bayat, 2000). Others have seen their way of life disrupted by being forced off their land by policies that have left them unable to continue to maintain their subsistence existence (Motta & Nilson, 2011). In some cases, social movements resisting such policy changes have been met with violent state repression (D’Souza, 2011; Mukherjee, Scandrett, Sen, & Shah, 2011).

Communication Scholarship and the Global South

A number of scholars have used the concept of the Global South as a lens for critiquing media and communication and for theorizing between the Global North and the Global South. Much of the study of media and communication studies have examined the Global South using frameworks of the Global North. This has led to the Global South being perceived as “other” and deficient when measured against the standards of the North (Willems, 2014). In terms of media studies this has resulted in Global South media systems perceived as lacking and deviating from Global North or Western norms due to state intervention and lack of press freedom (Willems, 2014). Global South scholars have questioned this conceptualization (and others), and critical scholars have examined the manner in which the power of international news agencies and the large-scale exportation of Western TV programs to the Global South have spread capitalist ideologies of the West to reproduce inequalities that exist between the Global North and South. As Dutta (2015) argues, communication enhanced by technology from the Global North in the form of radio, satellite, and television was a tool to change beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors to be more in line with those of the developed North. The spread overseas of the US/American-based film industry, McDonalds (McDonaldization), US-produced music, and other US-produced media has had hegemonic effects on global communities.

These technologies are also owned and operated either by state or capitalist enterprises and are used in service of development policies created by such organizations as the World Bank or the United States Agency for International Development (Dutta, 2015). Subaltern groups, the intended audiences of these communications, are often geographically removed from where these technologies are based and have little ability to adequately respond to the messages they receive. For example, notifications of meetings where residents of the Niyamgiri Hills, Orissa, India, were to be informed about the State’s plan to compulsorily purchase their land in order to build a refinery in the area were posted in mainstream print media. This media was far removed from the Dongria Kondh, the traditional inhabitants of the area, thereby removing their ability to question and protest the process (Dutta, 2015).

In an attempt to move away from the theoretical frameworks of the Global North researchers have turned their attention to examine communication at the sites of resistance to the imposition of neoliberal policies in the Global South. Resistance to globalization can be conceptualized “in terms of the communication processes and messages that seek to counter the dominant structures of power” in the Global South (Pal & Dutta, 2008, p. 42). Examining the communication of resistance allows the voices of those marginalized by the forces of neoliberal globalization to be heard. Research with these marginalized groups needs to be conducted reflexively with researchers understanding their paradoxical position of being both complicit in the global power structure as part of the academy while at the same time being dedicated to the furtherance of social justice for those they research (Motta & Nilsen, 2011). Such reflexivity must also take into account whether particular methodologies rooted in the academies of the Global North actually contribute to alternative trajectories of development promoted by the resistance of marginalized groups. To prevent their research from becoming another form of oppression to marginalized groups, researchers need to understand there may be a number of ways such research can be conducted and that more traditional research methods and conceptualizations of the Global South need to be questioned and even discarded to ensure the interests and perspectives of the Global South are appropriately articulated. The culture-centered approach takes these concerns into account by not only researching these marginalized groups but also empowering them to communicate their messages of resistance against globalization. This approach seeks to “collaborate with communities at the margins to build the spaces and sites for communication so community voices can meaningfully represent themselves in developing meaningful solutions” (Dutta et al., 2016, p. 2). This approach challenges conventional neoliberal responses to issues of poverty and health inequalities and opens spaces for conversations about these issues while not imposing solutions upon those being researched.

Willems (2014) identified dominant conceptualizations of the Global South in communication and media studies. Various fields of research, including media studies, political studies, development studies, communication, and comparative studies have all influenced the defining of these conceptualizations. The five dominant conceptualizations of the Global South include (1) the Global South as a region of inferior media systems, (2) the Global South framed in a dependent relationship with the West but as a recipient of Western products, (3) the Global South as active in encounters with Western cultural products, (4) the Global South as exporting products to the Global North, and (5) the Global South as a site of communication for developmental interventions.

First, based in comparative political science and media studies, early research (Siebert, Peterson, Peterson, & Schramm, 1956) defined Africa and Asia as locales where authoritarian regimes controlled their peoples and heavily restricted media freedom; while European and North American governments promoted free media and democracy. This early theorizing has perpetuated with the Global South still being characterized as having inferior and oppressed media systems and the Global North’s systems as superior and free (Curran & Park, 2000). Willems (2014) asserted such interpretations have emphasized division and difference “through the normative lens of the Global North” (p. 4).

Second, in the 1970s, the Global South was reframed as being in a dependent relationship with the Global North. In this relationship, the Global South was a recipient of media and other products from the Global North and its corporations. News agencies, television programs, music, movies, and other forms of media from the Global North spread messages and ideologies to the Global South. The influence of media systems from the Global North put pressures on Global South media systems and made them dependent on media systems from the North. These unbalanced flows of media led to decreased influence of media systems and uniquely Global South cultures. As per media imperialism theories, the diminishing influence of media systems in the Global South, which had little to no effect on the Global North, was an effect of extreme political, social, and economic pressures from Global North systems.

Third, recognizing that media imperialism and the dependent relationship between the Global North and South is complex, theorists in the 1980s asserted the Global South was active in its consumption and integration of media systems from the Global North (Fiske & Hartley, 2003). From this perspective, audiences/consumers in the Global South were active in their consumption of media from the Global North. Fiske (1987) described how Australian Aborigines allied themselves with Native Americans (“Indians”) depicted in Western shows, cheering for the “Indians” as themselves. As Global South audiences began to coopt messages from the Global North, the activeness of Global South audiences emerged.

Fourth, following theorizations of the dependence between the Global North and South, theorists began to stress the growing importance of the Global South as a producer of media. With the growth in popularity of industries such as Bollywood and Nollywood in the Global North, cultural products from the Global South are increasingly being consumed in the Global North. Increasingly, media corporations in the Global South are producing content for Global South and North markets.

The final conceptualization focuses on how researchers have tried to modernize the developing Global South. Drawing on research from developmental and health communication, researchers have sought to explore the relationship between media in the Global South and developing social change or development (Fair & Shah, 1997). Such a research agenda, where the Global North “develops” or “changes” the Global South, places the Global North in a place of power over the Global South, in which the Global South is seen as having less agency and/or development. This focus on development finds researchers examining the communication and its effectiveness on development goals being reached, rather than interacting with the targets of those communications, the marginalized communities considered in need of development. In so doing the voices of marginalized groups who may disagree with the course of development or have differing ideas of what they might consider necessary for their development are either ignored or erased.

Future of the Term Global South

First, the terms Global North and Global South have been critiqued for a number of reasons. The terms North and South fail to address the global complexity that exists between and within countries. Dirlik (2007) points to the Inuit who reside in a number of countries in the Global North and yet are marginalized by neoliberal policies especially around mining on their lands (Procter, 2015). Another example of the difficulties of Global South concept is the place of Australia and New Zealand. While both countries lie in the Southern Hemisphere, both are considered to lie in the Global North due to their level of economic development. Including them in the Global North, however, denies the ongoing postcolonial struggles of both the indigenous Maori of New Zealand and the Aborigines of Australia. In examining claims for compensation by Maori living on the East Coast of the North Island, McCormack (2012) suggested neoliberalism and its underlying value of the self-reliant citizen (see Slowley, 2008) has offered a mechanism for Maori groups to claim territories and other property as compensation for past colonial appropriations. However, such remedies only occur within a neoliberal framework, where the only recognized relationships are economic and more traditional relationships are negated. In Australia, neoliberal policies result in Aboriginals being seen as impediments to the exploitation of the mineral wealth that exists on their ancestral lands unless they are trained as mine workers (Howlett, Seini, MacCallum, & Osborne, 2011). Government policies also see many Aboriginals displaced from their ancestral lands into “growth towns,” clearing the way for mining companies to exploit the mineral wealth of those lands (McMullen, 2013). Despite neoliberalism’s promise of self-reliance and self-determination, both Maori and Aboriginals are still overrepresented on many negative social statistics. Finally, the term Global South does not take into account the large migrations of refugees from political and economic hardships seeking refuge in European countries of the Global North, or those who make arduous journeys to Australasia in the hope of finding a better life. Often these groups find themselves marginalized in the country of their choice with little or no political allegiance to the nation or national community in which they reside (Sassen, 1998). These varying examples and the continually changing nature of marginalized groups across the globe illustrate the limited value of the term as a theoretical concept as the “global diversity is simply such that it cannot meaningfully be subsumed under a few, let alone two, concepts” (Eriksen, 2015, p. 6).

Second, the term Global South is one based on a Northern-centric view of the historical, contemporary, and future nature of the Global South. These views are contested by a number of writers who examine the South from varying perspectives and suggest the North–South binary is an overly simplistic view of the world. For example, Hofmeyr (2012) suggests the Indian Ocean, with its strong history of precolonial trade and the contemporary site of the emergence of India and China as increasing economic powers and “Sino Indian competition over oil sea-lanes and African markets and minerals” (p. 584), as a site of research that disrupts the North–South divide. Other scholars focus their attentions on Africa, arguing the contemporary view of the continent and its future possibilities are invented by the Global North (West-Pavlov, 2014). Using literary theory, West-Pavlov (2015) examines, from a South African perspective, contemporary life in that country. He illustrates how the promise of global capitalism and consumer choice in the form of the supermarket lies out of the reach of most in post-apartheid South Africa. This inability to participate in consumer choice offered by the mall and supermarket is not limited citizens of post-apartheid South Africa or other countries of the Global South. This is also the experience of many economically marginalized citizens in cities of the Global North. These alternative viewpoints and others from the Global South illustrate a far more complex picture of the world than can be conceptualized and explained by the binary of Global South and Global North.

Finally, research and philosophy linked to the use of the term Global South is often linked to Hofstede’s concept of cultural variability. Any project seeking to decolonize and examine reflexively the effect of methodologies from the Global North should examine the effect of the Hofstede’s cultural paradigms. Mohammed (2011) argued Hofstede’s model of culture, despite strong criticism (see Fougère & Moulettes, 2007; McSweeney, 2002), has become the primary model of cultural difference taught in business courses. From its inception, Hofstede’s (1980) study was designed and conducted in the corporate business world. Given the marginalization being suffered through neoliberal globalization by subaltern groups in the Global South, Hofstede’s model and methodology should be understood and scrutinized carefully if we are to avoid it being used to further such marginalization. In particular, as Hofstede’s model perpetuated a hegemonic discourse of a “modern” west (Global North) and a “backward” rest (Global South), such a model has many consequences for cultural appreciation and understanding (Fougère & Moulettes, 2007).

Further Reading

Brandt, W. (1980). North–South: A programme for survival: Report of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

    Comaroff, J., & Comaroff, J. L. (2012). Theory from the South: Or, how Euro-America is evolving towards Africa. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.Find this resource:

      Dirlik, A. (2007). Global South: Predicament and promise. The Global South, 1, 12–23.Find this resource:

        Lopez, A. J. (2007). The (post) Global South. The Global South, 1, 1–11.Find this resource:

          Mahler, A. G. (2018). From the tricontinental to the Global South: Race, radicalism, and transnational solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

            Prashad, V. (2014). The poorer nations: A possible history of the Global South. New York, NY: Verso.Find this resource:

              Willems, W. (2014). Beyond normative dewesternization: Examining media culture from the vantage point of the Global South. The Global South, 8(1), 7–23.Find this resource:


                Bayat, A. (2000). From “dangerous classes” to “quiet rebels”: Politics of the urban subaltern in the Global South. International Sociology, 15(3), 533–557.Find this resource:

                  Brandt, W. (1980). North–South: A programme for survival: Report of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

                    Curran, J., & Park, M.-J. (2000). De-westernizing media studies. London, UK: Routledge.Find this resource:

                      Dados, N., & Connell, R. (2012). The Global South. Contexts, 11, 12–13.Find this resource:

                        D’Souza, R. (2011). Three actors, two geographies, on philosophy: The straightjacket of social movements. In S. C. Motta & A. G. Nilsen (Eds.), Social movements in the Global South: Dispossession, development and resistance (pp. 227–249). Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

                          Dirlik, A. (2007). Global South: Predicament and promise. The Global South, 1, 12–23.Find this resource:

                            Dutta, M. J. (2015). Decolonizing communication for social change: A culture-centered approach. Communication Theory, 25, 123–143.Find this resource:

                              Dutta, M. J., Azim, A., Mahtani, R., Kaur-Gill, S., Tan, E., Soh, D., . . . Sun, K. (2016). Culturally centering communication for social change in Asia: A report of the Center for Culture-centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE). Singapore: CARE.Find this resource:

                                Eriksen, T. H. (2015). What’s wrong with the Global North and the Global South? [Blog post]. Erikson’s Blog.

                                Fair, J. E., & Shah, H. (1997). Continuities and discontinuities in communication and development research since 1958. Journal of International Communication, 46(2), 3–23.Find this resource:

                                  Fiske, J. (1987). Television culture. London, UK: Methuen.Find this resource:

                                    Fiske, J., & Hartley, J. (2003). Reading television. New York, NY: Psychology Press.Find this resource:

                                      Fougère, M., & Moulettes, A. (2007). The construction of the Modern West and the Backward Rest: Studying the discourse of Hofstede’s Culture’s consequences. Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 2, 1–19. Find this resource:

                                        Gray, K., & Gills, B. K. (2016). South–South cooperation and the rise of the Global South. Third World Quarterly, 37, 557–574. Find this resource:

                                          Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                            Hofmeyr, I. (2012). The complicating sea: The Indian Ocean as method. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 32(3), 584–590.Find this resource:

                                              Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                Howlett, C., Seini, M., McCallum, D., & Osborne, N. (2011). Neoliberalism, mineral development and indigenous people: A framework for analysis. Australian Geographer, 42, 309–323.Find this resource:

                                                  Katz, E., & Liebes, T. (1990). Interacting with Dallas: Cross cultural reading of American TV. Canadian Journal of Communication, 15(1), 45–66.Find this resource:

                                                    Lopez, A. J. (2007). The (post) Global South. The Global South, 1, 1–11.Find this resource:

                                                      McCormack, F. (2012). Indigeneity as process: Māori claims and neoliberalism. Social Identities, 18(4), 417–434. Find this resource:

                                                        McMullen, J. (2013). The new land grab [Blog post]. New Internationalist Blog: Fair Trade, Climate Disruption and Social Justice News. Find this resource:

                                                          McSweeney, B. (2002). Hofstede’s model of national cultural differences and their consequences: A triumph of faith—a failure of analysis. Human Relations, 55, 89–118.Find this resource:

                                                            Mohammed, S. N. (2011). Communication and the globalisation of culture: Beyond tradition and borders. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.Find this resource:

                                                              Motta, S. C., & Nilsen, A. G. (2011). Social movements and/in the postcolonial: Dispossession, development and resistance in the Global South. In S. C. Motta & A. G. Nilsen (Eds.), Social movements in the Global South: Dispossession, development and resistance (pp. 1–34). Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

                                                                Mukherjee, S., Scandrett, E., Sen, T., & Shah, D. (2011). Generating theory in the Bhopal Survivors’ movement. In S. C. Motta & A. G. Nilsen (Eds.), Social movements in the Global South: Dispossesion, development and resistance (pp. 150–177). Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

                                                                  Pal, M., & Dutta, M. J. (2008). Theorizing resistance in a global context processes, strategies, and tactics in communication scholarship. Annals of the International Communication Association, 32, 41–87. Find this resource:

                                                                    Procter, A. (2015). Uranium, Inuit rights, and emergent neoliberalism in Labrador. In A. Keeling & J. Sandlos (Eds.), Mining and communities in Northern Canada (pp. 233–258). Calgary, Canada: University of Calgary Press.Find this resource:

                                                                      Sassen, S. (1998). Globalization and its discontents. New York, NY: New Press.Find this resource:

                                                                        Siebert, F. S., Peterson, T. B., Peterson, T., & Schramm, W. (1956). Four theories of the press: The authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility, and Soviet communist concepts of what the press should be and do. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

                                                                          Slowley, G. (2008). Navigating neoliberalism: Self-determination and the Mikisew Cree First Nation. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press.Find this resource:

                                                                            Stiglitz, J. (2002). Globalism’s discontents. The American Prospect, 13, 1–14.Find this resource:

                                                                              West-Pavlov, R. (2014). Shadows of the past, visions of the future in African literatures and cultures. Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, 51(2), 5–17.Find this resource:

                                                                                West-Pavlov, R. (2015). Borderlines . . . living on: The market and the post-apartheid polity in Mpe’s, Vladislavić’s and Dangor’s Johannesburg geographies. Parallax, 21(1), 79–97.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Willems, W. (2014). Beyond normative dewesternization: Examining media culture from the vantage point of the Global South. The Global South, 8(1), 7–23.Find this resource: