In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Development Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Spaces of Development
  • Mapping and Measuring Development
  • Modernization
  • Dependency and Marxist Theories
  • Grassroots Development and Participation
  • Sustainable Development
  • Postcolonialism
  • Postdevelopment
  • Migration and Development
  • Gender and Development
  • Development and the State
  • Nongovernmental Organizations
  • Civil Society and Social Movements
  • New Development Actors

Geography Development Theory
Katie Willis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0007


At the heart of the concept of “development” are notions of improvement or betterment. However, what is to be improved, at what scale, for whom, where, and how are all contested. Development theories seek to explain development processes and development inequalities based on particular definitions of development. Policy formulation coming out of these theories fed particularly into post–World War II international development assistance and aid. While development theories usually have a spatial element, in that they consider how and why levels of “development” vary between locations, geographers have often been at the margins of theory formulation. A notable exception has been in Marxist-inspired theories of spatial inequalities. Where geographers have been much more engaged is in seeking to understand how particular development approaches have been operationalized in particular spaces, from modernization theories in the 1950s and 1960s, to dependency theories in the 1960s and 1970s, and to neoliberal forms of development from the late 1970s onward. Geographers’ interventions in these debates have often sought to challenge the very limited ideas of space mobilized in some theoretical and policy research. Additionally, geographers have engaged with postcolonialism and postdevelopment, which seek to decenter the perspectives of global North elites in interpreting and implementing development, instead focusing on the worldviews of marginalized, indigenous, low-income men and women in the urban and rural areas of the global South. Geographical work has also sought to examine the actors involved in development practice at a number of scales, including states, multilateral organizations, private-sector companies, nonprofit/nongovernmental organizations, and community groups. Collaborations within and between these different groups, and the networks involved, have also been a part of geographical research. Finally, geographers have worked at the interface between humans and the natural environment, considering how and why these relationships shift and the potential for sustainable development.

General Overviews

There are a large number of texts dealing with development theory from a range of disciplines outside geography, most notably economics, development studies, political science, and sociology. From a geographical perspective, it is important to consider the distinction between what Hart 2001 calls “big D” and “small d” development. While “development” refers to broad processes of change, particularly under capitalism, “Development” refers to specific, intentional interventions to achieve improvement or progress. Willis 2011 provides a basic introduction to different development theories and how they have been implemented as part of specific development policies. Peet and Hartwick 2009 is a more advanced textbook with a particular focus on Marxist-informed theories. Lawson 2007 is a clear account of how geography as a discipline has engaged with development theory and practice, particularly since the 1950s. Both Chant and McIlwaine 2009 and Potter, et al. 2008 are accessible accounts of development practices and policies in the global South. Both have chapters specifically on development theory, although the bulk of both books is on broader development processes in the global South. Sheppard, et al. 2009 is a similarly wide-ranging volume, but the contested nature of development is stressed throughout, not least in the way it is written. Finally, Power 2003 is an excellent, accessible book that highlights the power relations embedded in development definitions, practices, and policies.

  • Chant, Sylvia, and Cathy McIlwaine. Geographies of Development in the 21st Century: An Introduction to the Global South. Cheltenham, UK, and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2009.

    Clear overview of how and why development in its different forms varies over time and space. Particularly good on issues around gender and development.

  • Hart, Gillian. “Development Critiques in the 1990s: Culs de Sac and Promising Paths.” Progress in Human Geography 25.4 (December 2001): 649–658.

    DOI: 10.1191/030913201682689002

    An overview of development-related research in geography in the 1990s, drawing out key trends in critical development geography. Very useful for Hart’s distinction between “big D” and “small d” development. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Lawson, Victoria. Making Development Geography. Human Geography in the Making. London: Hodder Arnold, 2007.

    An excellent overview of the geographical studies of development. Clearly organized into chapters dealing with mainstream development interventions, Marxist-feminist political economy approaches, and post-structural approaches. Ideal for undergraduates.

  • Peet, Richard, and Elaine Hartwick. Theories of Development: Contentions, Arguments, Alternatives. 2d ed. London and New York: Guilford, 2009.

    An advanced-level textbook that provides detailed discussions of key development theories. It is written from a perspective sympathetic to Marxist interpretations and seeks to present an alternative to current hegemonic, neoliberal development models.

  • Potter, Robert B., Tony Binns, Jennifer A. Elliot, and David W. Smith. Geographies of Development: An Introduction to Development Studies. 3d ed. Harlow, UK, and New York: Pearson-Prentice Hall, 2008.

    Focuses on development definitions, practices of development, and spaces of development. While geographical themes run through the book, the engagement with geographical theory is relatively limited. Well-illustrated volume suitable for undergraduate teaching on development.

  • Power, Marcus. Rethinking Development Geographies. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

    An innovative book that threads postcolonial and post-structuralist perspectives through an analysis of how development has been imagined and implemented in particular places. Clearly draws out geopolitical and ideological framings of development. Suitable for advanced undergraduates and postgraduate students.

  • Sheppard, Eric, Philip W. Porter, David R. Faust, and Richa Nagar. A World of Difference: Encountering and Contesting Development. 2d ed. New York: Guilford, 2009.

    A wide-ranging book that covers themes in physical and human geography and the processes underlying differences in physical and human environments. Highlights how globalization and development interventions are experienced, contested, and resisted in different ways.

  • Willis, Katie. Theories and Practices of Development. 2d ed. Routledge Perspectives on Development. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2011.

    Provides a clear introduction to development theories and how these have influenced development policy and practice. While there is some focus on issues around space and scale, it is not written as a geography text.

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