In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Developing World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Urbanization
  • Migration
  • Poverty
  • Food, Famine, and Hunger
  • Health and Medicine
  • Disabilities in the Developing World
  • Gender and Development
  • Education
  • Waste
  • Armed Conflict, War, and Violence
  • Resources and Conflicts

Geography Developing World
James A. Tyner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0006


Places and regions throughout the world exhibit vast differences in levels of social, political, and economic characteristics. Some places, for example, are more impoverished than others. Accordingly, scholars and politicians have forwarded a number of terms to capture the spatial inequalities evidenced across the Earth’s surface. The “developing world” has been proposed and used in reference to those regions of the world that are held to be lesser developed with respect to urbanization and industrialization. The root term “develop” is itself problematic, in that it suggests related terms such as “progress” or “improvement.” Consequently, the phrase “developing world” indicates a region that falls short of certain benchmarks of progress or development. In other words, “developing world” is defined as lacking in qualities that are presumed to be better or more advanced. This is seen especially in the dualistic terms that have been proposed: “developed” versus “developing” or “less developed,” “core” versus “periphery,” and “rich” versus “poor.” Conventional accounts of the developing world focus on a suite of structural and institutional conditions, including a legacy of (European) colonialism and the continued dependence on markets and products of the “advanced” industrial countries. In turn, studies often address key social, economic, and political measures: high rates of population growth, high rates of fertility and mortality, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, and high levels of poverty. Studies have also focused on issues of environmental exploitation and degradation, armed conflict and proxy wars, and political instability. Many of these studies emphasize the complexity and interconnectivity of these issues and conditions. Especially notable since the 1970s is the emergence of alternative accounts that address gender and age inequalities.

General Overviews

A myriad of terms have been used to describe the developing world. Indeed, previous terms included “backward,” “underdeveloped,” and “less developed.” To this one can add both “Third World” and “Global South.” The former term emerged in the 1950s in reference to a threefold division of the world based on political and economic characteristics. The “First World” referenced Westernized, capitalist countries, whereas the “Second World” was used to describe those countries that exhibited centrally planned economies (i.e., the Communist bloc). The “Third World” included a grab-bag of mostly poor, recently independent countries that had not yet aligned with either of the other two “worlds.” With Brandt 1980, another term was proposed—the “North–South” divide. Here, rich and poor regions were starkly defined as a geographic binary, with the “North” associated with wealthier, advanced countries and the “South” associated with more impoverished and lesser developed countries. This imprecise geographic ordering of development was modified in the 1990s with the promotion of the Global North/Global South. This modification was meant to destabilize the spatial determinism implied in the “North–South” divide and also to highlight the interconnectedness of regions at a global scale. In recent years a number of scholars have critiqued the terms “developing world,” “Global South,” and “Third World.” In López 2007 and Dirlik 2007 alternatives are proposed; in Murphy 2008 the terms are used, but with critical caveats. Especially notable are the contributions of feminist and postcolonialist writers such as Naila Kabeer (Kabeer 1994) and Chandra Talpade Mohanty et al. (Mohanty, et al. 1991) on the developing world. Murphy 2006 provides a comprehensive overview on the pedagogic aspects of teaching about the developing world.

  • Brandt, Willie. North-South: A Programme for Survival. London: Pan, 1980.

    In this classic study, Brandt first introduces the “north–south” terminology that is now widely used. Although dated, this document provides a broad overview of the contested meanings of development.

  • Dirlik, Arif. “Global South: Predicament and Promise.” The Global South 1 (2007): 12–23.

    DOI: 10.2979/GSO.2007.1.1.12

    Provides a good historical account of the intellectual, ideological, and political roots of the “Global South” as a concept and region.

  • Kabeer, Naila. Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought. New York: Verso, 1994.

    Somewhat dated, this text provides a comprehensive overview and critique of development theories. Kabeer concentrates especially on the marginality of women and households in many traditional accounts of the developing world and the implications of these omissions on policy debates.

  • López, Alfred J. “Introduction: The (Post)global South.” The Global South 1 (2007): 1–11.

    DOI: 10.2979/GSO.2007.1.1.1

    In this first introductory article marking the launching of the journal The Global South, López suggests that researchers should concentrate on three areas of scholarship: globalization, its aftermath, and how those on the bottom survive globalization. López likewise argues for a shift from postcolonialism to postglobalism as a theoretical foundation.

  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

    Of the many critiques of the “Third World” as concept, this edited volume is considered a classic. Mohanty’s introductory chapter, “Cartographies of Struggle,” provides a key overview of feminism and the Third World, while her highly cited chapter “Under Western Eyes” provides a scathing critique of the idea of the “Third World woman.”

  • Murphy, James T. “Representing the Economic Geographies of ‘Others’: Reconsidering the Global South.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 30 (2006): 439–448.

    DOI: 10.1080/03098260600927369

    In this article Murphy argues that the Global South has often been marginalized within the teaching and research of economic geography. He provides a useful discussion on alternative ways of teaching about developing regions.

  • Murphy, James T. “Economic Geographies of the Global South: Missed Opportunities and Promising Intersections with Development Studies.” Geography Compass 2.3 (2008): 851–873.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2008.00119.x

    Critiques the bias of many economic geographers to the study of the Global South; argues that geographers should direct more attention to the developing world as a means of better understanding the complexity of the global economy.

  • Sheppard, Eric, and Richa Nagar. “From East-West to North-South.” Antipode 36 (2004): 557–563.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2004.00433.x

    Provides a useful discussion on the historical shift from a focus on “East–West” geopolitical relations (i.e., the Cold War) to a focus on “North–South” relations. Advocates for a critical approach to research on inequalities.

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