There Are Two Kinds of Countries in the World: _____ and _____

A few days ago, Sean Langberg blogged about a subject that’s long been a pet peeve of mine: how we classify countries when we try to talk about the international system, and the labels we apply to the resulting groups. I thought I’d take the cue to air my grievances on the topic and make a couple of simple suggestions.

Taxonomies require organizing principles, and the kernel of the classification system Americans usually use in international politics comes from modernization theory. Modernization theory’s core idea is the teleological one that economic growth, urbanization, industrialization, and political democracy are the natural, desirable, and mutually reinforcing ends of social change, or “development” for short. Viewed through this lens, some wealthy, democratic countries appear to have arrived already, while the rest are playing catch-up. In other words, the former have “developed,” while the latter are still “developing.”

This conventional approach is plainly displayed in the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) semi-annual World Economic Outlook reports, which sort countries into two bins: “advanced” and “emerging and developing.” The former includes the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and a smattering of richer Asian countries, while the latter is, simply, everyone else. What, exactly, distinguishes these two groups is left unspecified–according to the April 2012 report, “This classification is not based on strict criteria, economic or otherwise, and it has evolved over time”–but the basic divide is the familiar one between the “West” and “the rest.” The First World vs. Third World tags have largely faded from use since the Second World disappeared in the early 1990s, but the underlying concept is the same.

What’s so distasteful about the conventional approach are its connotations of hierarchy and even moral superiority. A couple dozen countries, mostly “white” and European, are described as having reached the desired end state, while the rest of the world struggles and strains to catch up. The rich and powerful have matured; a few fortunate others are just now emerging from backwardness; and the rest remain retarded in their development.

There are other ways to do this. Back when Marxism was still alive and kicking, some social scientists used it to divide the world into a “center” and a “periphery” defined by the economic exploitation and political subjugation of the latter by the former. Dubbed dependency theory, this scheme died a bitter death for empirical, political, and sociological reasons. Empirically, dependency theory couldn’t really explain how some once-peripheral countries eventually got much richer in spite of their supposed subjugation. Politically, the import-substitution policies dependency theorists prescribed were a bust. Sociologically, dependency theory got tagged (with justification) as part of a wider leftist political project, so it was further deflated by the ideological and practical collapse of Communism in the late 1980s. All of that said, dependency theory did present a reasoned alternative to the neoliberal scheme it opposed, and, in so doing, it spotlighted some important realities of the international system.

Some have tried to classify countries along religious or cultural lines, but I think these attempts have generally been less successful. The most prominent expression of this approach in the U.S. comes from Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” writings, in which he argued that the fundamental sources of conflict between states in the post-Cold War world would be cultural rather than ideological or economic. This thesis seems to find some echoes in the Global War on Terror, but critics have rightfully taken Huntington to task for reducing the fantastic diversity and rapidly-evolving cultural constellations of so many countries to a single, simple identity defined primarily by their dominant religions.

More generally, I wonder if the distinction between sacred and secular generally means that states aren’t the relevant units for global taxonomies based on religion. Perhaps clans, families, or souls would be more fitting. Ongoing attempts by some Muslims to establish a caliphate imply that it is at least theoretically possible to sort international political units into insider and outsider groups based on religious practice, but the fact that these groupings generally contain one or zero countries should tell us something about their disutility.

For comparing countries, wealth seems like a perfectly good yardstick, in no small part because national wealth is so tightly linked to the forms of power that drive contemporary international relations. But then why not talk about money instead of this fuzzier idea of development? This is what the World Bank does nowadays, and its low-income, middle-income, and high-income designations–based strictly on gross national income (GNI) per capita–would seem to offer more analytical leverage than the IMF’s “developed” vs. “emerging” distinction without all the ugly baggage. The Economist takes this approach, too, and seems no worse for it.

For people concerned about the broader package of liberal constructs–the values and institutional forms that most authors probably have in mind when they refer to the “West”–why not make those criteria explicit and be more transparent about how they are measured? Observers who are primarily interested in domestic politics might consider the organization of a country’s political economy to compare it with others. This could be done by considering procedures to select national leaders on the one hand and prevailing sources of wealth generation on the other. Meanwhile, people who are more interested in the organization of the international system could look explicitly at formal and informal entanglements among states to identify relevant communities in a way that escapes the tired and broken bifurcations of East vs. West and North vs. South.

Whatever your preferred solution, I beg you, please, stop, stop, STOP referring to countries as “developed” and “developing.” And if you find that you must, at least put those awful labels in quotes.

Leave a comment


  1. NC Parker

     /  May 25, 2012

    What are your thoughts about classifying countries by HDI rank? ( Depends on the application, of course…

    • I’d say that’s a useful summary measure for the purpose of comparing quality of life, and it sounds from the tail end of your comment like you’d agree. I think GNI is more powerful for international relations, though, because of it’s more direct connection to conventional instruments of power. I also wonder if the HDI isn’t too broad, and if slices of it aren’t more useful for many specific applications.

  2. I think ‘maldeveloped’ describes much of the world outside of imperial centers. Otherwise, good post.

    • dev

       /  June 10, 2012

      The usual term is “underdeveloped”. As in “Mozambique was underdeveloped by Portugal”. And it’s a concept from dependency theory.

  3. Thanks for this. I would add – to the call to banish teleological/developmental language – definitely stop referring to any people on earth as living in a different “world,” (cosby show spin-off possibly excepted), such as in first/third, rich/poor, developed/developing.

    National wealth does seem to be the more neutral and useful yardstick, though I wish the Gini could be built into the way we consider/talk about countries.

  4. Great Post… isn’t it difficult to struggle against a norm :)? On the imposition of the norm of modernization on the world, have you read – actually I am quite sure you have – Bull, Watson Gong? Those are wonderful masterworks.
    It seems to me that one difficulty too, as you very well underline, is that this norm has been then recuperated, reworked and used by the “self-determination” paradigm.
    One thing is certain, I fully agree with you that if we want to start understanding the contemporary world and face its multiple and major challenges, we need to factor in those norms, how they change, and evolve rather than being prey to their ideology.

  5. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to navigate circumlocutions for the old term “Third World” (AKA “emerging,” or “developing,” or “backward”) and my general conclusion is that the best word to capture the critical issue is, simply, poverty. Of course people can sit around and argue that countries like DRC are in some sense “rich” given the minerals they have in the ground, and the hydroelectric potential pouring off the mountains, but the main salient feature of DRC, as compared to other countries in the world, is the poverty of the vast masses of its people. The other quibble has to do with questions of power: some countries are filled with vast numbers of poor people but are politically or militarily powerful — India, China, Russia, and Brazil come to mind.

  6. I was discussing this post with a friend and we realized that even as we tried to change how we referred to countries according to, say, wealth rather than development stage…we still didn’t have a better term to describe what we did/studied than ‘development.’


    • That’s a great question. “Development” connotes directionality, which is the heart of the problem. I suppose the non-directional term for it would be “change,” but I can see how that’s not very satisfying. We can also try to use terms specific to the concerns or objectives of a given study or project–things like democratization, economic growth, or poverty alleviation–but that still doesn’t answer the call for a new label at the level of the whole field. Turning it around, I wonder if the problem isn’t that the idea that there is such a field is itself founded on that very teleology. I’d be very interested to hear what others think.

      • You’re right, the directionality is both the problem and the underlying assumption. I have a good friend that often talks about ‘development’ as promoting ‘good change,’ but I am not sure everyone will jump on board to self-identify as agents of good change or to say that they work in the good change industry. And, of course, who defines ‘good’ and over what time period is deeply problematic. Hopefully another of your readers is more creative! Or, at least can enlighten us as to historical example of a field renaming itself!

  7. Ajay Darshan Behera

     /  June 12, 2012

    I rthink the term Third World is still relevant due to the connotations associated with it. As global power shifts we will be confonted with a different kind of Third World – countries still with high levels of poverty and political instability but exercising enormous power in the international system. While in the next decade we will witness fundamental shifts in the global power structure with many Third World countries becoming important to the international economy, but it will take them several decades to alleviate mass poverty and usher political stability. The Third World is not going to disappear, it will have to be reconceptualised. Maybe we can come up with a new term!

  8. TJP

     /  June 21, 2012

    How about we divide the world into places where people are far more likely to die from something that we really could do something about and other places where that is far less likely. Have you ever noticed when you have been out in the field in “developing”, “Third World” blah blah blah countries that there does seem to be more people dying? I am sure many individuals die a far more righteous death knowing that we will not accuse them of having died in a directionally lesser developed nation.

  9. The problem is that the World Bank categories are purely atheoretical descriptive rankings of prosperity. They don’t provide any information about the qualitative economic transformations involved in moving from a low-income to a high income status, they don’t provide any information about how a nation interactions with the rest of the world economy, or the ‘forms of power that drive contemporary international relations’. It doesn’t really provide any information about the actual pattern of income distribution in the world. Salvatore Babones has attempted to analyse the income structure of the world economy, he has found that it used to be trimodal (providing belated support for older world systems perspectives) but that it became bimodal over the last few decades. As is well known, the North is a ‘convergence club’ in which incomes and quality of life do not vary a great deal. The poorer group of states is, however, much more diverse – this is what makes it problematic to talk about the global South as a single group. But there are still fewer people than might be expected living in nations with intermediate incomes per capita , and many of those (Malaysia, Brazil, S Africa) are very unequal and so have something of an internal North and South. This may all change depending on China’s trajectory, however.

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