Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Sunday, January 04, 2015

How should we classify countries?

Can we make generalizations that are accurate? Isn't that one of the goals of comparative politics?

Thanks to Suzanne Bailey who teaches in Huntsville, AL for pointing this out.

If You Shouldn't Call It The Third World, What Should You Call It?
Third world? Developing world? Global south? Low and middle income countries? Every label has its problems — and, as it turns out, an interesting back story. Here's what I learned from talking to many, many experts.

More than half a century ago, the Cold War was just starting. It was Western capitalism versus Soviet socialism. But there was another group of countries. Many of them were former colonies. None of them were squarely in either the Western or Soviet camp. Thinking of these three factions, French demographer Alfred Sauvy wrote of "Three worlds, one planet" in an article published in L'Observateur in 1952.

The Third World has always had blurred lines. "Although the phrase was widely used, it was never clear whether it was a clear category of analysis, or simply a convenient and rather vague label for an imprecise collection of states in the second half of the twentieth century and some of the common problems that they faced," writes historian B.R. Tomlinson…

This 1-2-3 classification is now out-of-date, insulting and confusing. Who is to say which part of the world is "first"? And how can an affluent country like Saudi Arabia, neither Western nor Communist, be part of the Third World? Plus, the Soviet Union doesn't even exist anymore.

And it's not like the First World is the best world in every way. It has pockets of deep urban and rural poverty…

"Developing countries" sounds like it might be a better choice. On the surface, it seems accurate…

So "developing world" seemed to be a good solution.Then I encountered the "developing" haters.

One of them is Shose Kessi, a social psychologist at the University of Cape Town. In an e-mail exchange, she took aim and fired: "I dislike the term 'developing world' because it assumes a hierarchy between countries. It paints a picture of Western societies as ideal but there are many social problems in these societies as well. It also perpetuates stereotypes about people who come from the so-called developing world as backward, lazy, ignorant, irresponsible."…

Another solution is to go for geographic labeling. The majority of poor countries are in the southern hemisphere, aka the "global south." Then again, impoverished Haiti is in the global north. And many rich countries are in the south: Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, to name a few.

Nigerian-American journalist Dayo Olopade [and] Paul Farmer, cofounder of the nonprofit Partners in Health… recognize that labels almost always have problems. So they both recommend being specific whenever possible. If you're writing about the difference in health care in Senegal and Switzerland, they told me, then say so…

Teaching Comparative blog entries are indexed. Use the search box to look for country names or concept labels attached to each entry.

Planning assignments for the new semester? 

What You Need to Know: Teaching Tools, the original version and v2.0 are available to help curriculum planning.

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