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

May 25, 2012

This is a cross-post from my solo blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp.

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 as global classification schemes.
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.
+ posts

Jay Ulfelder is a Carr Center Fellow at Harvard University. Jay Ulfelder has two decades of experience working at the intersection of social science and data science, with a particular focus on protest, collective action, human rights, democracy, and forecasting.