e-Book Launch: Can Dependency Theory Explain Our World Today?

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Is it time for dependency theory to make a comeback? Its central idea is that developed (”core”) countries benefit from the global system at the expense of developing (”periphery”) countries—which face structural barriers that make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to develop in the same way that the already developed countries did. As neo-classical economics came to dominate the field in the 1980s, the theory lost prominence and traction. Given the vast imbalances that persist within and among nations in the global economy today, it’s an opportune time to revisit the framework.

To that end, INET’s Young Scholars Initiative (YSI) has released a new e-book, Conversations on Dependency Theory. The volume, released by YSI’s Economic Development Working Group, comprises interviews with 13 scholars from around the world who express a variety of viewpoints on the meaning and relevance of dependency theory in today’s context.

At a time when the core arguments of the Dependency framework are most pertinent, they disappeared from mainstream debates on ‘globalization’ and the academic curricula…[F]or a new generation of scholars and students, this volume should be a key that opens the door to an archive and a new way of reasoning about the current global order…[W]hat is at stake is more than the economic. What is required is thinking and acting on the multi-dimensional faces of dependence…—as much economic as it is political, social, and epistemic… confronting the different dimensions of domination and dependence.

– Preface by Professor Jimi Adesina, South African Research Chair in Social policy at the College of Graduate Studies, University of South Africa.

From the e-book’s Introduction:

With the rise of neo-classical economics in the 1980s, dependency theory became marginalised and was ultimately cast aside. This happened despite its popularity in the mid-20th century, particularly in the Global South. Using this collection of interviews with various scholars, we hope to inspire students and academics to revisit the key tenets of dependency theory and consider how some of the original work can be used to examine the persistence of global inequalities today.

Dependency theory grew influential in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, largely in reaction to modernization theory and free trade policies, which originated in the West. The proponents of modernization theory claimed that underdeveloped countries were held back by certain cultural characteristics, or their lack of adherence to specific economic policies that followed given “stages of growth.” While a variety of perspectives existed within the broad school of dependency theory, they all rejected modernisation theory’s ahistorical approach to development and criticised its failure to account for the importance of the role of global economic and political structures.

One of the key tenets of dependency theory is its attention to the role of history and, in particular, the role of colonialism in constructing the positions of different countries within the global economy. Analysis of why a country occupies a certain position within the world economy should therefore begin at the global level. Dependency theorists argue that, beyond the end of formal colonialism, the value transfers of profits have continued to flow from the Global South to the North. This implies that the “core countries” of the North continue to benefit from their extraction of wealth from the “peripheral countries” of the South. Within such a framework, the underdevelopment of countries in the South can be explained via their continued exploitation at the hands of the North, rather than only by way of internal policy failures.

With the interviews contained in this book, we aim to explore the degree to which different strands of dependency theory can explain underdevelopment. In particular, we want to develop an understanding of the theoretical elements [that are] useful today, as well as examine their limitations… [In all,] the collection offers ways of thinking about dependency theory’s relevance today.

While the interviews show that there are many versions of dependency theory, they also illustrate the relevance of many of the central tenets of dependency theory when analysing the inequalities of the world today. Of particular relevance for understanding divergence in the development of countries in the world economy is dependency theory’s emphasis on global structures, core-periphery relations, and the importance of historical analysis.

The volume also includes discussions of the tensions and contradictions within the dependency theory framework, as the interviewed scholars diverge on a number of key questions, such as:

  • The nature and history of capitalism
  • The definition of development, and the extent to which development is possible under capitalism
  • Whether the key mechanisms that underpin relations of dependency are primarily economic or if political, social and other mechanisms are equally important
  • The relationship between the local and the global, and whether solutions lie at the national or global level
  • Whether it is necessary to break with relations of dependency, and if so, whether this is possible and how it can be done.
  • How countries such as South Korea were able to move from “periphery” to “core”

Critiques of dependency theory are also discussed, including areas where dependency theory needs to be expanded or refined, e.g., in class analysis and individual characteristics of underdeveloped countries.  Furthermore, some unorthodox applications of dependency theory are assessed, such as analysis of emerging South-South relations and the dominance of BRICS and intra-European relations after the Cold War.

This piece was originally published on the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) website.

Download the e-book here.

Download individual chapters here:

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