Southern discomfort: In which we interrogate the concept of the South, and highlight its endurance

10th November 2022

Researchers in development studies have expressed discomfort at the hierarchy inherent in the use of North and South, and cognate concepts like First and Third World, or emerging economies. Instead of setting aside the terminology, we delve into the layered meaning-making around ‘the South’. Drawing on multi- and inter-disciplinary perspectives, we trace the South as (a) territory constructed over history, geography, and time. (b) Relations of domination and othering, starkly visible in racial divisions wrought on the world through slavery, colonialism, and more recent struggles around migration. In contrast to these perspectives, we then explore a Southern ‘talk back’. Analysis initiated in Southern institutions highlights (c) structures that continue dividing the world through a political economy of underdevelopment, as well as (d) critiques of the status quo involving creative expression and political solidarities. Our conclusion revisits the stickiness of the South as an idea, and in practice and evaluates why these different meanings are important. We show the territorial, relational, structural and critical South to fundamentally be a project of the distribution of power in the global system. While some uses of the concept enhance power asymmetries, others contribute to reducing them. Ultimately, we argue, critical understanding of the contradictory meanings and uses of the concept is more important to us than any attempt to replace it within Development Studies.