Periphery Essay

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The term  periphery refers, collectively, to the poor, unindustrialized, and underdeveloped  nations of the world  that  are not  heavily involved in global economic activity. Prime examples of peripheral  countries include poor, largely inwardly focused, agrarian African  nations  such  as Burundi,  the  Democratic Republic  of  the   Congo,   Ethiopia,   Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zambia. Understanding the nature of the periphery and how it interfaces with nonperipheral areas is a critical step in understanding economic development and the global economic  system, particularly  from the perspective  of dependency theory.

From a practical standpoint,  the notion of the periphery  arose from a need to account  for the fact that   great  heterogeneity   exists  among  nations   in terms  of developmental  status  and  the  nature  and level of involvement  in the global economic  system. Some countries are heavily and aggressively involved in  global economic  activity. Other  nations  are  far more  domestically/inwardly  focused. In this regard, a peripheral  nation’s involvement  in the global economic system may entail nothing more than relatively small-scale  exportation   of basic  commodity  goods produced  in abundance  there and/or  importation of basic commodities not produced domestically.

Theoretically,  the  notion  of the  periphery  originated in the context of—and holds a place of central importance  in—dependency  theory.  This theory  of economic  development  was formulated  in  the  late 1950s and 1960s by Third World/poor-nation development  scholars  who  felt that  existing  theories  of economic development  failed to account  adequately for  the  fact that  the  uneven  diffusion  of technical progress had contributed heavily to the division of the global economy into two predominant types of countries: (1) affluent, heavily industrialized,  and  highly developed core nations, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, and (2) less affluent, relatively unindustrialized, and underdeveloped peripheral countries.  These scholars also believed that  existing concepts  of economic  development  focused far too heavily on understanding core nations and also misguidedly laid much of the blame for the underdevelopment  of poor countries  on these nations and their disadvantaged peoples.

Dependency Theory

Dependency  theory  essentially  holds  that  peripheral  countries  may suffer negative  (economic,  cultural,  and  developmental)  consequences  as a result of forming economic bonds with core nations heavily involved in the global economic system. Dependency proponents contend,  in this regard, that  the formation of economic ties with core nations may create a situation  in which peripheral  nations become highly dependent on the core, and self-serving core leaders may take advantage of this situation by exploiting key peripheral-nation resources.

This  line  of  reasoning  is  diametrically  opposed to the previously dominant modernization theory, which contends that poor-nation development is predicated first and foremost on the establishment  of close economic  bonds  with the core as a result, for example, of (1) acceptance  of foreign aid, (2) trade with foreign companies  or governments,  (3) foreign direct investment (i.e., allowing foreign companies to purchase or establish wholly owned production facilities in peripheral  territory),  and (4) taking out loans from foreign financiers.

The periphery’s  centrality  in dependency  theory is founded  largely on the fact that  although  several forms  of dependency  theory  exist, most  are drawn from  theories   of  imperialism—primarily   late-19th and  early to  mid-20th-century capitalist  and  economic imperialism—focused heavily on the coloristic desires of developed nations  (often to the detriment of the colonized peripheral nations). As a result, regardless of their  specific differences and perspectives, all variants of dependency  theory have a common central theme: poor nations  exist as peripheral countries  whose development  is dependent on (and perhaps  jeopardized  by) interactions  with  (and  the actions of ) global economic system leaders based in affluent core nations.

Theoretical Outcomes

It is worth noting, however, the different hypothesized outcomes  of interaction  with the core for peripheral countries  in the two main forms of dependency theory. In the  context  of orthodox  (or radical) dependency, increased linkage to core nations is viewed as necessarily leading to the development  of underdevelopment  (i.e., exploitation  of resources  and worsened economic conditions) in the periphery.

In the less extreme unorthodox version of dependency  theory,  development  and  underdevelopment can occur simultaneously in peripheral nations. Here, the level of meaningful development in the periphery is viewed as being a function of the manner in which the  periphery  interacts  with the  core. It is hypothesized, for example, that  interactions  with the  core involving foreign direct investment, foreign debt, and export trade lead to a higher level of dependence  and to less positive and  slower peripheral  development than interactions  based on the acceptance of foreign aid and foreign trade.



  1. Gabriel R. G. Benito and Rajneesh Narula, Multinationals on  the  Periphery  (Palgrave  Macmillan, 2007);
  2. Peter Evans and John D. Stephens,  “Development and  the  World  Economy,” in  Handbook  of Sociology, N. J. Smelser,    (Sage, 1988);
  3. Susanna Fellman,  Creating Nordic Capitalism: The Business History of a Competitive Periphery (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008);
  4. Gary Gereffi, “The International Economy and  Economic  Development,” in The Handbook of Economic Sociology, N. J. Smelser and R. Swedberg, eds. (Princeton University Press, 1994);
  5. William G. Moseley and Leslie Gray, Hanging by a Thread:  Cotton, Globalization,  and  Poverty in Africa (Ohio  University Press, 2008);
  6. Erik S. Reinert, Globalization, Economic Development  and  Inequality: An  Alternative  Perspective (Edward Elgar, 2007).

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