Sociology, Third World

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Sociology, Third World




Any discussion of the third world should begin with a definition of the term. Third world is commonly used to describe countries that are economically poor, lack adequate educational and health systems, suffer from the digital divide, and exhibit relatively little global political power. Although frequently used, the term is considered out-of-date and even derogatory in some circles. Many scholars, for instance, argue that third world implies that poor countries are less important than other (first world) countries or are somehow not part of the global economic system. In their 2007 book Global Inequalities, York Bradshaw, Stephen Scanlan, and Michael Wallace said that instead of third world critics often use developing world or developing nations when referring to countries that are not fully developed from an economic and quality of life standpoint.

In his 1974 publication The Modern World System, Immanuel Wallerstein discussed one theoretical perspective concerned with development, which places countries into three different categories. The core is composed of rich, industrialized countries that also enjoy a relatively good quality of life in terms of education and health care. The periphery is composed of poor countries that lack industrial capacity and well-developed education and health care systems. The semi-periphery is composed of middle-income countries that are between the core and the periphery. The periphery and the semi-periphery make up the vast majority of the worlds countries.

For this discussion, terminology is not a main concern. Terms come and go over time, but the reality is that global inequality remains an enormous problem. Much of the world lives amid extreme poverty. This article describes the developing world and then discusses how sociology studies it.


To begin, here is a quiz: What two developing countries account for 37 percent of the worlds 6.5 billion people? If you answered China (1.3 billion) and India (1.1 billion), you win a prize. In fact of the ten most populated countries in the world, seven are considered developing and, together with China and India, they account for nearly 51 percent of the worlds population. Of the 210 countries listed by the World Bank, three-quarters are considered low- or middle-income countries, and this represents the vast majority of the worlds population. In fact if the issue is studied in reverse, there are only twenty-four true core countries in the world (11 percent of the worlds countries), and they account for less than 20 percent of the global population. There are a number of other high income countries (e.g., Bahrain, Kuwait, Monaco, Slovenia), but they are mostly small and do not possess all of the characteristics of the core (World Bank 2007).

Another way to think about global inequality is to compare the resources of companies, countries, and individuals. Here is another quiz: What country has the twenty-second largest economy in the world, as measured by gross domestic product (output of total goods and services)? The answer: the core country Austria, which has a gross domestic product of $309.4 billion. Twenty-one countries have larger economies, and 188 have smaller ones (World Bank 2007). But wait a minute! Austria is not the twenty-second largest economic entity in the world; Wal-Mart is. That is right. According to Christopher Tkaczyk in his 2007 article Fortune 500: The Top 50, Wal-Mart, the biggest multinational corporation in the world in terms of total revenue ($351.139 billion), is larger than all but twenty-one countries in the world. Wal-Mart is larger than several core countries, most semi-peripheral countries, and all peripheral countries. And incredibly the combined revenues of the top two multinational corporations (Wal-Mart [$351.139 billion] and Exxon Mobil [$347.254 billion]) are greater than the combined economic output of all fifty-three sub-Saharan African countries. Together Wal-Mart and Exxon Mobil are larger economic entities than the entire continent of Africa (Tkaczyk 2007; World Bank 2007).

Inequality is also evident when looking at personal wealth across countries and regions. A comprehensive study conducted in 2006 by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at the United Nations University in Helsinki, Finland, revealed that the richest 2 percent of the worlds population owns more than half of the worlds wealth. And the richest 10 percent of the population owns 85 percent of the worlds wealth. By contrast, the bottom 50 percent of the worlds population owns 1 percent of the total wealth on the planet. In fact 1.3 billion people around the world live on less than $1 per day, and 3 billion (nearly half the planets population) live on less than $2 per day. By contrast, pointed out Luisa Kroll and Allison Fass in the 2007 article The Worlds Billionaires, the extremely wealthy of the worldthe 946 billionaires throughout the globeare worth $3.5 trillion ($3,500,000,000). That is more than twice the gross domestic product of all peripheral countries in the world combined (World Bank 2007).

And what are the consequences of poverty? One is disease and premature death. A primary development indicator is the child mortality rate in a countrythe number of children who die before the age of five for every 1,000 children born. In economically developed countries, the average child mortality rate is only 8 (led by Swedens 3), but in developing countries the rate is 89. In a pair of 2007 studies by UNICEF, it was found that in Africa the child mortality rate is 174, with a number of countries over 200 and some approaching 300 (UNICEF 2007a, 2007b). Each day around the world as many as 35,000 children die primarily from preventable diseases and malnutrition. Respiratory infections, diarrheal disease, tuberculosis, measles, malaria, and HIV/AIDS are some of the leading causes of death among children of the developing world. According to York Bradshaw, Stephen Scanlan, and Michael Wallace (2007), the vast majority of the worlds HIV/AIDS cases are in developing countries, led by African countries.


Sociology was slow to study international inequality and development. Until the 1970s the field was dominated by economists, anthropologists, and political scientists. All of this began to change in 1974, when the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein published The Modern World System. Wallerstein argued that the current world economic and political structures have their origins in sixteenth-century Europe. His book and subsequent work established an entirely new theory (world-systems theory) that divides the world into the core, periphery, and semi-periphery, as mentioned previously. Although some people disagree with Wallerstein, just about everyone agrees that along with finding an innovative theory, he started a movement of young sociologists who wanted to study international inequality and development.

In response to Wallersteins new theory, a number of sociologists began to conduct sophisticated statistical studies to examine the causes and effects of international inequality. The results of several studies are presented below. All are based on a large sample of developing countries.

  • Foreign investment in poor countries does not reach the mass population and therefore creates more inequality in those places. This ultimately harms economic growth in the developing world (Bornschier and Chase-Dunn 1985).
  • Expanding foreign debt and the accompanying structural adjustment policies implemented by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and others increase child mortality in poor countries (Bradshaw, Noonan, Gash, and Buchmann 1993).
  • Likewise structural adjustment policies have increased riots and overall instability in a number of developing countries (Walton and Ragin 1990).
  • Education is linked to greater economic growth and less inequality in the developing world (Buchmann and Hannum 2001; Hannum and Buchmann 2005).
  • Child labor is detrimental to the quality of life in developing countries. Moreover education reduces child labor, again underscoring the necessity of schooling in developing nations (Bradshaw, Scanlan, and Wallace 2007).

Sociologists use two other types of studies to advance theoretical and substantive knowledge of development. First, some sociologists compare a few countries in great detail in order to address difficult questions and issues that often reflect inequalities of wealth and power. For example, in his book Reluctant Rebels: Comparative Studies of Revolution and Underdevelopment (1984), John Walton looked at revolts and revolutions in the Philippines, Colombia, and Kenya to answer this question: Why and when do people rebel? And in the book Child Labor in Sub-Saharan Africa (2004), Loretta Bass takes us across the continent of Africa to explain the causes and effects of child labor (including slavery). Inequality is again a key component in the explanation of this pressing challenge. Second, other sociologists engage in intensive case studies of particular developing countries to investigate especially important issues (Bradshaw and Wallace 1991). For example, in his highly regarded book Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, Unequal Exchange, and the Failure of the Modern State (1985), Stephen Bunker relied on extensive fieldwork to show how local and international forces interacted to plunder the Amazon. And in Growing Up Modern: The Western State Builds Third-World Schools (1991), Bruce Fuller focused on the poor country of Malawi to demonstrate how the fragile national state tried (with mixed success) to implement a Western-style education system. National and global inequalities helped to explain the outcome.

In the early twenty-first century most internationally oriented sociologists are concerned with global inequality in one form or another. Although an occasional sociologist argues that global inequality is shrinking and globalization is a positive force (see, for example, Glenn Firebaughs provocative book The New Geography of Global Income Inequality [2003]), most are concerned about the high level of inequality and its impact on the vast majority of the worlds population. In terms of offering solutions to global inequality, sociologists have joined others to advocate for more foreign aid to poor countries and forgiveness of the developing worlds crippling debts. Perhaps the most well-known and passionate spokesperson for these positions is Bono, the lead singer for the Irish rock group U2. He has encouraged the United States and other countries to contribute 1 percent more of their federal budgets to the worlds poor:

One percent is the girl in Africa who gets to go to schoolthanks to you. One percent is the AIDS patient who gets her medicinethanks to you. One percent is the African entrepreneur who can start a small family businessthanks to you. One percent is not redecorating presidential palaces and money flowing down a rat hole. This one percent is digging waterholes to provide clean water. (Bono 2007, p. 41)

There is much more for sociologists to study. Over the next ten years sociologists will most likely devote substantial attention to three issues (among others). First, HIV/AIDS continues to ravage large parts of the developing world, and there is a huge need for research to study both the causes and effects of this pandemic in more detail. Second, information technology has the capacity to improve health, education, and overall quality of life in developing regions (Bradshaw, Fallon, and Viterna 2005). Commenting on a new e-school initiative in Africa, South African president Thabo Mbeki said, Let us use this technology to do things better, develop African brain power that will pull our country and the African continent as a whole out of poverty (Nepad 2007). Finally, many believe that the darkest side of globalization includes not the sale of products across national borders but the sale of human beings. Hundreds of thousands of peopleespecially women and girlsare sold each year in both the developing and the developed worlds. Sociologists are primed to lead the way in studying this enormous social challenge, another problem that emerges from an unequal world.

SEE ALSO AIDS/HIV in Developing Countries, Impact of; Developing Countries; Development and Ethnic Diversity; Development in Sociology; Inequality, Gender; Inequality, Political; Inequality, Racial; Poverty; Sociology; Third World; United Nations; Wallerstein, Immanuel; World-System


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York W. Bradshaw

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