Development Studies in Spanish: Critical, Constructive and Peripheral

By Rogelio Madrueño Aguilar and Pablo José Martínez Oses

While Development Studies in Spanish (DSS) has remained to some extent side-lined from the mainstream development discourse, one should not minimise its importance and tradition in development thinking and practice. It can be argued that DSS, from conception to implementation, is substantially peripheral and heterodox. More importantly, DSS can be perceived as a response framework to Western ideas of progress and development from a wide range of disciplines and traditions of thought. In particular, we would like to emphasize four key ideas here:

Pluralism and Multidimensionality

Firstly, the idea of DSS as a broad and pluralistic conception. From its earliest origins, one of the main peculiarities of DSS has been its multidimensional conception. This feature is largely driven by a genuine pluralism towards development – both national and human – which involves a broad spectrum of actors and disciplines. DSS belongs to a long tradition that addresses specific development issues with universal implications.

Let’s remember, for instance, relevant figures like Bartolomé de las Casas, who laid the foundation for the universal conception of human rights in the 16th-century. In fact, the quest for understanding the conditions of the underdevelopment of these studies has been very much influenced by historical, anthropological, sociological and philosophical elements. At this point, a key milestone in the understanding of DSS comes in, namely the notion of modernisation and its practice, which holds no easy solution for countries and regions located at the periphery of mainstream development discourse.

In fact, since the encounter between the European and the indigenous Southern American world in 1492, the Spanish-speaking world sees itself in a constant and even dramatic struggle to try to make two different world-views compatible. On the one hand, as we know, there’s the idea of modernisation, which is a never-ending race for growth and progress. On the other hand, there’s the notion of dependency, which provides a critical view of modernisation based on historical and structural elements. These two worldviews have not only proved difficult to reconcile but have also become a constant source of tension. No wonder that the dialectic between modernisation and dependency is also reflected in the evolution of DSS in different strands of scientific research. From here, two of its main features emerged: its peripheral and its heterodox status, although in different degrees.

Figure 1: DSS: main approaches and trends


Secondly, in both societies, the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC), as well as the Spanish one, the Spanish language as well as their status of development has led them to adopt a clear stance on the issue of periphery. From the very beginning, this peripheral condition seems to have turned into a very useful mirror through which DSS has set out different mechanisms for dialogue with and resilience to the effects of mainstream development thinking, in terms of both discourse and political practice. Viewed from this angle, periphery should be seen as a catalyst to foster creative and sound approaches to explain and provide concrete solutions to the challenges of development. This was particularly the case during the 1950s and 1960s when structural and dependency approaches played an important role. There has also been progress recently, through eclecticism, emphasizing comprehensive, universal and interdisciplinary responses to address the challenges of sustainable and human development.

Structuralism and Dependency Theories: Pluralist but not Cumulative

Thirdly, DSS has a strong association with structuralism and dependency theories. One may say that there is a relevant analytical category and even relational concept without which it is impossible to understand DSS: the notion of centre―periphery, which is a hallmark of these studies, despite their heterogeneity. Centre-periphery or core-periphery as it is also known, became a cornerstone for studying structural relationship between the rich industrialized nations and the underdeveloped countries, and the interaction between rich and poor regions.

All this was reflected in the Latin American structuralism which was developed in the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC or CEPAL in Spanish). A multilateral agency that became the most influential regional institution of the developing world with the capacity to get the attention of the brightest minds in the field of development studies, especially during the 1950s and 1960s. This includes world-famous scholars such as Albert Hirschman, Gunnar Myrdal, Rosenstein-Rodan, Hollis Chenery, Nicholas Kaldor or Dudley Seers. In those years also a complementary view of LAC structuralism emerged that was developed in Spain by a prominent economist: José Luis Sampedro, although in a different context.

Consequently, there was a rapid spread of the core-periphery paradigm that fed into a range of approaches connected to the so-called dependency theory (better: theories), which includes a broader theoretical and practical movement that is well expressed in four complementary strands: the Philosophy, Theology,  Ethics and Politics of Liberation, and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. These strands focused, among other priorities, on the poor and their role in overcoming conditions of poverty, marginalisation and inequality through social participation and the exercise of citizenship. These strands include prominent scholars such as Enrique Dussel, Franz Hinkelammert, Leonardo Boff and Paulo Freire, etc., who used different responding paradigms, mainly in the field of philosophy, theology, sociology and economics.

Nonetheless, different schools of thought on development should not be understood as a cumulative evolution of ideas towards a theory of universal development. On the contrary, the emergence of different views is the response to the conventional development paradigm. In recent years, the most noteworthy of these are post-structuralist, post-colonialist and post-modern approaches, and ecological economics, which provide critical and constructivist responses to traditional mainstream assumptions regarding development (Figure 1). Similarly, they offer new perspectives on the meaning of development at the dawn of the twenty-first century. All this adds up to a bet on interdisciplinarity in addressing complex development challenges, which in turn is a pluralist conception of DSS.

Critical and constructive

Last but not least, there’s the idea of DSS as critical and constructive contributions to social sciences. The strength and continuity of new ideas in these studies depend largely on the inputs provided by the Latin American and Spanish economic structuralism, and the evolution of dependency theories. Contrary to what many might think, DSS has been anything but static, leading to new development narratives in Spanish, which are deployed across disciplines and approaches over recent decades (Figure 1).

Examples of this are the emergence of neo-structuralism within ECLAC with approaches like ‘adjustment with growth’ and ‘growth with equity’. Other noteworthy modern approaches are the promotion of international development agendas like the development cooperation with middle-income countries, and mechanisms such as south-south and triangular cooperation, or policy coherence for development.

Of course, we cannot forget relevant post-development narratives such as Buen vivir or ‘living well’, which is part of the notion of transmodernity which seeks to overcome the construction of modernity by reconstructing history through the lens of the periphery and the exercise of the decolonial turn. Finally, the inclusion of a critical perspective ― with a view to social justice and those who are excluded and deprived ―is an overarching characteristic for DSS, even though its effects and influence in the economic and political spheres have remained uneven.

Summing up

As we have seen, DSS is anchored to different views that have emerged in response to Western ideas of progress and development from a wide range of disciplines and traditions of thought. It provides critical and constructive responses to traditional mainstream assumptions towards development based on a key aim: the principle of social justice, particularly for the excluded and deprived. In that regard, DSS provides narratives that are pervaded with a genuine spirit of humanism.

Finally, DSS offers a both a broad and a particular view from different peripheries. In doing so, it promotes interdisciplinarity as a key factor in addressing complex development challenges. Its pluralist conception comprises different attempts to bring forward other forms of conceptualisation and theorising, which are connected to the past and committed to the future.

Rogelio Madrueño Aguilar is Researcher at the Ibero-America Institute for Economic Research University of Göttingen and the Spanish Network of Development Studies (REEDES)

Pablo José Martínez Oses is Researcher at the Spanish Network of Development Studies (REEDES)

Both are authors of the chapter “Development Studies in Spanish: A Critical and Constructive Response from the Peripheries” in our latest book “Building Development Studies for the New Millennium”

Image: eflon