What is Dependency Theory – B.A Program 3rd Year Political Science

What is Dependency Theory – Dependency theory is a critical theory that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a response to the traditional modernization theory, which argued that developing countries could achieve economic growth and social progress by following the path of industrialized Western nations. Dependency theory, on the other hand, challenges this view by asserting that the underdevelopment of certain countries is not merely a stage in the process of modernization, but rather a result of their integration into the global capitalist system on unequal terms. In this essay, we will delve into the key concepts, historical context, criticisms, and relevance of dependency theory within the realm of political science.

Historical Context and Origins

What is Dependency Theory – Dependency theory emerged in Latin America during the 1950s and 1960s, a period marked by decolonization movements and the rise of newly independent nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It was a time of heightened awareness of global inequalities and the exploitative nature of colonialism and imperialism. Scholars and activists from the Global South sought to understand why their countries remained economically and politically marginalized despite gaining political independence.

Intellectuals like Raul Prebisch, Fernando Cardoso, and Andre Gunder Frank played pivotal roles in formulating dependency theory. Prebisch, an Argentine economist, observed the persistent economic disparities between the developed and developing world and proposed the theory of “unequal exchange,” which posited that the terms of trade between the core (developed countries) and the periphery (developing countries) were inherently skewed against the latter. Meanwhile, Frank, a German-American sociologist, expanded on Prebisch’s ideas and introduced the concept of “dependency,” arguing that underdevelopment in the Global South was not accidental but rather a consequence of their integration into the capitalist world economy as dependent entities.

Key Concepts of Dependency Theory

Core-Periphery Structure: Dependency theory conceptualizes the global economy as consisting of a core of wealthy, industrialized nations and a periphery of poorer, underdeveloped nations.What is Dependency Theory –  The core countries dominate the periphery through economic, political, and military means, extracting resources and exploiting labor to fuel their own development.

Unequal Exchange: Dependency theorists argue that trade relations between the core and periphery are inherently unequal. Periphery countries often export primary commodities at low prices and import manufactured goods at higher prices, leading to a net transfer of wealth from the periphery to the core.

Underdevelopment as a Structural Feature: Unlike modernization theory, which views underdevelopment as a temporary stage on the path to development, dependency theory sees underdevelopment as a structural feature of the global capitalist system. The development of the core is contingent upon the underdevelopment of the periphery, as the former relies on cheap labor, raw materials, and captive markets provided by the latter.

Imperialism and Neocolonialism: Dependency theorists emphasize the role of imperialism and neocolonialism in perpetuating dependency relationships. Even after formal colonialism ended, former colonial powers maintained control over their former colonies through economic and political means, ensuring continued exploitation and subjugation.

Development of Underdevelopment: This concept, coined by Andre Gunder Frank, encapsulates the idea that the development of the core is intrinsically linked to the underdevelopment of the periphery. The wealth and prosperity of the core are predicated on the poverty and underdevelopment of the periphery, creating a perpetuating cycle of dependency. What is Dependency Theory 

Criticisms and Debates

While dependency theory has provided valuable insights into the dynamics of global inequality, it has also faced criticism from various quarters.

Overemphasis on External Factors: Critics argue that dependency theory places excessive emphasis on external factors such as imperialism and neglects internal factors such as governance, corruption, and domestic policies that contribute to underdevelopment.

Homogenization of the Periphery: Dependency theory tends to homogenize the experiences of countries in the periphery, overlooking the diversity of historical, cultural, and political contexts within these nations. Not all periphery countries experience dependency in the same way, and some have managed to break free from it through various strategies.

Neglect of Agency: Dependency theory often portrays peripheral countries as passive victims of external exploitation, neglecting the agency of governments, elites, and social movements within these countries. Critics argue that this overlooks instances where peripheral nations have pursued policies aimed at reducing dependency and promoting development.

Limited Prescriptive Power: Dependency theory is criticized for its limited prescriptive power, as it provides a diagnosis of global inequality but offers few concrete solutions for addressing it. Some argue that the theory’s emphasis on revolutionary change and delinking from the global capitalist system is unrealistic and impractical.

Relevance and Contemporary Applications

Despite these criticisms, dependency theory remains relevant in understanding contemporary global dynamics, particularly in the context of globalization, neoliberalism, and uneven development. What is Dependency Theory 

Globalization and Dependency: The processes of globalization have exacerbated dependency relationships, as transnational corporations and financial institutions from the core exercise even greater control over the economies of the periphery. Dependency theory provides a framework for analyzing the unequal power relations embedded in global economic integration.

Neoliberalism and Dependency: Neoliberal policies, characterized by deregulation, privatization, and austerity measures, have deepened dependency and exacerbated inequalities within and between countries. Dependency theorists critique neoliberalism for perpetuating dependency relationships and widening the gap between the core and periphery.

Alternative Development Strategies: Dependency theory continues to inform alternative development strategies that seek to reduce dependency and promote economic self-reliance in the periphery. These strategies include import substitution industrialization, regional integration, and South-South cooperation initiatives aimed at reducing reliance on the core and fostering development on their own terms.

Social Movements and Resistance: Dependency theory underscores the importance of social movements and resistance in challenging dependency and promoting social justice. Movements advocating for land reform, labor rights, environmental justice, and indigenous rights often draw on dependency theory to critique the unequal distribution of power and resources in the global economy.


Dependency theory offers a critical lens through which to understand the dynamics of global inequality and underdevelopment. By emphasizing the structural constraints imposed by the global capitalist system and the unequal power relations between the core and periphery, dependency theory highlights the need for transformative change to address these inequalities. While facing criticisms for its determinism and lack of prescriptive power, dependency theory remains relevant in analyzing contemporary global issues and informing alternative pathways to development that prioritize social justice, equality, and self-determination for peripheral nations. As the world continues to grapple with the challenges of globalization, neoliberalism, and uneven development, dependency theory serves as a reminder of the enduring relevance of critical perspectives in understanding and addressing global inequalities.

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