Home > Theorising ICT4D > Network Geography and Global Development: Dependency Redux?

Network Geography and Global Development: Dependency Redux?

The SDGs can be taken as a marker of transition from international development to global development worldviews.  Among other aspects of global development is a universalisation of development: development is everywhere; not just associated with the global South.  What does this mean for the geography of development?

One response would be to retain a physical, spatial approach to geography, but to move on from the old bipolarity of developed vs. developing; North vs. South.  Alongside moving upward to the global, this would move downward to the local; for example to regions, cities, “pockets of poverty” and the like[i].

An alternative would be to move to a network geography of development.  Social networks and transportation links mean networks have always been fundamental to development.  But telecommunication links – particularly digital links during the 21st century – have significantly accelerated the presence and salience and complexity of networks in development.  These exist as physical networks (such as physical infrastructure grids), virtual networks (such as online communities of practice) and most often as hybrid networks (such as supply chains and their parallel digital representations), so a network geography combines the physical and non-physical.  The explosive growth of networks in development demands greater use of network-based conceptualisations, including network geographies[ii].

Three main geographies can be applied to understand these networks.  First, a processual geography that focuses on the flows between nodes in the network (e.g. flows of aid between networks of development NGOs[iii]).  Second, a structural geography that focuses on the shape of the network (e.g. the impact of different network structures on water governance in Costa Rica[iv]).  Third, a relational geography that combines aspects of both flow and shape (e.g. the resource networks drawn on by development champions[v]).

Conceptualisation of these network geographies has come from a number of sources[vi].  Examples include social capital drawing from new institutional economics, global production networks drawing from economic geography, networked governance drawing from political science, embeddedness drawing from new economic sociology, and complex adaptive systems drawing from complexity theory.

However, if the spatial geography of old is to be supplanted, it will be by a new spatial geography; one that replaces position in the physical world with position in the network (physical, virtual, hybrid).  The positional network geography of development has often used the binary of being either inside or outside the network (e.g. Castells’ notion of the excluded “Fourth World”, or conceptions of the digital divide).  More sophisticated versions have added the category of “have lesses” between the “haves” and the “have nots”; those who are within the network but at the periphery.  Given, at least for digital networks, the dwindling numbers who are truly excluded, this is a more appropriate conceptualisation.  The positional geography of development thus becomes a geography of network position: distinguishing those actors at the core of the network from those at the periphery who are marginal and precarious.

While this might be an idea suitable for the 21st century nature of global development, it has earlier origins.  It sounds very similar to dependency theory, with its ideas of core and periphery.  Though long out of favour, this could provide one approach to a positional network geography of development; a revival supported by some in development studies[vii].

Aspects of dependency theory relevant to a wider network geography of development include:

  • Moving beyond the simple binary of core/periphery to world systems theory’s core/semi-periphery/periphery; or even to the idea of a spectrum of network positions.
  • Associating network position with differentiated roles vis-a-vis the production and capture of value, and with differentiated flows and ownership of resources.
  • Recognising the reproduction of network position through power; particularly the power of innovation, knowledge and technology.

A positional network geography of development would need to move away from dependency’s nation-state-centric approach, recognising many other units of analysis; and it would need to recognise the (constrained) potential for mobility of network position.  Work on global production networks has taken some of these ideas and demonstrated their relevance to another unit of analysis, but this needs to be extended to all forms of networks; not just global but regional and local; not just productive but political and social.  Indeed, one would need to recognise that any development actor lies not within a single network but within multiple networks; potentially with somewhat different positions in each.  These would include locally-embedded as well as disembedded networks.

Further developments needed include:

  • Recognition of the relational, institutional and cognitive/symbolic sources of power within the network; and the potential for network-specific conceptions of power[viii].
  • Recognition of the role played by the new technologies that increasingly mediate, enable and constrain the networks of global development; requiring some socio-materiality to be incorporated[ix].
  • Recognition of the increasing potential for quantification of positionality via social network analysis; a tool which can add absent methodological rigour[x].


[i] Horner, R. (2016) Unpacking the emergence of global development, unpublished draft

[ii] Bebbington, A. & Kothari, U. (2006) Transnational development networks, Environment and Planning A, 38(5), 849-866

[iii] Bebbington, A. (2004) NGOs and uneven development, Progress in Human Geography, 28(6), 725-745

[iv] Kuzdas, C., Wiek, A., Warner, B., Vignola, R., & Morataya, R. (2015) Integrated and participatory analysis of water governance regimes, World Development, 66, 254-268

[v] Renken, J. & Heeks, R. (2013) Conceptualising ICT4D project champions, paper presented at ICTD2013, Cape Town, 7-10 Dec

[vi] Heeks, R. & Renken, J. (2015) Investigating the potential of social network analysis in development studies, paper presented at DSA 2015 conference, Bath, 7-8 Sep

[vii] E.g. Fischer, A.M. (2015) The end of peripheries? On the enduring relevance of structuralism for understanding contemporary global development, Development and Change, 46(4), 700-732

[viii] E.g. Castells, M. (2011). A network theory of power, International Journal of Communication, 5, 773-787

[ix] E.g. Contractor, N., Monge, P. & Leonardi, P.M. (2011) Multidimensional networks and the dynamics of sociomateriality: bringing technology inside the network, International Journal of Communication, 5, 682-720

[x] Heeks, R. & Renken, J. (2015) Investigating the potential of social network analysis in development studies, paper presented at DSA 2015 conference, Bath, 7-8 Sep

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