What is Development Studies? Everything You Need to Know Here

Development studies (DS) is an important field of study for anyone looking forward to working in the social sector. It encompasses a political, social, economic and technological outlook to issues faced by developing countries. This article covers the history of the field followed by a few theories of development. Further, it discusses multiple disciplines within the field and concludes with professional bodies that offer careers in development studies. This field is an important course of study for anyone looking towards working with the United Nations or other governmental and non-governmental organisations.

What is Development Studies?

Development studies (DS) is a multidisciplinary field of study that investigates the evolution of the Global South from the political, social, economic, cultural, geographical and technological perspectives.

development studies explained

Why Development Studies?

Currently, there is a huge income disparity between not only developing and developed countries but also within developed countries. For example, in the USA, there is a massive class division with the top 1% of income earners being paid more than the bottom 40%. DS examines the past, present and future of political and cultural institutions. Students of this field suggest and enact real-world solutions to developmental issues. Graduates go on to work with governments and international development agencies such as the United Nations to build fairer societies. The United Nations Development Program is working on creating an environment where every person has an equal opportunity to flourish regardless of his or her gender, caste, age, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation or religion. (Murphy 2019).

Origin of Development Studies

Development studies is a young academic field of study as it is a post-World War Two phenomenon. After the war, development economics arose out of previously studied colonial economics. Economics was dominant in the field of DS that is exemplified by the influence of Marshall Plan ideas. However, in the 1960s, DS aimed to integrate both economics and politics since the former was deemed insufficient to address societal issues. In the last 20 years, DS evolved into a multi and interdisciplinary field of study and now involves many social science fields. Modern development is often cited to have commenced after Harry S. Truman’s inaugural speech in 1949. He mentioned the poor living conditions of Latin America and other developing countries and stated that it was humanity’s responsibility to relieve their suffering.

Theories of Development

Theory of Modernization

The modernization theory proposes that modern societies have a clear social structural differentiation. This means that there is both differentiation and secularization of political culture that leads to a better political system. Modernization occurs in phases. For example, Rostow’s model proposes five stages: Traditional society, a precondition for takeoff, takeoff process, drive towards maturity and finally a high mass consumption society. Modernization is also a homogenizing process. This means that over time, more and more societies will come to resemble each other. Finally, this theory suggests that modernization is irreversible. Hence, once developing countries come into contact with developed ones. They will be unable to resist the drive towards modernization.

Theory of Dependency

The dependency theory emerged in the 1950s from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). This perspective combines Keynes’ economic theory with a neo-Marxist perspective. The dependency school hypothesizes that developing countries in the Global South would become increasingly subordinate to their developed counterparts as they became industrialized. Moreover, developing countries such as those in Latin America, undergo the most economic development when their ties to developed nations are the weakest.

Theory of World- Systems

The world-systems theory emerged with Wallerstein in the 1960s. This theory analyses the world as a unit rather than an individual nation. It proposes a trim-modal theoretical structure of the world comprising of the core, the semi-periphery and the periphery. The world-systems theory posits that development can lead to both beneficial and harmful changes to the world economy.

Theory of Globalization

The globalization theory emphasizes on global cultural aspects and their integration and communication. This theory proposes that global communication systems must be studied as a form of interaction between nations. Globalization deems cultural elements as the dictators of the social and economic structure of each country. This theory deems nation-states as a redundant unit of analysis since global communications are enhancing international relations. Hence, the globalization perspective studies regionalism and multilateralism in the “global village” perspective.

Disciplines of Development Studies

Development Economics

This branch of economics seeks to enhance the socio-economic conditions of developing countries. Development economics studies various factors like education, policies, health and working conditions of some of the world’s poorest countries. Furthermore, this branch researches microeconomic (individual influences) and macroeconomic (overall influences) factors of developing economies. A prominent development economist from India is Amartya Sen. He proposed the concept of development as freedom, which emphasizes that human development, will expand with the increase in citizens’ capabilities.

Environment and Sustainable Development (ESD)

ESD is the study of global environmental issues from the perspective of sustainability. This field understands the fact that the greatest challenge of human society is the environmental side effects of economic development. ESD analyzes the various efforts of governments, multinational corporations and non-governmental organizations to reduce their environmental impact. Most importantly, this field accepts the challenges faced by developing nations in transitioning to greener policies. Students of ESD help in the formulation of policies after careful consideration of local and global dynamics.

Read: 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Education and Development

The World Economic Forum has stated that education and development go hand in hand. Providing children with access to quality education ensures that the GDP of nations is boosted. Students of today need to develop critical thinking skills such as problem solving and creativity along with digital literacy. The responsibility to educate every citizen lies first with national governments. But developed countries also have a role in supporting the still-developing countries with their agenda for education.

Gender and Development (GAD)

GAD began in the 1980s as an alternative to Women in Development (WID). While WID focused on only women as untapped resources, GAD focused on transforming gender relations as a whole. This field had two main areas of focus: gender roles and social relations. Gender roles study how the concept of men and women is socially constructed along with their associated activities. The analysis of social relations attempts to expose the hierarchical power relations among men and women in societies. GAD policies work towards redefining traditional gendered roles and expectations in an attempt to achieve gender equality. This approach argues that women should be viewed as active agents rather than passive recipients of development. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals included gender equality and women’s empowerment as an important goal for all nations.

Development Anthropology

This branch of development studies applies anthropological perspectives to the study of development. Glynn Cochrane suggested development anthropology as an independent field of study in 1971. In the late 1970s, an institute for Development Anthropology was established at the New York State University. This institute played an important role in the expansion of this particular branch of development studies. Practitioners in this field aim to critique development projects and institutions using anthropological theories and concepts. Development anthropologists commonly hold advanced degrees in either cultural or social anthropology. They may choose to work in applied settings by collaborating with non-governmental organizations or global establishments such as the World Bank or the United Nations. Major contributions of anthropologists include a critique of modernism that helped counter a dominantly economic view of development. They have also drawn attention to Western biases in dealings with indigenous people and cultural differences.

Social Justice and Development

Social justice and development are intrinsically linked as inequality prevents any country from fulfilling its true potential of development. Social justice refers to the availability of equal opportunities to all citizens of a nation without any discrimination propelled by social stratification. The benefits of development must be equally distributed among all strata of society. The Millennium Declaration in 2000 by the United Nations reflects social justice in its framework. It proposed certain values such as freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance and respect for nature as essential in human interactions. The framework of social justice in development advocates studying problems such as global poverty with a fresh perspective. For example, instead of tackling poverty through policy initiatives, this approach might suggest focusing on the underlying issues for inequality both within and between nations.

Geography of Development

Geography is an important feature in development studies because of the uneven spatial distribution of economic development among regions. There exists a strong relationship between geography and growth. For example, an individual’s productivity, well being and income is often influenced by their place of residence. Migration from rural to urban areas within countries and immigration from developing to developed nations is a popular example of the influence of geography on development. Scholars from this discipline seek to answer questions like why economic activity clusters in a particular area and how distance from an existing economic center affects new one. This field of study aims to highlight the requirement for spatial policies in the field of development. For example, non-spatial policies may target a specific range of households or sectors that are not uniformly distributed across a geographical area.

Food Security and Development

Food security exists when all citizens have access to safe and nutritious food at all times, and when this food meets their dietary requirements. Food security is closely related to all aspects of development since lack of food may hamper human beings’ emotional, social, physical and cognitive development. This further goes on to negatively affect citizens’ ability to earn their livelihoods and contribute to the country’s economy. Food security can be ensured through multi-dimensional action such as improving food systems governance, empowering local producers and investing in good agricultural practices.

Social Sector and Development

The social sector encompasses a variety of sectors such as public health, nutrition, sanitation and education. For a long time, social development was viewed as a byproduct of economic development. But recently, the two dimensions of development have been viewed as overlapping and united. Neither work can work without the other. Hence, in order for an increase in economic development, a strong social fabric must be built through education schemes, solid waste management and an emphasis on capacity building initiatives. Social sector schemes targeting the poor such as the Indian government’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) have a great impact on increasing consumption levels. Kerala is an important example of how social development can increase human development and economic growth. The state has a high female to male ratio, low infant mortality rate and high life expectancy at birth. Moreover, it boasts a literacy rate of more than 90% with a minimal gender gap in education.

Professional Bodies

Globally, a wide number of professional institutes for development studies have been established:

Europe: European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI)

North America: Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

South America: Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales (CLACSO)

Asia: Asian Political and International Studies Association

Africa: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA)

Arab Nation: Arab Institutes and Centers for Economic and Social Development (AICARDES)

United Kingdom: Development Studies Association

Leading Institutes

Developmental studies is offered as a program at various institutes in India and abroad.


  • Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS)
  • Christ University
  • University of Delhi


  • Harvard University
  • University of Sussex
  • London School of Economics and Political Science

Careers in Development Studies

Development studies is an interesting education opportunity with even more fascinating career opportunities. Many consulting firms such as PwC and KPMG hire professionals from this field. Non-governmental organizations in India such as Pratham, GOONJ and SMILE foundation require graduates from this field. Many developmental studies academicians also join research institutes and think tanks related to their specialized area of study. Jobs are also available at the European Union, United Nations and World Bank for those who have extensively studied international development. Placements as policy analysts at institutions like FAO and UNDP are also open apart from government positions.


Andrew Sumner. (2006). What Is Development Studies? Development in Practice,16(6), 644-650. Retrieved June 24, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/4029921

Brende, B. (2015). Why Education Is the Key to Development. Retrieved from www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/07/why-education-is-the-key-to-development/

Gender and Development: Basic Concepts. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.downtoearth-indonesia.org/story/gender-and-development-basic-concepts

Gender and Development. PITAHC. Retrieved from pitahc.gov.ph/gender-and-davelopment/

Pérez-Escamilla, R. Food Security and the 2015–2030 Sustainable Development Goals: From Human to Planetary Health: Perspectives and Opinions, Current Developments in Nutrition, Volume 1, Issue 7, July 2017, e000513, https://doi.org/10.3945/cdn.117.000513

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Arushi is a sociology and environmental studies. She is passionate about writing and researching about these two fields. She has a keen interest in social work and has collaborated with many volunteering programs in the past. Her hobbies include horse riding, trekking and painting.