Full interview in English
Interview with Anne Garland Mahler, PhD
Social Sciences in China Press
November 16, 2021
– I used to think the ‘Global South’ is synonymous with ‘developing countries’. In which ways do they differ from each other? Is it problematic if they are used interchangeably?
The Global South is a concept that is used in several ways. In governmental and development organizations, like the United Nations, the Global South is often used to refer to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. However, this nation-based understanding of the Global South is an appropriation of a concept that has deeper roots in Cold War radical political thought. In academic and activist circles, the term is used in a more geographically fluid way, referring to spaces and peoples around the globe that are negatively impacted by contemporary capitalist globalization. In other words, there are economic Souths in the geographic North and Norths in the geographic South. Through this geographically fluid definition, a third meaning is attributed to the Global South where it refers to a global political community that is formed when the world’s “Souths” recognize one another and view their conditions as shared.
In all these uses, the Global South is framed in relation to how the speaker/writer conceives of the “North,” whether referring to relations between countries or between city blocks. This relational aspect of the Global South is what makes it particularly useful for thinking about inequities across traditional borders. Because it can be used in various ways, scholars employing the term should not take its meaning for granted but rather should cite the scholars/texts from which they are drawing their particular understanding. The definition I provide above, for example, is based on a substantial annotated bibliography of scholarship on the Global South that I wrote for Oxford Bibliographies in Literary and Critical Theory.
– If the ‘Global South’ is too general a term, should we start replacing it with expressions that are more precise and unequivocal? What are the options?
Whenever you try to find a word or concept to describe how vastly different groups of people share similar conditions of exploitation, you run into trouble. All such concepts have their limitations. The Global South is just one in a series of concepts that has been used to describe a transnational political imaginary and global resistant collectivity that arises from a shared experience of the negative effects of capitalist globalization. Other similar categories include terms like subaltern cosmopolitanism, grassroots globalization, counter-hegemonic globalization, and alternative southern cosmopolitanism. I view the Global South as an attempt to mediate between a traditional Marxist, class-based definition of political community and visions of political collectivity that come out of race-based organizing.
The Global South as a political notion emerges from the history of global justice movements, and particularly, as I argue in From the Tricontinental to the Global South (Duke UP, 2018), a Cold War movement called the Tricontinental. The Tricontinental movement, which involved liberation struggles from eighty-two countries, often used the term “South” to refer to spaces of oppression around the globe. Importantly, the Tricontinental movement framed its critique of global capitalism through focusing on racial violence and racial inequality. We need to remember this history when thinking about the Global South today. One of the biggest challenges we have today is the need to bring together struggles against global capitalist inequality, like in the World Social Forum, with racial justice movements that are focused on reforming national and local governments, like the Movement for Black Lives. In other words, we need a global movement against racial capitalism. Is the term “Global South” adequate for characterizing such a global movement? I’m not sure, but it is the term people are using right now, and it has deep roots in radical social movements.
– How would you explain the expanding popularity of the Global South both as an analytical concept and a framework for political engagement in the last 15-20 years?
The expanding popularity of this concept over the last fifteen years has been in lockstep with the rise of a new era of social activism, and particularly of solidarity politics, which is facilitated by innovations in information and communication technologies that allow grassroots movements to connect with sympathizers around the globe. The series of bank failures that collapsed the U.S. financial system in 2008 and created the Great Recession provoked a global financial crisis and subsequent popular backlash against neoliberal economics that, inspired by the demonstrations of the 2010 Arab Spring, manifested in protests around the world. These protests also had profound roots in Latin America, such as in the 1994 Zapatista uprising against NAFTA, the rise of chavismo in Venezuela in the late 1990s, the 2000 Cochabamba Water War in Bolivia, the World Social Forums held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and the 2001 economic crisis and riots in Argentina. More recently, we’ve seen an outpouring of racial justice organizing around the globe, particularly in the Movement for Black Lives. The Global South is an attempt to name the transnational and networked nature of political organizing today and to understand the multiple histories of this political subject.
– If we draw the trajectory of Global South studies since its emergence, will we see any pattern or trend? For instance, paradigm shift, methodological update, predominance of certain notions/theories, divergence of perspectives? What exactly are the ‘new critical directions’ in Global South studies?
In “New Critical Directions in Global South Studies,” the August 2021 issue of Comparative Literature Studies (edited by Professor Magalí Armillas-Tiseyra and myself), we describe both the ways that the field has developed over the last decade as well as the new directions in which it is going. Global South studies scholarship has always been invested in providing what Armillas-Tiseyra describes as a “multiscalar comparative framework” and in radically rethinking geographies of comparison. As we discuss in the special issue, recent work in Global South studies is interested in both examining understudied instances of South-South exchange and in moving away from a focus on South-South discourses of solidarity to think more deeply about the conflicts and unevenness of these exchanges.
– What do you think of the value and impact of Global South studies in academia and in the wider society? What could be the focus of future Global South scholarship?
As we describe in the special issue mentioned above, among the core strengths of Global South studies is the “platform it provides for interdisciplinary and transnational scholarship, its emphasis on digital and open access initiatives, and its political commitment to examining issues of racial and economic inequality and injustice. Although the field includes scholars at all career stages, it has tended to lean toward early career faculty and attracts a diversity of scholars in terms of ethnic, racial, linguistic, national, and regional backgrounds.” The future of this field is very bright, but as it moves forward, it will need to pay special attention to de-centering the English language, which has predominated in many of the field’s core publications this far. In other words, there must be greater attentiveness (and more resources directed) to achieve broader linguistic representation.
– Sebastian Haug and others suggest approaching the ‘Global South’ as a meta category in the study of world politics (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01436597.2021.1948831). Is meta category commonly used to categorize categories in academic research? I assume there are other meta categories in the study of world politics; if that’s true, in which ways are they related to the Global South?
A few weeks after the publication of our August 2021 special issue for Comparative Literature Studies, a collective of political scientists published the special issue “The ‘Global South’ in the Study of World Politics” (volume 42, issue 9; 2021) in Third World Quarterly (TWQ). There are many exciting points of productive dialogue between these nearly simultaneously published special issues, which is evidence of the intrinsic interdisciplinarity of this field. The editors of the TWQ issue propose to examine the Global South as a “meta category,” meaning a tool for “classifying global space,” in the social sciences and to explore its “analytical value” for those fields. Regarding this notion of “meta categories,” I will leave it to those colleagues to respond to your query.