Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters

This piece is an extract from Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Prof. Patricia Daley’s introduction to their new Handbook of South-South Relations and examines a range of terminologies, taxonomies, and conceptualisations of the global ‘North’ and ‘South’. The Southern Responses to Displacement project will be examining how critical engagement with these terms and conceptualisations can enhance our understandings of how, why and with what effect different types of knowledge and practice come to be protected as ‘universal’ while others are excluded and suppressed.

If you find this piece of interest, please also see the suggested readings at the end of this piece, or visit our Thinking through the Global South series on our blog.

This blog was posted on the 2nd December, 2018

Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters

By Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (Southern Responses and UCL) and Patricia Daley (University of Oxford) 

Long before the institutional interest in ‘engaging with’, and ostensibly mobilising and co-opting actors from across the global South, rich, critical literatures have been published in diverse languages around the world, demonstrating the urgency of developing and applying theoretical and methodological frameworks that can be posited as Southern, anti-colonial, postcolonial and/or decolonial in nature.[1] These and other approaches have traced and advocated for diverse ways of knowing and being in a pluriversal world characterised (and constituted) by complex relationalities and unequal power relations, and equally diverse ways of resisting these inequalities – including through historical and contemporary forms of transnational solidarities.

Of course, the very term ‘South’ which is included not once but twice in the title of the Handbook of South-South Relations, is itself a debated and diversely mobilised term, as exemplified in the different usages and definitions proposed (and critiqued) across the Handbook’s constituent chapters.

For instance, a number of official, institutional taxonomies exist, including those which classify (and in turn interpellate) different political entities as ‘being’ from and of ‘the South’ or ‘the North’. Such classifications have variously been developed on the basis of particular readings of a state’s geographical location, of its relative position as a (formerly) colonised territory or colonising power, and/or of a state’s current economic capacity on national and global scales.[2]

In turn, Medie and Kang (2018) define ‘countries of the global South’ as ‘countries that have been marginalised in the international political and economic system’. Indeed, Connell (2007) builds upon a long tradition of critical thinking to conceptualise the South and the North, respectively, through the lens of the periphery and the metropole, as categories that transcend fixed physical geographies. And of course, as stressed by Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Kenneth Tafira in their contribution to the Handbook, such geographies have never been either static or defined purely through reference to physical territories and demarcations:

‘imperial reason and scientific racism were actively deployed in the invention of the geographical imaginaries of the global South and the global North.’

Through conceptualising the South and North through the lenses of the periphery and metropole, Connell argues that there are multiple souths in the world, including ‘souths’ (and southern voices) within powerful metropoles, as well as multiple souths within multiple peripheries. As Sujata Patel notes in her chapter in the Handbook, it is through this conceptualisation that Connell subsequently posits that

‘the category of the south allows us to evaluate the processes that permeate the non-recognition of its theories and practices in the constitution of knowledge systems and disciplines’.

It enables, and requires us, to examine how, why and with what effect certain forms of knowledge and being in the world come to be interpellated and protected as ‘universal’ while others are excluded, derided and suppressed ‘as’ knowledge or recognisable modes of being.[3] Indeed, in her chapter, Patel follows both Connell (2007) and de Sousa Santos (2014) in conceptualising ‘the South’ as ‘a metaphor’ that ‘represents the embeddedness of knowledge in relations of power’.

In turn, in their contribution to the Handbook, Dominic Davies and Elleke Boehmer centralise the constitutive relationality of the South by drawing on Grovogu (2011), who defines ‘the term “Global South” not as an exact geographical designation, but as “an idea and a set of practices, attitudes, and relations” that are mobilised precisely as “a disavowal of institutional and cultural practices associated with colonialism and imperialism”’ (cited in Davies and Boehmer). Viewing the South, or souths, as being constituted by and mobilising purposeful resistance to diverse exploitative systems, demonstrates the necessity of a contrapuntal reading of, and through, the South.

As such, as Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Tafira powerfully argue in their chapter,

‘the global South was not only invented from outside by European imperial forces but it also invented itself through resistance and solidarity-building.’

In this mode of analysis, the South has been constituted through a long history of unequal encounters with, and diverse forms of resistance to, different structures and entities across what can be variously designated the North, West or specific imperial and colonial powers. An analysis of the South therefore necessitates a simultaneous interrogation of the contours and nature of ‘the North’ or ‘West’, with Mignolo arguing (2000) that ‘what constitutes the West more than geography is a linguistic family, a belief system and an epistemology’.

Indeed, the acknowledgement of the importance of relationality and such mutually constitutive dynamics provides a useful bridge between these rich theoretical and conceptual engagements of, with and from ‘the South’ on the one hand, and empirically founded studies of the institutional interest in ‘South–South cooperation’ as a mode of technical and political exchange for ‘international development’ on the other. In effect, as noted by Urvashi Aneja in her chapter, diverse policies, modes of political interaction and ‘responses’ led by political entities across the South and the North alike ‘can thus be said to exist and evolve in a mutually constitutive relationship’, rather than in isolation from one another.

An important point to make at this stage is that it is not our aim to propose a definitive definition of the South or to propose how the South should be analysed or mobilised for diverse purposes – indeed, we would argue that such an exercise would be antithetical to the very foundations of the debates we and our contributors build upon in our respective modes of research and action.

Nonetheless, a common starting point for most, if not all, of the contributions in the Handbook is a rejection of conceptualisations of the South as that which is ‘non-Western’ or ‘non-Northern’. As noted by Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (here and in the Handbook), it is essential to continue actively resisting negative framings of the South as that which is not of or from ‘the West’ or ‘the North’ – indeed, this is partly why the (still problematic) South/North binary is often preferred over typologies such as Western and non-Western, First and Third World, or developed and un(der)developed countries, all of which ‘suggest both a hierarchy and a value judgment’ (Mawdsley, 2012).

In effect, as Fiddian-Qasmiyeh argues in the Handbook (drawing on Brigg), such modes of negative framing risk ‘maintaining rather than disrupting the notion that power originates from and operates through a unidirectional and intentional historical entity’. She – like other contributors to the Handbook addressing the relationships between theoretical, conceptual and empirical dynamics and modes of analysis, response and action – advocates for us to ‘resist the tendency to reconstitute the power of “the North” in determining the contours of the analysis’, while simultaneously acknowledging the extent to which ‘many Southern-led responses are purposefully positioned as alternatives and challenges to hegemonic, Northern-led systems’.

This is, in many ways, a ‘double bind’ that persists in many of our studies of the world, including those of and from the South: our aim not to re-inscribe the epistemic power of the North, while simultaneously acknowledging that diverse forms of knowledge and action are precisely developed as counterpoints to the North.

As noted above, in tracing this brief reflection on conceptualisations of the South it is not our intention to offer a comprehensive definition of ‘the South’ or to posit a definitive account of Southern approaches and theories. Rather, the Handbook aims to trace the debates that have emerged about, around, through and from the South, in all its heterogeneity (and not infrequent internal contradictions), in such a way that acknowledges the ways that the South has been constructed in relation to, with, through but also against other spaces, places, times, peoples, modes of knowledge and action.

Such processes are, precisely, modes of construction that resist dependence upon hegemonic frames of reference; indeed, the Handbook in many ways exemplifies the collective power that emerges when people come together to cooperate and trace diverse ‘roots and routes’ (following Gilroy) to knowing, being and responding to the world – all with a view to better understanding and finding more nuanced ways of responding to diverse encounters within and across the South and the North.

At the same time as we recognise internal heterogeneity within and across the South/souths, and advocate for more nuanced ways of understanding the South and the North that challenge hegemonic epistemologies and methodologies, Ama Biney’s chapter in the Handbook reminds us of another important dynamic that underpins the work of most, perhaps all, of the contributors to the Handbook. While Biney is writing specifically about pan-Africanism, we would argue that the approach she delineates is essential to the critical theoretical perspectives and analyses presented throughout the Handbook:

’Pan-Africanism does not aim at the external domination of other people, and, although it is a movement operating around the notion of being a race conscious movement, it is not a racialist one … In short, pan-Africanism is not anti-white but is profoundly against all forms of oppression and the domination of African people.’

While it is not our aim to unequivocally idealise or romanticise decolonial, postcolonial, anti-colonial, or Southern theories, or diverse historical or contemporary modes of South South Cooperation and transnational solidarity – such processes are complex, contradictory, and at times are replete of their own forms of discrimination and violence – we would nonetheless posit that this commitment to challenging and resisting all forms of oppression and domination, of all peoples, is at the core of our collective endeavours.

With such diverse approaches to conceptualising ‘the South’ (and its counterpoint, ‘the North’ or ‘the West’), precisely how we can explore ‘South–South relations’ thus becomes, first, a matter of how and with what effect we ‘know’, ‘speak of/for/about’, and (re)act in relation to different spaces, peoples and objects around the world; subsequently, it is a process of tracing material and immaterial connections across time and space, such as through the development of political solidarity and modes of resistance, and the movement of aid, trade, people and ideas. It is with these overlapping sets of debates and imperatives in mind, that the Handbook aims to explore a broad range of questions regarding the nature and implications of conducting research in and about the global South, and of applying a ‘Southern lens’ to such a wide range of encounters, processes and dynamics around the world.[4]


From a foundational acknowledgement of the dangers of essentialist binaries such as South–North and East–West and their concomitant hierarchies and modes of exploitation, the Handbook aims to explore and set out pathways to continue redressing the longstanding exclusion of polycentric forms of knowledge, politics and practice. It is our hope that the Handbook unsettles thinking about the South and about South–South relations, and prompts new and original research agendas that serve to transform and further complicate the geographic framing of the peoples of the world for emancipatory futures in the 21st century.


This extract from Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Patricia Daley’s Introduction to The Handbook of South-South Relations has been slightly edited for the purposes of this blog post. For other pieces published as part of the Southern Responses blog series on Thinking through the Global South, click here.


References cited

Anzaldúa, G., 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute.

Brigg, M., 2002. ‘Post-development, Foucault and the Colonisation Metaphor.’ Third World Quarterly 23(3), 421–436.

Chakrabarty, D., 2007. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Connell, R., 2007. Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. London: Polity.

Dabashi, H., 2015. Can Non-Europeans Think? London: Zed Books.

de Sousa Santos, B., 2014. Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Dussel, E., 1977. Filosofía de Liberación. Mexico City: Edicol.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E., 2015. South-South Educational Migration, Humanitarianism and Development: Views from the Caribbean, North Africa and the Middle East. Oxford: Routledge.

Gilroy, P., 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso.

Grosfoguel, R., 2011. Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies and Paradigms of Political-Economy: Transmodernity, Decolonial Thinking, and Global Coloniality. Transmodernity: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1(1). Available from: [Accessed 7 September 2018].

Grovogu, S., 2011. A Revolution Nonetheless: The Global South in International Relations. The Global South 5(1), Special Issue: The Global South and World Dis/Order, 175–190.

Kwoba, B, Nylander, O., Chantiluke, R., and Nangamso Nkopo, A. (eds), 2018. Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire. London: Zed Books.

Mawdsley, E., 2012. From Recipients to Donors: The Emerging Powers and the Changing Development Landscape. London: Zed Books.

Medie, P. and Kang, A.J., 2018. Power, Knowledge and the Politics of Gender in the Global South. European Journal of Politics and Gender 1(1–2), 37–54.

Mignolo, W.D., 2000. Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mignolo, W.D., 2015. ‘Foreword: Yes, We Can.’ In: H. Dabashi, Can Non-Europeans Think? London and New York: Zed Books, pp. viii–xlii.

Minh-ha, Trinh T., 1989. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S.J., 2013. Empire, Global Coloniality and African Subjectivity. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Quijano, A., 1991. Colonialidad y Modernidad/Racionalidad. Perú Indígena 29, 11–21.

Said, E., 1978. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. New York: Vintage Books.

Spivak, G.C., 1988. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge.

Sundberg, J., 2007. Reconfiguring North–South Solidarity: Critical Reflections on Experiences of Transnational Resistance. Antipode 39(1), 144–166.

Tuhiwai Smith, L., 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books.

wa Thiong’o, N., 1986. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: Heinemann Educational.

Wynter, S., 2003. Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument. The New Centennial Review 3(3), 257–337.


[1] For instance, see Anzaldúa 1987; Chakrabarty 2007; Connell 2007; de Sousa Santos 2014; Dussell 1977; Grosfoguel 2011; Kwoba et al. 2018; Mignolo 2000; Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2013; Quijano 1991, 2007; Said 1978; Spivak 1988; Sundberg 2007; Trinh T. Minh-ha 1989; Tuhiwai Smith 1999; wa Thiong’o 1986; Wynter 2003.

[2] Over 130 states have defined themselves as belonging to the Group of 77 – a quintessential South–South platform – in spite of the diversity of their ideological and geopolitical positions in the contemporary world order, their vastly divergent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and per capita income, and their rankings in the Human Development Index – for a longer discussion of the challenges and limitations of diverse modes of definition and typologies, see Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2015.

[3] Also see Mignolo 2000; Dabashi 2015.

[4] Indeed, Connell notes that

‘Southern theory’ is a term I use for social thought from the societies of the global South. It’s not necessarily about the global South, though it often is. Intellectuals from colonial and postcolonial societies have also produced important analyses of global-North societies, and of worldwide structures (e.g. Raúl Prebisch and Samir Amin).

(see, emphasis in the original)

Featured image:  Viewing and traversing Baddawi Camp, Lebanon.  (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2018.

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