CERC's Electronic Book

Doing Comparative Education: Three Decades of Collaboration

Part I: Comparative Orientations

Toward a Science of Comparative Education
On Teaching a 'Scientific' Comparative Education
Defining Comparative Education: Conceptions
A Comparative Study of Outlier Schools in Metropolitan Settings
Other Schools and Ours
Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish in Comparative Education
Use and Abuse of Comparative Education
State of the Field
Dependency Theory in Comparative Education
The Darling Young
The Comparative Mind: Metaphor in Comparative Education

Source: Harold J. Noah and Max A. Eckstein, "Dependency Theory in Comparative Education: Twelve Lessons from the Literature", in Jürgen Schriewer and Brian Holmes, eds., Theories and Methods in Comparative Education (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1988), pp. 165-192. Reprinted by permission of Peter Lang Publishers.


Du musst steigen oder sinken, Du musst herrschen und gewinnen, Oder dienen und verlieren, Leiden oder triumphieren, Amboss oder Hammer sein. Goethe, Geh! gehorche! Kto, kogo? Russian saying   1


This paper is about an increasingly popular model of world society and national development, and its relationship to work in Comparative Education.2 We shall call the model 'dependency theory', though whether it is a single theory, a family of theories, or a paradigm, seems to be a matter of some debate.3 In any event, dependency theory has shaped a substantial body of economic thought in recent years. It seeks to explain the obstacles to the development of poor regions and nations, and has been borrowed by writers on education in general, and by research workers in Comparative Education, in particular.

We propose to outline the main concept of the theory, consider its essential elements, and review some leading contributions to Comparative Education that have proceeded from the standpoint of dependency theory. Finally, we will draw twelve lessons from the discussion, to summarize our assessment of the contribution of the theory to comparative analysis of education.

I. Theory

Dependency theory argues that the world's present state can be most validly seen as the outcome of domination by the 'have' nations over the 'have-nots' and, within nations, by domination of 'have' over 'have-not' classes and interests.4 This is surely not a new idea. What is perhaps new is acceptance by an increasing number of comparativists that this dichotomy between superordinates and subordinates amounts to a powerful, globally applicable, explanatory model.

The terms that express the key concepts of the theory are: center - periphery, hegemony, and reproduction. They are used to explain the world as it is supposed to exist today (Wallerstein5 calls it a "world empire"), in terms of the unilateral exercise of power by the center on the periphery, by the hegemonic on the dependent, bolstered through the systematic reproduction in the periphery of the values of the center. Schooling is cast in an especially active role, as reproducing in the young those values, attitudes, and skills best fitted to serve the interest of the dominant groups. 6

Both past and present are analyzed using the same framework of explanation. The historical record is read as beginning with a missionary zeal, which was soon transformed into explicit, unabashed colonization. The contemporary scene is characterized by the retreat of classical colonialism, and its replacement by a more sophisticated and insidious colonization -- that of the mind and the will. Universities and philanthropic foundations, multilateral and national development agencies, book publishers and mass media organizations, even the very artifacts of industrialized society (from automobiles to ballpoint pens to infant feeding formulas) are all viewed as instruments of oppression. 7 The oppressed peoples have merely exchanged physical for mental domination.

This world view claims validity as an explanation of relationships within nation-states, as much as between them. In each country, it is asserted, there is an identifiable center exploiting a periphery, with a dominant class or caste seeking to use schooling to reproduce the set of values and the system of stratification marking its continued hegemony. To that end, some knowledge becomes certified or legitimated as worthy, desirable, and conferring status; other knowledge is neglected, ignored, or even suppressed. Within most nations the goal of thought control has been largely achieved. The people, it is argued, simply do not realize that they are living in a world of ideas and values deliberately created to keep them in subservience. Nor do they understand the vital role played by the schools in producing this "servitude of the mind". 8 Indeed, the very brilliance of the system's success is its capacity to deceive those who serve it into believing they are free, when in fact they have been enslaved.

The harshest criticism is reserved for the curriculum, the body of knowledge ('cultural capital') that is selectively organized and transmitted to students. The periphery, it is said, has been forced or lured into a pernicious copying of the curriculum of the center. Even after release from colonial rule, the disjunction between what is taught and what is needed locally continues. For example, the application of science to agriculture, small scale farming, household management, and hygiene is neglected in favor of concentration on abstract, 'academic' material. The languages of the former colonial masters continue to provide vehicles of instruction, communications, and administration. All this is not simply inappropriate, it is concluded; rather it is at once a consequence of the hegemonic relations between center and periphery, and the means of perpetuating them. 9

Thus, dependency theory shades over naturally into reproduction theory, which itself arose as a part of the new sociology of knowledge. This holds that the structures and the content of knowledge are most appropriately viewed as forms of property, power, and privilege. There is a natural dynamic leading those societies that have developed the most powerful knowledge yet achieved by mankind, the scientific knowledge of the industrialized states, to impose it on their weaker dependents, thus confirming those dependents in inferiority, establishing their own superiority, and widening the market both for the knowledge itself and for the products of that knowledge. This is the process of reproduction, defined as the extension through time and space of the hegemony of one group over another.

The translation of what began as a theory to explain problems of economic development to the realm of educational affairs has been most vigorous. Neo-Marxist conflict theory, ideological analysis, the study of the dynamics of social institutions, and aspects of psychological conditioning theory, have all joined to form a world view advancing the following propositions: a class-state coerces students in class-ridden educational institutions to support the official ideology; schooling is the apparatus by which the ruling class imposes its (self-serving) values on the working class in order to maintain the status quo; and this is as dramatically displayed within nations (where education is equated with internal colonialism) as among them (where imperialist powers impose a foreign education upon subject nations). 10 Freire extended the argument somewhat: even the oppressed are shaped into becoming 'oppressors' in their turn, as everyone seeks to become a boss. The prospects for the development of real freedom and individual autonomy are poor. 11 Bowles and Gintis voiced agreement: schools discipline the young in the interests of serving the existing power structure. This is accomplished via grading, competition, petty rewards and not-so-petty punishments. The educational system dehumanizes by destroying innate originality and creativity.12 The emphasis on conflict assumed an even more threatening quality in Bourdieu and Passeron. Knowledge is imposed by the schools, and this imposition is a form of violence visited by the strong (teachers, administrators, and society's leaders) on the weak (the students) in the course of their formation, to use the devastatingly descriptive French word for this process. 13 Educational planning is condemned as a transparent device for extending and intensifying dependency. Most dependency theorists foresee only an ever-deepening immiseration, as resources continue to be siphoned from the periphery into the center(s). Change is unlikely to occur without violent upheaval; school reform is dismissed as beside the point, a mere diversion from the real business of transforming world-wide power relationships.

We can summarize the various claims and assertions of dependency theory in the form of a half-dozen composite dicta:

  1. Dependency theory claims to be a globally applicable, objective approach to understanding how the poorer nations have been deceived and victimized by a unidirectional exercise of power.

  2. Dependency theory views educational structures and education content as essential means by which the center exercises thought control over the periphery, reproducing the conditions for its survival and advancement. These means operate not only in obvious ways, but also in ways that are extremely subtle.

  3. Dependency theory claims to show that the process of thought control is so powerful that parents and citizens are incapable of recognizing their children's best educational interest, and are helpless to make independent choices in the face of overwhelming ideological hegemony.

  4. Dependency theorists tend to deny that we can look to education or educational reform in any important degree for improvement in this state of things: radical (and even violent) rupture of the hegemonic power of the center is required.

  5. Dependency theory asserts that the countries on the periphery represent victimized 'good guys'; those at the center are the victimizing 'bad guys'. The latter force so-called modernization on the former, but in fact the fruits of modernization are simply further dependency.

  6. Dependency theory claims that the greater a country's degree of dependency, the greater will be a country's difficulties in establishing effective social and educational institutions.
This is an imposing set of claims, and if they are supported we would appear to be in the presence of a formidable general perspective on the development of education and society. We now turn therefore to assess this approach to education, especially as it commands the attention of comparativists. 14 We shall do this on the basis of eight recent research contributions in Comparative Education that have used major concepts from dependency and reproduction theory as a framework for inquiry.

II. Applications

All of the eight articles discussed below use to some extent one or more of the major metaphors of dependency theory: center-periphery, reproduction, hegemony.

Center-Periphery Altbach deals with 'The University as Center and Periphery'15 in a wide-ranging article. Universities, he points out, may be classified as either "influential" or "dependent", that is, as either creators or distributors of knowledge. Despite their influence within their own territories, universities in the Third World continue to be at a disadvantage in the international knowledge network. They are passive rather than active, serving as agents through which industrialized nations maintain their dominant positions in the world. Altbach views the center-periphery concept as valid within nations, too: the metropolitan nations have their workaday colleges and universities, as well as their world-famous 'flagship' institutions.

Mazrui in 'The African University as a Multi-National Corporation: Problems of Penetration and Dependency'16 treats the same basic theme as Altbach's: the existence of the metropolitan-based university controlling institutions on the periphery, in this case the typical African university. Mazrui draws a parallel with the activities of multinational corporations which exploit the periphery's resources in the interest of shareholders at the center. He identifies two major functions of the African university: to help meet the colonizers' manpower needs; and to help create markets for the products of Western industry by remaking African values. He indicts African universities on a charge of perpetuating cultural dependency, despite their record of promoting African nationalism and political independence.

While the metaphor, center-periphery, aids us in approaching the variety of educational institutions, nevertheless it can hardly be said to make a unique contribution to our understanding. Essentially, Altbach is describing inequalities among institutions -- inequalities of resources (primarily of faculty, but also of physical and financial resources); inequalities of activities (in research, publishing, and positions in the all-important networks of communication); and inequalities of student academic quality. These inequalities may or may not be a result of some socio-economic process related to dependency. That is a hypothesis to be tested. However, what is provided is a series of assertions. The process by which, say, a Chilean university that enjoys only a local reputation is kept in that status by the metropolitan universities of North or South America is not clarified. A more straightforward account, and a more parsimonious one, might simply be based on the concept of choices made under resource constraints leading to inequalities, and would probably do the explanatory job just as well, if not better. As Altbach himself puts it in his final paragraph:

The concept of center and periphery, as applied to the world of universities and particularly to the problems of higher education in the Third World, is a way of thinking about inequalities, institutional and academic hierarchies, and differing roles of academic institutions in a world of complexities. While Third World universities function as peripheries in an international system, they are clearly central to their own societies.(p. 619)
In addition, Altbach notes (p. 612) that, with the help of substantial support, some Third World institutions have achieved excellence. Given that the prime causative differences among universities are between the poor and the wealthy, and the new and the old, and given that it is these differences which determine whether a particular institution is a producer or a distributor of knowledge, we are drawn to conclude that the center-periphery concept merely substitutes new terms for old without adding significant explanatory power.

Mazrui, too, makes use of the center-periphery metaphor primarily as a way of approaching his topic, rather than as an explanatory tool. He concludes his article by identifying three strategies whereby African universities and African nations may become in fact independent, serving their own rather than others' interests. They are: 1. to Africanize admissions requirements, criteria for faculty recruitment, and university organization; 2. to diversify the sources of influence away from an exclusive emphasis on European culture, toward Africanization and 'Asianization' of the curriculum; 3. to counter-penetrate the West, building on the influence that Africa has already had on Western culture (via art, craftsmanship, and music).

The contrast between this advice and the typically pessimistic message of dependency theory is noteworthy. According to most dependency theorists, the outlook for the dependent nations is quite bleak. They are described as being caught inextricably in the toils of a powerful world-wide network of forces, in a system of exploitation, immiseration, and oppression that will not let them go. Mazrui accepts none of this. Indeed, the possibilities of transcending the dependent condition associated with location on the periphery, acknowledged by both authors, undermines the second major metaphor of dependency theory: reproduction. Three contributions illustrate its use in Comparative Education research.

Reproduction Kelly's work is entitled: 'Teachers and the Transmission of State Knowledge: A Case Study of Colonial Vietnam'.17 The author begins from the standpoint of reproduction:

Although the chapter derives its data from colonial Vietnam, the issues it addresses are relevant to our understanding of the ways in which schooling transmits a set of ideological characteristics favorable to the maintenance of dominant groups and helps reproduce the division of labor in society.(p. 176)
What follows is an exposition of the way in which teachers in colonial Vietnam responded to the role assigned to them. Educational policy in the French colony was a consistent attempt to legitimate certain specified types of knowledge and to use the schools to reproduce the power relationships that would best serve French interests. Here, if anywhere, was the classic colonizer-colonized situation, in which dependency theory and its associated reproduction metaphor might be expected to demonstrate explanatory power to best effect.

But Kelly shows that the story is much more than a simple tale of the colonizers giving the orders, and the colonized obeying. The state issued the most detailed instructions to teachers, training and selecting them carefully to serve French goals, and monitoring their work closely through a far-reaching system of school inspection. Yet Vietnamese teachers contrived to turn the externally imposed school system to their own purposes. They acted independently, transmitted knowledge selectively, and they rejected the French version of moral education and aspects of the official curriculum that were offensive to their nationalist, cultural, and class sensitivities. Even with the most powerful political, juridical, and police powers at their disposal, the French never succeeded in the reproduction goal. Both the teachers who had a westernized training, as well as those who had gone through the 'adapted' Franco-Vietnamese schools, resisted indoctrination. They established professional organizations to nurture their Vietnamese solidarity and rejected attempts to cast them in second-class roles. Kelly concludes with the following cautious verdict:

The ways in which schools reproduce the division of labor and a set of ideological characteristics favorable to unequal power relations are quite complex. In some instances that reproduction may be less than perfect. (p. 190)
However, the implication of Kelly's work is unequivocal: far from providing a cogent set of explanations for what happened in Vietnamese education under French colonial rule, dependency theory is decisively contradicted by the facts.

If Kelly demonstrates the complexities of an assimilationist educational policy imposed from without on the basis of the Vietnam experience, Barrington shows the problematics of the adaptive approach. His article, 'Cultural Adaptation and Maori Educational Policy: The African Connection' describes the shift in educational policies in the 1930's from assimilationist goals toward an education adapted to the perceived needs of the Maori population in New Zealand.18 More emphasis was to be placed on the acquisition of agricultural knowledge and skills and on the survival of local culture and handicraft arts. A style of education intended to turn Maoris into cultural Europeans was to be ended. Barrington documents the way in which this change in policy ran parallel to thinking about education for Negroes in the American South and for the indigenous peoples of colonial Africa.

Like Kelly, Barrington proceeds to explain why this officially and rhetorically powerful new doctrine for Maori education failed to take root. Many parents were unalterably opposed to what they viewed as a second-rate education for their children. He quotes from Maori School Records:

'A Maori parent is exactly the same as a European', concluded the headmaster of Te Aute, the leading denominational boarding college for Maori boys. 'When I suggest an agricultural course they want their boy to take matriculation'.(p. 9)
Not only in Vietnam, but also in New Zealand, there is little evidence to support the picture of a helpless population manipulated by colonial authorities dedicated to reducing children, through reproduction, to mere objects of dependency. In Vietnam, teachers resisted an imposed foreign curriculum; in New Zealand parents demanded access to one, rejecting the adaptive version. Yet the reproduction metaphor draws no distinction between these two contrasting education programs and between the different indigenous responses. To that extent, too, the metaphor is a weak tool for comparative study.

Bullivant, in his article 'Cultural Reproduction in Fiji: Who Controls Knowledge/Power?', seeks to clarify some of these complexities by examining the formal and informal process "through which culture is passed on to the developing child" (p. 230).19 He describes the political and educational relationships between the dominant Fijians and the immigrant Indian population in terms of reproduction. But he concludes that the evidence that Fijian dominance is achieved via use of the educational system and the structure of knowledge is ambiguous. His conclusion is that dominance is exerted more through structures (for example discrimination in favor of Fijians for admission into higher education and in government employment) than through ideological instruments. Moreover, he observes significant concessions made by the Fijians to the cultural claims of the Indian section of the population: "... no one 'cultural arbitrary' is being imposed to the exclusion of the other in a way that might qualify as 'pedagogic action'." (p. 243). What might be interpreted as evidence of dominance is interspersed with many elements of concession, running decidedly counter to the implication of the reproduction approach.

In fact, Bullivant's answer to the question: "Who controls knowledge/power?" is not achieved by reliance on the concept of cultural reproduction. Instead, the complexities of the reproduction process are described and, most important, the transactional nature of the relationships between 'dominators' and 'dominated' is highlighted, as indeed it is by Kelly and Barrington.

Hegemony In using the metaphors of center-periphery and reproduction, the authors cited are all seeking to clarify the nature of hegemony. Bullivant, for example, at the very end of his study falls back on Westernizing agencies as the ultimate source of hegemony in Fiji, and the means by which it is maintained.

But European influence is strong through the external examination system and the need for all children to learn a common language -- English. This plays a major role in determining what kind of knowledge may be taught at the senior academic level, and it can be interpreted as 'pedagogic action' and hegemonic, even though Europeans are a small minority in Fiji.

And again in the following:
The economy is influenced by a Western ideology of consumption and capitalism together with a heavy reliance on a European-dominated tourist industry ... resulted in structures within Fiji that are ... symbolic of the Western ideology -- for example, banks, insurance offices, airlines, car hire firms, and resort hotels.(p. 244)
The author claims that the reality of hegemony is effectively concealed by the pretense at a multiracial curriculum. However, none of this is in any sense proved; it is not even demonstrated. Rather, it is merely asserted, as a way of rescuing the desired conclusion from the evidence produced by the research.

In substantially similar fashion, Altbach concludes his article by sounding the theme of hegemony, after quite properly concluding that the center-periphery metaphor reduces under examination to little more than an expression of inequalities.

Third World institutions not only confront the reality of the historically and economically based power of the industrialized nations but must also deal with the widespread desire by the industrial nations to maintain their dominant positions. This desire, and the specific policies that are used to continue dominance, has been called neocolonialism.(p. 605)
But as with Bullivant, the matter is left to assertion with no attempt at proof.

Three articles that place hegemony at the center of their argument are Berman, 'Educational Colonialism in Africa: The Role of American Foundations, post 1945'; 20 Irizarry, 'Overeducation and Unemployment in the Third World: The Paradoxes of Dependent Industrialization'; 21 and Sica and Prechel, 'Political-Economic Dependency and Educational Development'. 22 Berman charges that American foundations, behind a smokescreen of altruism and claims to be rendering only neutral technical assistance, deliberately pursued policies that benefited the givers, not the receivers. The foundations financed an array of initiatives: the establishment and support of leading universities in strategic areas of Africa; the promotion of social science approaches to problems of development and change; the support of training programs to prepare public administrators; and a variety of programs for teacher training for African students in the United States and for training U.S. specialists in African affairs. All of this was done, Berman asserts, to enhance prospects in Africa for the capitalist system in general, and for American interests in particular.

... There was little humanitarianism in these foundation attempts to develop educational systems in Africa, despite the proclivities of random foundation personnel in this direction. Education was perceived as the opening wedge ensuring an American presence in those African nations considered of strategic and economic importance...to the governing and business elite of the United States. The contention that American foundation expenditures in Africa were designed primarily to benefit the recipients cannot be sustained. Rather, it was through African education that American foundation personnel hoped to exert leverage on the direction of African development, development which would follow lines acceptable to American interests.(p. 225)
... The overriding concern of the 'philanthropoids' in Africa has been to train elite cadres capable of running their nations in ways guaranteed to maximize internal growth and political stability, desiderata from the American perspective.(p. 226)
However, Berman's theme of a powerful conspiracy among leading U.S. institutions to assert hegemony over African nations neglects to account for the patent failure of alleged American hegemonic power to even establish (let alone maintain) its ascendancy in Black Africa. The contemporary African scene is hardly one marked by the rule of American trained "elite cadres ... maximiz(ing) internal growth and political stability", and certainly does not give the impression of an area governing its affairs in the sole interest of U.S. capitalism. If hegemonic domination was the goal of the U.S. foundations, their failure in Africa has been resounding.

Whereas Berman tends to write in political science terms, Irizarry's orientation is explicitly economic. He attributes the blame for the severe problems of the underdeveloped countries to their economic colonization by the industrial powers. He points specifically to the undesirable outcomes of development strategies that seek 'accelerated industrialization; that is, the creation and expansion of a modern, industrialized and high-productivity sector of the economy" (p. 338). Such strategies, according to the author, have failed to eliminate poverty, improve the welfare of the mass of people, provide complete primary education for all, or supply trained manpower adapted to the needs of the economy.

Irizarry points to the paradox of educational systems that produce a surplus of technically trained manpower who cannot find appropriate employment, while at the same time they continue to put most of their emphasis on humanistic and legal curricula. His is one of the clearest examples in the Comparative Education literature of an author asserting the primacy of economic hegemony in the determination of educational structures and outcomes. He asserts that those countries that have developed on the basis of externally injected capital, externally determined models of classical, colonial-type penetration, and accelerated industrialization, have suffered characteristic distortions of their educational systems.

Although Irizarry undoubtedly describes those distortions correctly, he fails to show that their existence is the particular responsibility of hegemonic power, expressed through overseas trade and the international organizations' support of accelerated industrialization. Not a little of what he says about overemphasis of the humanities and the social sciences and exaggeration of the service sector at the expense of industry being paradoxically accompanied by inability of a goodly fraction of the technically trained to find appropriate jobs, can be applied, for example, to the United Kingdom, Greece, Egypt, India, and Denmark -- to name just a scattering of countries at different levels of economic development and with widely different previous 'conditions of servitude'.

Like Irizarry, Sica and Prechel examine the role of hegemonic economic power in shaping educational development. Their stated purpose "is to test the empirical utility of the dependency perspective in accounting for one important facet of international inequality, the distribution of education" (p. 387). Specifically they seek to discover whether distributions of education vary systematically with the degree of economic dependency among nations.

The authors assemble data from seventy-two nations reprsenting center, periphery, and 'semiperiphery' countries. 'Distribution of education' was measured by enrollment ratios; 'dependency' was measured by the standard indicators of domestic capital formation, exports, and external public debt (each as percentages of Gross Domestic Product). Either kilowatt hours or GDP per capita was taken as the measure of a country's level of development.

Zero-order correlations reveal that "level of development is very strongly associated with education measures", a finding that is usually taken to support modernization (rather than dependency) theory. The authors then regress the four economic measures on each of the education indicators. Again, they find strong and statistically significant relationships in the expected direction between level of development and the education measures. But contrary to the dependency hypothesis, degree of dependency is usually positively related to educational enrollment ratios, or is not statistically significant. The 'development of underdevelopment' thesis is not sustained. Further analysis produces ambiguous results at best from the point of view of supporting dependency theory and, in some respects, even downright contradiction. Of the nine coefficients that were estimated (three levels of education on three economic dependency variables), only two are statistically significant.

Sica and Prechel try to save something from this apparently complete debacle of the dependency hypothesis, but concede defeat in the end. They suggest that some of their results might be construed as indicating that "as a country develops -- as reflected in the increasing percentage of its population advancing from primary to secondary education -- it advances into dependency" (p. 392). Yet they concede that other results obtained in their work "indicate(s) - from one view of causality - that education is an important element of development and that its retardation is itself a guarantee of endless dependency" (p. 394). Again, they find some statistical support for the idea that "the road to cultural growth is fiscal autonomy" (p. 397), a notion that is important in the dependency canon. But the figures are disappointingly weak from the point of view of statistical significance. In the end they fall back on the plea that this is not the right way to test dependency theory:

...Linear regression models of this sort are probably inappropriate when used to test dependency theory or any other which by its nature is cognizant not only of gross quantitative economic events but also of the finer points of socio-cultural and socio-political idiosyncrasies of each nation. It was, after all, Frank's intimate knowledge of Brazil, Amin's equally strong interest in certain African nations, and so on, which gave rise to the dependency perspective ... Surely an appropriate test of dependency thinking demands a more comprehensive methodological approach.(p. 400)
While the propositions of dependency theory are asserted with a good deal of assurance and conviction, it appears to be difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate cross-nationally the major implications of the theory in the realm of education. According to proponents of dependency theory, hegemonic power exerted by the center impinges on the countries of the periphery and shapes their social and cultural institutions. These effects should bear at least some rough relationship to the strength of this power, as measured by degree of economic dependency. Yet in Sica and Prechel's inquiry little if any of it can be shown.

III. Evaluation

Two criteria are important when assessing a genre of work for its contribution to education: its capacity to provide persuasive explanations for the phenomena observed or to suggest avenues for further investigation; and its utility for guiding action, that is, its capacity to inform administrators and planners and to help in policy making. Essentially similar criteria apply in assessing the contribution of work done from a dependency viewpoint in Comparative Education. We remind the reader that in no way do we seek to make a critique of the usefulness of dependency theory in economics, or in education broadly defined. Our task has been to focus on the use that has been made of dependency theory specifically in recent research contributions to Comparative Education. The implications of such a critique are not merely academic. They extend to questions of educational policy, planning, and management. Whether explicitly or implicitly, dependency theory notions are woven into national and international education development efforts as well as into evaluations of their outcomes. If the theory is deficient, the bases for action and the criteria for evaluation are rendered suspect.

The eight studies examined are all informative and well executed. However, whether taken singly or together they are far from validating the basic propositions of dependency theory. Although all of the authors begin their expositions with strong avowals of the dependency approach, it is significant that in three instances (Altbach, Kelly, and Sica and Prechel) the conclusions are at variance with some basic propositions of dependency and reproduction theory. In three further instances (Barrington, Bullivant, and Mazrui) the conclusions are such as to make one quite cautious about some of the implications of dependency theory. Only Berman and Irizarry begin and end with full adherence to its validity. If only because of this mixture of outright contradiction and shaded verification, dependency theory cannot be regarded as a particularly powerful or even persuasive addition to theoretical viewpoints in Comparative Education.

Part of our critique relates to assumptions that are made about the conditions under which people live and act. Dependency theory asserts that the poor and the weak are rendered incompetent to judge their own best interests by the process of cultural reproduction. This is achieved by the powerful, who effectively (and often covertly) control access to knowledge and who establish certain values and disestablish others to support their own interests. This viewpoint is well represented in the articles by Bullivant, Berman, and Mazrui. Thus dependency theory asserts that in the colonial era the poor and the weak were effectively subjugated, and that in the post-colonial period a form of thought control is substituted for physical force. Education stands accused as the major instrument of this behavioral manipulation.23

What these assertions overlook is the immense complexity of the relations between the center and the periphery. It is an exercise in oversimplification to picture the people of the periphery as mere objects of successful manipulation by the center. While it is obvious that poverty imposes limitations upon people, it is equally obvious that economic power is not without its limits. Some nations on the periphery do indeed appear to be perfectly willing to follow the lead of the center; presumably their leadership has judged that it is in their interest to do so. But others refuse to be client states, in either deed or thought. And there is every condition in between. This disparity in political response is also present in educational affairs. Some nations take their educational cues pretty directly from the center, especially from the nation that formerly exercised suzerainty. Others make every effort to strike out along new paths, rejecting vehemently what they consider to be inappropriate models. Yet other nations adopt quite eclectic approaches, borrowing from a variety of sources, as it suits them, and combining their borrowed practices in novel ways. Nothing in this reality supports any easy assumption that the fact of the center's superior economic power automatically implies cultural hegemony over the periphery.

A second aspect of our critique relates to the assumptions of dependency theory about the nature of power and how it operates (see especially Altbach and Berman). Here, too, dependency theory is liable to the charge that it deals in oversimplifications. Power is not typically a uni-dimensional phenomenon, nor is its action typically unidirectional, as dependency theory implies. Most important, the objectives of the powerful are not always achieved, as Kelly's article demonstrates. Even in circumstances that appear to be extremely advantageous to those giving the orders, there are important transactional elements involved in the relationship between dominated and dominator. Education may indeed be based on a power relationship, as the dependency theorists argue, but it is equally important to realize that the process of education involves more than a mere exercise of power. It involves a transfer of power, too. To ignore this is to ignore the existence of different stages in the power relationships among nations, cultures, and classes; on the surface, there may seem to be little recognizable difference between the forms of dependence (political, cultural, and economic), but the dynamics, options, and outcomes of any stage may be quite different, and even unexpected. To be powerful does not necessarily mean to be successful in attaining one's goals, or in maintaining that achievement once it has been attained. History is an account of the fall of empires, as much as of their rise; and of the transfer of power, as much as of its exercise. To read it merely as the enslavement of people is simple-minded. Philip Foster emphasized just this caution when he remarked:

The statement that the school is an agency of conformity is platitudinous ... all educational institutions in any society must, in large measure, perform that function ... (but) viewed in historical perspective the school has been a failure as an agency of conformity and repression. 24
Concepts of the nature of power naturally influence perceptions of how change occurs. This is the realm of our third major criticism. Dependency theory argues that as long as economic and ideological dependency continues, political independence is merely colonialism under a different name. The role of elites is regarded as essentially unchanged: to serve as the center's local instruments of control over the periphery (the articles by Altbach, Mazrui, and Irizarry are pertinent here). The possibility of improvement in the direction of a greater degree of power visą-vis the center is regarded as very small. Apart from Mazrui, who makes a powerful plea to the contrary, this position is maintained in spite of the fact that we have plentiful evidence of successful challenge by the periphery to the power of the center. Here lies the central problem with the dependency approach. Cultural forms (including education) are clearly much stronger than dependency theory assumes. The resilience and vigor of nationalism, local and national languages, and national cultures and historical traditions continue to mock all forecasts about the growth of a global culture.

Dependency theorists have identified international capitalism as the moving force of hegemony, and it is perhaps as a result of this generally anti-capitalist orientation that hegemony has been seen more as a phenomenon of Western influence than Soviet power. However, even in the Soviet realm of influence economic power does not bring automatic hegemony. Despite the immense power of the Soviet Union vis-ą-vis Poland, Hungary Romania, and the rest, these countries are far from becoming mere cultural carbon copies of the Soviet Union, let alone dupes of some subtle process of thought control.

Dependency theory and its associated metaphors can make only a limited contribution to Comparative Education, we have argued, because they represent an oversimplification of very complex phenomena. What accounts for this?

One reason is that the theory is borrowed from another field. What may explain features in the realm of economics may not do so elsewhere (and it is worth noting that even in economics, dependency theory is much debated and criticized). As McLean has observed25 , there are dangers in the unthinking transfer of a theory from one field to another. He identifies three major problems: the dangers of "fossilization" (by which he means the failure of the destination field to keep up with improvements to the theory made at the source); basic lack of fit between the source field and the destination; and neglect of key issues in the destination field, as a result of undue concentration of attention and effort on the lines of inquiry suggested by the borrowed paradigm.

Another reason to charge oversimplification arises from the tendency of dependency theorists to ascribe intent to the forces they describe. The reader is given the impression that there is some maleficent force at work on a global scale, generating evil results. Institutions at the center are portrayed as conspiring with their agents at the periphery in some complicated plot to maintain world hegemony. The reader is tacitly invited to identify with the forces of good against the forces of evil. An important objection to this generally rousing tale, is that institutions (schools, universities, foundations, textbook publishers, information and communications enterprises, governmental aid agencies, and so forth), the whole apparatus of putative hegemonic power, cannot have intent and purposefulness ascribed to them. only human beings have purpose, and the habit of confusing purpose with tendency, and of then making moral judgements about tendencies, combines to promote a simplistic view of educational and cultural change.26

The third source of what we consider to be excessive simplification lies in a rhetorical trick. Its effect is to protect the theory from criticism. A central proposition of dependency theory is that hegemony is often asserted in ways too subtle for most people to detect: it creeps in, disguised in a rhetoric of benevolence, and subverts its victims. The critic of dependency theory finds that any doubts expressed about this interpretation are turned back against him. His very denials are claimed as further evidence of the demonic power of the forces at work, for do they not show the extent to which he, too, has been successfully thought controlled? The logic is as impudent as it is circular.

The tendency toward simplification also derives from the historical antecedents of dependency theory. Its view of colonialism is old-fashioned. It is based on an outmoded model, that of nineteenth century European imperialism, in which colonies were run by the center purely in its own strategic and economic interest. The imperial powers relied on physical subjugation and bothered themselves hardly at all with education, or thought control, since the subject peoples were regarded as little more than retarded children. Modern dependency theory has updated the classical model by pointing to a mechanism of control developed by the center through education, but the core of the model remains unchanged -- a rather simple dichotomy between the exploiters and the exploited, with little if any recognition of the profound changes that have taken place in the world in the relationships between the former imperial powers and the erstwhile colonies. To ignore these changes is anachronistic, and encourages extension of a model derived from a much simpler world into the present, a period characterized by more complex relationships.

A final source of simplification is the lack of caution in using important terms. The basic terms (center-periphery, reproduction, and hegemony) are metaphors, figurative description comprising a particular explanatory paradigm. Useful as they may be for opening a fresh perspective on familiar phenomena the limits of their applicability are not observed. This permits Bourdieu and Passeron to speak of education, in all seriousness apparently, as "violence" 27 and to use the term "reproduction" in their social-educational models, without recognizing that the biological realm from which the term is borrowed makes room not only for faithful copying, but also for mutation from one generation to the next.

For those interested in the use of theory to further research in Comparative Education, the dependency approach is especial]y disappointing. It offers little help in avoiding many of those worrisome problems common to all social science inquiry: for example, the tendency to find what one is looking for and to stop looking when one has found it. It does not discourage the making of easy assumptions that the association of two phenomena in time and place justifies strong inferences about causation. It does not restrain the researcher from hanging on doggedly to a theoretical perspective well beyond the ability of the evidence to support it. While dependency theory is by no means alone in these problems, the ideological fervor with which it is so often advanced does nothing to limit their frequency.

From this extended critique of the uses of dependency and reproduction theory in Comparative Education research, we draw a dozen lessons:

On people, plots and power

Lesson 1. Although there is not a shred of evidence to show that people in general are unable to recognize the major forces shaping their lives, dependency theory fosters the dubious implication that the majority of humanity are dupes.

Lesson 2. Pace dependency theory, neither physical nor 'mental' colonization necessarily succeeds in blinding parents to the best educational interests of their children, as they try to take into account the likely shape of the world in which they will grow up.

Lesson 3. Dependency theory lends itself all too easily to a 'saints and sinners' interpretation of the world. This makes for exciting rhetoric, but yields no great advance in understanding.

Lesson 4. Agencies at the center may indeed operate in the periphery to promote what they view as their own interests, but this is not evidence that they are engaged in a systematic, covert plan of penetration on behalf of some wider interests.

Lesson 5. The relationship between those having power and those receiving orders is by no means a simple one. Dependent people are not necessarily passive, nor are they necessarily disarmed. Power does not flow in one direction alone. Both the colonizer and the colonized influence its workings.

Lesson 6. Given the utter failure to achieve 'first world' objectives in so many parts of the developing world in the past few decades, a complete dependency theory needs to provide a means of satisfactory explanation of that failure, equally with its attempt to document the center's hegemony.

On change and modernization

Lesson 7. Whatever the external obstacles to achieving cultural independence, the developing nations have a goodly share of their own fate in their own hands. The available evidence by no means supports placing all, or nowadays even most, of the blame for cultural dependency on external forces.

Lesson 8. There exist strategies for social improvement, for the regaining of cultural independence, and even for the assertion of countervailing cultural influence. Dependency theory is wrong in holding that there is no way out for the dependent nations short of breaking the relationships between themselves and the industrialized nations.

Lesson 9. Dependency theory attributes too much to economic dependency. Even insightful analyses of economic dependency relationships on the one hand, and educational deficiencies on the other, cannot prove that the latter follow from the former. Dependency concepts do not add distinctly important power to attempts to explain educational deficiencies.

Lesson 10. Contrary to the implications of much of the writing in dependency theory, modernization is a highly desirable goal, not to be denigrated or lightly cast aside out of frustration or resentment.

On methodology

Lesson 11. Dependency theory does not help to control bias in research, nor does it help researchers make good use of counterfactual evidence to improve their theoretical models.

Lesson 12. The center-periphery concept merely substitutes new terms for old without adding significant explanatory power.


Despite the fact that we have found little to admire in its contribution to Comparative Education research, dependency theory represents an approach that currently appeals to scholars in many quarters. What accounts for its attractiveness? What, in a word, have we missed?

In the first instance, it represents a powerful expression of the disappointment and frustration, perhaps even the cynicism, of the latter part of the twentieth century, that has witnessed two global wars, acts of genocide, widespread decolonization without the hoped-for improvement of the lot of ordinary people, and a sense of crisis about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Much store was laid on education. It had been hailed as a sovereign remedy for the ills of the world. Poverty, militarism, hate, political subjugation, and individual abasement would all be conquered by the schools. They have not been, and the disappointment is understandable. If anything, the severity of some of the problems that faced the world in, say, 1950 has increased, not diminished, with time. This was not supposed to happen. The temptation is correspondingly strong to blame the institutions of society for having 'failed'. If among these institutions the schools, on which the highest hopes were rested, have failed the most miserably, they deserve in turn the strongest castigation.

By the same token, dependency theory appeals to intellectuals in the Third World, who are frustrated and impatient with the fact that their nations' problems have not vanished with the coming of independence. Dependency theory fills an ideological gap, and has acquired legitimacy as it has been taken up by social scientists. Intellectuals in the developed world, too, share their colleagues' frustration, and some have added to it a sense of guilt for what they see as capitalism's original and continuing role in the immiseration of the periphery.28

The contrast between the vehemence with which the propositions of dependency theory are typically expressed and the weakness of the research results actually achieved, must be regarded as something of a paradox. To continue to hold to dependency theory in the face of such weakness is probably more a matter of faith and values than of social science.

Comparative Education is no stranger to ideology; some scholars have argued that the two are inseparable.29 Perhaps so; in which case we can assume that as long as the dependency approach answers the ideological needs of researchers, it will remain a popular style of comparative work, despite its formidable logical and empirical weaknesses.


  1. "You must rise or fall, you must rule and win, or serve and lose, suffer or triumph, be the hammer or the anvil." (Goethe, Go! Obey!). Kto, kogo: Russian saying, literally: Who, whom? Meaning: Who gives orders, and to whom? [BACK]

  2. An abridged version of this paper was published in Prospects 15 (1985), no. 2. under the title "Dependency Theory in Comparative Education: the New Simplicitude". [BACK]

  3. Ingemar Fägerlind & Lawrence J. Saha, Education and National Development: A Comparative Perspective (Oxford: Pergamon, 1983), p. 23. [BACK]

  4. A.G. Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967); Samir Amin, Unequal Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974); and Charles K. Wilber (ed.), The Political Economy of Development and Underdevelopment, 3rd ed. (New York: Random House, 1984). [BACK]

  5. Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy In the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974). [BACK]

  6. Samuel Bowles & Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life (New York: Basic Books, 1976). [BACK]

  7. Robert F. Arnove (ed.), Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980); Martin Carnoy, Education as Cultural Imperialism (New York: David McKay, 1974); and Philip G. Altbach & Gail P. Kelly (eds.), Education and Colonialism (New York: Longman Inc., 1978). [BACK]

  8. The phrase is used by Philip G. Altbach, "Servitude of the Mind? Education, Dependency, and Neocolonialism", in: Teachers College Record 79 (December, 1977), pp. 187-204. [BACK]

  9. Michael W. Apple, Education and Power (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982); Michael W. Apple, Ideology and Curriculum (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979); Michael F.D. Young, Knowledge and Control: New Directions for the Sociology of Education (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1971); Pierre Bourdieu & Jean-Claude Passeron, Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (London: Sage Publications, 1977). [BACK]

  10. Carnoy, op. cit. [BACK]

  11. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder & Herder, 1972), chapter 1. [BACK]

  12. Bowles & Gintis, op. cit., pp. 11-3, 36-44, et passim. [BACK]

  13. Bourdieu & Passeron, op. cit. [BACK]

  14. See EDC Occasional Papers, No. 6, "Contributions to the Workshop on Reproduction and Dependency in Education", University of London Institute of Education, Department of Education in Developing Countries, May 1984, especially articles by Brian Holmes, John Lauglo, and Paul Hurst, for a series of valuable pointers and analyses on this theme. [BACK]

  15. Philip G. Altbach, "The University as Center and Periphery", in: Teachers College Record 82 (Summer, 1981), pp. 601-622. [BACK]

  16. Ali A. Mazrui, "The African University as a Multinational Corporation: Problems of Penetration and Dependency", in: Harvard Educational Review 45 (May 1975), pp. 191-210. [BACK]

  17. Gail P. Kelly, "Teachers and the Transmission of State Knowledge: A Case Study of Colonial Vietnam", in: Philip G. Altbach, Gail P. Kelly & Robert F. Arnove (eds.), Comparative Education (New York: Macmillan, 1982), pp. 176-94. [BACK]

  18. John M. Barrington, "Cultural Adaptation and Maori Educational Policy: The African Connection", in: Comparative Education Review 20 (February, 1976), pp. 1-10. [BACK]

  19. Brian M. Bullivant, "Cultural Reproduction in Fiji: Who Controls Knowledge/Power?", in: Comparative Education Review 27 (June, 1983), pp. 227-45. [BACK]

  20. Edward H. Berman, "The Foundations' Role in American Foreign Policy: The Case of Africa, post 1945", in Robert F. Arnove (ed.), op.cit. [BACK]

  21. Rafael L. Irizarry, "Overeducation and Unemployment in the Third World: The Paradoxes of Dependent Industrialization", in: Comparative Education Review 24 (October, 1980), pp. 338-52. [BACK]

  22. Alan Sica & Harland Prechel, "National Political-Economic Dependency in the Global Economy and Educational Development", in: Comparative Education Review 25 (October 1981), pp. 384-402. [BACK]

  23. Remi Clignet, "Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't: The Dilemmas of Colonizer-Colonized Relations", in: Comparative Education Review 15 (October 1971), pp. 296-312. [BACK]

  24. Philip J. Foster, "Presidential Address: The Revolt Against the Schools", in: Comparative Education Review 15 (October, 1971), p. 271. [BACK]

  25. Martin McLean, "Educational Dependency: a Critique", in: Compare 13 (1983), pp. 25-42. [BACK]

  26. Anthony Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), p. 7. [BACK]

  27. Bourdieu & Passeron, op.cit., pp. 11-3. [BACK]

  28. P.T. Bauer, Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981). See, in particular, chapter 4. [BACK]

  29. Erwin H. Epstein, "Presidential Address. Currents Left and Right: Ideology in Comparative Education", in: Comparative Education Review 27 (February, 1983), pp. 3-29. [BACK]

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