Savages, Primitives, and Developing Countries: The Use of Developmental Hierarchy Terms in Books, 1700-2008

Jeffrey Swindle, University of Michigan

Models of and for development are based on the concept of a developmental hierarchy, which constructs symbolic boundaries between the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing.’ While scholars have documented the presence of these symbolic boundaries within the text of certain books written by many prominent thinkers and social scientists throughout history, they have failed to assess whether these symbolic boundaries have been common across books in general. Accordingly, I identify 447 terms that explicitly reference societies’ positions along a developmental hierarchy, and then I analyze the frequency at which these terms appear in books published over the past 300 years using the Google Ngram Database. While I uncover several fluctuations over time in usage, the key finding is that developmental hierarchy terms have permeated books for at least the past three centuries. This result points to the durability of a deeply entrenched symbolic boundary system concerning the ranking of societies.

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Presented in Poster Session 9: Children and Youth; Data and Methods