» Core and periphery

Published: 5-04-2010, 17:23

Core and periphery

Core and periphery are terms used in geographic models to describe areas of differing economic production and political power and can be applied to both intra- and interstate variations. Core areas are described as the engines of economic growth and are characterized by modern, technologically advanced production methods as well as highly skilled and highwage labor. Places using low-technology production methods accompanied by low skill and low-wage labor, on the other hand, are labeled the periphery. Within the discipline of geography, the terms core and periphery are more common in the subdiscipline of political geography as compared to economic geography, where they have been deemphasized in favor of more complex notions of flows and processes. The concepts of core and periphery can be applied to various scales. At the interstate scale, examples of core areas are the United States, the countries of Western Europe, and Japan. In these countries goods are produced using technologically complex methods, wages are high, and the labor force is relatively educated and skilled. Countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh, and most of Sub-Saharan Africa are examples of the periphery, where technologically simple, labor-intensive, lowskill, and low-wage occupations predominate. These are broad generalizations and within a country there can be areas of core processes and areas of peripheral processes. In the United States, for example, Silicon Valley in California is a core area where high-technology businesses are clustered. Appalachia, on the other hand, is a peripheral area where technology is less complex and wages are low. Going down to even smaller scales, within a city core and peripheral areas can be spatially designated. In New York City, Wall Street and the financial district would represent a core area and some of the underdeveloped neighborhoods in the outer boroughs would be considered peripheral. Although core and peripheral areas are often mapped, they are not place-based phenomena, but rather are characterized by the production processes present. Therefore, where core and peripheral processes are located, as well as what constitutes core and peripheral processes, can change over time. In each particular historical era core processes are the most technologically advanced production methods present. In the 19th century, core processes were characterized by the industrialized mass production of goods, such as textiles, in places like Manchester, England. In the present day, however, textile production is a peripheral production process common in countries of the global south. More technologically advanced computer and financial businesses predominate in core areas.

The terms core and periphery are used in many contexts, but surprisingly the two main theories of core and periphery disagree on what the outcome of this economic differentiation will be. On the one hand, exchange- based theories of core and periphery predict long-term lessening of economic inequalities as core areas develop the periphery and bring it up to an equal economic level. On the other hand, world systems theory predicts that the uneven development will be maintained as core areas exploit the natural resources, both commodities like timber and coal as well as cheap labor, in peripheral areas, which will further economic disparities.

The exchange-based model of core-periphery relations is often associated with the writings of John Friedmann (1966), who first noted these economic differences in Venezuela. Exchange-based models rely on the notion that market forces, if undisturbed by state regulation, will eventually result in spatial economic equality. These theories suggest that the cheaper costs of labor and raw materials in peripheral areas will encourage businesses to invest there, which will bring development. This idea, often known as developmentalism, is the underlying theory used by most governments in the world and by international organizations like the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to promote free trade and economic reforms involving the deregulation of markets. Critics of developmentalism have pointed out that over time economic disparities have widened rather than converging as the exchange-based models predicted. As an alternative, these scholars suggest world systems theory, also known as the world economy model, to explain core-periphery economic development. World systems theory was first proposed by Immanuel Wallerstein (1974) as a model to explain the persistence of worldwide economic disparities historically. The world economy model focuses on the role countries play at the global scale and argues that there is one world economy driven by capital accumulation that has been in place for approximately the last 500 years. A unique aspect of the world economy model is the way power is understood. The model suggests power is derived from a country’s ability to control situations through active force (waging war), latent force (threatening action), non-decision making (avoiding issues by never discussing them), and structural position. Core countries utilize their structural position by setting market prices and wages, controlling the economic agenda through international organizations (WB, IMF, WTO), and promoting free trade and open borders. Technological advances are likely to occur only in the core because of the superior infrastructure present, which maintains the core countries’ structural advantage. Consequently, in the world economy model, the core is often described as the exploiter and the periphery as exploited. World systems theory also adds a third category, the semi-periphery, which mediates between core and peripheral areas, stabilizing the system. The semi-periphery, rather simply, is characterized by both core and peripheral processes. At the interstate scale, countries like South Africa or India are currently examples of this intermediate level. In India, core processes are present in cities like Bangalore and Mumbai where high technology businesses are clustered. However, in other parts of India there are millions of people who work in subsistence agriculture and earn less than one dollar a day. Critics of the world economy model point out that although the model suggests that the core has a structural advantage that allows it to maintain, and even strengthen, its position through unequal exchange of capital, several countries have been able to escape the periphery. Recent examples are countries like Singapore and South Korea, which have increased their gross domestic product rapidly in the past 50 years. Additionally, the United States, which is the strongest state in the core today, was a peripheral country 300 years ago. Finally, both world systems and exchange-based models of core and periphery are criticized for their use of static categories that do not adequately reflect complexities and variations on the ground. Although the terms core and periphery imply that discrete categories exist that are homogeneous within them and heterogeneous between them, in reality it is better to think of a continuum that flows between each level in these geographic models.
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