The Western and non-western world: an imprecise taxonomy

In the Netherlands like in most of the developed countries there are western and non-western immigrants. Citizens coming from Latin America, Africa, Turkey, and Asia are classified like non-western immigrants while citizens from Japan, Indonesia, North America, Australia and the rest of Europe are defined like western citizens and based on this taxonomy several public policies are designed.

In fact, the combination of the traditional category of “western and no-western world” with the notion of globalization is still systematically used in most of the academic debates in social science. However, it seems to be no consensus regarding its meaning and probably most of the time there is no idea of its content. How do you define the western and non western countries? Most important, what does it mean in a global era? What kinds of categories define the western world today? Does Latin America fit in the western world?

Yet, I will not try to answer all this questions; I am going to examine the ambiguity of these categories according to the definition given by some authors. The purpose is to underline the risk of using these concepts in academic contexts reproducing discourses of domination over the “others” and processes of exclusion, but most important concepts that impede a solid understanding of the contemporary social world.

In order to develop my argument, first, I will explain that the label “western and non western word” is part of the process of classification and identification that Habermas, Bauman and Bourdieu described as a feature of modernity. Second, I will identify the meaning of western and non western world for some authors that used these categories as points of reference in their works; Said and Ong. Third, some conclusions will be drawn regarding the usefulness of these concepts in a global era where the line that distinguishes the self-identity and the "others" is blurred.

Western and non western world: product of modernity.

Generally, the notion of western world has been used to describe in one word the political, economic and social process carried out in Europe and North America in the 19th century. It was traditional category used to describe and identify certain parts of the world from the other; it implied a geographical connotation with particular social and cultural characteristics. It emerged as a collective representation of Europe against the others (Said: 1989).
As many other boxes and classifications, these notions were created in order to rationalize the social change in the 19th century. In accordance to Bauman, “with the advent of the modern order strangers emerged from their reserves, secure identities lost durability and conviction…new boundaries were constructed around new identities…there were intense concerns with boundary drawing and boundary maintenance” (1989:41).

Regardless if the western and non western terms were and still are discourses of domination used to colonize the rest of the word or if they embedded racist and discriminatory notions (most of the time they are); certainly they were products of the attempt to rationalize the social world. They are what Bourdieu has remarked as attempts of some social scientist to create classificatory systems of explanations (like a zoologist does), in which under certain labels it is possible to group agents and predict their properties and practices. Classifications do not always correspond with the identification that agents produce of themselves. (1986:727).

Similarly, Habermas observed that the project of modernity was characterized by the division of the life world in separated domains of knowledge (art, morality and science) each of them with different criteria of validity. According to Habermas (1983), everything was classified and divided in hermetic domains of rationalization. In that order, Habermas, Bauman and Bourdieu explained that the modern era enabled the emergence of boxes, classifications and typologies as mechanisms of rationalization and self identification -the notion of non western world being one of them.

• The ambiguous border line.

Although, it is reasonable that in the 19th century western was referred to by the Europeans as a form of self identification against the rest of world, nowadays it is not any more an adequate geographical reference of a particular political, cultural or economic context. Its content is ambiguous and inaccurate. For instance, when discussing economic features “western” might mean countries like Europe, USA, Japan, Australia and South Korea but when referencing liberal democracies the borders change when including South Africa and Mexico. The distinction between western and non western in cultural terms is unclear, it could mean Christian and/ or secular countries, which are spread from all over the world. It is a problematic mechanism of inclusion or exclusion to refer the social world.

In addition, this system of classification failed, not only because “western” is no longer a concrete or assessable label but obviously are problematic in social sciences. Also it is absolutely useless to define the others in terms of the opposite; “the others” is composed of multiple worlds such as China, India, Africa and even Latin America.

However, regardless its ambiguity and controversial content, it is still used systematically in the academic field and indistinctively whether it is political, cultural or economic context. Curiously, social scientists have not been able to avoid this game, even those that are trying to point out and to unfold discourses of domination behind these categories. This is the case of Said and Ong, who identified “western” as a discourse for domination, racism and discrimination. However they could not avoid using it as a point of reference; failing in the same game of generalizations, ambiguities and discrimination that they were trying to denounce.

For example, Said argued that both the west and the orient are geographical man made identities, defining them as “two geographical entities that support and to an extent reflect each other” (1989:5). Despite, he emphasized the political and dominant character of these classifications: where the West has been defined as something cultural, political and economical superior, above of the rest of the world, “the relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (Said, 1978:5). He also fell into the same trap drawing the borderline between those worlds. Said limited the west to Europe and USA and the “others” basically are the Islamic- Orient world. Where is the rest of the world in his theory? What is applicable to the rest of the world? Is it comprehensive? Said, tried to subvert the notion of the western world as a category of domination but he did not subvert the “discourse”, he could not escape the same system of classification, boxes, and discrimination that he contested. Instead of opening the black boxes of domination he ended up reinforcing them.

Concerning Ong´s work, it is important to mention that she was not primarily focused on the distinction between western or non western world. She as many other authors used indistinctively the category of western democracies in order to discuss what she called the flexible citizenship or the process of making cultural citizens in the “first world countries” like the United Sates. Again, she criticized the western identity as linked to processes of colonization and slavery, as a category with a strong emphasis on political and social discrimination against “the others”, but her border line is also problematic. She used ambiguous criteria such us whiteness and liberal democracies (human rights protection and stable democratic regimes) to distinguish the western world from the “others”, yet she explicitly limited western to the United States and Western Europe. Once again, the western distinction is ensnared in a game of inclusion and exclusion that weakens her generalizations and gives an inaccurate definition of the non western world.

“African slavery and colonial empires were central to the making of modern Western Europe and the Americas. Encounters between colonizers and the colonized or enslaved gave rise to the view that whiteblack hierarchies are homologous with levels of civilization, a racist hegemony that pervades all areas of Western consciousness…I maintain that the processes of explicit and implicit racial and cultural ranking pervading institutional and everyday practices are but a special case of similar constructions in Western democracies in general. .” (Ong, 1996:3)


To sum up, three main conclusions should be drawn regarding the ambiguity and even useless categories or systems of classification such as “western and non western countries”, especially for academic purposes in social sciences.

1. Nowadays, they are ambiguous categories not only geographically but also politically, economically and culturally. Today, marginalization and political instability are no longer particular features of “the others” -developing countries, the south, non western . Globalization, neo-liberalism and the war on terror, among others events, have allowed the emergence of extreme poverty, political instability and human rights violations all over the world, counting the most industrialized cities.
2. The “western and non western world” as a system of classification, mechanism of identification or point of reference is not useful for academic purposes. It does not acknowledge accurately what is included and excluded. Particularly, when the main emphasis is stress upon the meaning of the western societies, the complex and diverse world of the “others” is underestimated, putting in the same box of “the others” worlds like India, China, Africa and Latin America.
3. Taking into account, the process of globalization and what Giddens (1994) called the advent of reflective societies, these categories are widening the gap between social sciences theory and social practices. Using these categories to distinguish certain types of societies, socials scientists failed to acknowledge the identification that individuals produced of themselves. For instances, it is common that wealthy citizens that reside in the big cities of countries like Colombia, Lebanon or Turkey define themselves as westerns.


1. Anthony Giddens (1994) Living in a Post-traditional Society. In Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, Scott Lash (eds.). Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, pp. 56-66; 95-107. Cambridge: Polity Press.

2. Aihwa Ong (1996). Cultural Citizenship as Subject-Making: Immigrants negotiate Racial and Cultural Boundaries in the United States. Current Anthropology 37,5: 737-762.

3. Edward Said (1978) Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin. Pp. 1-15; 19-28.

4. Jürgen Habermas (1983) Modernity – An Incomplete Project. In Forster, Hal (ed.) The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, pp. 3-15. Post Townsend, WA: Bay Press.

5. Loic Wacquant (1996) The Rise of Advanced Marginality: Notes on its Nature and Implication. Acta Sociologica 39(2): 121-139.

6. Pierre Bourdieu (1985) “The Social Space and the Genesis of Groups”. Theory and Society 14(6): 723-744.

7. Zygmunt Bauman (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity. 31-33; 39-60.

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Comment by Erle Frayne Argonza on September 8, 2008 at 5:55am
Very good, very very good! I surely like this piece. Pal, I wrote an article earlier regarding the 'Asian Renaissance' as a possible 'hope' in a period of descent to a New Dark Age. Being a Filipino who's been reared in both Western & Asiatic cultures, and who's striving to synthesize both East & West in me and help build a synthetic East & West 'new identity' and 'new weltanschauung', I tend to look at the 'East-West' categories in some other form more or less. What you're saying has great validity, this is guaranteed. The world however is moving out of the Polarity game today, and sooner or later the Law of Oneness will permeate the private sphere very strongly (I am a mystical yogi-Guru by the way). The challenge is to produce the 'New Human' who'd be a synthesis of East & West as a start, but in due time will evolve an identity/psyche that will be unique probably hundreds of years from now. The old East and West will be dissolved, effaced, erased, archived, and fit largely as materials for human studies in the distant future.

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