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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Hewett

Rethinking Subject Specific Terminology

Updated: Mar 18


In geography and across education, the language we use can have profound implications. Words carry weight, they shape perceptions, reflect societal attitudes and influence how we understand the world around us. Yet, certain terms carry outdated connotations or oversimplified notions that fail to capture the complexity of our global reality.


I recently started a series of posts on my social media to highlight some of the terms used in geography (and in other subjects) to reflect disparities in development that continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes. I thought I would bring them all together into one post. So, let's delve into some common terms and explore alternatives that better reflect the complexities of our world.


From Slum to Informal Settlement

The term "slum" originated in the 1800s, depicting densely populated, underserved urban areas. However, its historical baggage links it with marginalisation, poverty, and social inequality. Today, the term perpetuates negative stereotypes and stigmatizes low-income communities. It is therefore essential to make the distinction between "slum" and "informal settlements" with students.



It is important to recognise that informal settlement doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of planning in their construction. Instead, they often emerge due to a variety of factors, including rapid urbanisation, inadequate housing policies, and social inequalities. These areas typically lack formal basic services and are often disconnected from the broader city infrastructure (see UN definition). The informality arises from the insecure land and property tenure. Embracing "informal settlement" acknowledges the challenges faced by these communities without reinforcing detrimental stereotypes.


Informal Settlements: Informal settlements are residential areas where: 1. Inhabitants have no security of tenure vis-à-vis the land or dwellings they inhabit, with modalities ranging from squatting to informal rental housing, 2. The neighbourhoods usually lack, or are cut off from basic services and formal city infrastructure, 3. The housing may not comply with current planning and building regulations, situated in geographically and environmentally hazardous areas, and may lack a municipal permit UN-Habitat (2018)

Additionally, if we consider planned estates in cities like Chicago and London, often labelled as "slums", whereby adequate housing is unavailable, this again underscores the need for a shift in language. Describing these areas as under-served areas or acknowledging them as marginalized or low-income communities is less discriminatory and more reflective of their complex realities.


In the same vein, the term "squatter settlement" fails to capture the complexities underlying these communities' existence. Informal settlements often emerge due to systemic issues like a lack of affordable housing and social inequalities. Moreover, many have historical or cultural significance. Shifting towards "informal settlement" acknowledges these nuances and avoids oversimplification.


The term "slum" should therefore be used in very distinct circumstances, whereby it is used to describe the most deprived form of dwelling.


By reframing our language to capture the nuances of these communities and settlements, we can foster more inclusive and empathetic discussions about urban development.


Moving from "MEDC" and "LEDC" to "HIC," "MIC," and "LIC":


Many of us will be familiar with the Brandt line, which was popularised in the 1980's as a way of illustrating global inequalities. Forty years on and the limitations associated with the division of the world into the "rich north" and "poor south" are recognised. Yet the terms "more economically developed countries" (MEDCs) and "less economically developed countries" (LEDCs) continue to be used to categorise countries by their economic development.

The Brandt Line (Royal Geographical Society, www.rgs.org)


The global economy has evolved significantly, with countries like China and Brazil challenging the notion of a linear progression from less to more developed. Additionally, the terms "more" and "less" imply a hierarchical structure, potentially suggesting inferiority for countries classified as "less" developed.


Instead, adopting the classifications of high-income country (HIC), middle income country (MIC), and low-income country (LIC) offers a nuanced perspective through quantifiable methods. These classifications, established annually by the World Bank, are based on specific income thresholds using Gross National Income (GNI) per capita. Thus, these classifications provide a more accurate reflection of economic realities, they acknowledge that economic progress exists on a spectrum, and they evolve annually to reflect changing global economic landscapes.



In 2024, the income thresholds for these classifications are as follows: LIC - $1,135 or less (Dark Purple) MIC - $1,136 to $13,845 (Light Purple, Light Green) HIC - $13,846 or more (Dark Green)

As with any classifications there are limitations, yet these thresholds highlight the diverse economic situations across countries and emphasise the need for a nuanced approach to understanding and addressing economic disparities. For further information and data, visit the World Bank's website https://datatopics.worldbank.org/.


Moving Beyond "Third World


The use of the term "Third World" is one of my bugbears. It is one of those terms that has lost its original context. The term was coined during the Cold War, alongside "first world" and "second world," and was used to categorise countries based on political alignments rather than economic or social realities.

  • First world: Capitalist, industrialized countries (Western Europe, North America)

  • Second world: Communist countries (Soviet Union, allies)

  •  Third world: Non-aligned or developing nations.

Over time, the term has become associated with limited development, poverty and economic disparity. It also carries with it negative connotations; it reinforces a binary worldview and neglects the complexities of development.


By embracing terms like "low-income countries", "developing countries" or "emerging economies" we acknowledge the ongoing process of development and avoid enforcing stereotypes.


Final thoughts

In education the language we use holds significant power in shaping our students' perceptions and attitudes towards different communities and regions. By transitioning from outdated and potentially stigmatizing terms like "slum," "less developed" and "Third World" to more inclusive and accurate terminology, we not only acknowledge the complexities of global development but also promote empathy and understanding.


Join in the conversation and share your thoughts on outdated subject terminology and the alternatives.



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