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A Discursive Trap?: The Power and Danger of the Middle-income Trap Discourse

Author: Nicole Curato


Abstract: The “middle-income trap” has gained currency in the past decade among economists and development practitioners. The term draws attention to countries that have experienced rapid economic growth but failed to break through the high-income status. This article critically examines the underlying discursive logics behind the vocabulary of the middle-income country trap. The term may seem technical and benign, but its ontology, assumptions, rhetorical devices, and conception of economic actors privilege a sequential view of economic development bereft of normative considerations and ethical standpoints. This article argues that the middle-income country trap narrative posits a worldview that promotes a growth agenda using the experience of the industrialized North as a benchmark. The term “trap,” particularly, posits an imperative for growth where being “stuck” in the middle-income status is pathologized and demands for economic intervention is legitimized. This discourse is formed by a range of rhetorical devices that evoke urgent responses to the impending threat of lagging behind. Motives for using this vocabulary may not be malicious—well-meaning, even—but the taken-for-granted status of these knowledge claims warrants a critical engagement. Discourses have consequences in economic planning and policy formulations for they provide the vocabulary for desirable economic trajectories. To analyze the middle-income trap discourse, therefore, is to stimulate a systematic process of critique that can potentially open spaces for alternative possibilities for the current economic order. These observations are based on a qualitative discourse analysis of key policy documents and punditry on the puzzles and perils of countries trapped in the middle-income status. Using Dryzek’s (1997) approach to discourse analysis, this article seeks to interrogate and de-naturalize dominant economic agendas and offer a critical sociological language that can lay bare the underpinnings of a technocratic discourse. Overall, this article argues for a reflective take on technical vocabularies to break free from emerging discursive traps.

Keywords: middle-income trap; discourse analysis; modernization thesis; development; economic growth; political economy