Modernization theory

Modernization theory is used to explain the process of modernization within societies. Modernization refers to a model of a progressive transition from a 'pre-modern' or 'traditional' to a 'modern' society. Modernization theory originated from the ideas of German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), which provided the basis for the modernization paradigm developed by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902-1979). The theory looks at the internal factors of a country while assuming that with assistance, "traditional" countries can be brought to development in the same manner more developed countries have been. Moderniziation theory was a dominant paradigm in the social sciences in the 1950s and 1960s, then went into a deep eclipse. It made a comeback after 1990 but remains a controversial model.[1]

Modernization theory both attempts to identify the social variables that contribute to social progress and development of societies and seeks to explain the process of social evolution. Modernization theory is subject to criticism originating among socialist and free-market ideologies, world-systems theorists, globalization theorists and dependency theorists among others. Modernization theory stresses not only the process of change but also the responses to that change. It also looks at internal dynamics while referring to social and cultural structures and the adaptation of new technologies. Modernization theory maintains that traditional societies will develop as they adopt more modern practices. Proponents of modernization theory claim that modern states are wealthier and more powerful and that their citizens are freer to enjoy a higher standard of living. Developments such as new data technology and the need to update traditional methods in transport, communication and production, it is argued, make modernization necessary or at least preferable to the status quo. That view makes critique of modernization difficult since it implies that such developments control the limits of human interaction, not vice versa. It also implies that human agency controls the speed and severity of modernization. Supposedly, instead of being dominated by tradition, societies undergoing the process of modernization typically arrive at forms of governance dictated by abstract principles. Traditional religious beliefs and cultural traits, according to the theory, usually become less important as modernization takes hold.[2]

Historians link modernization to the processes of urbanization and industrialization and the spread of education. As Kendall (2007) notes, "Urbanization accompanied modernization and the rapid process of industrialization."[3] In sociological critical theory, modernization is linked to an overarching process of rationalisation. When modernization increases within a society, the individual becomes increasingly important, eventually replacing the family or community as the fundamental unit of society


Sociological theories of the late 19th century such as Social Darwinism provided a basis for asking what were the laws of evolution of human society.[4] The current modernization theory originated with the ideas of German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) regarding the role of rationality and irrationality in the transition from traditional to modern society. Weber's approach provided the basis for the modernization paradigm as popularized by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), who translated Weber's works into English in the 1930s and provided his own interpretation.[5][6]

After 1945 the Parsonian version became widely used in sociology and other social sciences. By the late 1960s opposition developed because the theory was too general and did not fit all societies in quite the same way.[7]

Globalization and modernization

Globalization can be defined as the integration of economic, political and social cultures and, it is argued that is related to the spreading of modernization across borders.

Global trade has grown continuously since the European discovery of new continents in the Early modern period; it increased particularly as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the mid-20th century adoption of the shipping container.

Annual trans-border tourist arrivals rose to 456 million by 1990 and are expected to double again, to 937 million per annum, by 2010.[8] Communication is another major area that has grown due to modernization. Communication industries have enabled capitalism to spread throughout the world. Telephony, television broadcasts, news services and online service providers have played a crucial part in globalization.

With the many apparent positive attributes to globalization there are also negative consequences. The dominant, neoliberal model of globalization often increases disparities between a society's rich and its poor.[9] In major cities of developing countries there exist pockets where technologies of the modernised world, computers, cell phones and satellite television, exist alongside stark poverty. Globalists are globalization modernization theorists and argue that globalization is positive for everyone, as its benefits must eventually extend to all members of society, including vulnerable groups such as women and children.

Democratization and modernization

There is lively academic debate over the relation between democracy and modernization. Some scholars argue democratization follows modernization, but others have also disputed that claim.

Some scholars have argued that democracy follows modernization, perhaps with a time lag. As Seymour Martin Lipset put it, "All the various aspects of economic development — industrialization, urbanization, wealth and education — are so closely interrelated as to form one major factor which has the political correlate of democracy".[10] In the 1960s, some critics argued that the link between modernization and democracy was based too much on the example of European history and neglected the Third World.[11] Recent demonstrations of the emergence of democracy in South Korea, Taiwan and South Africa have been cited as support for Lipset's thesis.

One historical problem with that argument has always been Germany whose economic modernization in the 19th century came long before the democratization after 1918. Berman, however, concludes that a process of democratization was underway in Imperial Germany, for "during these years Germans developed many of the habits and mores that are now thought by political scientists to augur healthy political development".[12]

Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel (2009) contend that the realization of democracy is not based solely on an expressed desire for that form of government, but democracies are born as a result of the admixture of certain social and cultural factors. They argue the ideal social and cultural conditions for the foundation of a democracy are born of significant modernization and economic development that result in mass political participation.[13]

Peerenboom (2008) explores the relationships among democracy, the rule of law and their relationship to wealth by pointing to examples of Asian countries, such as Taiwan and South Korea, which have successfully democratized only after economic growth reached relatively high levels and to examples of countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and India, which sought to democratize at lower levels of wealth but have not done as well.[14]

Adam Przeworski and others have challenged Lipset's argument. They say political regimes do not transition to democracy as per capita incomes rise. Rather, democratic transitions occur randomly, but once there, countries with higher levels of gross domestic product per capita remain democratic. Epstein et al. (2006) retest the modernization hypothesis using new data, new techniques, and a three-way, rather than dichotomous, classification of regimes. Contrary to Przeworski, this study finds that the modernization hypothesis stands up well. Partial democracies emerge as among the most important and least understood regime types.[15]

Highly contentious is the idea that modernization implies more human rights, with China in the 21st century being a major test case.


New technology is a major source of social change. Since modernization entails the social transformation from agrarian societies to industrial ones, it is important to look at the technological viewpoint; however, new technologies do not change societies by itself. Rather, it is the response to technology that causes change. Frequently, technology is recognized but not put to use for a very long time such as the ability to extract metal from rock. Although that initially went unused, it later had profound implications for the developmental course of societies. Technology makes it possible for a more innovated society and broad social change. That dramatic change through the centuries that has evolved socially, industrially, and economically, can be summed up by the term modernization. Cell phones, for example, have changed the lives of millions throughout the world. That is especially true in Africa and other parts of the Middle East, where there is a low cost communication infrastructure. With cell phone technology, widely dispersed populations are connected, which facilitates business-to-business communication and provides internet access to remoter areas, with a consequential rise in literacy.

Development and modernization

Development, like modernization, has become the orienting principle of modern times. Countries that are seen as modern are also seen as developed, which means that they are generally more respected by institutions such as the United Nations and even as possible trade partners for other countries. The extent to which a country has modernized or developed dictates its power and importance on the international level.

Modernization of the health sector of developing nations recognizes that transitioning from 'traditional' to 'modern' is not merely the advancement in technology and the introduction of Western practices; implementing modern healthcare requires the reorganization of political agenda and, in turn, an increase in funding by feeders and resources towards public health. However, rather than replicating the stages of developed nations, whose roots of modernization are found with the context of industrialization or colonialism, underdeveloped nations should apply proximal interventions to target rural communities and focus on prevention strategies rather than curative solutions. That has been successfully exhibited by the Christian Medical Commission and in China through 'barefoot doctors'. Additionally, a strong advocate of the DE-emphasis of medical institutions was Halfdan T. Mahler, the WHO General Director from 1973 to 1988. Related ideas have been proposed at international conferences such as Alma-Ats and the "Health and Population in Development" conference, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation in Italy in 1979, and selective primary healthcare and GOBI were discussed (although they have both been strongly criticized by supporters of comprehensive healthcare). Overall, however, this is not to say that the nations of the Global South can function independently from Western states; significant funding is received from well-intention programs, foundations, and charities that target epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis that have substantially improved the lives of millions of people and impeded future development.[16]

Modernization theorists often saw traditions as obstacles to economic growth. According to Seymour Martin Lipset, economic conditions are heavily determined by the cultural, social values present in that given society.[17] Furthermore, while modernization might deliver violent, radical change for traditional societies, it was thought worth the price. Critics insist that traditional societies were often destroyed without ever gaining the promised advantages if, among other things, the economic gap between advanced societies and such societies actually increased. The net effect of modernization for some societies was therefore the replacement of traditional poverty by a more modern form of misery, according to these critics.[18] Others point to improvements in living standards, physical infrastructure, education and economic opportunity to refute such criticisms.


From the 1960s, modernization theory has been criticized by numerous scholars, including Andre Gunder Frank (1929 – 2005)[19] and Immanuel Wallerstein (born 1930).[20] In this model, the modernization of a society required the destruction of the indigenous culture and its replacement by a more Westernized one. By one definition, modern simply refers to the present, and any society still in existence is therefore modern. Proponents of modernization typically view only Western society as being truly modern and argue that others are primitive or unevolved by comparison. That view sees unmodernized societies as inferior even if they have the same standard of living as western societies. Opponents argue that modernity is independent of culture and can be adapted to any society. Japan is cited as an example by both sides. Some see it as proof that a thoroughly modern way of life can exist in a non western society. Others argue that Japan has become distinctly more western as a result of its modernization.

As Tipps has argued, by conflating modernization with other processes, with which theorists use interchangeably (democratization, liberalization, development), the term becomes imprecise and therefore difficult to disprove.[21]

The theory has also been criticised empirically, as modernization theorists ignore external sources of change in societies. The binary between traditional and modern is unhelpful, as the two are linked and often interdependent, and 'modernization' does not come as a whole.

Modernization theory has also been accused of being Eurocentric, as modernization began in Europe, with the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution and the Revolutions of 1848 (Macionis 953) and has long been regarded as reaching its most advanced stage in Europe. Anthropologists typically make their criticism one step further and say that the view is ethnocentric and is specific to Western culture.

Dependency theory

One alternative model on the left is Dependency theory. It emerged in the 1950s and argues that the underdevelopment of poor nations in the Third World derived from systematic imperial and neo-colonial exploitation of raw materials.[22] Its proponents argue that resources typically flow from a "periphery" of poor and underdeveloped states to a "core" of wealthy states, enriching the latter at the expense of the former. It is a central contention of dependency theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank that poor states are impoverished and rich ones enriched by the way poor states are integrated into the "world system".[23]

Dependency models arose from a growing association of southern hemisphere nationalists (from Latin America and Africa) and Marxists.[24] It was their reaction against modernization theory, which held that all societies progress through similar stages of development, that today's underdeveloped areas are thus in a similar situation to that of today's developed areas at some time in the past, and that, therefore, the task of helping the underdeveloped areas out of poverty is to accelerate them along this supposed common path of development, by various means such as investment, technology transfers, and closer integration into the world market. Dependency theory rejected this view, arguing that underdeveloped countries are not merely primitive versions of developed countries, but have unique features and structures of their own; and, importantly, are in the situation of being the weaker members in a world market economy.[25]

See also


  1. Wolfgang Knobl, "Theories That Won’t Pass Away: The Never-ending Story." in Gerard Delanty, Engin F. Isin, eds. Handbook of Historical Sociology (2003): 96-107 esp p 97 online.
  2. modernization - Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved on 2013-08-17.
  3. Diana Kendall, Sociology in Our Times (2007) p. 11
  4. Bernstein, Henry. "Modernization theory and the sociological study of development" Journal of Development Studies 7#2 (1971): 141-160.
  5. Jeremiah I. Dibua (2006). Modernization and the Crisis of Development in Africa: The Nigerian Experience. Ashgate. pp. 20–22.
  6. Leon H. Mayhew, ed., Talcott Parsons on institutions and social evolution: selected writings (1985).
  7. Dean C. Tipps, "Modernization theory and the comparative study of national societies: A critical perspective." Comparative Studies in Society and History 15#2 (1973): 199-226.
  8. (Knowles, 1994: FT,7 January 1997: V11)
  9. Parekh, Serena; Wilcox, Shelley (2014-01-01). Zalta, Edward N., ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 ed.).
  10. Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man (1963), p. 41. The argument also appears in Walt W. Rostow, Politics and the Stages of Growth (1971); A. F. K. Organski, The Stages of Political Development (1965); and David Apter, The Politics of Modernization (1965)
  11. Andre Gunder Frank, Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution (1969)
  12. Sheri E. Berman, "Modernization in Historical Perspective: The Case of Imperial Germany," World Politics v.53#3 (2001) 431-462 quote at p 456
  13. Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, "How Development Leads to Democracy," Foreign Affairs Mar/Apr2009, Vol. 88 Issue 2, pp 33-48
  14. Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes: Threat to the West or Model for the Rest? (2008) p, 63. He suggests China will grant democratic rights when it is as modern and as rich as the West per capita.
  15. David L. Epstein, et al., "Democratic Transitions," American Journal of Political Science 2006 50(3): 551-569
  16. Cueto, Marcos. 2004. The ORIGINS of Primary Health Care and SELECTIVE Primary Health Care. Am J Public Health 94 (11):1864-1874.
  17. Lipset, Seymour Martin (1967). "Chapter 1: Values, Education, and Entrepreneurship". Elites in Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 3.
  18. Majid Rahnema, Quand la misère chasse la pauvreté, Arles: Actes Sud 2003
  19. Sing Chew and Pat Lauderdale, eds. Theory and methodology of world development: The writings of Andre Gunder Frank (Springer, 2010).
  20. Theda Skocpol, "Wallerstein's world capitalist system: a theoretical and historical critique." American Journal of Sociology (1977) 82#5 pp. 1075-1090 in JSTOR
  21. Dean C. Tipps, "Modernization theory and the comparative study of national societies: A critical perspective." Comparative Studies in Society and History 15#2 (1973): 199-226.
  22. Abhijeet Paul, "Dependency theory." in John Mackenzie, ed. The Encyclopedia of Empire (2016) DOI: 10.1002/9781118455074.wbeoe242
  23. Patrick Manning, and Barry K. Gills, eds. Andre Gunder Frank and global development: visions, remembrances, and explorations (Routledge, 2013).
  24. Tony Smith, "The underdevelopment of development literature: the case of dependency theory." World Politics 31#2 (1979): 247-288.
  25. Newschool, "Economic Development", retrieved July 2009.


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