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Modernization Theory - Applying Modernization Theory

soviet social system comparative

It is useful to distinguish two approaches to modernization in the heyday of the theory: applications of already identified steps along a unilinear path; and comparisons of variations along a path becoming more diverse geographically, even if long-term convergence was expected in social indicators. The former approach in its extreme form assumes that the histories of latecomers to modernization (after the first-comers had all been steeped in Western culture) are irrelevant, that they can best achieve economic growth and accompanying modernization by rapid democratization and copying of Western institutions, and that notions of the self and social relationships are destined to become much as they are idealized in the United States. Even if few writers explicitly made these arguments, critics insisted that this approach was the essence of modernization theory. In contrast, the latter approach looks for diversity in societies along the path of modernization, argues that historical legacies shape divergent paths to political and other institutions, and suggests that social relations can be expected to differ as well, even as some convergence occurs.

Clashing views of the Soviet Union may have underscored the two approaches to modernization at a time when Cold War divisions were uppermost in many minds. On the one side were those who expected the Soviet system to collapse. High rates of industrial growth and the ability to project national power presumably would amount to little when the people aspiring for freedom and the economy riddled with inefficiencies reached an impasse. From this perspective on modernization there was only one model, and any seeming alternatives did not merit comparative study. The universal model assumed a high degree of individualism, an intense quest for democracy, and an economy that allowed for little state intervention. If, for a time, a mobilizing state could produce rapid economic growth, this did not signify modernization and could not be sustained.

On the other side were those who recognized efforts to reform the Soviet system as well as the rise of East Asian societies that did not fit the supposedly universal model. They argued that levels of individualism vary, states differ in their involvement in society, and social relations historically have reflected different regional traditions. While modernization in some respects is a "universal social solvent," there is notable variation even among societies labeled the "West." The Soviet Union had the potential to concentrate on science and technology in education and the workplace in order to advance a new elite, while providing social welfare benefits to motivate a broader mass of the population. If totalitarianism only produces temporary results, then a technocracy based on rising interest groups could lead to more balanced modernization and eventual convergence with Western societies, where social welfare benefits and central coordination were gaining ground. A comparative approach to modernization theory began with studies of socialist countries, and, after Soviet reforms stagnated under Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982; in power 1964–1982), shifted to East Asian countries and especially Japan.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the two orientations in comparative modernization studies contended with theories on the left and the right. The comparative study of East Asia, highlighting first Japan's model of modernization and then the Confucian development model, faced the dependency school and related arguments centered on Latin American cases. In contrast to the insistence of the Latin Americanists that societies integrated into the global system of capitalism were doomed to remain in the periphery, locked into an unfavorable division of labor that perpetuates backwardness, the East Asianists affirmed the opportunities within the world system for an industrious population led by farsighted state policies. Studies of Japanese modernization pointed to benefits from the family system that supported educational achievement, workplace dedication, and long-range planning; the school and examination system that encouraged intense learning and competition as well as loyalty in the classroom, which could be transferred to the enterprise; and the workplace system that favored lifetime employment for a large segment of the workforce, seniority wages, enterprise unions, and competition among firms under administrative guidance from state ministries. While debates proceeded over how much these unusual aspects of modernization would withstand forces of convergence as Japan reached a higher stage of modernization and openness to foreign competition, the comparisons stressed that significant differences could shape development even in countries whose per capita income ranked at the top of the world.

The dependency theorists were guilty of ahistorical analysis, arguing that the Confucian cultures in East Asia that had produced extraordinary premodern levels of literacy, urbanization, meritocratic governance, and commercial development did not matter. Yet politicians and vested interests in some East Asian countries who lauded Asian values and resisted reforms that would broaden democracy and openness to outside influences were guilty, too, of slanted analysis, ignoring the argument of modernization theory that convergence continues, and more complex societies at higher stages of modernization, with greater openness to foreign competition and influences, must give voice to younger generations espousing new values. Critics of modernization theory on the left insisted that struggle against an oppressive world system (not domestic consolidation around shared values) would be necessary, dismissing comparisons that alleged different pathways to success.

The collapse of the traditional socialist model and then the Soviet Union brought to the fore the other struggle between comparative modernization studies and established social science schools, this time of a more conservative character. The comparativists had long argued that the unbalanced nature of socialist modernization would lead to far-reaching reforms. As China experienced economic success through its reforms, these comparativists pointed to policies that work and lessons that the Chinese had drawn from their emphasis on learning from modernization theory, beginning in the late 1970s under the slogan "the four modernizations." Analysts attributed transformation under the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931; in power 1985–1991) less to pressure from the United States than to a domestic search to rekindle economic growth by activating Soviet society and joining the world economy. When early reforms failed and the emphasis shifted to democratization and more radical measures, social scientists diverged in their response. Many economists and political scientists who considered the Soviet system a failure prescribed universal solutions with little regard for the legacies of Russian society and the Soviet social contract. This was quite different from the thrust of comparative modernization studies that considered the Soviet record of unbalanced development and the high level of dependency on the state of various groups, suggesting reforms that built on this existing foundation. "Shock therapy" became the symbol of imposing an external model without regard for comparative study that points to different pathways based on historical circumstances.

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