Defining Modernization Theory
Disagreements about what modernization theory is and what has been learned from comparisons bedevil discussions between users and critics. Those who applied the theory often failed to be specific or to supply supporting explanations to establish it as a powerful set of generalizations in the forefront of cross-disciplinary social science analysis, while critics usually neglected to define the theory precisely or to make an effort to balance its merits against alleged shortcomings. Although the theory exerted a huge impact on the disciplines of history, political science, and sociology, and on thinking about capitalism versus socialism, East Asia versus Western advanced capitalist countries, and more versus less developed countries, to many its legacy remains confusing, as does its connection to recent globalization theory. Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is little agreement on what modernization theory is and how it has advanced social science analysis.
The theory of modernization normally consists of three parts: (1) identification of types of societies, and explanation of how those designated as modernized or relatively modernized differ from others; (2) specification of how societies become modernized, comparing factors that are more or less conducive to transformation; and (3) generalizations about how the parts of a modernized society fit together, involving comparisons of stages of modernization and types of modernized societies with clarity about prospects for further modernization. Actually, reasoning about all of these issues predated postwar theory. From the Industrial Revolution, there were recurrent arguments that a different type of society had been created, that other societies were either to be left permanently behind or to find a way to achieve a similar transformation, and that not all modernizing societies had equal success in sustaining the process due to differences in economic, political, and other institutions. In the middle of the 1950s, these themes acquired new social science and political casting with the claim of increased rigor in analysis.
In the early post–World War II era, approximately twenty societies were regarded as highly modernized and roughly another ten to twenty were depicted as having passed a threshold on the path to modernization. Definitions of modernized varied. Some noted structural features, such as levels of education, urbanization, use of inanimate sources of energy, and fertility. Others pointed to attitudes, such as secularization, achievement orientation, functional specificity in formal organizations, and acceptance of equality in relationships. Conscious of the ethnocentric nature of many earlier explanations for growth in national power and income, social scientists in the 1950s and 1960s generally omitted cultural traits associated closely with Western history from definitions of modernity. Yet, given the rhetoric of the Cold War and a preoccupation with democracy in U.S. national identity, political institutions became a central factor in many definitions.
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