The term modernization conjures images of social change in the direction of general improvement over the past. In contemporary social sciences, the notion has been the basis of a theoretical orientation—variously referred to as modernization theory, approach, paradigm, or framework—to the study of the development of Third World or underdeveloped societies. The conception of development as a process of modernization gained prominence in the period after World War II, but its popularity ebbed in the 1960s. There were rival definitions of modernization in the social sciences; this entry, however, will be concerned mainly with the use of the term for a general theoretical orientation—a set of linked assumptions framing analysis of and debates about the nature and challenges of development. In this regard modernization was a historically unique type of social change, which was inexorable, transformational in its effects, and progressive in its consequences. The main institutional pillars for modern society were industrialism and the nation-state.
A product primarily of American social science, the modernization approach was inspired by two important and concurrent developments of the postwar era, the disintegration of European colonial empires and the Cold War. The emergence of many new nations out of the ashes of European colonial empires generated unprecedented intellectual and policy interest in their economic, political, social, and cultural makeup and development. With the United States and the Soviet Union as the two superpowers and respective leaders of the Western and Eastern blocs, the Cold War was, among other things, a competition between two ideologies—liberal capitalism versus socialism—each claiming to be the superior path to modernity. This ideological contest framed the superpowers' rivalry for the allegiances of developing countries. Modernization theory, directly or indirectly, was concerned with resolving the problems of underdevelopment by promoting market-based economies and pluralistic political systems. The approach thus appeared to be scholarship guided by and in support of specific Western policy objectives. The intellectual roots of modernization theory lie in pre-Socratic Western thinking about social change, and more immediately in the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which gave birth to modern social sciences. The Enlightenment embodied a critique of the "Old Order," when European societies were at the threshold of industrialization and exposed to social dislocations that would only intensify. Convinced of the inevitable demise of the old feudal order and of absolutism, Enlightenment intellectuals propounded the "Idea of Progress," a dogma about the immanence and desirability of change. In opposition to defenders of the Old Order, of social arrangements governed by and political authority legitimated by religion and tradition, they argued that rational knowledge of society, based on scientific investigation and freed from religious dogma and superstition, was possible and represented a superior form of knowledge. Once validated and acted on, such knowledge would advance the material and cultural emancipation of society. The founders of modern social sciences, prominent among them Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber, were products of the Enlightenment and enamored of the idea of progress as a universal historical process leading to a single modernity. In Marx's famous theory of history, for example, societies progressed through modes of production—primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and communism—and their corresponding political structures. In general, nineteenth-century evolutionary theories of social change were equally all-embracing, relied on dichotomous conceptions in which societies were characterized as composed of traditional and modern attributes, and saw social change as a process of structural changes resulting in the preeminence of the attributes of modernity. However conceived, emergent industrial societies and modern nation-states of the West represented the most advanced stage of societal transformation. They predicted the future of underdeveloped societies, the majority of which at the close of the nineteenth century had effectively been colonized by European states.
Modernization theory adopted the narrative of progress of nineteenth-century evolutionary theories of social change. It dispensed with the racist overtones of many, which tended to separate societies into "civilized" and "savage" and doubted the possibility of development of the latter. Adopting the nation-state as its main unit of analysis, the theory defined development as an endogenously driven process and maintained that modernization was a goal attainable by all societies. Retaining but elaborating the dichotomous conceptions of earlier evolutionary theories, the modernization approach conceived of underdeveloped societies as comprising traditional and modern sectors. The traditional sector was rural and agrarian, its sociopolitical organization defined by religion, superstition, primordial loyalties, and similar forces. In contrast, the modern sector was urban, its economy dominated by industry; social standing was determined by economic position (social class) and hence the result of personal achievement, and secularism defined the organization of social relations and public life. In effect, this equated development with the increasing Westernization of underdeveloped societies through elaboration of market-based economies and liberal, pluralistic political systems. One of the most famous articulations of the approach, W. W. Rostow's The Stages of Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, made this explicit. Modeling his analysis on Marx's theory of history, but blunt about his intention to present liberal capitalism as the superior path to modernity, Rostow argued that economies progressed through five historical phases: traditional, preconditions for takeoff, takeoff, drive to maturity, and the age of high mass consumption. Contrary to Marx, who saw capitalism as a way station to the ultimate modern society—stateless communism—Rostow argued that high–mass-consumption society, of which the United States was the most fully realized incarnation, was the end of the modernization process.
In general, the two key conditions for successful modernization were economic growth through industrialization and modernizing elites with the "psychocultural attributes" to guide their societies through the process. Modernization of underdeveloped societies could be realized in a shorter period than had been the case for Western societies. In bequeathing ex-colonies with modern economic enclaves and Westernized elites, colonial rule had laid the foundations for accelerating the process. Interestingly, the narrative of progress that undergirded the approach resonated with the nationalist aspirations of Third World elites. The promise of development of their societies served as a ubiquitous trope for the legitimization of their power. Although they adopted different ideological positions, modernization for them was fundamentally about the elaboration of the two projects of economic development through industrialization and nation-state building.
The modernization approach was subjected, as the 1960s unfolded, to increasingly blistering criticism, brought on by the realities of Third World societies, which mocked its excessive optimism. The record of economic growth in developing societies was at best mixed, and what growth occurred appeared to be accompanied by increases in mass poverty and economic inequality. Whereas modernization theory presumed economic growth that expanded social groups and engendered behavioral changes that favored the emergence of pluralistic political systems, instability and authoritarian rule appeared to be the norm. Against this backdrop, criticisms centered on the theory's ideological character, its limitations as a conceptual framework, and its contributions to the foreign policy objectives of—especially—the American government. The ethnocentrism of the approach, with its dichotomous constructs like "tradition" and "modern"—transparently, abstractions from vague and generalized images of the nature of changes in Western societies attending the rise of industrialism and the modern nation-state—drew fire. Based on such ideal types, the approach imagined the historically contingent experiences of Western societies as relevant to all societies. Moreover, in implying that "modern" and "traditional" were self-contained, it lacked definitional specificity and was of dubious analytical value, for social structures and relations in all societies were complex, shaped by the interpenetration of traditional and modern attributes, however defined. This was obviously the case in developing societies that had felt the impact of European colonization.
For conservative critics, such as the political scientist Samuel Huntington, the ethnocentrism and teleology of modernization theory made it a poor guide to public policy. The conjecture of an unproblematic causal link between economic development and the advance of pluralistic political systems encouraged a moralistic approach to policy toward the developing world, which promoted democracy even if it was not necessarily in the best interest of the United States. The social dislocations caused by economic development fed political instability; therefore, the creation of political order—the institutionalization of political authority—was a precondition for economic development and democracy. According to this argument, the main objective of American policy toward the developing world ought to be support of regimes that are capable of maintaining order and amicably disposed toward America's economic and strategic interests.
Radical critics, on the other hand, such as dependency and world system theorists, dismissed modernization theory as well as its conservative critics as engaged in providing intellectual justification for American imperial designs. In adopting the nation-state as the primary unit of analysis and positing modernization as a primarily endogenously driven process, they were both guilty of misleading representation of underdevelopment as an "original condition." Capitalism was a hierarchically organized global system, with nations or regions belonging to the core, semicore, or periphery of the system. The pace and pattern of development of "national" economies were contingent on the manner of incorporation and position of countries or regions within the world capitalist system and its corresponding hierarchy of nation-states. The underdevelopment of peripheral Third World societies followed from their incorporation, through colonialism, as subservient members in the world capitalist system and the shaping of their economies to serve the interests of dominant core states. Their governing elites were not altruistic agents of progressive social change but groups primarily interested in advancing their class interests. This they did in part by the use of state power to create and manage beneficial alliances between themselves and foreign capitalists. For radical critics, then, modernization theory and its conservative critics were both advocating an approach to development that favored the expansion of the world capitalist system.
In the 1980s, modernization theory and its radical alternatives were queried by many influenced by the postmodernist turn in cultural and social analysis. For this new group of critics, variously labeled postmodernist, poststructuralist, or post-development theorists, modernization theorists and their radical critics had more in common than they dared to admit, for their understanding of development was rooted in the dogma of linear progress. Consequently, they were equally guilty of advocating, in the name of development, policies that fostered the repression and disempowerment of marginalized groups in Third World societies, whose right to determine their own futures they denied. The combined weight of criticisms leveled against it robbed modernization theory of its allure. But despite the changing conceptual and normative vocabularies at the twentieth century's end, modernization theory's goal of a world of receding mass poverty and disease and of social and political interactions marked by civility instead of incessant conflict remains a pivotal concern in development analysis.
- Modernization Theory - Defining Modernization Theory, Applying Modernization Theory, Globalization Theory, Contemporary Theories, Bibliography
- Modernity - East Asia - Civilization And Enlightenment: Meiji Japan (1868–1912), Belated Enlightenment: China (1880s–1920s), Urban Cosmopolitan Modernity (1920s–1930s)
- Modernization - Bibliography
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