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Modernization Theory

Defining Modernization Theory, Applying Modernization Theory, Globalization Theory, Contemporary Theories, Bibliography

For roughly one decade until the second half of the 1960s, modernization theory was in vogue in the social sciences, especially in the United States. The word modernization appeared widely in titles, the concept was commonly invoked in efforts to explain long-term change, and it figured in critiques of Marxist theory and discussions of Cold War differences over how newly independent countries should develop. If much of social science analysis at the time was seen as narrow, studies dressed in the mantel of modernization theory attracted attention as meeting an academic quest for cross-disciplinary breadth and a political imperative for lessons to disseminate around the world. Over the following two decades, an entirely different atmosphere arose; modernization theory became a target of far-flung criticism. It was attacked as an ahistorical effort to impose a U.S. or Western model, disregarding obstacles resulting from the actual world order. Many rejected any theory for postmodernist reasons, while others preferred neo-Marxist or world systems theories that put the blame for underdevelopment on the United States. It became popular to dismiss modernization studies as antithetical to solid social science analysis without bothering to mention any serious efforts to apply it systematically or the fact that, even under attack, many took for granted the lingering value of the theory as a framework for understanding modern development.

As the Cold War ended, the debate over modernization theory was rejoined, only to fade gradually in the face of rising disagreements over globalization. Some argued that the fall of communism at last supported the predictions about the danger of deviating sharply from requirements specified in the theory, while others replied that the failure of "shock therapy" and other abrupt changes in Russia and beyond proved once again that the theory was incorrect. Was failure of the socialist model at last proving that the modernization theorists were correct, or was failure of economic advice a sign that a Western model could not be transferred? Later, debates about globalization revisited many of the same themes as modernization theory. A half century after the theory burst into the academic limelight, social scientists are again weighing the pros and cons of opening to the outside world, political reform in order to improve state capacity and responsiveness, economic integration into a global division of labor, a breakdown of social barriers, and a knowledge orientation that maximizes absorption of information. At the same time, opinion is split on whether what is demanded includes a full-scale embrace of Western notions of individualism, democratic politics, and limited state management, or whether these features are not inherent in the model.

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