Modernization Theory Research Paper Starter

Modernization Theory

(Research Starters)

Modernization theory exemplifies a functionalist approach to inequality and focuses on the transition from "traditional" to "modern" society; it became an interdisciplinary (drawing on economics, political science, sociology, psychology, and history) approach to development and flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. Modernization theorists argued that modernization is inevitable, irreversible, and that the transformation from traditional to modern societies will occur in a linear way. Change can be achieved through the "diffusion" of modern economic and political institutions, technology, and culture through foreign investment and aid, and through education and mass media. Diffusion—or spread—of capital, technological innovations, and cultural traditions from developed to underdeveloped countries, is the mechanism that enables modernization. Modernization theory was widely criticized by the neo-Marxists, dependency theorists, and world-systems researchers and was largely discredited in the 1970s.

Keywords Diffusion; Economic Stages of Growth; Modern Societies; Modernization; Modernization Theory; Non-Communist Manifesto; Take-Off Toward Modernity; Traditional Societies; Value Convergence

Modernization Theory


Modernization theory is not a "proper" theory with explanatory claims, but rather a loosely defined approach to examining the processes of social change and the development of societies. It aims to answer the question of why inequality between nations persists, and offers blueprints for "development" along the "scientific-industrial lines pioneered by the West" (Adas, 2003, p. 36). Flourishing between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s in the United States, the modernization theory developed under the influence of scholars such as Walt Whitman Rostow, Bert Hoselitz, Daniel Lerner, Seymour Martin Lipset, Neil Smelser, David McCleeland, and others.

Relying on an idea of a dichotomous split between traditional and modern, modernization theories are firmly rooted in nineteenth-century theorizing. They evoke the polar opposites that Ferdinand Tönnies specified: Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society); they accepted Émile Durkheim's theorizing on mechanical versus organic solidarity; they borrowed Karl Marx's evolutionary progression from feudal-agricultural societies to capitalist-industrial economies; and they built on Max Weber's distinction between the traditional and rational forms of authority (Gereffi, 1983). Overall, modernization theories reject the ideas that "racial or innate deficiencies were responsible for the lowly position that the non-Western peoples" occupied in the hierarchy of the world nations (Adas, 2003). Instead, nations remained poor because whole societies cling to the "traditional" way of life instead of adapting "modern" institutions and technology and embracing "modern" attitudes. From the modernization theorists' point of view, "traditional values were not only mutable but could-and should-be replaced by modern values, enabling these societies to follow the (virtually inevitable) path of capitalist development" (Inglehart & Baker, 2000, p20). Modernization theorists assumed that modernization is an irreversible process, leading from traditional to modern societies, and that social change toward modernity will occur uniformly and in a linear way (Knobl, 2003).

Historical Context

Modernization perspective on (under)development emerged in the post-WWII era and was articulated against the backdrop of the Cold War. Concerned with the attractiveness of communism to the decolonizing nations, modernizers "sought to counter Lenin's argument with their own model of historical convergence" (Latham, 2003, p. 4). To the communist vision of class struggle leading to the abolition of private property and the dictatorship of the proletariat, the modernizers juxtaposed the ideas of "consensual democracy and liberal capitalism as the engines of progress" (Latham, 2003, p. 4). Moreover, while communism was still an unrealized utopia, proponents of modernization theory claimed that advanced nations—America, Western Europe, and Japan—have already reached the pinnacle of economic development, the "Age of High Mass-Consumption" (Rostow, 1990).


Rostow's "Non-communist Manifesto"

One of the most influential—if short-lived—articulations of the modernization theory was advanced by American economic historian Walt Whitman Rostow in his "non-communist manifesto" (1990), in which he argues that "take-off" toward modernity is achievable for the underdeveloped nations through the spread of modern economic organization and technology. Rostow's ideas were influential beyond the academic circles, since he served as the Kennedy administration's deputy special assistant to the president for national security affairs in the late 1950s. His ideas resonated in the wide-sweeping policies implemented during Kennedy's "Decade of Development," including increased US foreign aid to developing nations, military assistance, and overall emphasis on modernization (Haefele, 2003).

Rostow's core theory of modernization centers around the idea of "economic stages of growth" and was conceived as an alternative to Marx's theory of economic development, which—among other things—posits the inevitability of the worldwide spread of communism. In the post-colonial reality of the 1950s, the threat of impoverished nations embracing the communist path of development was looming large. At the same time, the success of postwar reconstruction in Europe, particularly the Marshall Plan, convinced many policymakers that an economic aid program could be successful in the postcolonial world and would bring the developing nations into the folds of Western capitalism and liberal democracy (Haefele, 2003).

Rostow argued that all societies can be positioned on the continuum of growth, and he identified five stages:

• The traditional society,

• The preconditions to take-off,

• The take-off,

• The drive to maturity, and

• The age of high mass-consumption.

These are not merely descriptive categories, but rather stages that Rostow claimed have an "analytic bone-structure, rooted in a dynamic theory of production" (Rostow, 1990, p. 12). Moreover, Rostow viewed all societies at any given time as positioned "merely at different points on the same developmental path" (Haefele, 2003).

The Traditional Society

The first stage on this continuum is what Rostow called the traditional society —a society whose resources are devoted primarily to agriculture and who exhibit a rigid hierarchical social structure rooted in it. Such societies' productivity is limited, and their value system could be described as a "long-run fatalism. " By long-run fatalism, Rostow meant the assumption that "the range of possibilities open to one's grandchildren would be just about what it had been for one's grandparents" (Rostow, 1990, p. 5).

The Preconditions for Take-Off

The next stage— the preconditions for take-off— rely on the spread of modern science and the ability of societies to harness the new scientific insights and translate them into technologies that increase productivity in both agriculture and industry. According to Rostow, such conditions first developed in Western Europe in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The transition from traditional societies to preconditions for take-off required major economic transformations and changes in social values. However, the most profound transformation of such societies was political, as the "building of an effective centralized national state—on the basis of coalitions touched with a new nationalism, in opposition to the traditional landed regional interests, the colonial power, or both, was a decisive aspect of the preconditions period" (Rostow, 1990, p. 7). This political transformation and the emergence of a strong nation-state is a necessary condition for the next stage.

The Take-Off

The previous stage prepares the ground for take-off, as new technologies spread through agriculture and industry and people are able to accept the new methods of production and rates of growth. Agriculture is commercialized...

(The entire section is 3686 words.)