Modernization theory is used to explain the process of modernization within societies. Modernization theory originated from the ideas of German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), which provided the basis for the modernization paradigm developed by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–1979). The theory looks at the internal factors of a country while assuming that with assistance, "traditional" countries can be brought to development in the same manner more developed countries have been. Modernization theory was a dominant paradigm in the social sciences in the 1950s and 1960s, then went into a deep eclipse. It made a comeback after 1991 but remains a controversial model.[1]

Modernization theory both attempts to identify the social variables that contribute to social progress and development of societies and seeks to explain the process of social evolution. Modernization theory is subject to criticism originating among socialist and free-market ideologies, world-systems theorists, globalization theorists and dependency theorists among others. Modernization theory stresses not only the process of change but also the responses to that change. It also looks at internal dynamics while referring to social and cultural structures and the adaptation of new technologies.

Modernization refers to a model of a progressive transition from a "pre-modern" or "traditional" to a "modern" society. Modernization theory suggests that traditional societies will develop as they adopt more modern practices. Proponents of modernization theory claim that modern states are wealthier and more powerful and that their citizens are freer to enjoy a higher standard of living[citation needed]. Developments such as new data technology and the need to update traditional methods in transport, communication and production make modernization necessary or at least preferable to the status quo. That view makes critique difficult since it implies that such developments control the limits of human interaction, not vice versa. And yet, seemingly paradoxically, it also implies that human agency controls the speed and severity of modernization. Supposedly, instead of being dominated by tradition, societies undergoing the process of modernization typically arrive at forms of governance dictated by abstract principles. Traditional religious beliefs and cultural traits, according to the theory, usually become less important as modernization takes hold.[2]

Today, the concept of modernization is understood in three different meanings: 1) as the internal development of Western Europe and North America relating to the European New Era; 2) as a process by which countries that do not belong to the first group of countries, aim to catch up with them; 3) as processes of evolutionary development of the most modernized societies (Western Europe and North America), i.e. modernization as a permanent process, carried out through reform and innovation, which today means a transition to a postindustrial society.[3] Historians link modernization to the processes of urbanization and industrialization and the spread of education. As Kendall (2007) notes, "Urbanization accompanied modernization and the rapid process of industrialization."[4] In sociological critical theory, modernization is linked to an overarching process of rationalisation. When modernization increases within a society, the individual becomes increasingly important, eventually replacing the family or community as the fundamental unit of society. It is also a subject taught in traditional Advanced Placement World History classes.


The current modernization theory originated with the ideas of German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) regarding the role of rationality and irrationality in the transition from traditional to modern society. Weber's approach provided the basis for the modernization paradigm as popularized by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), who translated Weber's works into English in the 1930s and provided his own interpretation.[5][6]

After 1945 the Parsonian version became widely used in sociology and other social sciences. By the late 1960s opposition developed because the theory was too general and did not fit all societies in quite the same way.[7]

German historian Thomas Nipperdey offered a highly detailed formulation in 1983 comparing modern versus traditional society, with German history in mind:[8]

A demographic revolution, a fall in mortality, and later a decline in the birth-rate; industrialization, mechanization, commercialization, division of labor; a retreat of the agrarian sector, urbanization, an increase in mobility; sustained growth, innovations, rises in the income of the mass of the population and of productivity; increase in literacy, rendering the world comprehensible through scientific discoveries, secularization; the state changes from being a personal organization of authority to being an institutional organization with a system of laws and a bureaucracy, standing in direct relationship with its subjects as a result of universal conscription, taxation, and education, and constantly extending its competence (welfare state); the centralizing state, the national state, imposes a greater degree of uniformity at the expense of particularistic entities; the recruiting of elites and functionaries is conducted on the principle of merit and not in accordance with heredity, privilege, or prescription; increase in political equality; incorporation of the masses in politics as a way of producing consent and legitimacy, whether by democratic or totalitarian means; transition from community [Gemeinschaft] to society [Gesellschaft], that is from particularist, prescribed, immediate, personal groups and associations to universal, voluntary, impersonal, abstract, objective, organizational combinations, from non-specialization to specialization, from a stable to a mobile system, from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, from the simple to the complex; the life of the individual ceases to be governed by tradition but is directed from the inside or the outside; in the place of a few prescribed roles come many self-chosen and contradictory roles; the plurality of life-styles, the individualist modelling of a way of life; the change in values: individualism, achievement, work, success, consumption, progress and know-how; the belief in dynamism and change as being superior to stasis and stability; the development of intellectualism, relativism, alienation.

Modernization and globalization

Globalization can be defined as the integration of economic, political and social cultures. It is argued that globalization is related to the spreading of modernization across borders.

Global trade has grown continuously since the European discovery of new continents in the Early modern period; it increased particularly as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the mid-20th century adoption of the shipping container.

Annual trans-border tourist arrivals rose to 456 million by 1990 and almost tripled since, reaching a total of over 1.2 billion in 2016.[9][10] Communication is another major area that has grown due to modernization. Communication industries have enabled capitalism to spread throughout the world. Telephony, television broadcasts, news services and online service providers have played a crucial part in globalization. Former U.S president Lyndon B. Johnson was a supporter of the modernization theory and believed that television had potential to provide educational tools in development.[11]

With the many apparent positive attributes to globalization there are also negative consequences. The dominant, neoliberal model of globalization often increases disparities between a society's rich and its poor.[12][citation needed] In major cities of developing countries there exist pockets where technologies of the modernised world, computers, cell phones and satellite television, exist alongside stark poverty. Globalists are globalization modernization theorists and argue that globalization is positive for everyone, as its benefits must eventually extend to all members of society, including vulnerable groups such as women and children.

Modernization and democratization

The relationship between modernization and democracy is one of the most researched studies in comparative politics.There are many studies show that modernization has contributed to democracy in some countries. For example, Seymour Martin Lipset argued that modernization can turn into democracy."[13] There is academic debate over the drivers of democracy because there are theories that support economic growth as both a cause and effect of the institution of democracy. “Lipset’s observation that democracy is related to economic development, first advanced in 1959, has generated the largest body of research on any topic in comparative politics,”[14]

Larry Diamond and Juan Linz, who worked with Lipset in the book, Democracy in Developing Countries: Latin America, argue that economic performance affects the development of democracy in at least three ways. First, they argue that economic growth is more important for democracy than given levels of socioeconomic development. Second, socioeconomic development generates social changes that can potentially facilitate democratization. Third, socioeconomic development promotes other changes, like organization of the middle class, which is conducive to democracy.[15]

As Seymour Martin Lipset put it, "All the various aspects of economic development—industrialization, urbanization, wealth and education—are so closely interrelated as to form one major factor which has the political correlate of democracy".[16] The argument also appears in Walt W. Rostow, Politics and the Stages of Growth (1971); A. F. K. Organski, The Stages of Political Development (1965); and David Apter, The Politics of Modernization (1965). In the 1960s, some critics argued that the link between modernization and democracy was based too much on the example of European history and neglected the Third World.[17]

One historical problem with that argument has always been Germany whose economic modernization in the 19th century came long before the democratization after 1918. Berman, however, concludes that a process of democratization was underway in Imperial Germany, for "during these years Germans developed many of the habits and mores that are now thought by political scientists to augur healthy political development".[18]

Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel contend that the realization of democracy is not based solely on an expressed desire for that form of government, but democracies are born as a result of the admixture of certain social and cultural factors. They argue the ideal social and cultural conditions for the foundation of a democracy are born of significant modernization and economic development that result in mass political participation.[19]

Peerenboom explores the relationships among democracy, the rule of law and their relationship to wealth by pointing to examples of Asian countries, such as Taiwan and South Korea, which have successfully democratized only after economic growth reached relatively high levels and to examples of countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and India, which sought to democratize at lower levels of wealth but have not done as well.[20]

Adam Przeworski and others have challenged Lipset's argument. They say political regimes do not transition to democracy as per capita incomes rise. Rather, democratic transitions occur randomly, but once there, countries with higher levels of gross domestic product per capita remain democratic. Epstein et al. (2006) retest the modernization hypothesis using new data, new techniques, and a three-way, rather than dichotomous, classification of regimes. Contrary to Przeworski, this study finds that the modernization hypothesis stands up well. Partial democracies emerge as among the most important and least understood regime types.[21]

A meta-analysis by Gerardo L. Munck of research on Lipset's argument shows that a majority of studies do not support the thesis that higher levels of economic development leads to more democracy.[22]

Highly contentious is the idea that modernization implies more human rights, with China in the 21st century being a major test case.


New technology is a major source of social change. (Social change refers to any significant alteration over time in behaviour patterns and cultural values and norms.) Since modernization entails the social transformation from agrarian societies to industrial ones, it is important to look at the technological viewpoint; however, new technologies do not change societies by itself. Rather, it is the response to technology that causes change. Frequently, technology is recognized but not put to use for a very long time such as the ability to extract metal from rock[citation needed] Although that initially went unused, it later had profound implications for the developmental course of societies. Technology makes it possible for a more innovative society and broad social change. That dramatic change through the centuries that has evolved socially, industrially, and economically, can be summed up by the term modernization. Cell phones, for example, have changed the lives of millions throughout the world. That is especially true in Africa and other parts of the Middle East, where there is a low-cost communication infrastructure. With cell phone technology, widely dispersed populations are connected, which facilitates business-to-business communication and provides internet access to remoter areas, with a consequential rise in literacy.[citation needed]

Modernization and development

Development, like modernization, has become the orienting principle of modern times. Countries that are seen as modern are also seen as developed, which means that they are generally more respected by institutions such as the United Nations and even as possible trade partners for other countries. The extent to which a country has modernized or developed dictates its power and importance on the international level.[citation needed]

Modernization of the health sector of developing nations recognizes that transitioning from "traditional" to "modern" is not merely the advancement in technology and the introduction of Western practices; implementing modern healthcare requires the reorganization of political agenda and, in turn, an increase in funding by feeders and resources towards public health. Additionally, a strong advocate of the DE-emphasis of medical institutions was Halfdan T. Mahler, the WHO General Director from 1973 to 1988. Related ideas have been proposed at international conferences such as Alma-Ats and the "Health and Population in Development" conference, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation in Italy in 1979, and selective primary healthcare and GOBI were discussed (although they have both been strongly criticized by supporters of comprehensive healthcare). Overall, however, this is not to say that the nations of the Global South can function independently from Western states; significant funding is received from well-intention programs, foundations, and charities that target epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis that have substantially improved the lives of millions of people and impeded future development.[23]

Modernization theorists often saw traditions as obstacles to economic growth. According to Seymour Martin Lipset, economic conditions are heavily determined by the cultural, social values present in that given society.[24] Furthermore, while modernization might deliver violent, radical change for traditional societies, it was thought worth the price. Critics insist that traditional societies were often destroyed without ever gaining the promised advantages if, among other things, the economic gap between advanced societies and such societies actually increased. The net effect of modernization for some societies was therefore the replacement of traditional poverty by a more modern form of misery, according to these critics.[25] Others point to improvements in living standards, physical infrastructure, education and economic opportunity to refute such criticisms.


United States foreign aid in the 1960s

President John F. Kennedy (1961–63) relied on economists W.W. Rostow on his staff and outsider John Kenneth Galbraith for ideas on how to promote rapid economic development in the "Third World", as it was called at the time. They promoted modernization models in order to reorient American aid to Asia, Africa and Latin America. In the Rostow version in his The Stages of Economic Growth (1960) progress must pass through five stages, and for underdeveloped world the critical stages were the second one, the transition, the third stage, the takeoff into self-sustaining growth. Rostow argued that American intervention could propel a country from the second to the third stage he expected that once it reached maturity, it would have a large energized middle class that would establish democracy and civil liberties and institutionalize human rights. The result was a comprehensive theory that could be used to challenge Marxist ideologies, and thereby repel communist advances.[26] The model provided the foundation for the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, the Peace Corps, Food for Peace, and the Agency for International Development (AID). Kennedy proclaimed the 1960s the "Development Decade" and substantially increased the budget for foreign assistance. Modernization theory supplied the design, rationale, and justification for these programs. The goals proved much too ambitious, and the economists in a few years abandoned the European-based modernization model as inappropriate to the cultures they were trying to impact.[27][28]

Kennedy and his top advisers were working from implicit ideological assumptions regarding modernization. They firmly believed modernity was not only good for the target populations, but was essential to avoid communism on the one hand or extreme control of traditional rural society by the very rich landowners on the other. They believed America had a duty, as the most modern country in the world, to promulgate this ideal to the poor nations of the Third World. They wanted programs that were altruistic, and benevolent—and also tough, energetic, and determined. It was benevolence with a foreign policy purpose. Michael Latham has identified how this ideology worked out in three major programs the Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps, and the strategic hamlet program in South Vietnam. However, Latham argues that the ideology was a non-coercive version of the modernization goals of the imperialistic of Britain, France and other European countries in the 19th century .[29]


From the 1970s, modernization theory has been criticized by numerous scholars, including Andre Gunder Frank (1929–2005)[30] and Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-2019).[31] In this model, the modernization of a society required the destruction of the indigenous culture and its replacement by a more Westernized one. By one definition, modern simply refers to the present, and any society still in existence is therefore modern. Proponents of modernization typically view only Western society as being truly modern and argue that others are primitive or unevolved by comparison. That view sees unmodernized societies as inferior even if they have the same standard of living as western societies. Opponents argue that modernity is independent of culture and can be adapted to any society. Japan is cited as an example by both sides. Some see it as proof that a thoroughly modern way of life can exist in a non western society. Others argue that Japan has become distinctly more western as a result of its modernization.

As Tipps has argued, by conflating modernization with other processes, with which theorists use interchangeably (democratization, liberalization, development), the term becomes imprecise and therefore difficult to disprove.[7]

The theory has also been criticised empirically, as modernization theorists ignore external sources of change in societies. The binary between traditional and modern is unhelpful, as the two are linked and often interdependent, and "modernization" does not come as a whole.

Modernization theory has also been accused of being Eurocentric, as modernization began in Europe, with the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution and the Revolutions of 1848[32] and has long been regarded as reaching its most advanced stage in Europe. Anthropologists typically make their criticism one step further and say that the view is ethnocentric and is specific to Western culture.

Dependency theory

One alternative model is dependency theory. It emerged in the 1950s and argues that the underdevelopment of poor nations in the Third World derived from systematic imperial and neo-colonial exploitation of raw materials.[33] Its proponents argue that resources typically flow from a "periphery" of poor and underdeveloped states to a "core" of wealthy states, enriching the latter at the expense of the former. It is a central contention of dependency theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank that poor states are impoverished and rich ones enriched by the way poor states are integrated into the "world system".[34]

Dependency models arose from a growing association of southern hemisphere nationalists (from Latin America and Africa) and Marxists.[35] It was their reaction against modernization theory, which held that all societies progress through similar stages of development, that today's underdeveloped areas are thus in a similar situation to that of today's developed areas at some time in the past, and that, therefore, the task of helping the underdeveloped areas out of poverty is to accelerate them along this supposed common path of development, by various means such as investment, technology transfers, and closer integration into the world market. Dependency theory rejected this view, arguing that underdeveloped countries are not merely primitive versions of developed countries, but have unique features and structures of their own; and, importantly, are in the situation of being the weaker members in a world market economy.[36]

See also


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