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Modernization theory

Modernisation theory is used to explain the process of modernization within societies. Modernization refers to a model of a progressive transition from a 'pre-modern' or 'traditional' to a 'modern' society. 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. Modernization theory 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 not only stresses 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 theory maintains 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. Developments such as new data technology and the need to update traditional methods in transport, communication and production, it is argued, make modernization necessary or at least preferable to the status quo. This view makes critique of modernization difficult, since it implies that such developments control the limits of human interaction, and not vice versa. 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.[1]

Historians link modernization to the processes of urbanisation and industrialisation, as well as to the spread of education. As Kendall (2007) notes, "Urbanization accompanied modernization and the rapid process of industrialization."[2] 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.[1]


  • Globalization and modernization 1
  • Modernization theory and democratization 2
  • Technology 3
  • Development and modernisation theory 4
  • Criticism 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Bibliography 8
  • External links 9

Globalization and modernization

Globalization can be defined as the integration of economic, political and social cultures and, it is argued, is related to the spreading of modernisation across borders.

Global trade has grown continuously since the European discovery of new continents in the Early Modern period; it increasinged 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 are expected to double again, to 937 million per annum, by 2010.[3] Communication is another major area that has grown due to modernisation. 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.

With the many apparent positive attributes to globalization there are also negative consequences. The dominant, neoliberal model of globalisation often increases disparities between a society's rich and its poor. 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 modernisation 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 theory and democratization

There is lively academic debate over the relation between democracy and modernization. Whilst some scholars argue democratization follows modernisation, others have also disputed this claim.

Some scholars have argued that democracy follows modernisation, perhaps with a time lag. 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."[4] In the 1960s some critics argued that the link between modernisation and democracy was based too much on the example of European history, neglecting the Third World.[5] Recent demonstrations of the emergence of democracy in South Korea, Taiwan and South Africa have been cited as support for Lipset's thesis.

One historical problem with this argument has always been Germany, in which economic modernisation in the 19th century came long before the move to democracy 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.".[6]

Ronald Inglehart, and Christian Welzel (2009) contend that the realization of democracy is not based solely on an expressed desire for that form of government, but that 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 modernisation and economic development that result in mass political participation.[7]

Peerenboom (2008) 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, that 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 that sought to democratize at lower levels of wealth but have not done as well.[8]

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 modernisation hypothesis using new data, new techniques, and a three-way, rather than dichotomous, classification of regimes. Contrary to Przeworski, this study finds that the modernisation hypothesis stands up well. Partial democracies emerge as among the most important and least understood regime types.[9]

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


New technology is a major source of social change. Since modernisation 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, for example the ability to extract metal from rock. Although it initially went unused, it later had profound implications for the developmental course of societies. Technology makes it possible for a more innovated society and broad social change. This dramatic change through the centuries that has evolved socially, industrially, and economically, can be summed up by the term modernisation. Cell phones, for example, have changed the lives of millions throughout the world. This 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.

Development and modernisation theory

Development, like modernisation, has become the orienting principle of our time. Countries that are seen as modern are also seen as developed, and that 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 modernised or developed dictates its power and importance on the international level.

Modernisation of the health sector of developing nations recognizes that transitioning from 'industrialisation or colonialism, underdeveloped nations should apply proximal interventions to target rural communities and focus on prevention strategies rather than curative solutions. This has been successfully exhibited by the Christian Medical Commission and in China through 'barefoot doctors'. 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-Ata and the “Health and Population in Development” conference, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation in Italy in 1979, where 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-intentioned programs, foundations, and charities that target epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis that have substantially improved the lives of millions of people but also impeded future development.[10]

Modernisation theorists often saw traditions as obstacles to economic growth. Furthermore, while modernisation 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 promised advantages if, among other things, the economic gap between advanced societies and such societies actually increased. The net effect of modernisation for some societies was therefore the replacement of traditional poverty by a more modern form of misery, according to these critics.[11] Others point to improvements in living standards, physical infrastructure, education and economic opportunity to refute such criticisms.


Modernization theory has been criticized, mainly because it conflated modernization with Westernization. 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 arguing that others are primitive or unevolved by comparison. This view sees unmodernized societies as inferior even if they have the same standard of living as western societies. Opponents of this view 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 modernisation.

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

It 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; whilst 'modernization' does not come as a whole.

Modernisation theory has also been accused of being Eurocentric as modernisation began in Europe with the industrial revolution, the French Revolution and the Revolutions of 1848 (Macionis 953) and has long been regarded as reaching its most advanced stage in Europe. Anthropologists typically make their criticism one step further generalized and say that this view is ethnocentric, not being specific to Europe, but Western culture in general.

See also


  1. ^ a b modernization - Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved on 2013-08-17.
  2. ^ Diana Kendall, Sociology in Our Times (2007) p. 11
  3. ^ (Knowles, 1994: FT,7 January 1997: V11)
  4. ^ Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man (1963), p. 41. 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)
  5. ^ Andre Gunder Frank, Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution (1969)
  6. ^ Sheri E. Berman, "Modernization in Historical Perspective: The Case of Imperial Germany," World Politics v.53#3 (2001) 431-462 quote at p 456
  7. ^ Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, "How Development Leads to Democracy," Foreign Affairs Mar/Apr2009, Vol. 88 Issue 2, pp 33-48
  8. ^ Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes: Threat to the West or Model for the Rest? (2008) p, 63. He suggests China will grant democracy human rights when it is as modern and as rich as the West per capita.
  9. ^ David L. Epstein, et al., "Democratic Transitions," American Journal of Political Science 2006 50(3): 551-569
  10. ^ Cueto, Marcos. 2004. The ORIGINS of Primary Health Care and SELECTIVE Primary Health Care. Am J Public Health 94 (11):1864-1874.
  11. ^ Majid Rahnema, Quand la misère chasse la pauvreté, Arles: Actes Sud 2003


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