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Convergence Theories


The idea that societies move toward a condition of similarity—that they converge in one or more respects—is a common feature of various theories of social change. The notion that differences among societies will decrease over time can be found in many works of eighteenth and nineteenth century social thinkers, from the prerevolutionary French philosophes and the Scottish moral philosophers through de Tocqueville, Toennies, Maine, Marx, Spencer, Weber, and Durkheim (Weinberg 1969; Baum 1974). More recently, the study of "postindustrial" society and the debate over "postmodernist" aspects of contemporary society also reflect to some degree the idea that there is a tendency for broadly similar conditions or attributes to emerge among otherwise distinct and dissimilar societies.

In sociological discourse since the 1960s, the term convergence theory has carried a more specific connotation, referring to the hypothesized link between economic development and concomitant changes in social organization, particularly work and industrial organization, class structure, demographic patterns, characteristics of the family, education, and the role of government in assuring basic social and economic security. The core notion of convergence theory is that as nations achieve similar levels of economic development they will become more alike in terms of these (and other) aspects of social life. In the 1950s and 1960s, predictions of societal convergence were most closely associated with modernization theories, which generally held that developing societies will follow a path of economic development similar to that followed by developed societies of the West. Structural-functionalist theorists, such as Parsons (1951) and Davis (1948), while not actually employing the terminology of convergence theory, paved the way for its development and use in modernization studies through their efforts to develop a systematic statement of the functional prerequisites and structural imperatives of modern industrial society; these include an occupational structure based on achievement rather than ascription, and the common application of universalistic rather than particularistic evaluative criteria. Also, beginning in the 1960s, convergence theory was invoked to account for apparent similarities in industrial organization and patterns of stratification found in both capitalist and communist nations (Sorokin 1960; Goldthorpe 1964; Galbraith 1967).


The conventional and most controversial application of convergence theory has been in the study of modernization, where it is associated with the idea that the experience of developing nations will follow the path charted by Western industrialized nations. Related to this idea is the notion of a relatively fixed pattern of development through which developing nations must pass as they modernize (Rostow 1960). Inkeles (1966), Inkeles and Smith (1974), and Kahl (1968) pursued the idea of convergence at the level of individual attitudes, values, and beliefs, arguing that the emergence of a "modern" psychosocial orientation accompanies national modernization (see Armer and Schnaiberg 1972 for a critique).

Kerr and colleagues' Industrialism and Industrial Man (1960) offers the classic statement of the "logic of industrialism" thesis, which the authors proposed as a response to Marxian theory's equation of industrial society with capitalism. More specifically, Kerr et al. sought to identify the "inherent tendencies and implications of industrialization for the work place," hoping to construct from this a portrait of the "principal features of the new society" (p. 33). The features common to industrial society, they argued, include rapid changes in science, technology, and methods of production; a high degree of occupational mobility, with continual training and retraining of the work force; increasing emphasis on formal education, particularly in the natural sciences, engineering, medicine, managerial training, and administrative law; a workforce highly differentiated in terms of occupational titles and job classifications; the increasing importance of urban areas as centers of economic activity; and the increasing role of government in providing expanded public services, orchestrating the varied activities of a large and complex economy, and administering the "web of rules" of industrial society. Importantly, Kerr et al. envisioned these developments as cutting across categories of political ideology and political systems.

Although the "logic of industrialism" argument is often cited as a prime example of convergence theory (see Form 1979; Moore 1979; Goldthorpe 1971), Kerr et al. never explicitly made this claim for their study. While mentioning convergence at various points in their study, the authors pay equal attention to important countercurrents leading toward diverse outcomes among industrial societies. The concluding chapter of Industrialism and Industrial Man is, in fact, entitled "Pluralistic Industrialism," and addresses the sources of diversity as well as uniformity among industrial societies. Among sources of diversity identified are the persistence of existing national institutions, enduring cultural differences, variations in the timing of industrialization (late versus early), the nature of a nation's dominant industry, and the size and density of population. Counterposed against these factors are various sources of uniformity, such as technological change, exposure to the industrial world, and a worldwide trend toward increased access to education leading to an attenuation of social and economic inequality.

The critique of convergence theory in the study of modernization recalls critiques of earlier theories of societal evolution advanced under the rubric of social Darwinism in the nineteenth century and structural functionalism in the mid-twentieth century. The use of convergence theory to analyze modernization has been attacked for its alleged assumptions of unilinearity and determinism (i.e., a single path of development that all societies must follow), its teleological or historicist character (Goldthorpe 1971), its Western ideological bias (Portes 1973), and for ignoring the structurally dependent position of less-developed countries in the world economy (Wallerstein 1974). Yet a careful review of the literature suggests that many criticisms have often tended to caricature convergence theory rather than addressing its application in actual research studies. Since the 1960s few if any researchers have explicitly claimed convergence theory, at least in its unreconstructed form, as their own. For example, Moore (1979), an exponent of the "conventional" view of modernization, subtitled his book, World Modernization, "the limits of convergence," and went to great pains to distance himself from the "model modernized society" position associated with early versions of convergence theory (see Moore 1979, pp. 26–28, 150–153). And Parsons (1966), whose name is virtually synonymous with structural functionalism, concluded one of his later writings on comparative sociology with the statement that "any linear theory of societal evolution" is "untenable" (p. 114). As Form (1979) observes, convergence theory passed through a cycle typical of social science theories: a burst of initial interest and enthusiasm, followed by intense criticism and controversy, finally giving way to neglect. The major challenge to those wishing to revive convergence theory and rescue it from its critics is to specify its theoretical underpinnings more precisely, to develop appropriate empirical studies, and finally account for variation as well as similarity among observed cases.


In recent years Inkeles (1980, 1981; also Inkeles and Sirowy 1983) has made the most systematic attempt to reformulate convergence theory and respecify its core hypotheses and propositions. Inkeles (1981) argues that earlier versions of convergence theory failed to distinguish adequately between different elements of the social system, which is problematic because these elements not only change at different speeds, but may move in opposite directions. He proposes dividing the social system into a minimum of five elements for purposes of assessing convergence: modes of production and patterns of resource utilization; institutional arrays and institutional forms; structures or patterns of social relationships; systems of popular attitudes, values, and behavior; and systems of political and economic control. Finally, he specifies the different forms convergence and divergence may take: (1) simple convergence involving the movement from diversity to uniformity; (2) convergence from different directions involving movement toward a common point by an increase for some cases and a decrease for others; (3) convergence via the crossing of thresholds rather than changes in absolute differences; (4) divergent paths toward convergence, where short-term fluctuations eventually fall into line or a "deviant" case that eventually defines the norm for other cases (for example, France's move toward small family size in the late eighteenth century); and (5) convergence in the form of parallel change, where nations all moving in the same direction along some dimension of change continue to remain separated by a gap. Although parallel change of this sort does not represent true convergence, it is consistent with the key assumption of convergence theory, namely, that "insofar as they face comparable situations of action . . . nations and individuals will respond in broadly comparable ways" (p. 21).

Inkeles (1981) also describes various forms that divergence may take: (1) simple divergence, the mirror image of simple convergence, in which movement occurs away from a common point toward new points further apart than the original condition; (2) convergence with crossover, where lines intersect and then proceed to spread apart; and (3) convergent trends masking underlying diversity (for example, although the United States, Great Britain, and Sweden all experienced large increases in public assistance programs from 1950 to the early 1970s, the social groups receiving benefits were quite different among the three nations, as were the political dynamics associated with the spending increases within each nation). Finally, Inkeles (1981) notes the importance of selecting appropriate units of analysis, levels of analysis, and the time span for which convergence, divergence, or parallel change can be assessed. These comments echo earlier sentiments expressed by Weinberg (1969) and Baum (1974) about how to salvage the useful elements of standard convergence theory while avoiding the pitfalls of a simplistic functionalist-evolutionary approach. Common to these attempts to revive convergence theory is the exhortation to develop more and better empirical research on specific institutional spheres and social processes. As the following sections demonstrate, a good deal of work along these lines is already being done across a wide range of substantive questions and topical concerns that can aptly be described in the plural as convergence theories, indicating their revisionist and more pluralistic approach.


Despite criticisms of Kerr and colleagues' (1960) concept of the logic of industrialism, the question of convergent trends in industrial organization has remained the focus of active debate and much research. The large research literature related on this question, reviewed by Form (1979), has produced mixed evidence with respect to convergence. Studies by Shiba (1973, cited in Form 1979), Form (1976), and Form and Kyu Han (1988), covering a range of industrializing and advanced industrial societies found empirical support for convergence in workers' adaptation to industrial and related social systems, while Gallie's (1977, cited in Form 1979) study of oil refineries in Great Britain and France found consistent differences in workers' attitudes toward systems of authority. On the question of sectoral and occupational shifts, Gibbs and Browning's (1966) twelve-nation study of industrial and occupational division of labor found both similarities—consistent with the convergence hypothesis—as well as differences. Studies across nations varying in levels of industrial development revealed only "small and unsystematic differences" in worker commitment (Form 1979, p. 9), thus providing some support for the convergence hypothesis. Japan has been regarded as an exceptional case among industrialized nations because of its strong cultural traditions based on mutual obligation between employers and employees. These characteristics led Dore (1973), for example, to argue vigorously against the convergence hypothesis for Japan. A more recent study by Lincoln and Kalleberg (1990) "stands convergence on its head," arguing that patterns of work organization in the United States are being impelled in the direction of the Japanese model. Finally, with respect to women in the labor force, the evidence of convergence is mixed. Some studies found no relationship between female labor-force participation and level of industrialization (Ferber and Lowry 1977; Safilios-Rothchild 1971), though there is strong evidence of a trend toward increasing female participation in nonagricultural employment among advanced industrial societies (Paydarfar 1967; Wilensky 1968) along with the existence of dual labor markets stratified by sex, a pattern found in both communist and capitalist nations in the 1970s (Cooney 1975; Bibb and Form 1977; Lapidus 1976).


Closely related to the study of industrial organization is the question of converging patterns of stratification and mobility. The attempt to discover common features of the class structure across advanced industrial societies is a central concern for social theorists of many stripes. The question has inspired intense debate among both neo-Weberian and Marxist sociologists, although the latter, for obvious ideological reasons, tend to eschew the language of convergence theory. An early statement of the class convergence thesis was made by Lipset and Zetterberg (1959), to the effect that observed rates of mobility between social classes tend to be similar from one industrial society to another. Erikson et al. (1983) conducted a detailed test of the class mobility convergence hypothesis in England, France, and Sweden, and found little support for it. They conclude that the "process of industrialization is associated with very variable patterns . . . of the social division of labour" (p. 339).

A subcategory of comparative stratification research concerns the evidence of convergence in occupational prestige. A study published in 1956 by Inkeles and Rossi, based on data from six industrialized societies, concluded that the prestige hierarchy of occupations was "relatively invariable" and tended to support the hypothesis that modern industrial systems are "highly coherent. . . relatively impervious to the influence of traditional culture patterns" (p. 329). Although the authors did not specifically mention convergence, their conclusions were fully consistent with the idea of emergent similarities. A subsequent study by Treiman (1977) extended the comparison of occupational prestige to some sixty nations, ranging from the least developed to the most developed. The study found that occupational-prestige rankings were markedly similar across all societies, raising the question of whether convergence theory or an explanation based on the functional imperatives of social structure of all complex societies, past or present, was most consistent with the empirical findings. The conclusion was that both explanations had some merit, since although all complex societies—whether developed, undeveloped, or developing—showed similar occupational-prestige rankings, there was also evidence that the more similar societies were in levels of industrialization, the more similar their patterns of occupational-prestige evaluation appeared to be.


The theory of demographic transition provides one of the most straightforward examples of convergence. The essence of the theory is that fertility and mortality rates covary over time in a predictable and highly uniform manner. Moreover, these changes are directly linked to broad developmental patterns, such as the move from a rural, agriculturally based economy to an urban-industrial one, increases in per capita income, and adult literacy (Berelson 1978). In the first stage of the demographic transition, both fertility rates and death rates are high, with population remaining fairly constant. In the second stage, death rates drop (as a result of improvements in living conditions and medical care) while fertility rates remain high, and population levels increase rapidly. In the third stage, fertility rates begin to decline, with total size of the population leveling off or even decreasing. This simple model works remarkably well in accounting for demographic patterns observed among all industrialized (and many industrializing) societies during the post-World War II period. A large spread in fertility rates among nations at the beginning of the 1950s gave way to declining rates of fertility ending with a nearly uniform pattern of zero population growth in the 1970s.

The convergent tendencies predicted by the theory of demographic transition have not gone unchallenged, however. Freedman (1979), for example, suggests that cultural factors mediate the effects of social structural factors central to transition theory. Coale (1973) and Teitelbaum (1975) note that demographic transition theory has not provided much explanatory or predictive power with regard to the timing of population changes or the regional variations observed within nations undergoing change.


Inkeles (1980) explored the effects of putative convergent tendencies discussed above for family patterns. While he found evidence of convergence in some aspects of family life, other patterns continue "to be remarkably stable in the face of great variation in their surrounding socio-economic conditions" (p. 34). Aspects of family life that show clear convergent patterns include the trend toward falling fertility rates and a shift in relative power and resource control in the direction of increasing autonomy of women and declining authority of parents. Other aspects of the family, such as age at first marriage, appear to present a more complex picture, with short-term fluctuations obscuring long-term changes, and great variation from one culture to another. Still other characteristics of family life seem resistant to change; cited as examples in Inkeles (1980) are cultural patterns such as veneration of elders in many Asian societies, basic human needs for companionship and psychological support, and the role of husbands helping wives with housework. In all, Inkeles (1980) estimates that only about half the indicators of family life he examined showed any convergence, and even then not always of a linear nature.


Following Inkeles' (1981) reformulation of convergence theory, Inkeles and Sirowy (1983) studied the educational systems of seventy-three rich and poor nations. Among thirty different "patterns of change" in educational systems examined, they found evidence of marked convergence in fourteen, moderate convergence in four, considerable variability in nine, mixed results in two, and divergence in only one. Based on these findings, they conclude that the tendency toward convergence on common structures is "pervasive and deep. It is manifested at all levels of the educational system, and affects virtually every major aspect of that system" (p. 326). Also worthy of note is that while the authors take the conventional position that convergence is a response to pressures arising from a complex, technologically advanced social and economic system, they also identify diffusion via integration of networks through which ideas, standards, and practices in education are shared. These networks operate largely through international organizations, such as UNESCO and the OECD; their role as mediating structures in a process leading toward cross-national similarities in education constitutes an important addition to convergence theory, with wide-ranging implications for convergence in other institutions.


The development of the welfare state has inspired active theoretical debate and empirical research on convergence theory, with researchers divided over the nature and extent of convergence found across nations. On the one hand, there is indisputable evidence that extensive social security, health care, and related benefit programs is restricted to nations that have reached a level of economic development where a sufficient surplus exists to support such efforts. Moreover, the development of programs of the welfare state appears to be empirically correlated with distinct bureaucratic and demographic patterns that are in turn grounded in economic development. For example, Wilensky (1975) found that among sixty nations studied the proportion of the population sixty-five years of age and older and the age of social security programs were the major determinants of levels of total welfare-state spending as a percent of gross national product. Since levels of economic development and growth of the elderly population both represent areas of convergence among advanced societies, it is reasonable to expect that patterns of welfare-state development will also tend to converge. Indeed, in such respects as the development of large and expensive pension and health-care programs, of which the elderly are the major clientele, this is the case (Coughlin and Armour 1982; Hage et al. 1989). Other empirical studies have found evidence of convergence in public attitudes toward constituent programs of the welfare state (Coughlin 1980), in egalitarian political movements affecting welfare effort across nations (Williamson and Weiss 1979), and in levels of spending (Pryor 1968), normative patterns (Mishra 1976), and social control functions of welfare-state programs across capitalist and communist nations (Armour and Coughlin 1985).

Other researchers have challenged the idea of convergence in the welfare state. In a historical study of unemployment programs in thirteen Western European nations, Alber (1981) found no evidence that programs had become more alike in eligibility criteria, methods of financing, or generosity of benefits, although he did find some evidence of convergence in duration of unemployment benefits in nations with compulsory systems. A study conducted by O'Connor (1988) testing the convergence hypothesis with respect to trends in welfare spending from 1960 to 1980 concluded that "despite the adoption of apparently similar welfare programmes in economically developed countries there is not only diversity but divergence in welfare effort. Further, the level of divergence is increasing" (p. 295). A much broader challenge to the convergence hypothesis comes from studies focusing on variations in welfare-state development among western capitalist democracies. Hewitt (1977), Castles (1978, 1982), and Korpi (1983), to cite a few leading examples, argue that variations across nations in the strength and reformist character of labor unions and social democratic parties account for large differences in the levels of spending for and redistributive impact of welfare-state programs. However, the disagreement among these studies and scholars arguing for convergence may be simply a function of case selection. For example, in a study of nineteen rich nations, Wilensky (1976, 1981) linked cross-national diversity in the welfare state to differences in "democratic corporatism," and secondarily to the presence of Catholic political parties, thus rejecting the simplistic idea that the convergence observed across many nations at widely different levels of economic development extends to the often divergent policy developments in the relatively small number of advanced capitalist societies.

The debate over convergence in the welfare state is certain to continue. A major obstacle in resolving the question involves disagreement on the nations chosen for study, selection and construction of measures (see Uusitalo 1984), and judgments about the time frame appropriate for a definitive test of the convergence hypothesis. Wilensky et al. (1985, pp. 11–12) sum up the mixed status of current research on convergence in welfare-state development as follows:

Convergence theorists are surely on solid ground when they assert that programs to protect against the seven or eight basic risks of industrial life are primarily responses to economic development . . . . However, showing that societies have adopted the same basic programs. . . is only a partial demonstration of convergence insofar as it does not demonstrate convergence in substantive features of the programs or in the amount of variation among affluent countries compared to poor countries.


Growing attention to a variety of large-scale changes in economic relations, technology, and cultural relations, broadly subsumed under the description "globalization," has inspired renewed interest in the ideas of convergence and modernity (see Robertson 1992 for a critical account). The literature on globalization has several threads. One approach focuses on the economic and cultural impact of transnational capitalist enterprises that are judged to be responsible for the spread of a pervasive ideology and culture of consumerism (Sklair 1995). Ritzer (1993) summarizes this phenomenon as the "McDonaldization of society"—a broad reference to the ubiquity and influence of the consumer brand names (and the large corporate interests behind them) that are instantly recognizable in virtually every country in the world today. The main implication of this perspective is that indigenous industries, habits, and culture are rapidly being driven aside or even into extinction by the "juggernaut" of the world capitalist economy dominated by a relatively few powerful interests.

Meyer et al. (1997) provide a different interpretation of globalization in their work on "world society." Although they argue that "many features of the contemporary nation-state derive from a worldwide model constructed and propagated through global cultural and associational processes" (pp. 144–145), the essence of their position is that nations are drawn toward a model that is "surprisingly consensual. . .in virtually all the domains of rationalized social life" (p. 145). Meyer et al. contend that various core principles, such as those legitimating human rights and favoring environmentalism, do not emerge spontaneously as an imperative of modernity, but rather diffuse rapidly among nations worldwide through the agency of international organizations, networks of scientists and professionals, and other forms of association. Although not referring specifically to convergence theory, this world society and culture approach makes a strong case for the emergence of widely shared structural and cultural similarities, many of which hold out the promise of improvement, among otherwise diverse nation-states.

The rapid growth of telecommunications and computing technology, especially apparent in the emergence of the Internet as a major social and economic phenomenon of the 1990s, presents yet another aspect of globalization that holds profound implications for possible societal convergence. However important and wide-ranging, the precise patterns that will ultimately emerge from these technological innovations are not yet clear. While new computing and communication technologies compress the time and space dimensions of social interaction (Giddens 1990), and have the potential to undercut national identities and cultural differences along the lines envisioned by McLuhan's (1960) "global village," the same forces of advanced technology that can level traditional differences may ultimately reinforce the boundaries of nation, culture, and social class. For example, even as the computers and related communication technologies become more ever more widely disseminated, access to and benefits from the new technologies appear to be disproportionately concentrated among the "haves," leaving the "have nots" more and more excluded from participation (Wresch 1996). Over time, such disparities might well serve to widen differences both across and within nations, thus leading toward divergence rather than convergence.

Finally, interest in convergence has also been given a boost by various political developments in the 1990s. In particular, the twin developments of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the progressive weakening of economic and political barriers in Europe are notable in this regard. The demise of state socialism has revived interest in the possibilities of global economic and political convergence among advanced industrial societies (see, for example, Lenski et al. 1991, p. 261; Fukuyama 1992). Although ongoing economic and political turmoil in the "transition to capitalism" in the former Soviet Union during the 1990s may cast serious doubt on the long-term prospects for convergence, developments have clearly moved in that direction with astonishing speed.

The continuing movement toward unification in Europe associated with the European Union (EU, formerly the European Community) represents another significant case of political and economic convergence on a regional scale. The gradual abolition of restrictions on trade, the movement of labor, and travel among EU nations (and not least of all the establishment of a single currency in 1999), and the harmonization of social policies throughout the EU, all signal profound changes toward growing convergence in the region that promises to continue into the twenty-first century.


The idea of convergence is both powerful and intuitively attractive to sociologists across a range of backgrounds and interests (Form 1979). It is difficult to conceive of an acceptable macro theory of social change that does not refer to the idea of convergence in one way or another. Despite the controversy over, and subsequent disillusionment with, early versions of convergence theory in the study of modernization, and the often mixed results of empirical studies discussed above, it is clear that the concept of societal convergence (and convergence theories that allow for the possibility of divergence and invariance) provides a useful and potentially powerful analytical framework within which to conduct cross-national studies across a broad range of social phenomena. Even where the convergence hypothesis ultimately ends up being rejected, the perspective offered by convergence theories can provide a useful point of departure for research. Appropriately reformulated, focused on elements of the social system amenable to empirical study, and stripped of the ideological baggage associated with its earlier versions, convergence theories hold promise to advance the understanding of the fundamental processes and regularities of social change.


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Richard M. Coughlin

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