Modernization Theory

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Modernization theory is a description and explanation of the processes of transformation from traditional or underdeveloped societies to modern societies. In the words of one of the major proponents, "Historically, modernization is the process of change towards those types of social, economic, and political systems that have developed in Western Europe and North America from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth and have then spread to other European countries and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the South American, Asian, and African continents" (Eisenstadt 1966, p. 1). Modernization theory has been one of the major perspectives in the sociology of national development and underdevelopment since the 1950s. Primary attention has focused on ways in which past and present premodern societies become modern (i.e., Westernized) through processes of economic growth and change in social, political, and cultural structures.

In general, modernization theorists are concerned with economic growth within societies as indicated, for example, by measures of gross national product. Mechanization or industrialization are ingredients in the process of economic growth. Modernization theorists study the social, political, and cultural consequences of economic growth and the conditions that are important for industrialization and economic growth to occur. Indeed, a degree of circularity often characterizes discussions of social and economic change involved in modernization processes because of the notion, embedded in most modernization theories, of the functional compatibility of component parts. The theoretical assumptions of modernization theories will be elaborated later.

It should be noted at the outset that the sociological concept of modernization does not refer simply to becoming current or "up to date" but rather specifies particular contents and processes of societal changes in the course of national development. Also, modernization theories of development do not necessarily bear any relationship to more recent philosophical concepts of "modernity" and "postmodernity." Modernity in philosophical and epistemological discussions refers to the perspective that there is one true descriptive and explanatory model that reflects the actual world. Postmodernity is the stance that no single true description and explanation of reality exists but rather that knowledge, ideology, and science itself are based on subjective understandings of an entirely relational nature. While their philosophical underpinnings place most modernization theories of development into the "modern" rather than the "postmodern" context, these separate uses of the term modernity should not be confused.

Also, modernization, industrialization, and development are often used interchangeably but in fact refer to distinguishable phenomena. Industrialization is a narrower term than modernization, while development is more general. Industrialization involves the use of inanimate sources of power to mechanize production, and it involves increases in manufacturing, wage labor, income levels, and occupational diversification. It may or may not be present where there is political, social, or cultural modernization, and, conversely, it may exist in the absence of other aspects of modernization. Development (like industrialization) implies economic growth, but not necessarily through transformation from the predominance of primary production to manufacturing, and not necessarily as characterized by modernization theory. For example, while modernization theorists may define development mainly in terms of economic output per capita, other theorists may be more concerned about development of autonomous productive capacity, equitable distribution of wealth, or meeting basic human needs. Also, while modernization theories generally envision democratic and capitalist institutions or secularization of belief systems as components of modern society, other development perspectives may not. Indeed, dependency theorists even talk about the "development of underdevelopment" (Frank 1966).

Each of the social science disciplines pays particular attention to the determinants of modern structures within its realm (social, political, economic) and gives greater importance to structures or institutions within its realm for explaining other developments in society. Emphasis here is given to sociological modernization theory.

Although there are many versions of modernization theory, major implicit or explicit tenets are that (1) societies develop through a series of evolutionary stages; (2) these stages are based on different degrees and patterns of social differentiation and reintegration of structural and cultural components that are functionally compatible for the maintenance of society; (3) contemporary developing societies are at a premodern stage of evolution and they eventually will achieve economic growth and will take on the social, political, and economic features of western European and North American societies which have progressed to the highest stage of social evolutionary development; (4) this modernization will result as complex Western technology is imported and traditional structural and cultural features incompatible with such development are overcome.

At its core modernization theory suggests that advanced industrial technology produces not only economic growth in developing societies but also other structural and cultural changes. The common characteristics that societies tend to develop as they become modern may differ from one version of modernization theory to another, but, in general, all assume that institutional structures and individual activities become more highly specialized, differentiated, and integrated into social, political, and economic forms characteristic of advanced Western societies.

For example, in the social realm, modern societies are characterized by high levels of urbanization, literacy, research, health care, secularization, bureaucracy, mass media, and transportation facilities. Kinship ties are weaker, and nuclear conjugal family systems prevail. Birthrates and death rates are lower, and life expectancy is relatively longer. In the political realm, the society becomes more participatory in decision-making processes, and typical institutions include universal suffrage, political parties, a civil service bureaucracy, and parliaments. Traditional sources of authority are weaker as bureaucratic institutions assume responsibility and power. In the economic realm, there is more industrialization, technical upgrading of production, replacement of exchange economies with extensive money markets, increased division of labor, growth of infrastructure and commercial facilities, and the development of large-scale markets. Associated with these structural changes are cultural changes in role relations and personality variables. Social relations are more bureaucratic, social mobility increases, and status relations are based less on such ascriptive criteria as age, gender, or ethnicity and more on meritocratic criteria. There is a shift from relations based on tradition and loyalty to those based on rational exchange, competence, and other universally applied criteria. People are more receptive to change, more interested in the future, more achievement-oriented, more concerned with the rights of individuals, and less fatalistic.

Underlying the description of social features and changes that are thought to characterize modern urban industrial societies are theoretical assumptions and mechanisms to explain the shift from traditional to modern societal types. These explanatory systems draw upon the dominant theoretical perspectives in the 1950s and 1960s, growing out of classical evolutionary, diffusion, and structural-functionalist theories.

The evolutionary perspective, stemming from Spencer, Durkheim, and other nineteenth-century theorists, contributed the notion that societies evolve from lower to higher forms and progress from simple and undifferentiated to more complex types. Western industrial society is seen as superior to preindustrial society to the extent that it has progressed through specialization to more effective ways of performing societal functions. Diffusionists added the ideas that cultural patterns associated with modern society could be transferred via social interaction (trade, war, travelers, media, etc.) and that there may be several paths to development rather than linear evolution. Structural functionalists (Parsons 1951; Hoselitz 1960; Levy 1966) emphasized the idea that societies are integrated wholes composed of functionally compatible institutions and roles, and that societies progress from one increasingly complex and efficient social system to another. This contributed to the notion that internal social and cultural factors are important determinants or obstacles of economic change.

Research by Smelser (1969) draws on all three traditions in describing modernization of society through processes of social differentiation, disturbances, and reintegration. In a manner similar to other conceptions of modernization, Smelser emphasizes four major changes: from simple to complex technology, from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture, from rural to urban populations, and, most important, from animal and human power to inanimate power and industrialization.

Parsons's later theoretical work (1964) also combines these perspectives in a neo-evolutionist modernization theory that treats societies as self-regulated structural functional wholes in which the main processes of change are social differentiation and the discovery (or acquisition through diffusion) of certain "evolutionary universals" such as bureaucratic organizations and money markets. These, in turn, increase the adaptive capacity of the society by providing more efficient social arrangements and often lead to a system of universalistic norms, "which, more than the industrial revolution itself, ushered in the modern era of social evolution" (Parsons 1964, p. 361). A similar neoevolutionist social differentiation theory of modernization is provided by Eisenstadt (1970).

Another early influence on modernization theory was Weber's work on the Protestant ethic. This work stressed the influence of cultural values on the entrepreneurial behavior of individuals and the rise of capitalism. Contemporary theorists in the Weberian tradition include Lerner, McClelland, Inkeles, and Rostow. Lerner's (1958) empirical studies in several Middle Eastern societies identified empathy, the capacity to take the perspective of others, as a product of media, literacy, and urbanization and as a vital ingredient in producing rational individual behavior conducive to societal development. McClelland (1961) felt that prevalence of individuals with the psychological trait of high "need for achievement" was the key to entrepreneurial activity and modernization of society. In a similar vein, Inkeles and Smith (1974) used interview data from six societies to generate a set of personality traits by which they defined "modern man." They felt that the prevalence of individual modernity in society was determined by such factors as education and factory experience and that individual modernity contributed to the modernization of society. Finally, Rostow's (1960) well-known theory of the stages of economic growth, which he derived from studying Western economic development, emphasized the importance of new values and ideas favoring economic progress along with education, entrepreneurship, and certain other institutions as conditions for societies to "take off" into self-sustained economic growth.

All of these versions of modernization theory depict a gradual and more or less natural transition from "traditional" social structures to "modern" social structures characteristic of Western European and North American societies. More specifically, these theories tend to share to one degree or another the views that (1) modern people, values, institutions, and societies are similar to those found in the industrialized West, that is, the direction of change tends to replicate that which had already occurred in Western industrial societies; (2) tradition is opposite to and incompatible with modernity; (3) the causes of delayed economic and social development (i.e., underdevelopment) are to be found within the traditional society; (4) the mechanisms of economic development also come primarily from within societies rather than from factors outside of the society; and (5) these internal factors (in addition to industrial development) tend to involve social structures, cultural institutions, or personality types.

In keeping with this orientation, empirical studies of sociological modernization tend to deal with the internal effects of industrialization or other economic developments on traditional social institutions or with the social, political, and cultural conditions that facilitate or impede economic growth within traditional or less-developed societies. Examples might include research on the impact of factory production and employment on traditional family relations or the effects of an indigenous land tenure system on the introduction of cash crop farming in society.

Even though modernization theory since the 1960s has been dominated by and sometimes equated with Parsons's neo-evolutionary theory, it is clear that there is no single modernization theory but rather an assortment of related theories and perspectives. In addition to those mentioned, other important contributors of theoretical variants include Hagan (1962), Berger, Berger, and Kellner (1973), Bendix (1964), Moore (1967), Tiryakian (1985), and Nolan and Lenski (1999). Useful reviews include Harrison (1988), Harper (1993), and Jaffee (1998).

Since the 1960s, many critiques of modernization theory and the emergence of competing theories of development have eroded support for modernization theory. Foremost among these are dependency, world systems, and neo-Marxist theories, all of which criticize the ethnocentricity of the modernization concept and the bias in favor of dominant capitalist interests. The focus of these theories is on explaining the contemporary underdevelopment of Third World countries or regions of the world in terms of colonization, imperialist interference, and neocolonial exploitation of developing countries since their gaining of independence. In these counterperspectives, both development and underdevelopment are viewed as part of the same process by which certain "center" countries or regions become economically advanced and powerful at the expense of other "periphery" areas. Rather than explaining development and underdevelopment by the presence or absence of certain internal institutions or personalities, these alternative theories argue that both result from unequal exchange relations and coalitions of interests associated with the structural position of societies in the global economy. Rather than interpreting underdeveloped societies as traditional or archaic, both underdeveloped and developed societies are contemporary but asymmetrically linked parts of capitalist expansion. Both are relatively "modern" phenomena.

Attention to modernization theory in sociology has declined as a result of the theoretical and empirical weaknesses raised especially during the 1970s. Nevertheless, it is still the dominant perspective among government officials and international agencies concerned with third world development. Hoogvelt has noted its influence on development policies as follows:

Because modernisation theories have viewed the total transformation, that is westernisation, ofdeveloping countries to be an inescapable outcome of successful diffusion of the Western economic/technological complex, by methodological reversal it is argued that a reorganization of existing social and cultural as well as political patterns in anticipation of their compatibility with the diffused Western economic/technological complex may in fact facilitate the very process of this diffusion itself. This monumental theoretical error—which to be fair was not always committed by the theorists themselves—has in fact been made and continues to be made by modernisation policy-makers such as those employed by Western government, U.N. organizations, the World Bank, and so forth. (1978, pp. 60–61)

Thus, various indicators of social, political, and cultural development (such as degree of urbanization, high literacy rates, political democracy, free enterprise, secularization, birth control, etc.) have frequently been promoted as "conditions" for development.

Interestingly, as modern structures and institutions have spread around the world and created economic, political, social, and cultural linkages, an awareness of global interdependence and of the ecological consequences of industrial development and modern lifestyles has grown. It is now clear that finite natural resources and the nature of the global ecosystem could not sustain worldwide modern conditions and practices of European and North American societies even if modernization theory assumptions of evolutionary national development were correct. Thus, new visions and interpretations of national and global development have already begun to replace classical modernization theory.

Some selected publications readers may wish to consult on this topic include Billet (1993), Inglehart (1997). McMichael (1996), Roberts and Hite (1999), Roxborough (1988), and Scott (1995).

(see also: Global Systems Analysis; Industrialization in Less Developed Countries)


Bendix, Reinhold 1964 Nation-Building and Citizenship: Studies of Our Changing Social Order. New York: John Wiley.

Berger, Peter L., Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner 1973 The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness. New York: Vintage.

Billet, Bret L 1993 Modernization Theory and Economic Development: Discontent in the Developing World. Westport, Conn: Praeger.

Eisenstadt, S. N. 1966 Modernization: Protest and Change. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

——1970 "Social Change and Development." In S. N. Eisenstadt, ed., Readings in Social Evolution and Development. Oxford: Pergamon.

Frank, Andre Gunder 1966 "The Development of Underdevelopment." Monthly Review 18(4):17–31.

Hagen, Everett E. 1962 On the Theory of Social Change. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey.

Harper, Charles L. 1993 Exploring Social Change, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Harrison, David 1988 The Sociology of Modernization and Development. London: Unwin Hyman.

Hoogvelt, Ankie M. M. 1978 The Sociology of Developing Societies, 2nd ed. London: Macmillan.

Hoselitz, Berthold F. 1960 Sociological Aspects of Economic Growth. New York: Free Press.

Inglehart, Ronald 1997 Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Inkeles, Alex, and David H. Smith 1974 Becoming Modern. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Jaffee, David 1998 Levels of Socio-Economic Development Theory. Westport, Conn: Praeger.

Lerner, Daniel 1958 The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East. New York: Free Press.

Levy, Marion, Jr. 1966 Modernization and the Structures of Societies, vol. 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McClelland, David C. 1961 The Achieving Society. New York: Free Press.

McMichael, Philip 1996 Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge.

Moore, Barrington 1967 Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press.

Nolan, Patrick, and Gerhard E. Lenski 1999 Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology, 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Parsons, Talcott 1951 The Social System. New York: Free Press.

——1964 "Evolutionary Universals in Society." American Sociological Review 29:339–357.

Roberts, J. Timmons, and Amy Hite 1999 From Modernization to Globalization: Social Perspectives on International Development. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

Rostow, Walt W. 1960 The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. London: Cambridge University Press.

Roxborough, Ian 1988 "Modernization Theory Revisited." Contemporary Studies of Society and History 30(4):753–762.

Scott, Catherine V. 1995 Gender and Development: Rethinking Modernization and Dependency Theory. Boulder, Colo.: L. Rienner.

Smelser, Neil 1966 "The Modernization of Social Relations." In Myron Weiner, ed., Modernization: The Dynamics of Growth. New York: Basic.

So, Alvin 1990 Social Change and Development: Modernization, Dependency and World-Systems Theories. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.

Tiryakian, Edward A. 1985 "The Changing Centers of Modernity." In Erik Cohen, Moshe Lissak, and Uri Almagor, eds., Comparative Social Dynamics: Essay in Honor of S.N. Eisenstadt. Boulder, Colo.: Westview.

J. Michael Armer

John Katsillis