Modernization Essay

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Modernization is an encompassing process of massive social changes that, once set in motion, tends to penetrate all domains of life, from economic activities to social life to political institutions, in a self-reinforcing process. Modernization brings an intense awareness of change and innovation, linked with the idea that human societies are progressing.

Historically, the idea of human progress is relatively new. As long as societies did not exert significant control over their environment and were helplessly exposed to the vagaries of natural forces, and as long as agrarian economies were trapped in a steady-state equilibrium where no growth in mass living standards took place, the idea of human progress seemed unrealistic. The situation began to change only when sustained economic growth began to occur.

However, the idea of human progress was contested from the beginning by opposing ideas that considered ongoing societal changes as a sign of human decay. Thus, modernization theory was doomed to make a career swinging between wholehearted appreciation and fierce rejection, depending on whether the dominant mood of the time was rather optimistic or pessimistic. The history of modernization theory is thus the history of anti-modernization theory. Both are ideological reflections of far-ranging dynamics that continue to accelerate the pace of social change since the rise of pre-industrial capitalism.

The term modernization connotes first of all changes in production technology inducing major economic transitions from pre-industrial to industrial societies and from industrial to post-industrial societies. All these changes originate in humans’ intellectual achievements in the sciences, which manifest themselves in an ever-increasing technological control over various mechanical, chemical, electronic, and biological processes. The social transformations initiated by these technological changes have various massive consequences on the societies’ outlook, such as the growth of mass-based human resources, occupational diversification, organizational differentiation, state capacity growth and state activity extension, mass political involvement, and rationalization and secularization. The common denominator of all these aspects of modernization is the growing complexity, knowledge intensity, and sophistication of performed human activities.

Modernization theory emerged in the Enlightenment era with the belief that technological progress would give humanity increasing control over nature. Adam Smith and Karl Marx propagated competing versions of modernization, with Smith advocating a capitalist vision, and Marx advocating communism. Competing versions of modernization theory enjoyed a new resurgence after World War II when the capitalist and communist superpowers espoused opposing ideologies as guidelines for the best route to modernity. Although they competed fiercely, both ideologies were committed to economic growth, social progress, and modernization, and they both brought broader mass participation in politics (Moore 1966).

Modernization theory’s career is closely linked with theories of underdevelopment. In the post-war USA, a version of modernization theory emerged that viewed underdevelopment as a direct consequence of a country’s internal characteristics, especially its traditional psychological and cultural traits. This perspective was strongly influenced by Max Weber’s theory of the cultural origins of capitalism, which viewed underdevelopment as a function of traditionally irrational, spiritual, and communal values – values that discourage human achievement motivation. From this perspective, traditional values were not only mutable but could – and should – also be replaced by modern values, enabling these societies to follow the path of capitalist development. The causal agents in this developmental process were seen as the rich developed nations that stimulated the modernization of backward” nations through economic, cultural, and military assistance.

This version of modernization theory was not merely criticized as patronizing, it was pronounced dead (Wallerstein 1976). Neo-Marxist and world-systems theorists argued that rich countries exploit poor countries, locking them in positions of powerlessness and structural dependence.

This school of thought conveys the message to poor countries that poverty has nothing to do with their traditional values: it is the fault of global capitalism. In the 1970s and 1980s, modernization theory seemed discredited; dependency theory came into vogue (Cardoso & Faletto 1979). Adherents of dependency theory claimed that the third world nations could only escape from global exploitation if they withdrew from the world market and adopted import substitution policies.

Modernization theories have been criticized for their tendency toward technological and socioeconomic determinism. Usually these critiques cite Max Weber (1958 [1904]), who reversed the Marxian notion that technologically induced socioeconomic development determines cultural change. Indeed, in his explanation of the rise of capitalism, Weber turns causality in the opposite direction, arguing that the Calvinist variant of Protestantism (along with other factors) led to the rise of a capitalist economy rather than the other way round. Revised versions of modernization theory (Inglehart & Baker 2000) emphasize that both Marx and Weber were partly correct: on one hand, socioeconomic development brings predictable cultural changes in people’s moral values; but on the other hand, these changes are path dependent, so that a society’s initial starting position remains visible in its relative position to other societies, reflecting its cultural heritage. Nevertheless, recent evidence indicates that – even though the relationship between socioeconomic development and cultural change is reciprocal – the stronger causal arrow seems to run from socioeconomic development to cultural change (Inglehart & Welzel 2005).


  1. Cardoso, F. H. & Faletto, E. (1979) Dependency and Development in Latin America. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  2. Inglehart, R. & Baker, W. E. (2000) Modernization, cultural change, and the persistence of traditional values. American Sociological Review 65 (February): 19-51.
  3. Inglehart, R. & Welzel, C. (2005) Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy. Cambridge University Press, New York.
  4. Moore, B. (1966) The Social Origins ofDemocracy and Dictatorship: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Beacon Press, Boston, MA.
  5. Wallerstein, I. (1976) Modernization: requiescat in pace. In: Coser, L. A. & Larsen, O. N. (eds.), The Uses of Controversy in Sociology. Free Press, New York, pp. 131-5.
  6. Weber, M. (1958) [1904] The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

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