Modernization theory is a theory explaining how societies develop and become modern.
It charts how societies progressively transition from a traditional, pre-modern stage of development to a modern, industrial stage. Modernization theory assumes that all societies follow a similar path of development.
They start as traditional societies, characterized by low economic development, a simple division of labor, and limited innovation. Then, with the adoption of rational ways of thinking and the spread of technology, they become modern.
Modern societies have high economic development, a complex division of labor, and are highly innovative. They are also characterized by the growth of education, the expansion of mass media, and often the establishment of democratic political systems.
Inglehart and Welzel define modernization as:
“the process by which societies move from traditional or pre-modern conditions to those of modernity, characterized by industrialization, urbanization, and the growth of a mass society.” (2005)
The modernization theory originated in the 1950s and 1960s, drawing on classical evolutionary theory and a partial reading of Max Weber. Talcott Parsons, who had translated and interpreted Weber’s ideas, also significantly influenced this theory.
Modernization theory posits that underdeveloped states are in a situation similar to that of developed states sometime in the past. So, to help them out of poverty, there is a need to accelerate this common development path via investment, technology transfers, etc.
Walt Rostow (1960) argued that every society goes through five stages of economic development—the traditional stage, the preconditions for takeoff, the takeoff, the drive to maturity, and the age of high-mass consumption—and ultimately becomes an industrialized, modern society.
Modernization theory faced heavy criticism after the 1960s and got almost eclipsed. It made a comeback in the late 20th century through the work of Francis Fukuyama but is still a controversial model.
Modernization Theory Examples
- Industrialization: Industrialization is the transformation of a society from one based on agriculture to one based on manufacturing industries. It involves the development of new technologies & factories, which bring about economic and social progress. Industrialization also has negative effects like pollution, inequality, etc.
- Rationalization: Rationalization is the replacement of traditional motivators of actions (religious beliefs, traditions, etc.) with reason. It is a chief element of socioeconomic progress as it creates efficient systems (new technologies, streamlined procedures, etc.) that increase productivity. However, an overemphasis on rationality can often blind us to other aspects of human life such as emotions, values, etc.
- Urbanization: Urbanization is a process of population movement from rural areas to cities, which is a key aspect of modernization. It leads to a more diversified and industrialized economy while also promoting social mobility & political vibrancy. But urbanization also causes pollution, overcrowding, and excessive strain on resources.
- Spread of education: Education is a means of transmitting knowledge, skills, and values. By fostering critical thinking, education drives economic growth & socio-political change. The spread of education is a key indicator of modernization, and today it is seen as a fundamental right. It has led to a more literate and technologically advanced world, but we still need to make it equally accessible, especially in developing countries.
- Individualism: Individualism refers to the emphasis on the individual and their freedoms, as opposed to the collective values of society. As societies become more modern, they become more democratic and focused on individual rights; the individual replaces the family/community as the fundamental unit of society. However, individualism can also lead to a breakdown of community ties.
- The decline of traditions: Modernization usually leads to a decline in traditions. With rapid progress, people become more focused on economic growth rather than engaging in traditional practices. Modernization also leads to increased mobility and interconnectedness, which causes people to learn and adapt from other (usually Western) cultures, often abandoning their own traditions.
- Adoption of new technology: Technology leads to increased productivity, efficiency, and convenience in various fields, making it a vital aspect of modernization. By automating tasks, technology allows faster and cheaper production of goods. It has also revolutionized communication, travel, and almost every aspect of our life.
- Growth of capitalism: Capitalism is an economic system where private businesses own the means of production and operate for profit. It is seen as an important aspect of modernization, as it has facilitated economic development through innovation & efficient allocation of resources. However, it has also brought inequality and exploitation.
- Bureaucratic state: A bureaucratic state is a type of government where public affairs are managed by a hierarchical organization of officials. It is characterized by the specialized division of labor, where officials work under given rules. It is associated closely with modernization as it is seen as the best way of running a complex society (see also: Weber’s bureaucratic theory).
- Rise of the service sector: The rise of the service sector reflects a shift away from traditional industries like agriculture to more knowledge-based activities, so it is seen as an important aspect of modernization. As societies become more advanced and interconnected, there is an increased demand for education, healthcare, etc.
While many modern societies are democratic, the relationship between the two—modernization and democratization—is debatable.
Many scholars suggest that modernization leads to democratization. For example, Seymour Lipset argued that economic development is necessary to establish and support democracy (1959).
This is because economic development, Lipset argued, leads to the growth of the middle class, which is more likely to support democratic values. It also spreads education, encouraging critical thinking and political awareness.
Others argue that it is the other way around: democracy drives modernization as democratic societies are more likely to promote policies of economic development & technological progress.
In contrast, many scholars argue that modernity & democracy are not always linked. For example, Germany’s economic modernization began in the 19th century, long before its democratization started after 1918.
Modernization does not always imply more human rights, with China in the 21st century being an oft-quoted example. Similarly, Guillermo O’Donnell argued how, in South America, modernization led not to democracy but to bureaucratic authoritarianism.
2. Economic Development
Economic development—the expansion of economic activities, growth of industries, and increased per capita income—is seen as the key indicator of modernization.
For example, India has experienced rapid economic growth since the early 1990s due to the expansion and growth of its service and manufacturing industries. This has led to a reduction in poverty and a rise in per capita income.
However, modernization often comes at the cost of traditions. Many critics argue that it often destroys traditional societies without delivering the promised advantages.
Technology is the use of scientific knowledge, systems, and tools to improve the way we live, and it is central to modernization.
Technology improves productivity & efficiency, allowing us to create more goods in lesser time and at cheaper rates. Planes, trains, and automobiles make it easier for people and goods to travel, boosting trade and economic growth.
Because of medical technology, we now have improved healthcare and extended life expectancy. Technology, particularly the internet, has revolutionized the way we communicate, do business, and live our lives.
For example, till the 20th century, South Korea was a largely agrarian society. In the 1960s, their government invested heavily in building technological infrastructure and promoting its use. Today, the country has one of the highest levels of internet penetration and exports a significant amount of technology.
Modernization theory has been a subject of much criticism, which primarily attacks its assumption that all societies follow the same development path.
The belief in a universal development trajectory is deterministic, and Furnivall has rightly criticized it for ignoring the role of culture, history, and other factors in shaping a society’s development (1948).
Proponents of dependency theory also make the same point, arguing that underdeveloped states are not simply primitive versions of developed states but have unique features and structures.
Moreover, modernization theory does not consider the complex external factors that shape a society. A state’s economic development is not autonomous, as dependency theory emphasizes; instead, the global economic structure, especially the exploitation by developed states, is responsible for the poverty of underdeveloped states.
Critics like Said have also pointed out the eurocentrism of the theory since it assumes that the development path of Western societies is the only correct path and others should follow it (1978). There is a bias towards western values, not just in this theory but perhaps in our understanding of “modernization” itself, which can lead to a loss of cultural diversity.
Finally, critics also accuse this theory of focusing heavily on economic development, which tends to ignore other aspects of socio-cultural life and the complexity of human societies.
Modernization theory explains how societies develop and become modern.
Its focus on technology and economic progress has been influential in shaping how policymakers think about and work towards development. However, it has also been a subject of much criticism, primarily because it assumes a universal path of development.
Inglehart, R., & Welzel, C. (2005). Modernization, cultural change, and democracy: The human development sequence. Cambridge University Press.
Rostow, W. W. (1960). The stages of economic growth: A non-communist manifesto. Cambridge University Press.
Furnivall, J. S. (1948). Colonial policy and practice: A comparative study of Burma and Netherlands India. Cambridge University Press.
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Vintage Books.
Lipset, S. M. (1959). “Some social requisites of democracy: Economic development and political legitimacy”. The American Political Science Review. Cambridge University Press.