Understanding Modernization Theory

A Brief Overview

A flyover view of a complex freeway intersection in Los Angeles illustrates the modern city and lifestyle that results from the view of modernization theory.
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Modernization theory emerged in the 1950s as an explanation of how the industrial societies of North America and Western Europe developed. The theory argues that societies develop in fairly predictable stages through which they become increasingly complex. Development depends primarily on the importation of technology as well as a number of other political and social changes believed to come about as a result.

Overview of Modernization Theory

Social scientists, primarily of white European descent, formulated modernization theory during the mid-twentieth century. Reflecting on a few hundred years of history in North America and Western Europe, and taking a positive view of the changes observed during that time, they developed a theory that explains that modernization is a process that involves industrialization, urbanization, rationalization, bureaucracy, mass consumption, and the adoption of democracy. During this process pre-modern or traditional societies evolve into the contemporary Western societies that we know today.

Modernization theory holds that this process involves increased availability and levels of formal schooling, and the development of mass media, both of which are thought to foster democratic political institutions.

Through the process of modernization transportation and communication become increasingly sophisticated and accessible, populations become more urban and mobile, and the extended family declines in importance.

Simultaneously, the importance of the individual in economic and social life increases and intensifies.

Organizations become bureaucratic as the division of labor within society grows more complex, and as it is a process rooted in scientific and technological rationality, religion declines in public life.

Lastly, cash-driven markets take over as the primary mechanism through which goods and services are exchanged. As it is a theory conceptualized by Western social scientists, it is also one with a capitalist economy at its center.

Cemented as valid within Western academia, modernization theory has long been used as a justification for implementing the same kinds of processes and structures in places all over the world that are considered "under-" or "undeveloped" as compared with Western societies. At its core are the assumptions that scientific progress, technological development and rationality, mobility, and economic growth are good things and are to be constantly aimed for.

Critiques of Modernization Theory

Modernization theory has had its critics from the start. Many scholars, often people of color and those from non-Western nations, have pointed out over the years that modernization theory fails to account for the way Western reliance on colonization, slave labor, and theft of land and resources provided the wealth and material resources necessary for the pace and scale of development in the West (see postcolonial theory for extensive discussions of this). It cannot be replicated in other places because of this, and it should not be replicated in this way.

Others, like critical theorists including members of the Frankfurt School, have pointed out that Western modernization is premised on the extreme exploitation of workers within the capitalist system, and that the toll of modernization on social relations has been great, leading to widespread social alienation, a loss of community, and unhappiness.

Still, others critique modernization theory for failing to account for the unsustainability of the project, in an environmental sense, and point out that pre-modern, traditional, and indigenous cultures typically had much more environmentally conscious and symbiotic relationships between people and the planet.

Some point out that elements and values of traditional life need not be completely erased in order to achieve a modern society, and point to Japan as an example.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.