Modernization is a major social scientific theory that emerged in the 1950s to explain different levels of development in the world’s societies. Although the roots of modernization theory developed in the response of nineteenth-century American and European intellectuals to industrialization, social scientists in the immediate decades after World War II developed a precise theory to explain the transformation throughout the world, past and present, from traditional agrarian to modern urban societies. Modernization theory reached its peak in the 1970s, then declined thereafter; critics complained of the theory’s ethnocentrism and tendency to associate modernization with westernization; the theory lacked empirical evidence, was too abstract; and it simplified the diversity and complexity of change in both contemporary and historical societies. The world systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein replaced the emphasis on modernization among social scientists in the 1980s. Recent scholars have developed a globalization paradigm that attempts to explain the relationship of modern developing and developed societies in terms of economic dependence and interdependence.
Modernization theory derived from the philosophic writings of Karl Marx, Jacob Burkhardt, Ferdinand Tonnies, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Karl Marx set the stage with his arguments, in The Communist Manifesto, German Ideology, Capital, and other works, that economic and social forces, especially those engaged in production, direct human institutions and behavior more than ideas and human consciousness. Burkhardt, a German historian, wrote in his 1860 publication The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy that modernity was the result of individualism brought by the origins of capitalism in Europe rather than feudal, communitarian thinking. Ferdinand Tonnies argued in Community and Association (1887) that the Industrial Revolution in Europe resulted in the diminution of traditional values and relationships, the community, replaced by impersonal relationships and values, the association. Max Weber echoed Tonnies’ lament of a deteriorating traditionalism in a modern context, citing rationalism as the prime culprit for the change. Emile Durkheim adapted Tonnies’ thought to social change and believed that the traditional community would transform into a great community in the modern world.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, then, European social theorists had identified a change that had occurred in the West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from one sort of society based on community and farming to another based on artificial associations and urban existence. This dichotomy of a traditional and modern society gained the status of a self-evident, a priori theory that required no real empirical proof. At one extreme of this social and historical polarity was the traditional (or peasant) society, characterized by a static existence focused on continuity and tradition, a product of a rural, agrarian existence where keeping the family name tied to the same parcel of land was of utmost importance. Religion and superstition rather than rational, secular thinking captivate the people. Organic institutions such as kin, family, and community orient the people; the group is more important than the individual. The modern society is the polar opposite. Family is disrupted and community is lost as the past is forgotten, traditional values give way to individual whim and artificial associations. Modernity’s search for progress, scientific knowledge, and the latest technology come at the expense of the old ways of doing things, faith, and reliance upon the natural environment. Social hierarchy gives way to social and geographic mobility. Society becomes fragmented, specialized, bureaucratic, urban, industrial, and secular.
American social theorists, students of urbanization and community, political scientists and sociologists, such as Jane Addams, Robert Park, Louis Wirth, and Talcott Parsons, embraced modernization theory as a way to explain changes in America from 1850 to 1950. Louis Wirth studied the city and discovered the replacement of “primary relationships,” such as would be found in a traditional community, with “secondary relationships,” those of a modern, anonymous, mass society. Talcott Parsons, in several books published in the 1950s, developed a theoretical framework for analyzing social systems, expanding upon Tonnies’ dichotomy of community and association. Parsons argued in The Social System (1951) that a traditional society is characterized by a willingness to express feelings (affectivity), a focus on self, a belief in moral and religious absolutes (universalism), and personal strength and individual achievement. A modern society, however, demands counterparts such as a cold rational approach to feelings (affective neutrality), an orientation toward the group, relativity toward morals and beliefs (particularism), and behavior ascribed by society.
During the decade of the 1960s and 1970s social scientists tried to being empirical substance and more concrete definitions to Parsons’ theoretical construct. W. W. Rostow, for example, examined modernization according to stages of economic growth. Alex Inkeles used a survey of thousands of people living in Third World countries to determine characteristics of a modern personality. Cyril Black, The Dynamics of Modernization (1966), discussed the transition of a traditional to a modern society in terms of a transfer of leadership as the entire social structure changes as the economy transitions from rural-agrarian to urban-industrial. Samuel Huntington attempted to provide a clear definition of modernization: “The essential difference,” he wrote in “The Change to Change: Modernization, Development, and Politics” (Comparative Politics, 1971), “between modern and traditional society . . . lies in the greater control which modern man has over his natural and social environment. This control, in turn, is based on the expansion of scientific and technological knowledge.”
Increasingly during these years American historians began to embrace modernization as a means of describing and analyzing American history. The “new social history,” “new urban history,” and community studies movement advocated by scholars such as Darrett Rutman, Kenneth Lockridge, and John Demos provided social-scientific theory along with empirical evidence based on statistical analysis of tax, land, census, and town records to document the transition from a traditional to a modern society from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries in America. Richard Brown epitomized this synthesizing approach toward early American history in Modernization: The Transformation of American Life, 1600-1865 (1976). The community studies movement among social scientists during the 1960s and 1970s was a reflection of the concern during those years particularly among youth that traditional American values of community and reliance upon the natural environment were being lost to urbanization and artificial relationships and the mindset of environmental exploitation. To study the early American community was to capture the material and spiritual bases of a time that was forever fading into the distant past. This longing for the ideal traditional community reflected fear that modernization was bringing about an irrevocable society that nobody really wanted.
World Systems Theory and Globalization
The increasingly development of the economies and technological sophistication of “Third World” developing countries added to the revolution in communications inaugurated by digital technology and the internet, along with the fall of the Soviet Union and the apparent triumph of capitalism, led many scholars to question the legitimacy of a theory of development dependent on the traditional-modern model as well as a West-East dichotomy. Immanuel Wallerstein inaugurated a revolution of sorts among social scientific theorists with the publication of The World System. “World systems theory” advocated looking at the world according to developing systems leading eventually to one world system wherein core countries exploit economically peripheral countries. Wallerstein predicted that a world socialist system will eventually dominate the world’s economic, political, and social structures. Many scholars have disagreed with Wallerstein’s assessment, arguing that capitalism will not fall to the wayside, rather will continue to become an integrative, universal force leading to one global economic system. Globalization implies that capitalism might come full circle, realizing the dream of Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776) that free trade might dominate the world’s peoples, bringing enlightened political ideas in its wake.