Last Updated on May 23, 2023 by Karl Thompson
By the end of the Second World War many of the countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America had failed to develop and remained poor, despite exposure to capitalism. There was concern amongst the leaders of the western developed countries, especially the United States, that communism might spread into many of these countries, potentially harming American business interests abroad and diminishing U.S. Power.
In this context, in the late 1940s, modernisation theory was developed, which aimed to provide a specifically non-communist solution to poverty in the developing world – Its aim was to spread a specifically industrialised, capitalist model of development through the promotion of Western, democratic values.
There are two main aspects of modernisation theory – (1) its explanation of why poor countries are underdeveloped, and (2) its proposed solution to underdevelopment.
Modernisation theory explained the underdevelopment of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America primarily in terms of cultural ‘barriers’ to development’, basically arguing that developing countries were underdeveloped because their traditional values held them back; other modernisation theorists focused more on economic barriers to development.
In order to develop, less developed countries basically needed to adopt a similar path to development to the West. They needed to adopt Western cultural values and industrialise in order to promote economic growth. In order to do this they would need help from Western governments and companies, in the form of aid and investment.
Modernisation theory favoured a capitalist- industrial model of development – they believed that capitalism (the free market) encouraged efficient production through industrialisation, the process of moving towards factory based production.
Industrial –refers to production taking place in factories rather than in the home or small workshops. This is large scale production. (Think car plants and conveyer belts).
Capitalism – a system where private money is invested in industry in order to make a profit and goods are produced are for sale in the market place rather than for private consumption.
There are alternative systems of production to Capitalism – subsistence systems are where local communities produce what they need and goods produced for sale are kept to a minimum; and Communism, where a central authority decides what should be produced rather than consumer demand and desire for profit. (Need drives production in Communism, individual wants or desires (‘demand’) in Capitalism)
Modernisation Theory: What Prevents Development?
According to Modernisation Theorists, obstacles to development are internal to poorer countries. In other words, undeveloped countries are undeveloped because they have the wrong cultural and social systems and the wrong values and practices that prevent development from taking place.
Talcott Parsons (1964) was especially critical of the traditional values of underdeveloped countries – he believed that they were too attached to traditional customs, rituals, practices and institutions, which Parsons argued were the ‘enemy of progress’. He was especially critical of the extended kinship and tribal systems found in many traditional societies, which he believed hindered the geographical and social mobility that were essential if a country were to develop (as outlined in his Functional Fit theory).
Parsons argued that traditional values in Africa, Asia and Latin America acted as barriers to development which included –
- Particularism – Where people are allocated into roles based on their affective or familial relationship to those already in positions power. For example, where a politician or head of a company gives their brother or someone from their village or ethnic group a job simply because they are close to them, rather than employing someone based on their individual talent.
- Collectivism – This is where the individual is expected to put the group (the family or the village) before self-interest – this might mean that children are expected to leave school at a younger age in order to care for elderly parents or grandparents rather than staying in school and furthering their education.
- Patriarchy – Patriarchal structures are much more entrenched in less developed countries, and so women are much less likely to gain positions of political or economic power, and remain in traditional, housewife roles. This means that half of the population is blocked from contributing to the political and economic development of the country.
- Ascribed Status and Fatalism – Ascribed status is where your position in society is ascribed (or determined) at birth based on your caste, ethnic group or gender. Examples include the cast system in India, many slave systems, and this is also an aspect of extreme patriarchal societies. This can result in Fatalism – the feeling that there is nothing you can do to change your situation.
In contrast, Parsons believed that Western cultural values which promoted competition and economic growth: such values included the following:
- Individualism – The opposite of collectivism This is where individuals put themselves first rather than the family or the village/ clan. This frees individuals up to leave families/ villages and use their talents to better themselves ( get an education/ set up businesses)
- Universalism – This involves applying the same standards to everyone, and judging everyone according to the same standards This is the opposite of particularism, where people are judged differently based on their relationship to the person doing the judging.
- Achieved Status and Meritocracy – Achieved status is where you achieve your success based on your own individual efforts. This is profoundly related to the ideal of meritocracy. If we live in a truly meritocratic society, then this means then the most talented and hardworking should rise to the top-jobs, and these should be the best people to ‘run the country’ and drive economic and social development.
Parsons believed that people in undeveloped countries needed to develop an ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ if economic growth was to be achieved, and this could only happen if less developed countries became more receptive to Western values, which promoted economic growth.
Rostow’s five stage model of development
Modernisation Theorists believed traditional societies needed Western assistance to develop. There were numerous debates about the most effective ways to help countries develop, but there was general consensus on the view that aid was a good thing and if Developing countries were injected with money and western expertise it would help to erode ‘backward’ cultural barriers and kick starts their economies.
The most well-known version of modernization theory is Walt Rostow’s 5 stages of economic growth. Rostow (1971) suggested that following initial investment, countries would then set off on an evolutionary process in which they would progress up 5 stages of a development ladder. This process should take 60 years. The idea is that with help from West, developing countries could develop a lot faster than we did.
Stage 1: Traditional Society
Traditional societies whose economies are dominated by subsistence farming. Such societies have little wealth to invest and have limited access to modern industry and technology. Rostow argued that at this stage there are cultural barriers to development (see sheet 6)
Stage 2: The preconditions for take off
The stage in which western aid packages brings western values, practises and expertise into the society. This can take the form of:
- Science and technology – to improve agriculture
- Infrastructure – improving roads and cities communications
- Industry – western companies establishing factories
These provide the conditions for investment, attracting more companies into the country.
Stage 3: Take off
The society experiences economic growth as new modern practices become the norm. Profits are reinvested in infrastructure etc. and a new entrepreneurial class emerges and urbanised that is willing to invest further and take risks. The country now moves beyond subsistence economy and starts exporting goods to other countries
This generates more wealth which then trickles down to the population as a whole who are then able to become consumers of new products produced by new industries there and from abroad.
Stage 4: The drive to maturity
More economic growth and investment in education, media and birth control. The population start to realise new opportunities opening up and strive to make the most of their lives.
Stage 5: The age of high mass consumption
This is where economic growth and production are at Western levels, which should have happened after 60 years according to Rostow.
Variations on Rostow’s 5 stage model
Different theorists stress the importance of different types of assistance or interventions that could jolt countries out their traditional ways and bring about change.
- Hoselitz – education is most important as it should speed up the introduction of Western values such as universalism, individualism, competition and achievement measured by examinations. This was seen as a way of breaking the link between family and children.
- Inkeles – media – Important to diffuse ideas non traditional such as family planning and democracy
- Hoselitz – urbanisation. The theory here is that if populations are packed more closely together new ideas are more likely to spread than amongst diffuse rural population
Strengths of Modernisation Theory
Below are some examples of the theory working in practice, sort of!
ONE – Indonesia – partly followed Modernisation theory in the 1960’s by encouraging western companies to invest and by accepting loans from the World Bank. But, their President Suharto (Dictator) also maintained a brutal regime which a CIA report refers to as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century,” comparable to those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. However, the World Bank praised Suharto’s economic transformation as “a dynamic economic success” and called Indonesia “the model pupil of the global economy,” while Bill Clinton referred to Suharto as “our kind of guy.”
Two further examples of where western expertise has helped solved specific problems in a number of developing countries are the green revolution and the eradication of smallpox, but neither of these lead to ‘the high age of mass consumption’ as Rostow predicted
TWO – The Green Revolution: In the 1960s, Western Biotechnology helped treble food yields in Mexico and India.
THREE – The Eradication of Smallpox… In the early 1950s 50 million cases of smallpox occurred in the world each year, by the early 1970s smallpox had been eradicated because of vaccine donations by the USA and RUSSIA
Criticisms of Modernisation Theory
There are no examples of countries that have followed a Modernisation Theory approach to development. No countries have followed Rostow’s “5 stages of growth” in their entirety. Remember, “Modernisation Theory” is a very old theory which was partly created with the intention of justifying the position of western capitalist countries, many of whom were colonial powers at the time, and discrediting Communism. This is why it is such a weak theory.
Modernization Theory assumes that western civilisation is technically and morally superior to traditional societies. Implies that traditional values in the developing world have little value compared to those of the West. Many developed countries have huge inequalities and the greater the level of inequality the greater the degree of other problems: High crime rates, suicide rates, poor health problems such as cancer and drug abuse.
Dependency Theorists argue that development is not really about helping the developing world at all. It is really about changing societies just enough so they are easier to exploit, making western companies and countries richer, opening them up to exploit cheap natural resources and cheap labour.
Neo-Liberalism is critical of the extent to which Modernisation theory stresses the importance of foreign aid, but corruption (Kleptocracy) often prevents aid from getting to where it is supposed to be going. Much aid is siphoned off by corrupt elites and government officials rather than getting to the projects it was earmarked for. This means that aid creates more inequality and enables elites to maintain power.
Post-Development thinkers argue that the model is flawed for assuming that countries need the help of outside forces. The central role is on experts and money coming in from the outside, parachuted in, and this downgrades the role of local knowledge and initiatives. This approach can be seen as demeaning and dehumanising for local populations. Galeano (1992) argues that minds become colonised with the idea that they are dependent on outside forces. They train you to be paralysed and then sell you crutches. There are alternative models of development that have raised living standards: Such as Communist Cuba and The Theocracies of the Middle East
Industrialisation may do more harm than good for many people – It may cause Social damage – Some development projects such as dams have led to local populations being removed forcibly from their home lands with little or no compensation being paid.
In the clip below, Vandana Shiva presents a useful alternative perspective on the Green Revolution, pointing out that many traditional villages were flooded and destroyed in the process:
Finally, there are ecological limits to growth. Many industrial modernisation projects such as mining and forestry have led to the destruction of environment.
Despite its failings Modernisation theory has been one of most influential theories in terms of impact on global affairs. The spirit of Modernisation theory resulted in the establishment of the United Nations, The World Bank and the IMF, global financial institutions through which developed countries continue to channel aid money to less developed countries to this day, although there is of course debate over whether aid is an effective means to development.
Furthermore, the ‘spirit of Modernisation theory may actually still be alive today, in the form of Jeffry Sachs. Sachs (2005) is one of the most influential development economists in the world, and he has been termed a ‘neo-modernisation theorist’.
Sachs, like Rostow, sees development as a ladder with its rungs representing progress towards economic and social well-being. Sachs argues that there are a billion people in the world who are too malnourished, diseased or young to lift a foot onto the ladder because they often lack certain types of capital which the west takes for granted – such as good health, education, knowledge and skills, or any kind of savings.
Sachs argues that these billion people are effectively trapped in a cycle of deprivation and require targeted aid injections from the west in order to develop. In the year 2000 Sachs even went as far as calculating how much money would be required to end poverty – it worked out at 0.7% of GNP of the 30 or so most developed countries over the next few decades.
Related Posts/ Sources:
This module is relevant to the Global Development and Globalisation module within A-level sociology.
Steve Basset has produced an excellent series of vodcasts introducing Modernization Theory and other theories of development:
I’d also recommend this this useful article on Walt Rostow from The Guardian as some further reading.