Modernization Theory

Modernization theory posits that societies progress through stages of development, moving from traditional to modern forms, with economic growth and technological advancements playing key roles in this transformation. It suggests that Western models of development, such as industrialization and democracy, are universal and desirable for all nations.

Modernization Theory


The post-World War II era witnessed a transformation in the global landscape as independent nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America emerged onto the world stage. This period ushered in a new approach to the study of development and modernization, challenging the conventional Western model. Scholars and policymakers began to realize that development could take various forms, influenced by unique socio-economic, political, and cultural factors specific to these new nations. Consequently, the field of comparative analysis expanded, examining not only political institutions but also a wide range of ecological forces. In this article, we will delve into the Theory of Development, understanding its meaning and the Modernization Theory, a dominant paradigm of the mid-20th century.

Defining Development

Development encompasses a series of steps aimed at improving the social, political, and economic well-being of a society or individuals. It strives to enhance the quality of life at local, regional, or national levels by achieving specific goals and objectives. For a long time, the term ‘development’ was often associated with concepts like Westernization, Modernization, and Industrialization.

Modernization Theory

Modernization theory first emerged in United States as a prominent framework to explain the process of modernization within societies. It conceptualizes a progressive transition from traditional to modern societies, emphasizing internal factors while suggesting that with assistance, traditional societies can follow the path of more developed nations.

Originating from the ideas of German sociologist Max Weber, the modernization paradigm was further developed by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons. Several key historical events influenced its growth, including the rise of the United States as a superpower after World War II, the global spread of capitalism, and the independence of nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These newly formed states sought a model of development to promote their economies and enhance their political independence.

Modernization theory posits that modern societies are more productive, offer better education, and provide more welfare to their citizens. It suggests that traditional societies can develop by adopting modern practices, leading to increased wealth, freedom, and a higher standard of living.

The theory has several key assumptions, including the phased and irreversible nature of modernization, its Europeanization or Americanization, and the idea that modernization is a desirable and progressive process. Modernized political systems, it claims, are better equipped to handle issues like national identity, legitimacy, participation, and distribution.

There are two main aspects of modernization theory: explaining why poor countries are underdeveloped and proposing solutions to underdevelopment. The theory identifies cultural, social, economic, and political barriers that have hindered development in developing countries and the adoption of Western values and industrialization can pave the way for these nations to achieve development similar to Western developed countries. Talcott Parsons structural functional theory is a notable aspect of this theory.

Perspective of Talcott Parson

Talcott Parson, a key figure in modernization theory, stressed the importance of developing countries embracing Western values as a prerequisite for development. He criticized traditional values in underdeveloped countries, believing that they were deeply entrenched in customs, rituals, practices, and institutions that hindered progress.

Parson identified several traditional values in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that acted as barriers to development, including particularism, collectivism, patriarchy, and ascriptive values like ascribed status and fatalism. In contrast, he viewed Western cultural values, such as individualism, universalism, legal and administrative order, and achieved status, as conducive to competition and economic growth.

Modernization theory by David Apter 

David Apter’s theory of modernization, as elaborated in his book “Rethinking Development,” categorizes modernization into three social systems: differentiated, flexible, and innovative.

Differentiated Modernization: This system involves the initial contact between traditional and modern elements within a society. It often leads to the coexistence of both, where traditional values and institutions continue to play a significant role alongside emerging modern elements.

Flexible Modernization: Societies begin to adapt and adjust to the challenges and contradictions that arise during the modernization process. There is greater fluidity and innovation in dealing with these challenges, enabling societies to respond more effectively to change.

Innovative Modernization: This system signifies the highest level of modernization. Societies are capable of generating new and creative solutions to complex problems. Innovation becomes a hallmark of their ability to thrive and adapt in a rapidly changing world.

Additionally, Apter outlined four stages of development within societies:

Stage 1 – Contact and Control: The initial phase where traditional and modern elements first interact.

Stage 2 – Reaction and Counter-Reaction: A period marked by resistance and adaptation as societies respond to the challenges posed by modernization.

Stage 3 – Contradiction and Reaction: A stage where contradictions and tensions between traditional and modern elements intensify, leading to social and political turbulence.

Stage 4 – Search for New Generative Solutions: The final stage characterized by societies seeking innovative solutions to overcome contradictions, paving the way for advanced modernization.

Apter’s framework provides a comprehensive understanding of the dynamic process of modernization and development, recognizing the complexities and nuances involved in the transformation of societies.

Economic Theory of Development

One of the principal applications of the modernization theory has been the economic field related to public policy decisions. Modernization 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 start their economies. The Marshall Plan and the Alliance for Progress in Latin America are examples of programs which were influenced by Rostow’s political theories.

5 Stages of Economic Growth – W.W Rostow

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. 

These five stages are: traditional society, precondition for takeoff, the takeoff process, the drive to maturity, and high mass consumption society.

Stage 1Traditional Society: Economies are dominated by subsistence farming, with limited access to modern industry and technology. Cultural barriers to development are prevalent.

Stage 2- Preconditions for Takeoff: Western aid packages introduce Western values and expertise into society.

Stage 3- Takeoff Stage: Economic growth occurs as modern practices become the norm, leading to infrastructure development and the emergence of an entrepreneurial class.

Stage 4- Drive to Maturity: Continued economic growth and investment in education, media, and birth control lead to the population realizing new opportunities and striving for progress.

Stage 5- High Mass Consumption Society: Economic growth and production reach Western levels.

Political Development

The concept of political development finds its roots in the 1950s when a significant number of American political scholars embarked on the study of the organizational structures of emerging nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The global process of political development remains ongoing and has not reached a state of full maturation. Scholars have not reached a unanimous consensus regarding the exact origins and definition of political development. In the work “The Passing of the Traditional Societies: Modernization of the Middle East,” Daniel Lerner draws comparisons between political development and political modernization. Whereas, W.W Rostow defines political development as a phenomenon linked to industrial society, while Edward Shills in his work “Centre and Periphery theory” associates it with the construction of nation-states and presents a fivefold classification of political systems: Political democracy, Tutelary democracy, Modernizing oligarchy, Totalitarian oligarchy, and Traditional oligarchy. On the other hand, Kenneth Organski views political development in terms of political unification, industrialization, national welfare, and abundance.

In his seminal work “Political Man” (1959), Seymour P. Lipset contended that economic modernization directly correlates with the emergence of political democracy, facilitated by the growth of a prosperous and educated middle class. Conversely, Karl Deutsch, in “Social Mobilization and Political Development” (1961), argued that industrialization doesn’t inherently lead to democracy but triggers societal transformation, potentially causing people to abandon rural identities in favor of national affiliation. Social mobilization, he posited, pressures existing political systems, yielding either violence or stability based on their responses. Almond and Coleman’s “The Politics of the Developing Areas” (1960) echoed this view, suggesting that economic modernization generates crises demanding resolution. Gabriel Almond’s functionalist framework in the same volume gained favor among scholars studying politics. Halpern also provided the concept of will and capacity in this regard. Halpern talked of structural change and demands let loose by uncontrolled force of transformation and “will and Capacity” of political authority to cope with the changes and demands.

Three-Dimensional Framework for Political Development – Lucian Pye

In 1966, Lucian Pye presented a comprehensive analysis of political development, offering a multi-faceted perspective on this complex subject. Pye’s insights on political development continue to be relevant, shedding light on crucial aspects that shape a nation’s journey towards political modernization, economic growth, and democratic values.

The Three Pillars of Political Development

Lucian Pye’s exploration of political development revealed that it revolves around three fundamental aspects:

  1. Equality: The first pillar of political development emphasizes mass participation, popular involvement, and standards of achievement. In Pye’s view, political development must prioritize the inclusion of a wide range of citizens in the political process. This inclusion not only serves as a measure of equality but also fosters greater legitimacy in the political system.
  2. Capacity of the Political System: The second aspect of political development relates to the capacity of the political system. This capacity is judged by the outputs it generates, such as economic performance, governmental efficiency, rational administration, and the secularization of public policies. A capable political system is one that can effectively serve its citizens and meet their needs.
  3. Differentiation: The third pillar of political development concerns the increase in structures, institutions, division of labor, and specialization within a society. Differentiation ultimately leads to a higher level of integration, where various components work harmoniously within the political system. This integration is critical for ensuring the stability and progress of a nation.

Pye’s conceptualization of political development is characterized by a three-dimensional approach, highlighting the interplay of equality, capacity, and differentiation. He stresses that this process is not unidirectional, nor is it governed by distinct stages. Instead, these three dimensions interact and evolve in parallel, shaping the political landscape of a country over time.

Emphasis on Liberal Democracy and Pluralistic Participation

Lucian Pye places significant importance on strengthening the values and practices of liberal democracy, pluralistic participation, multi-party systems, competitive politics, and political stability. He argues that these elements are integral to the successful political development of a nation. This perspective aligns with the principles of open, transparent, and inclusive governance that many democracies around the world strive to achieve.

6 Types of Crises

Lucian W. Pye identified six crises that nations may face, mainly related to their political systems. These crises include legitimacy, participation, distribution, identity, penetration, and unification. Legitimacy concerns the government’s perceived right to rule, while participation focuses on citizen engagement in the political process. Distribution pertains to the fair allocation of resources. Identity revolves around questions of national identity and cultural cohesion. Penetration relates to the state’s reach into society, and Unification involves unity and cooperation. Pye’s framework helps analyze and address challenges faced by nations in these critical dimensions.

Fred Riggs provided the reinterpretation of  Lucian Pye’s concept of development. Riggs analyzes equality in terms of members participating in the policy formulation and capacity in terms of the political system. He believes that equality and capacity both suffer if the policy is not properly differentiated. If we focus on one and neglect the other, we fall into the “developmental trap” instead of development.

Samuel P. Huntington’s Perspective

Samuel P. Huntington, in his essay “Political Development and Political Decay” (1965), offers an alternative viewpoint. He argues that development and decay exist on a continuum, with various countries at different points. Huntington identifies four variables to signify development and decay, including adaptability, complexity, autonomy, and coherence.

Huntington also highlights the potential for chaos and disorder when social development outpaces political and institutional development. This perspective challenges the assumption of unidirectional development prevalent in some theories.

Criticisms of Modernization Theory

Despite its popularity in the 1950s, modernization theory faced severe criticism in the late 1960s. Some common criticisms include:

  • Development is not necessarily unidirectional.
  • The theory predominantly focuses on the development pattern in the United States and Europe, ignoring other potential models.
  • It oversimplifies the idea of eliminating traditional values, ignoring the cultural heterogeneity of Third World countries.
  • Some countries, like China and Japan, have achieved economic development while maintaining traditional values.


Political modernization and development had found rapid acceptance in comparative politics in the 1960s. However, by the end of that decade, there was a breakdown of consensus undergirding the political development. As Weirda and Skelley pointed out, there were broader changes in the larger society. The optimism that was characteristic of 1960s America began to wane. The civil rights movement and war in Vietnam had begun to erode the societal and foreign policy consensus. Both the subdiscipline of political development and the scholars who had contributed to the field came into question. In these circumstances, the dependency or”world systems” theory emerged as an alternative to the modernization paradigm as a lens through which to interpret political, social, and economic change in Third World countries. 

However, Modernization theory has played a significant role in shaping development strategies and policies for developing countries. While it offers valuable insights, it is essential to consider its limitations and criticisms. Understanding the nuances of cultural, social, economic, and political barriers in the context of each developing country is crucial for effective development initiatives.

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