Sociological Theories of Modernization Research Paper

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‘Modernization,’ in social science, refers to the transition from a traditional, rural, agrarian society to a secular, urban, industrial society. Modernization encompasses profound economic, social, political, and cultural changes, but the process of industrialization is at its core. The modernization syndrome includes urbanization, the application of science and technology, rapidly increasing occupational specialization, rising bureaucratization, and rising educational levels. However, the motivating force behind the process is the fact that industrialization is a way to escape the poverty and helplessness of subsistence agriculture. Industrialization makes it possible to enormously increase a society’s wealth.

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By industrializing, a society could dispel hunger, acquire the new technology now needed to compete militarily, and attain a much longer life expectancy than was possible in pre-industrial society. Moreover, economic development actually seems conducive to human happiness (though only up to a point that today’s richest societies passed decades ago). Adopting a life strategy aimed at getting rich becomes compellingly attractive from the perspective of low-income societies, once it has been demonstrated that it can be done. Although modernization has high costs, from the perspective of most pre-industrial societies, it seemed well worth the price.

Modernization is one of just two giant leaps forward that have transformed the human condition. The agricultural revolution made it possible to support about 100 times as many people per square mile as were possible in hunting and gathering societies, making civilization—that is, settled communities with specialized farmers, artisans, merchants, soldiers and officials—possible. The industrial revolution raised productivity by another 100-fold. But while it took thousands of years for the discovery of agriculture to transform the world, the industrial revolution spread throughout the world in only two centuries.

Karl Marx was the earliest and most influential modernization theorist. His failures as a prophet are well documented, but he correctly foresaw that industrialization would transform the world. When Marx was writing Das Kapital in the 1860s, only a handful of societies were industrialized; in the twentyfirst century, almost every society on Earth is at some stage of the industrialization process.

Modernization dismantles a traditional world in which the meaning of life is clear. The warm, personal ties of communal societies give way to an impersonal, competitive life style geared to individual achievement. It brings what Max Weber called ‘the disenchantment of the world,’ eliminating the supernatural forces that preindustrial cultures held responsible for what happens in the world, substituting a scientific interpretation. Industrialization vastly increases productivity, but its early phase gave rise to inhuman working conditions. Marx criticized not only the ruthless economic exploitation of early capitalism, but also the tremendous psychological costs of industrialization, which he referred to as ‘alienation;’ the industrial worker feels estranged from work because the task has become fragmented, undemanding, and meaningless. Unlike traditional crafts, mass production labor does not challenge one’s creative faculties. The industrial worker also feels alienated from the product of work, having no control over how it is manufactured and distributed. A tremendous increase in wealth is achieved at the cost of reducing the human workers to mere ‘hands.’

Emile Durkheim argued that modernization brings anomie. The decline of religion and community removes traditional restraints on the individual’s aspirations, allowing them to grow without limits. Modernization introduces competition that stimulates unrealistic expectations, without providing the means for their realization. The result is an increase in suicide, crime, and mental disorder.

Weber saw the rationalization of society as an inexorable aspect of modernization; though it facilitated economic growth and public order, rationalization was forcing humanity into a painfully narrow iron cage of bureaucracy and mass production. A single-minded focus on immediate means was driving out the rationality of ultimate ends.

In knowledge societies, this trend may be beginning to reverse itself; a growing segment of the population is concluding that the price is too high. Rationality, science and technology are here to stay, but their relative priority and their authority among the publics of rich societies are declining.

1. Coherent Syndromes of Change: Why do Things go Together?

A central claim of modernization theory is that economic development, cultural change, and political change go together in coherent, and to some extent, predictable patterns. Once a society starts to industrialize, a variety of related changes become almost inevitable, such as urbanization and bureaucratization, and eventually, changing gender roles. These consequences are not iron laws of history, but the probability is high that they will occur, once a society has embarked upon industrialization.

Industrialization also brings ‘social mobilization,’ or rising levels of mass participation. As Daniel Lerner (1958) and Karl Deutsch (1961) pointed out, urbanized populations are easier to organize than a scattered peasantry and a literate public finds it easier to keep in touch with what is happening on the national scene, becoming increasingly articulate. With social mobilization, a growing proportion of the population becomes politically relevant. Representative democracy becomes possible but not inevitable: throughout most of the twentieth century, it was unclear whether fascism, communism, or democracy would triumph. All three of these systems mobilized mass political participation, but the fascist and communist versions did so in the service of one-party authoritarian systems.

Although a variety of social theorists agree that technological and economic changes are linked with predictable patterns of cultural and political change, there has been continuing debate over the causal linkages: does economic change cause cultural and political change, or does it work in the opposite direction?

Marx emphasized economic determinism, arguing that a society’s technological level shapes its economic system, which in turn determines its cultural and political characteristics. Given the technological level of the windmill, a society will be based on subsistence agriculture, with a mass of impoverished peasants dominated by a landed aristocracy. The steam engine brings an industrial society in which the bourgeoisie becomes the dominant elite, exploiting and repressing an urban proletariat.

Weber, on the other hand, argued that culture was not just an epiphenomenon of the economic system, but an important causal factor that can shape economic behavior, as well as being shaped by it. Thus, the emergence of the Protestant Ethic facilitated the rise of capitalism, which contributed to both the Industrial Revolution and the Democratic Revolution.

Some of Marx’s successors shifted the emphasis from economic determinism toward a greater emphasis on the impact of ideology and culture. Thus Lenin argued that by itself, the working class would never develop sufficient class-consciousness for a successful revolution; they needed to be led by an ideologically aware vanguard of professional revolutionaries.

Mao emphasized the power of revolutionary thinking even more strongly. Breaking with Marxist orthodoxy, he believed that China need not wait for the processes of urbanization and industrialization to transform her. If an ideologically committed cadre could instill sufficient enthusiasm among the Chinese masses, a communist revolution could succeed even in an agrarian society.

The classic versions of modernization theory were deterministic, with the Marxist version tending toward economic determinism, and the Weberian version sometimes tending toward cultural determinism. A more recent view is that the relationships between economics and culture and politics are mutually supportive, like the various systems of a biological organism. It is pointless to ask whether the behavior of the human body is really determined by the muscular system, the nervous system, or the respiratory system as each plays an essential role, and life ceases if any of them breaks down. Similarly, political and economic systems require a supportive cultural system—otherwise they would need to rely on naked coercion, which rarely endures for long. Conversely, a cultural system that was incompatible with its economic system would be unlikely to survive.

In the course of history, numerous patterns of social organization have been tried and discarded, while other patterns eventually became dominant. At the dawn of recorded history, hunting and gathering societies prevailed, but the invention of agriculture led to their almost total disappearance. They were displaced because agriculture has functional advantages over hunting and gathering. Similarly, within two centuries after it emerged, industrialization was adopted (at least as a goal) by virtually every society on earth.

2. Religion and Economic Growth

Changing values can influence economic behavior. The classic example is the rise of the Protestant Ethic, which seems to have played a crucial role in the emergence of capitalism, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution.

Virtually all agrarian societies, including medieval Christian Europe, stigmatized social mobility. The main source of wealth is land, which is in fixed supply and the only way to become rich was by seizing someone else’s land—probably by killing the owner. Such violence threatened the survival of any society, and was repressed by norms that emphasized acceptance of the status into which one was born, and stigmatized the economically ambitious. At the same time, traditional societies emphasized duties of sharing and charity—which helped compensate the poor for the absence of social mobility, but further undermined the legitimacy of economic accumulation.

In these societies, social status is hereditary rather than achieved, and the culture encourages people to accept their social position in this life, emphasizing that meek acceptance and denial of worldly aspirations will be rewarded in the next life. Aspirations toward social mobility are sternly repressed. Such value systems help to maintain social solidarity and discourage economic accumulation in a variety of ways, ranging from norms of sharing, to the potlatch and similar institutions in which one attains prestige by recklessly giving away one’s worldly goods.

A central element in the rise of modernity was the movement away from inherited status to impersonal, achievement-based roles. For modern economic development to take place, traditional value systems must be shattered.

In Western society, the Protestant Reformation helped break the grip of the medieval Christian worldview on a significant part of Europe. It did not do this by itself. The emergence of scientific inquiry had already begun to undermine this worldview. However, Weber’s emphasis on the role of Protestantism captures an important part of reality. Prior to the Reformation, Southern Europe was economically more advanced than Northern Europe. During the three centuries after the Reformation, capitalism emerged—mainly in Protestant countries, and among the Protestant minorities in Catholic countries. Within this cultural context, economic accumulation was no longer despised. Quite the contrary, it was highly respected because it was taken as evidence of divine favor: those whom God had chosen, he made rich.

Protestant Europe manifested a subsequent economic dynamism that was extraordinary, moving it far ahead of Catholic Europe. Shifting trade patterns, declining food production in Southern Europe and other factors also contributed to this shift, but cultural factors played a major role. Throughout the first 150 years of the Industrial Revolution, industrial development took place almost entirely within the Protestant regions of Europe, and the Protestant portions of the New World. This began to change only during the second half of the twentieth century, when those regions that had been most strongly influenced by the Protestant Ethic—and had become economically secure—began to de-emphasize economic growth. They did so precisely because they had become economically secure. At the same time, an entrepreneurial outlook had emerged in Catholic Europe and (even more strikingly) in East Asia, both of which showed higher rates of economic growth than Protestant Europe. The concept of the Protestant Ethic is outdated if understood as something that can only exist in Protestant countries. However, the more general concept that culture influences economic growth, is a crucial insight.

Modernization involves a shift from a religionoriented worldview to a rational-legal worldview. Rationalization favors the emergence of a capitalist economy, with its rational organization of labor and its rational calculation of profit and loss. Key components of this process are secularization and bureaucratization.

2.1 Secularization

Religion loses its centrality in the life of the society, losing the legitimating power it has in nonindustrial societies. For Weber, the rise of the scientific worldview—a cognitive change—was the crucial factor that led to the decline of the sacred pre-rational elements of religious faith. But more recently, the rise of a sense of security among the publics of advanced welfare states has also contributed to the decline of traditional religious orientations. The cognitive interpretation implies that secularization is inevitable: scientific knowledge can diffuse across national boundaries rapidly, and its spread is more or less irreversible. By contrast, the rise of a sense of security among mass publics takes place only after a society has successfully industrialized, and can be reversed by economic decline. Thus, although scientific knowledge has been permeating throughout the world for many decades, religious fanaticism continues to flourish in societies that are still in the early stages of industrialization, and fundamentalist movements continue to emerge among the less secure strata of even the most advanced industrial societies.

2.2 Bureaucratization

Secularization paved the way for another key component of modernization: the rise of ‘rational’ organizations, based on rules designed to move efficiently toward explicit goals and with recruitment based on impersonal goal-oriented achievement standards. A prerequisite for bureaucratization was the erosion of the belief systems supporting ascriptive traditional authority and zero-sum economies, and their replacement by achievement-oriented, rational, and scientifically-oriented belief systems that supported the authority of large, centralized bureaucratic states geared to facilitating economic growth.

Along with this went a shift of prestige and socioeconomic functions away from the key institutions of traditional society—the family and the church—to the state, and a shift in economic activity from the small family enterprise to mass production that was state-regulated or even state-owned. Globally, it was a shift of prestige and power from society to state.

During the industrializing phase of history, it seemed that social evolution meant ever-increasing subordination of the individual to a leviathan state with superhuman powers. The state would become an omnipotent and benevolent entity, replacing God in a secular world. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the dominant trend was a shift from societal authority toward state authority, manifested in the apparently inexorable growth of the economic, political, and social role of government. Even nonMarxist thinkers such as Joseph Schumpeter reluctantly considered the triumph of socialism to be inevitable.

The socialist leviathan state did not turn out to be the wave of the future. Instead, the expansion of the bureaucratic state eventually approached a set of natural limits, and change began to move in a new direction in postindustrial society.

2.3 Individuation

Individuation with industrialization, the erosion of religious social controls opened up a broader space for individual autonomy, but this space was largely taken up by growing obligations to the state. The core function of culture in traditional society was to maintain social cohesion and stability in a steadystate economy. Norms of sharing were crucial to survival in an environment where there was no social security system and here were no unemployment benefits; in bad times, one’s survival depended on how strongly the norms of sharing were inculcated. In traditional societies, people feel a strong obligation to help take care of their brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, old friends, and neighbors. These norms may make the differences between survival and death. In modern societies, this sense of obligation has greatly eroded.

3. Modernization and Westernization

Much of the early modernization literature equated modernization with Westernization. This emphasizes superficial aspects of modernization and ignores the core process. Wearing Western clothing was not crucial but industrialization was. Though the industrial revolution originated in the West, this process is not inherently Western. The goal of industrialization has now been adopted by almost every society on earth, and non-Western societies show no sign of wishing to abandon it. It is being pursued in the twenty-first century with more enthusiasm in the nonWestern world than in the West.

Even by obvious external indicators, the tendency to equate modernization with Westernization has been obsolete since the 1980s, when Japan became the world’s leading automobile producer and attained the highest GNP per capita of any major nation. There is nothing uniquely Western about technology or bureaucratic rationality. China was technologically the most advanced society in the world for most of the past 2000 years, and bureaucracy originated in China.

3.1 A Change in the Direction of Change?

Modernization is not linear. Today, some of the trends linked with the rise of industrial society have reached their limits, and change is taking a new direction in the richest societies. The prevailing direction of development has changed in such fundamental ways that it might be appropriate to describe what is going on at the beginning of the twenty-first century as ‘postmodernization,’ rather than ‘modernization.’ Modernization is still at the center of the stage in developing societies. However, in the richest ‘industrial’ societies, tertiary sector workers have become far more numerous than industrial workers have and in the US a majority of the labor force is employed in the ‘knowledge’ sector alone.

The urge to survive is common to all creatures, and normally survival is precarious, since the population of any organism tends to rise to meet the available food supply and then is held constant by starvation, disease, or predators. Until very recently, the survival of most human beings was precarious.

The economic miracles and the welfare states that emerged after World War II gave rise to a new stage of history, and ultimately laid the way for the rise of postmodern values. Fundamental changes in formative experiences have given rise to a distinct value system among a growing segment of those raised in advanced industrial societies. The postwar birth cohorts in these societies grew up under conditions profoundly unlike those that shaped previous generations. First, the postwar economic miracles produced levels of prosperity that were literally unprecedented in human history. This alone would tend to encourage a greater sense of economic security, but it interacted with a second factor, the emergence of the modern welfare state. The pie was much bigger than ever before, and it was distributed more evenly and more reliably than before. For the first time in history, a large share of the masses grew up with the feeling that survival could be taken for granted. This led to a process of intergenerational value change from giving top priority to economic and physical security, to giving top priority to self-expression and the quality of life. Traditional cultural norms that limit individual self-expression are fading.

Industrial modernization was linked with a growing faith in the power of science and rational analysis to solve virtually all problems. The Postmodern outlook has a diminishing faith in rationality and a diminishing confidence that science and technology will help solve humanity’s problems. There is a growing tendency for emphasis on economic growth to become subordinate to concern for its impact on the environment. Job motivations are also changing, from maximizing income, toward increasing emphasis on the quality of the work experience.

In both traditional and early industrial society, the role of women was largely limited to childbearing and child rearing—two functions that were crucial to societal survival under conditions of high infant mortality and short life expectancy. By the time a woman had borne and raised the four or five children that were needed to replace the population, she was near the end of her life span. Sexual norms encouraged reproduction, but only within the two-parent heterosexual family. Today, with much lower infant mortality, and a much longer life span, postindustrial societies are shifting toward sexual norms that give wider latitude for individual sexual gratification and individual self-expression.

Although the scientific worldview has lost its glamour, a rising sense of security among the economically more advanced societies diminishes the need for the reassurance provided by absolute belief systems. In the uncertain world of subsistence societies, there is a strong psychological need for absolute standards and a sense that an infallible higher power will ensure that things ultimately turn out well. Peace, prosperity, and the welfare state have produced an unprecedented sense of security among the publics of advanced industrial societies, bringing declining acceptance of rigid religious norms concerning sex and reproduction, and a diminishing need for absolute rules. But this also brings a growing concern for the meaning and purpose of life. Although established religious organizations have declined in most advanced industrial societies, we are not witnessing a decline in spiritual concerns, but a redirection of them.

3.2 Limits to the Expansion of the Bureaucratic State

The rise and fall of the Soviet Union illustrates the limits of the centralized, hierarchical state. In its early decades, the USSR was impressively efficient in mobilizing masses of relatively unskilled workers and vast quantities of raw materials to build the world’s largest steel mill, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, and to attain one of the fastest rates of economic growth in the world. Though Stalin starved and murdered millions of people, the economic and military achievements of the Soviet State convinced many people throughout the world that this type of society was the irresistible wave of the future. Soviet economic growth tapered off in the 1970s and stagnated in the 1980s, as a hypertrophied bureaucracy paralyzed adaptation and innovation.

Bureaucracy is inherently deadening to innovation, and this problem became acute once the Soviet Union had moved past the stage of simply importing proven technology from the West. However, the problem also reflected a collapse of motivation and morale. Absenteeism rose to massive proportions, alcoholism became a tremendous problem, and confidence in government eroded until finally the economic and political systems collapsed. Similar manifestations of the diminishing effectiveness of hierarchical, centralized bureaucratic institutions can be seen throughout industrial society. State run economies are giving way to market forces. Old-line political parties and labor unions are in decline and hierarchical corporations are losing ground to more loosely organized and participatory types of organization.

The classic bureaucratic institutions of industrial society are inherently less effective in high technology societies than they were in the earlier stages of the industrial society. They became less acceptable to the publics of postmodern society than they were earlier because of changing values.

The mass production assembly line broke down manufacturing into simple standardized routines that were endlessly repeated. This was marvelously effective in turning out masses of relatively simple, standardized products. The workers became cogs in huge centrally-coordinated machines. In societies of scarcity, people were willing to accept these costs, for the sake of economic gains. In affluent societies, they were less willing to do so.

Postmodern values give a higher priority to selfexpression than to economic effectiveness and people are becoming less willing to accept the human costs of bureaucracy and of rigid social norms. Postmodern society is characterized by the decline of hierarchical institutions and rigid social norms, and by the expansion of the realm of individual choice and mass participation.

3.3 Does Modernization Lead to Democracy?

Industrialization leads to urbanization and mass literacy, which facilitate the organization of labor unions, mass political parties, and the enfranchisement of the working class. This process transforms the masses from isolated peasants into organized citizens with the power to bargain for a more equal share of the pie. The institutions that mobilized mass political participation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—labor union, church, and mass political party—were hierarchical organizations in which a small number of leaders or bosses led masses of disciplined troops. These institutions were effective in bringing large numbers of newly enfranchised citizens to the polls in an era when universal compulsory education had just taken root and the average citizen had a low level of political skills. However, while these elite-directed organizations could mobilize large numbers, they produced only a relatively low level of participation, rarely going beyond mere voting.

Democracy continues to evolve. The emergence of postindustrial, or ‘knowledge’ society, favors democratic institutions, partly because these societies require highly educated and innovative workers, who become accustomed to thinking for themselves in daily job life. They tend to transfer this outlook to politics, undertaking more active and more demanding types of mass participation. It becomes increasingly difficult for democracies to limit mass publics to an elitedirected role, and increasingly difficult for authoritarian systems to survive as they face rising mass pressures for liberalization.


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