MODERNIZATION THEORY AND THE LAWS OF SOCIAL CHANGE (notes
by Róbinson Rojas Sandford)(1996)
MODERNIZATION THEORY AND THE PACIFIC (OR VIOLENT) TRANSITION
TO INDUSTRIAL CAPITALISM
Modernization theory is the historical product of three main events
in the post-World War Two era:
1) the rise of the United States as a superpower to contain the
growth of the international communist movement. For this,
the United States financed the industrialization of Western
Europe ( Marshall plan), the industrialization of South Korea
and Taiwan, and the reconstruction of Japan.
2) the growth of a united worldwide communist movement led from
Moscow and later on also from Beijing (with Soviet Union,
People's Republic of China, Vietnam and Cuba as hot points).
3) the process of de-colonisation in Africa and Asia as an outcome
of the disintegration of the former European colonial empires.
By and large, including Latin American states which decolonised
themselves between 1804 and 1844, the new nation-states were in
a search for a model of development.
Thus, the United Sates political and economic elites encouraged
their social scientist to study the new nation-states, to devise
ways of promoting capitalist economic development and political
stability, defined as "social order", SO AS TO AVOID LOSING THE
OLD AND NEW STATES TO THE SOVIET SOCIALIST BLOC.
United States political scientists, economists, sociologists,
psychologists, anthropologists, and demographers teamed up and
started publishing since the early 1950s.
a) an EVOLUTIONARY THEORY, and
b) a FUNCTIONALIST THEORY
a) the classical evolutionary theory ( see Comte et al) stated
1) social change is unidirectional, from a primitive to an
advanced state, thus the fate of human evolution is
2) it imposed a value judgement on the evolutionary process:
the movement toward the final phase is GOOD because it
represents PROGRESS, HUMANITY, and CIVILIZATION, the latter
three concepts defined in accordance with Western European
3) it assumed that the rate of SOCIAL CHANGE is slow, gradual,
and piecemeal. Most importantly, social change, in
accordance with Charles Darwin approach to biological
development, was EVOLUTIONARY, not REVOLUTIONARY.
4) from above, the process (from primitive to complex. modern
societies) will take centuries to complete.
b) Functionalist theory, as presented by Talcott Parsons, 1951, had
the following tenets:
1) human society is like a biological organism, with different
parts corresponding to the different institutions that make
up a society;
2) each institution performs a specific function for the good
of the whole, thus there are FOUR CRUCIAL FUNCTIONS that
every institution must perform to maintain the social fabric:
a) adaptation to the environment -performed by the economy,
but not any economic system,
only capitalism can adapt
to the environment
b) goal attaintment -performed by the government, pursuing
liberal aims as defined by English and
c) integration ( linking the institutions together) -performed
by the legal institutions and religion. But
not any religion. Branches of the judeo-
christian religions were the right ones.
d) latency ( pattern maintenance of values from generation
to generation ) -performed by the family as an
ahistorical basic human organization, and
From the above, functionalist theory stated that societies tend
to harmony, stability, equilibrium and the status quo. Any
behaviour jeopardizing these conditions will be considered anti-social
and therefore punishable, etc.
Modernization theory characterised societies as follows:
TRADITIONAL SOCIETIES: social relationships tend to have an
affective component -personal, emotional,
and face-to-face, which is a constraint
in the process of developing efficient
relations of production via a market.
MODERN SOCIETIES: social relationships are NEUTRAL
-impersonal, detached and indirect,
which make possible efficient market
Functionalism, or its related theories of structural-functionalism
and systems theory, has been one of the most influential of all
social science theories, not only in political science and
sociology, but in anthropolgy. Like we saw, much of its origins
depends on analogies with biological systems, and in just the way
that a biologist might study the role of some physiological aspect,
some set of cells, in the maintenance of life, functionalists have
tried to understand what are the necessary "functions" that must
be carried out in any political system if it is to cope with its
environment and achieve its goals, and to locate the "structures"
(political parties, socializing agencies like churches, family,
etc) which facilitate the functioning.
One very important structure for modernization theory, the family
institution, have been conceptualized as follows:
THE TRADITIONAL FAMILY is multifunctional
was responsible for:
production (the family farm)
education ( informal parental socialization)
welfare ( care of the elderly )
religion ( ancestral worship )
THE MODERN FAMILY is small and nuclear, the state take over the
education, welfare and religion functions
and the individual takes over production.
Reproduction becomes ambiguous, etc
SOCIAL DISTURBANCES appear when one or more sectors in the
"balancing chain" family-civil society-the state fails to
fulfil its functions. The social disturbances are the
result of lack of integration among what were thought by
modernization theory followers as "differentiated structures".
The disturbances take the form of:
It follows that crushing human beings involved in these
social disturbances takes the form of "humanitarian actions" to
preserve social order and social peace to maintain the
balance family-civil society-state.
(It is interesting to notice that in the bureaucratic
socialist state ( equivalent to the crude notion of "stalinist
state" ) first in the former Soviet Union, and then in People's
Republic of China), the same notional framework was at work,
except that the state enjoyed the multi-status of civil society
and family. (See my books "La Guardia Roja Conquista China", 1968,
and "China: Una Revolucion en Agonia", 1978, for a more scientific
approach to this phenomenon)
THE GENERAL SOCIOLOGICAL AND ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVE
N. Smelser (see his "Mechanisms of and adjustments to change", in
T. Burns (ed.), INDUSTRIAL MAN, Penguin 1969), and W. Rostow (see
his "The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifest",
Cambridge University Press, 1960) attempted to provide more general
perspectives. Smelser was concerned with the effects of economic
development ( for Smelser, economic development had the restricted
meaning of economic growth ) on social structures.
Smelser distinguished four processes:
1) there was a move from simple to complex technology
2) there was a change from subsistence farming to cash crops
3) there was a move from animal and human power to machine power
3) there was a move from rural settlements to urban settlements
For Smelser those processes would not occur simultaneously, and,
more, importantly, changes would differ from one society to another.
He added that "there was a variety of pre-modern starting points
and the impetus to change would also vary, being crucially affected
by tradition, thus leading to different paths towards modernization".
National differences are always important, even in the most advanced
stages of modernization, he stated, and added that "wars and natural
disasters, can crucially affect the pattern of development".
For Rostow, the processes of change were simpler ( actually
Rostow theory is one of the most simplistic, mediocre and
unscientific body of thought ever produced by the third rate
political economy of development coming from Western Europe and
the United States in the last 50 years. R.R.). He suggested that
"all societies can be placed in one of five categories, or stages
of economic growth":
The first stage: traditional society. Output is limited
because of the inaccessibility of science
and technology. Values are generally
"fatalistic", and political power is non-
The second stage: The preconditions for take-off. There are
clusters of new ideas favouring economic
progress arising, and therefore new levels
of education, entrepreunership, and
institutions capable of mobilizing capital.
Investment increases, especially in transport,
communications and raw materials, with a
general direction towards commercial expansion.
But, in accordance with Rostow, traditional
social structures and production techniques
remain. There is the presence of a "dual
society". ( A fractured society in accordance
with my notional framework. R.R.)
The third stage: the take-off. Agriculture is commercialized,
there is a growth in productivity, because
that is necessary if the demand emanating from
expanding urban centres is to be met. New
political groups representing new economic
groups push the industrial economy to new
The fourth stage: the drive to maturity. Rostow said that
between 10 and 20 per cent of gross domestic
product is invested and the economy "takes its
place in the international order. Technology
becomes more complex and there is a move away
from heavy industry". Now production is not
the outcome of social necessity but of
the need of maximizing profits to survive in
a competitive capitalist market.
The fifth stage: mass consumption. The leading economic sectors
specialize in durable consumer goods and
services. At this stage, economic growth makes
sure that basic needs are satisfied, and the
social focus changes to social welfare and
Rostow thought of his theory as a dinamic one "that deals not only
with economic factors but also with social decisions and policies
It seems to me (R.R.) that a review of Rostow's assumptions is
necessary at this stage:
1) modernization is a phased process, and the stages in this
process are common to all societies (thus, this assumption
put the theory outside historical development. R.R.)
2) modernization is a homogenizing process. There exist tendencies
toward convergence among societies ( which, of course, justifies
cultural imperialism by the central powers, R.R.)
3) modernization is an Europeanization or Northamericanization
process. The nations of Western Europe and the United States
are the models tha latecomers would like to emulate.
4) modernization is an irreversible process. In other words, once
"third world societies" come into contact with the Western
European and Northamerican societies, they will not be able
to resist the "impetus toward modernization". Towards adopting
capitalist relations of production, that is.
5) modernization is a progressive process. Modernization creates
agonies and suffering for many, but that is "the right price"
6) modernization is a lenghty process. It is an evolutionary change,
not a revolutionary change.
7) modernization is a transformative process, societies must drop
traditional ways of thinking, traditional ways of human
relations. In a word, societies must drop traditional structures,
cultures and values, and adopt those of Western Europe and
Northamerican societies today.
It is not difficult to work out that some "simple implications"
can be derived from this theory which was created to fight socialist
thought in the 1950s until today. I (R.R.) propose the following
simple implications so dear to the "new imperialists" led by the boards
of corporate capital:
a) since the United States is MODERN AND ADVANCED and the Third
World is TRADITIONAL AND BACKWARD, the latter should take the
former as its model, and, of course, ask for guidance and
advice from the people leading the model.
b) because of the above, Third World societies should consider
their common enemies communist ideology and socialist economic
c) modernization theory helps to legitimate as progressive and
necessary the United States' ruling class "foreign aid policy",
"trade policy", and "international relations policy", and the
U.S. expansionism (imperialism) since the XIX century, especially
in Latin America and the Pacific, as a "modernizing" drive
helpful to the whole human species.
The above is what a I mean by "the view of the world economy from the
top". It is, by and large, an oligopolist justification for the
"segmentation" of the world economy:
In both industrialised and non-industrialised countries a FRAGMENTED
but closely interrelated segmentation of the economy takes place:
Segment A) the OLIGOPOLISTIC ECONOMY controlled by the transnational
corporations. They dominate the world trade AND the economies
of their home countries.
Segment B) the traditional market economy of medium-sized and small
Segment C) the vast mass of semi-capitalist (marginal, informal) economy
in developing countries and the growing segments of structural
unemployment and the underground economy in industrialised
The rules of the world economy are imposed from "above" (segment A) via
the economic power of the transnational corporations and the political-
military power led by the governments (states) of the industrialised
countries. Those rules are helping the advancing of the transnational
corporations domination of the economies of developing countries.
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