Modernization was a theory of global social change, as well as an American political project. Articulated across several disciplines by American social scientists from the 1950s through the 1970s, the concept of modernization defined a universal, historical process through which traditional societies became modern. It proposed to map a global, evolutionary pattern in which cultural values, economic systems, and political institutions moved along an incremental, linear path toward the rational economy, liberal society, and democratic order that theorists identified most clearly with countries like the United States. In this approach, tradition and modernity marked endpoints of a common, historical scale. All societies, considered as integrated, organic wholes, moved from one point of historical equilibrium to another as they systematically abandoned institutions shaped by fatalism, family authority, local affinity, and religious constraints in favor of activist orientations, market economies, and liberal political institutions. Theorists believed, moreover, that this natural process could be decisively accelerated. Through a careful study of the traditional world, proponents of modernization hoped to identify the essential levers of social change. They also aspired to promote the diffusion of the advanced forms of knowledge, technology, and financial assistance necessary to promote a destabilizing yet necessary transition toward a democratic, capitalist endpoint. At the peak of the cold war, modernization embodied the highest aspirations of American liberalism. In addition to defining the historical course of global change, modernization also promised the tools necessary to direct it.
Rooted in Enlightenment models of progress, modernization theory first appeared in the work of American sociologists. Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) and Edward Shils (1911-1995) provided much of the inspiration for the concept by framing a holistic view of social systems. As they argued, values and cultural norms, transmitted through social institutions, played vital roles in regulating human behavior and ensuring individual action consistent with the social order. Societies, therefore, were integrated, functioning units. When institutions and cultural values distributed resources and mediated conflict in harmony with the needs of individuals, societies rested at points of balanced consensus. Different historical points of equilibrium, moreover, could be identified in the form of "pattern variables" that defined the dichotomy between "primitive" and "advanced" societies. "Primitive" societies functioned to meet individual needs, but they did so through institutions characterized by a reverence for ascribed status, particularism, diffuse roles, and an orientation toward the collective. "Advanced" societies, however, reflected values of achieved status, universalism, specific social roles, and self-orientation.Modernization, sociologists insisted, was a global force, transcending all lines of culture or history. As Daniel Lerner (1917-1980) claimed in The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East. "The same basic model appears on all continents of the world, regardless of variations in race, color, or creed" (1958, p. viii).
Modernization also proved attractive to political scientists searching for an overarching theory to analyze the changes of the postwar world. Scholars like Gabriel Almond (1911-2002), Myron Weiner (1931-1999), and Lucian Pye all adapted Parsons’s functionalist assumptions. As they argued, specialists studying diverse regions could contribute to a more integrative approach by positing universal functions that all political systems needed to fulfill. By correlating functions with specific political structures, they could map the overall, universal patterns of transformation. By applying that model, as Pye did in Politics, Personality, and Nation Building: Burma’s Search for Identity (1962), political scientists sought to analyze the way that modern markets, values, and technologies awakened new aspirations among previously fatalistic, traditional peoples and spurred them to create new political forms.
Modernization also took hold among economists concerned with "development." For many scholars, poverty, high population growth, and lack of infrastructure made the problems of "emerging" countries so different from "advanced" ones that standard macroeconomic theory had to be modified by an approach stressing behavioral and cultural obstacles as well as structural ones. Walt W. Rostow (1916-2003), author of The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960), argued that compound interest and investment remained the primary engines for change, but he also emphasized that the passage from traditional fatalism and "pre-Newtonian science" through a "take-off" to the "age of high mass consumption" required new, activist attitudes toward the natural world, as well as habits of efficiency and advances in transportation and communications.
Theories of modernization were profoundly shaped by the cold war context. Many American policymakers and social scientists viewed the post-World War II (1939-1945) collapse of European empires with profound anxiety. Decolonization opened doors for progressive change, but it also appeared to accelerate what many theorists and policymakers called a "revolution of rising expectations" in the "emerging nations" of the world. Destitution, violence, and anticolonial politics, U.S. officials feared, created opportunities for Soviet expansion and subversion. Communists, Rostow and others warned, were "scavengers of the transitional process," opportunists that sought to derail the natural course of change. It was imperative, therefore, for the United States to accelerate the process of modernization and drive decolonizing societies through the dangerous window of instability toward progress. As the cold war moved into the "third world," theorists and policymakers began a symbiotic relationship. Many scholars moved from academia into government service to promote the use of foreign aid, technical assistance, propaganda, civil-service training, and military advising as key tools for managing the future of the "developing world." Rostow, for example, joined the State Department of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and later became Lyndon Johnson’s (1908-1973) national security adviser, while Pye advised the Agency for International Development. Government funding, in turn, flowed into social scientific research. The Central Intelligence Agency provided support for Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies, and the National Defense Education Act (1958) channeled federal funds into research on human behavior, area studies, and language programs.
In practice, however, modernization largely failed. Poverty turned out to be far more intractable than mod-ernizers expected, and neither U.S. aid nor World Bank loans produced decisive economic "take-offs" in the 1960s. Agencies like the Peace Corps did promote gains in literacy, but because modernization tended to fold all matters of local politics and culture into its universal, linear model, theorists often ignored problems created by oligarchies that had little intention of promoting liberal reforms. From the mid-1950s through the final American withdrawal, the Vietnam War (1957-1975) was understood as a project in modernization. U.S. advisers aspired to create a new, modern South Vietnamese nation-state where one had never existed before, yet despite massive investments in economic aid, administrative training, and promises to build a Tennessee Valley Authority on the Mekong River, repressive regimes continued to alienate much of South Vietnam’s population. Vietnamese culture also mattered in ways that the linear model of modernization failed to take into account as the historically rooted vision of an independent, united Vietnam prevailed over a government that, in the eyes of many, was simply the latest manifestation of foreign, imperial control. While modernization won few "hearts and minds" in Vietnam, its failure provided striking evidence that the "traditional" world was not so easily malleable after all.
By the early 1970s, modernization had largely collapsed as a scholarly paradigm. Conservatives like Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) and Samuel Huntington rejected it as a failed liberal dream, a naive vision of consensual reform. From the political Left, scholars like Andre Gunder Frank (1929-2005) and Immanuel Wallerstein challenged modernization with dependency and world-systems models. Instead of linear progress, they argued that contact between Western metropoles and Southern Hemisphere satellites produced patterns of exploitation and impoverishment. Other scholars attacked the ethnocentric tone of modernization, its resonance with imperial claims, its universal assumptions, and its tendency to favor consensus, authority, and order in ways that precluded a serious consideration of class conflict and power relations.
Many of modernization’s underlying assumptions and aspirations, however, have continued to thrive in public policy and popular debate. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 stimulated renewed claims that the world was indeed converging on a liberal, capitalist, democratic endpoint. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, calls for the United States to promote transformative "nation building" as part of a global "war on terror" also reflected the durability of assumptions that America might chart the future of a "traditional" world.