Modernization Theory: Definition & Examples

By Ayesh Perera, published April 20, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

What is Modernization Theory?

  • Modernization theory is a sociological approach that seeks to understand the process of modernization, and the variables conducive to the development of societies (Knöbl, 2003).
  • Modernization theory was the dominant approach to global developmental issues in the 1950s and 1960s, characterized by the search for factors which underdeveloped countries lacked, and which were presumed to cause their lack of development.
  • Rostow compared develop countries with undeveloped countries to identify the differences between them. These differences were put forward as the reason for the third world’s lack of development, such as a lack of technology, a lack of capital, over-population, and a lack of entrepreneurs.
  • It examines a country’s internal factors, and holds that, with external aid, traditional societies can be developed in a way similar to how many developed nations have experienced progress.
  • According to modernization theory, the adoption of modern practices and the dismantling of traditional norms are vital to progress.

Origins of the Theory

Modernization theory finds its origin in the ideas of Max Weber, the German sociologist who discussed the role of irrationality and rationality in a traditional society’s transition into a modern society (Mayhew, 1985, Dibua, 2006).

Weber’s approach would later constitute the foundation for the paradigm of modernization developed by the Harvard sociologist Talcott Parson.

Having translated Weber’s writings, Parsons rendered them his interpretations, and sought to develop an approach for poor nations to overcome what he thought impeded their development.

Modernization theory was developed in the late 1940s, and it sought to address poverty especially in 3rd world countries with an evidently non-communist solution that embraced a capitalist model of industrialized development and Western democratic values.

In the aftermath of WWII, many Asian, African and Latin American nations, despite some prior exposure to capitalism, remained underdeveloped and poor. Leaders of the West, especially the United States, were exceedingly disturbed by the situation which could become fertile ground for violent revolutions and totalitarian communism.

Characteristics of Modernization Theory

The features of modernization theory are chiefly twofold:

It seeks to explain the poverty of underdeveloped nations

Modernization theory argued that cultural norms of impoverished countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia constitute the primary impediments to their progress.

According to this view, internal institutions, societal customs, political governance and economic practices were fundamentally responsible for this situation.

It proposes solutions to enable their progress

According to modernization theory, these nations would have to adopt industrial practices (e.g., large scale production in factories rather than production at home/smaller workshops) and a capitalist system wherein industries are run by private money and products are manufactured for larger markets rather than individual consumption.

Examples of Modernization

  • The eradication of smallpox: Thanks to huge vaccine donations by the USSR and the United States, smallpox which had been afflicting millions of people worldwide, especially during the 1950s, was completely eradicated by the 1970s.
  • The Green Revolution (Hazell, 2009): The third agricultural revolution saw the transfer of technology to impoverished regions such as India and Mexico resulting in the salvage of billions of people from starvation.

    This also included the adoption of scientific farming methods as well as modern management techniques. The Green Revolution, moreover, reduced poverty, infant mortality and the emission of greenhouse gases.

  • Indonesia’s breakthroughs (Prozorovskii, 2016): The 1970s saw Indonesia’s gradual transition to a modernized economy. Western assistance to President Suharto’s anti-communist new order was accompanied by the creation of industrial conglomerates.

    Moreover, the dominance of intelligence agencies and the military assured political stability. It bears noting however, that Suharto’s administration was far from ideal, and Indonesia, during this stage, experienced the suppression of human rights, corruption, and nepotism.

Impediments to Development

Parsons characterized many indigenous practices, rituals and institutions as utterly hostile to progress. He attributed the paucity of social and geographical mobility in many poor nations to tribal systems and traditional kinship obligations.

Following are some of the particular cultural values which he argued were barriers to development (Parsons, 1951, 1964):


The emphasis on group identity over individual identity seemed to create needless obligations that could impede the development of the individual. The expectation on children to leave school early and help with their parents’ farming endeavors is one such example.


The allocation of roles based on familial relations in many poor countries diminished opportunities available for competent and talented people.

When, for instance, a government official or a CEO gives a job to someone based on blood-kinship, ethnic group identity or friendship (as opposed to individual merit), the best of human capital would be underutilized.

Discrimination against women

Certain entrenched patriarchal structures in 3rd world countries often impeded the rise of women to positions of economic and political power. Additionally, the lack of educational opportunities available for women would aggravate the situation whereby, most women would be ill-equipped to assume such roles.

Consequently, nearly half of a nation’s labor force would be placed on a vicious cycle of disempowerment and underutilization.

Fatalism/Ascribed status

When an individual’s birth is construed as determining his or her ultimate station in life, upward mobility is significantly hindered.

India’s caste system for instance, categorized individuals into Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaisyas (skilled traders, merchants and minor officials), Sudras (unskilled workers), and Harijans (the untouchable outcastes).

Such division obviously meant that one was to remain within the bounds of one’s own caste. A likely outcome of this was the feeling of fatalism, whereby one would resign oneself to a category imposed upon oneself by others.

Causes of Progress

By contrast, Parson held that certain culturally imbedded Western norms accounted for the development of 1st world nations by promoting economic growth and competition (Parsons, 1951, 1964):


This is the antithesis of particularism. Herein, individuals are judged by universal standards applicable, in principle, to everyone in society. In other words, judgements do not depend upon a subject’s relationship to the adjudicator.

In such societies, the rule of law is upheld, and the concomitant predictability contributes to long-term stability. Environments like this are more prone to attract investments and entrepreneurs, than corrupt societies characterized by nepotism.


When individual freedom and personal responsibility are valued over collectivist norms, people are no more required to constantly live up to the expectations of their families or tribal groups.

Consequently, individuals would be afforded sufficient liberty to pursue educational opportunities of their choice, set up businesses, and start unconventional careers, without being strictly entangled in roles assigned to them by others (such as working in a family farm).

Meritocracy/Achieved status

In more meritocratic societies, individual effort and diligence are more likely to guarantee one’s success in life than one’s familial connections to people occupying positions of power and authority.

When meritocracy is cherished, the most competent and hardworking people would rise to the top, thereby spurring economic growth.

Rostow’s 5 Stage Model

Rostow’ compared develop countries with

Stage I

At this inaugural stage, traditional societies are dependent upon rural economies characterized by subsistence agriculture and barter. These economies have limited access to technology and modern industry.

There is little wealth for investment, and notable, at this stage, are the cultural impediments to progress.

Stage II

This is a transitional stage characterized by specialization, production surpluses and the construction of infrastructure. Herein, skill development and a greater appreciation for education could be salient. This often occurs thanks to Western aid packages.

The rise of technology and science would improve the agriculture sector, and aid for infrastructure would improve highways and communications. Moreover, many Western companies would start establishing manufacturing plants.

Stage III

This is the take-off stage wherein the economy experiences growth as industrialization, increased investments and political change transform society.

This stage sees a nation moving beyond subsistence, to a position which permits it to export products to other countries. Moreover, rising entrepreneurs begin to invest and embark on risky ventures.

Stage IV

This is the age of mass consumption wherein production and economic growth would be comparable to the levels of Western societies. Herein, durable and consumer-oriented products would flourish, and the service sector would become dominant.

Stage V

Herein is a drive to maturity characterized by innovation, investment in education, less reliance on imports, and diversification.

Furthermore, new opportunities would present themselves to the country’s population and people would strive to optimize their lives.

Other Related Approaches

Different theorists have underscored the significance of different kinds of interventions and assistance to introduce fundamental alterations to nations. Hoselitz for example, held that education could accelerate the osmosis of Western values such as individualism, competition, universalism and achievement gauged by various examinations.

This was also seen as a way of weakening the link between children and their families. Inkeles on the other hand, emphasized upon the role played by the media in propagating ideas such as democracy and family planning.


Much of the criticism modernization theory has garnered stems from the proponents of dependency theory who blame the colonial powers, rather than backward customs, for the poverty that afflicts the 3rd world (Ahiakpor, 1985).

They argue that this unequal relationship is preserved by the purported exploitation which world trade embraces. The export of raw material to the developed world from the 3rd world, and the importation of manufactured goods from the advanced economies to developing ones, they contend, serve to safeguard this imbalance.

It bears noting however, that dependency theorists, in their critiques of modernization, have bestowed little attention upon indigenous institutions such as caste systems and slavery, and the adverse economic effects they have yielded.

Moreover, ardent advocates of free enterprise, such as Ludwig von Mises, have harshly criticized foreign aid programs for their promotion of waste, abuse and fraud in developing countries (Thornton, 2002).

Mises (1952, 2008) pointed out that recipients of American aid “pocket this bribe but their sympathies go to the socialist system”.

He further noted that “American subsidies make it possible for their governments to conceal partially the disastrous effects of the various socialist measures they have adopted”.

Another criticism of modernization theory is that it rests upon the premise that external assistance is necessary to develop economies, and thereby, undermines local initiatives and knowledge by injecting foreign expertise and money. Galeano, for example, stresses the dehumanizing impact of this on local populations.

Finally, the attack on the traditional family can be construed as an instrument of cultural imperialism and neocolonialism.

Western activists’ worldwide attempts to undermine the family have attracted much criticism from notable scholars such as Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School and Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Perera, A. (2022, April 20). Modernization Theory: Definition & Examples. Simply Sociology.

APA Style References

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