After World War II, modernization has been among the most powerful paradigms invoked to develop societies

Based on neoclassical and neoliberal political theories and grounded in the grand project of Enlightenment, namely reasoning, rationality, objectivity, and other philosophical principles of Western science 1

adopting a capitalist economic system, building up formal infrastructure, and acquiring technologies is prioritized. 1

modernization paradigm presumes a set of interrelated processes: capitalism, industrialization, surveillance of society, and control of means of violence.

industrialization was considered the main route to successful economic growth did not include participation of locals measured by quantitative indicators like GDP

traditional society → urban society

Western countries were treated as models of political, economic, social, and cultural modernization that Third World nations needed to emulate

Definition of Modernization

a transition, or rather a series of transitions from primitive, subsistence economies to technology-intensive, industrialized economies; from subject to participant political cultures; from closed, ascriptive status systems to open, achievement-oriented systems; from extended to nuclear kinship unites; from religious to secular ideologies; and so on. Thus conceived, modernization is not simply a process of change, but one which is defined in terms of the goals toward which it is moving. ^[Tipps (1973)]

Basic Tenets of Modernization Theory

  1. can be achieved by increasing productivity, economic growth, and industrialization
  2. causes of underdevelopment - internal causes of the country, individual and existing social structures
  3. change can be brought about by changing attitudes, values, beliefs
  4. shift from static agricultural, primitive, rigid society to a dynamic, industrialized and social mobility

Focused on macroeconomic planning, urbanization, industrialization, trickle down economy Advocated Private ownership of all facets of production; Free trade at the global, national, and local levels (laissez-faire)

Criticisms of Modernization Theory

  • does not consider external constraints
  • fails to distinguish between rich and developing countries in terms of resources requiring, different development handling
  • developed nation =/= ideal nation;
  • assumes that all developing countries are homogeneous and will all respond to same treatment; a one-size-fits-all approach
  • reliance on science - post-structuralists such as Foucault (1980) have posited that as a servant of the state, science has been used not just to explain reality, but to produce, control, and normalize reality.
  • Contextual Vacuum
  • ahistorical
  • Ethnocentrism


  • “The industrial mode of production, which was no more than one, among many, forms of social life, became the definition of the terminal stage of a unilinear way of social evolution” (Esteva, 1992: 9)
  • reduced most of these people into objects to be developed for their own good by the all-knowing development technocrat
  • displaced local people (development projects like building of dams)
  • replaced culture with monoculture
  • unemployment, income inequality, and poverty rose

based on an application of the evolutionary concept of Darwin to social change (Social Darwinism)

See Also: White Man’s Burden Indigenous Knowledges and Development


  1. Melkote, Srinivas R. and Steeves, H. Leslie, “Communication for Development: Theory and Practice for Empowerment and Social Justice, Third Edition” (2015) ↩ ↩2