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Modernization Theory and Its Applications

Table of Contents

Description of the Theory

Modernization theory refers to a concept that elucidates a gradual process of transition in cultural, economic, political, and social practices over a period to an advanced way of living. Matunhu (2011) describes modernization theory as a framework for socio-cultural transformation from a traditional lifestyle to a modern industrialized society. The transformation means that new practices of governance, agriculture, technology, and socio-cultural beliefs integrate and replace old practices of people in a given society. According to Spaiser, Ranganathan, Mann, and Sumpter (2014), the process of transition follows several models of change that reflect the economic development and political status of a country. These models, therefore, imply that society must undergo economic and democratic transition to evolve into a modern society

The economic model follows development stages that include traditional practices, modernized technological practices, economic growth, and economic stability while democratic evolution involves cultural practices and structure (Spaiser et al., 2014). The two models of development differ in the conceptual framework as each describes a different means a society follows in attaining modernization. In the economic model, a community adopts new practices of production through the adoption of modern technology from developed nations that promote production. As the society adopts new ideas of production, it also adapts to new cultures that promote social understanding. In the second model of social transformation, the society must undergo socio-cultural transformation to realize modernization. Both models seek to explain the social process of development responsible for social evolution that enhances technological advancement and economic growth of society.

Major Contributors

Modernization theory has faced a series of ideological development from several sociologists. The significant early contribution works on modernization date back to 1950s by Seymour Martin Lipset, a political sociologist, whose ideas focused on the social transition from old culture to a new modern way of life. Lipset provided additional knowledge to modernization through his examination of the social values and technology adoption in production (Spaiser et al., 2014). The examination happened immediately after the Second World War showing a significant contribution of modernization to the industrialization of society. The contribution gave a limelight to more examination of the process of modernization that came up with the important models of modernization theories.

Walt Whitman Rostow, an economist, is a major contributor to modernization theory through his work that provided the idea of economic empowerment of the society as a way to attain a modern life. The model depicted the five stages of social revolution to achieve a desirable modern life. The five stages start with the society’s initial social status of agricultural life followed by the adoption of industrialization process, technological change to promote industrialization process, economic growth and economic stability with an improved social life of the people. Rostow claimed that whole process cumulatively adopted by every society leads to the realization of the modernization (Matunhu, 2011). Another significant contribution to the theory of modernization was by Huntington who provided a model with social transformation as the principal object of modernization. Huntington offered a three model criterion that encompasses development of society structures, independence of the social sections, and adoption of new social values (Sun & Ryder, 2016). This model holds that development and modernization only occur when people change their social beliefs and adopt social values that promoted democracy and political stability.

Theory Application

Modernization theory provides a wider scope of the application required to accomplish social change and development that is the core objective of humanity. The application process of modernization theory falls under several broad categories that include economics, democracy, globalization, industrial development and technological advancement of social transformation (Spaiser et al., 2014). Economics entails the acquisition and the use of scarce resources in satisfying diverse human needs and wants, which are dynamic across the world. Democracy is an issue of concern that dictates social and economic stability of any one society. The world governing bodies including local governments have the task to provide a democratically balanced society that promotes the way life. According to Sun and Ryder (2016), a socio-political balance protects a nation from political conflicts and promotes development. From a global view, the international governing bodies, such as the United Nations, provide a democratic negotiation platform to develop global relationships and respect for humanity, and thus, enhancing world trade and economic growth and stability. In this regard, modernization allows developing societies to adopt the policies of governance from the more developed and democratic states. The improved socio-political relation within a society attracts external investors enhancing technology and economic growth.

Industrialization process of traditional production is a means to economic development and stability in society. Concerning Huntington’s model, political stability promotes economic and social development through the organization and equal participation of individuals and institutions in social issues (Onyebuchi, 2014). The social stability provides an ample environment for investment by external and internal investors through the adoption of new technologies that promote industrialization and change of social beliefs. The aspect of free market promoted by globalization brings the entire world into one localized society that encourages intercontinental corporation and understanding. Globalization promotes trade between countries through the adoption of the latest technologies in both developed and developing countries (Spaiser et al., 2014). The adoption means that free market provides an effective channel of business linked to the different needs of the various global and social segments in the form of raw materials and processed products.

Technological advancement also caters for development and enhanced social and cultural privilege in developing countries as internet connectivity and infrastructural advancement promotes accessibility. Tourism is a social lifestyle that emerged due to globalization and enhances economic development and social transformation amongst several ethnic communities and states. The application of the modernization theory, therefore, cuts across all counties in promoting development in third world countries and promoting advancement among the developed countries.


The criticism of modernization theory emanates from the effectiveness of the theory to a clear roadmap for the third world countries promised advantages of development. According to Spaiser et al. (2014), third world countries have not achieved development despite the process of modernization theory. The theory, therefore, is more of theoretical and not practical, as development is multifaceted and a factor of other external forces as earthquakes. Matunhu (2011) argues that modernization theory is Eurocentric as the theory only recognizes the Western culture. The end effect of modernization is a view of the Western society as modern depicting other societies as inferior, yet several other countries such as Japan have evolved by comparison. Matunhu (2011) contends that contrary to the development of the third world countries is the increased economic gap between advanced societies and underdeveloped nations. Therefore, the economic gap means the idea of global trade supporting development in the third world countries is biased for it benefits the developed societies.


Matunhu, J. (2011). A critique of modernization and dependency theories in Africa: Critical assessment. African Journal of History and Culture, 3(5), 65-72

Onyebuchi, U. (2014). Development of an ideology: An evaluation of the modernization theories from the context of Samuel Huntington and Clasude Ake. International Affairs and Global Strategy, 25(1), 20-23.

Spaiser, V., Ranganathan, S., Mann, P., & Sumpter, T. (2014). The dynamics of democracy, development, and cultural values. PLoS ONE, 9(6), 1-11.

Sun, J., & Ryder, A. (2016). The Chinese experience of rapid modernization: Sociocultural changes, psychological consequences? Frontier in Psychology, 7(477), 1-13.

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