The Birth of Modernization Theory out of the Post-War Era
In its "classical" form, which originated in the 1950s, the concept of modernization investigated the developmental logics of modern societies. It postulated the process of unidirectional development, in the course of which societies freed themselves from the state of traditionality and increasingly accepted features of modernity. "Modernization" in this sense refers to a number of processes, the most important of which are industrialization, democratization, bureaucratization and secularization. Modern societies are thus considered industrial, democratic, irreligious and steered by bureaucracies. Modernization approaches proceed under the assumption that these processes exhibit a considerable degree of interdependence and interrelation. According to modernization theory, an industrialized society must therefore inevitably establish itself as a secularized society; modernized societies sooner or later make the transition to democracy.
The origins of this line of thought can essentially be traced back to evolution theory, and in most cases it made some degree of recourse to the Parsonian model of the development of modern societies. In turn, the American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) himself participated in the theoretical development of the concept of modernization.1 This was not a consistent theory in the strictest sense of the word. Rather, the buzzword "modernization" (when it did not simply refer to a colloquial understanding of renewal) became an umbrella for a whole conglomerate of approaches, which could range from long-term historical analyses of social class formation to theories on the course of economic development and empirical panel investigations of contemporary political cultures.2 What these approaches had in common was their tendency to think in terms of developmental stages and proceed from the assumption that processes of development followed a certain progression which merely allowed for temporary relapse. They also postulated an interdependence of the basic processes outlined above and thus assumed the future convergence of societies even if they still exhibited considerable differences. The background to this movement was provided by the normative target of contemporary post-war European and North American society, and modernization was often only too easily equated with the process of Americanization.
This theory could initially be understood in the context of the Cold War.3 It claimed the historical superiority of the Western-European / American model of capitalist democracy over the regulated, autocratic models of both Eastern European Communism and Fascist authoritarianism. Beyond this, the theory could also be read as a reaction to the process of decolonization underway at the time. It expected the countries of the Third World to catch up and become "developing countries", i.e. to evolve along the path of European / North-American modernity. For this reason, proponents of modernization theory were often to be found in the employ of development agencies. Thus, when it came to Communist and Third World countries, these theories made a considerable prognostic claim. They not only considered themselves to be historical attempts of explaining processes in the past, but also sought to describe possible and desirable future scenarios. In this sense, they were never merely analytical instruments, but also suggestions from political consultants. Modernization theory conceived of itself as a blueprint for a policy that aimed to bring all the societies of the world to the same level of development sooner or later.
Modernization theory engendered considerable fascination, not least because it provided a template for development and promulgated an optimistic, albeit vague, vision of the future. And yet it also quickly provoked harsh criticism, which attacked the theoretical constructs as being incoherent and empirically implausible. What – apart from the tempting conception of societies in a balanced state of "eurhythmia"4 – supported the argument that all these big processes were somehow interwoven with each other? Did the United States not reveal a dramatic dissonance between economic modernization and attachment to (and even revival or re-invention of) tradition, i.e. in the sphere of religion? Were National Socialism and Soviet-style Communism not examples for the possibility of uncoupling the sub-processes of modernization, such as industrialization and democratization? Was tradition more than a static residual category that only served to elevate modernity to an even higher level, without an adequate understanding of historical and contemporary traditional societies?5 Critics pointed out that societies embarked on their paths to "modernity" at different points in time and were thus able to learn from each other. Yet does this exogenous factor alone not invariably lead to different paths of modernization?6 In the end, is modernization theory maybe not forward-looking (as it claims) in its heuristic horizon but actually – proceeding from an Americanized "end of history" – a retrospective view, just extending past experiences into the future?7
Studies inspired by modernization theory also came to model their devices under the impression of this critique. The Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt (1923–2010), who made important modifications to the approach and can be considered a "frontier-runner of modernization theory" (Wolfgang Knöbl), pursued questions of social and political change back to the great empires of antiquity. He pointed out that decisive reversals of developments had occurred well before the transition to the modern period.8 Moreover, by examining social groups such as urban elites and the military, he was able to present modernization according to a model of conflict rather than a harmonious one, as functionalist approaches seemed to suggest. Furthermore, he concentrated on political structures and systems at the center of his work, much more so than others in the field, which placed him at odds with other approaches that tended to assign greater significance to the economic structural change. Since, in historical perspective, empires not only rose but also fell, Eisenstadt could also speak of processes of "de-differentiation" which, unlike the usually rather linear conceptions, placed more emphasis on the contingency of developments. In a 1966 study of contemporary modernization processes relating to decolonization, he pointed out that modernization was always accompanied by disorganization and protest. Accordingly, one could not expect the catching-up of the "Third World" to proceed smoothly. In this context, he also emphasized the role played by imperialism in stunting development, thus calling into question the benefits of Western intervention.9 Far from being a eurhythmic process, modernization was, in Eisenstadt's terms, a panorama of conflict-laden disputes that produced both winners and losers.
Nevertheless, Eisenstadt's work also initially remained anchored within the idea of a shared final goal. But works that argued from a historical standpoint, such as those by the American sociologist Barrington Moore (1913–2005), came to show that the aim as such meant little on its own.10 Moore's study of the social origins of dictatorship and democracy was interested in the role of agriculture in the course of modernization. He argued that societies could progress on different paths to modernity, which arose out of their specific historical imprints, traditions and the manner in which they were processed. To him, Communism, Fascism and Democracy represented three variations of such differing paths of development – borne out of the different structures of their particular agrarian sectors – which achieved social rationalization through their own innate strategies, yet ultimately came to compete with each other. "Developmental paths" and the resulting "path-dependency" soon became key concepts of modernization theory, and led to a far-reaching differentiation in the concept of societal evolution. The term could now mean that a society did not necessarily need to do everything in the exact same manner as the USA or Western Europe had done.
Particularly for German historians, the notion of differing developmental paths is expressed in the concept of the "German Sonderweg", which, despite all differentiation, has an undeniable affinity for modernization theory.11 The Sonderweg thesis posits a specifically German backwardness with regard to liberal values, tolerance and civic spirit, a high level of trust in the authoritarian state and a broken relationship towards social conflicts. In the mid-1960s the sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf (1929–2009) portrayed the traditional German suspicion of democracy and a susceptibility to authoritarian models of order in a widely-received book. He argued that despite a progressive economic structure, Germany never truly embraced political modernity with its openness to social difference and the ability to endure conflict until 1945. At the same time, he conceded that National Socialism had radically transformed the political mentalities of the Germans: "Der Volksgenosse verbietet die Wiederkehr des Untertanen; darin liegt sein spezifisch modernes Gesicht." (The concept of the comrade of the Volk forbids the return of idea of the subject; therein lies its specifically modern face).12 In this respect, National Socialism had, according to Dahrendorf, fundamentally modernized German society.
In the 1980s, the discussion initiated by Dahrendorf was led under the normative augury of whether National Socialism had been a modern phenomenon. Many discussants understood this as an inquiry into whether the Nazis had been part of a "good" modernity. Particularly striking from today's perspective is the extent to which the discussion was narrowly focused on the positive features of modernity, i.e. democracy and participation, and how the dark sides of modernity were simply blocked out. Anti-Semitism, the rejection of capitalism and the violent nature of National Socialism were simply deemed "anti-modern."13 The German historian Hans Mommsen (1930–2015) thus could describe National Socialism as "feigned modernization" (vorgetäuschte Modernisierung).14 This debate failed to take into account the central findings of recent research, according to which National Socialism's boundless violence and obsession with order at all costs were precise expressions of what characterized it as a genuinely modern phenomenon.15 The National Socialist perpetrators, however, were anything but anti-modern "savages", they were "ordinary men"; the masterminds of extermination had a thoroughly modern notion of the extent to which societies could be shaped.16 This blind spot becomes even more apparent when considering that the ambivalence of modernity had already been highlighted by one of the first theoretical treatments of National Socialism in German: Theodor W. Adorno's (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer's (1895–1973) The Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung), which had been published in 1947.
Modernization after 1990: Revitalization and New Criticism
With the end of Communism in 1990, modernization theory came to experience an unexpected revitalization. Suddenly it seemed as though, despite all criticism to the contrary, the argument of the superiority of the Western model had proved correct after all. Concerning the GDR, sociologist Mario Rainer Lepsius (1928–2014) championed the paradigmatic argument that de-differentiation in the socialist society of equality had dried out any potential for modernization.17 So the reorganization of politics, the economy as well as the conception of a civil society in Eastern Europe after 1989 largely seemed to proceed according to notions from the West. Yet it soon became apparent that the congruence was merely superficial in nature; endemic traditions came to the fore, old elites and mentalities proved to be more inveterate than had previously been assumed. Bolstering democratization through prosperity failed in many instances. A number of East-European societies – especially the former Soviet republics – saw the emergence of an authoritarian model with nationalist features that pursued economic modernization without fundamental changes in the political structure.18
Elsewhere too, there has been a growing awareness not only of different conceivable paths of development, but also of different goals. Particularly China represents a shining example of the model, which can also be observed in Russia: Structural economic transformation with a certain degree of ruthless Capitalism and nonetheless a strong emphasis on elements of economic planning is precisely not accompanied by democratization, but instead by authoritarian control. An explicit preservation and even reconfiguration of traditions, particularly religious ones, often comes along with it. The interdependence postulate, positing the evenly-directed modernization of different sectors, is thus called into question. Instead the evolution of some sectors is held possible, leaving "behind" other sectors. Proponents of such partial change argue that a more or less simultaneous modernization of all economy, politics, education, religion etc. would overcharge the respective societies. They point to a phenomenon that had already been discovered by modernization theorists themselves: that fast-paced change involves a stronger reference to tradition, as change is what makes tradition possible in the first place. Accordingly, static societies effectively have no traditions, as the conditions of today are not significantly different to those of yesterday. Thus, even tradition can be counted as a part of modernization.
The Chinese model thus fails to support the notion of a temporal extension of change, i.e. the postponement of modernization in individual sectors until the day after tomorrow. Instead, it becomes apparent that particular sectors exhibit an extremely high degree of development, whereas others remain downright backward. Strictly speaking, this had also already been the case in Japan.19 Questions relating to the interdependence postulate, which had already been posed in the 1960s with regard to post-colonial societies, were now reformulated and applied to the post-Socialist states of Eastern Europe and the emergent countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In this respect, the collapse of Eastern bloc Communism brought to light an entire host of empirical objections against the inescapable dynamic of modernization-theoretical concepts. Reflecting on such concepts from a Marxist perspective, Jóhann Páll Árnason (born 1940) even argued that the main reasons behind the collapse of the Soviet Union were to be found in contingent factors rather than a systematic necessity.20 What lay in store was not western modernity, but a culturally specific path of development.
The terms "modernization" and "modernity" have also been subject to criticism from a theoretical perspective. Above all, there have been objections to the implicitly normative notion of the modernity concept. Since the critical appraisal of the dictatorial and colonial past has pointed out its violent nature, modernity can no longer be considered "good" modernity by implication. The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1925–2017) reaffirmed the notion of an ambivalent modernity: On the one hand, modernity strives for clarity, stability and transparency; on the other, it produces exclusion, losers, instability and imperviousness. Modernity thus ultimately suffers under its own complexity.21 Almost all conceptions of modernity have emphasized this ambivalence. More recent readings of Max Weber's (1864–1920) works have placed stronger emphasis on his notions of the "iron cage of bondage" ("stahlhartes Gehäuse der Hörigkeit")22 than on the potentials of rationalization, which tended to be at the center of more traditional Weber interpretations.23 Michel Foucault (1926–1984) ensured that forays into the dark side to modernity – the disciplinary society, the internalization of power relations and the conditioning of the subject – now enjoy an unprecedented degree of influence.24 Bruno Latour (born 1947), a French sociologist of science and technology, posited an irresolvable antagonism between nature and society as inherent to modernity. Modernity invariably produces alienation; in his impressive field studies on the development of new technologies, he showed that the purported rationality of social processes led to irrationalities.25 Moreover, drawing on the work of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (born 1947), he argued that the export product of modernity was, above all, intended for "the others": "Wir Europäer liebten die Globalisierung, solange wir diejenigen waren, die sie durchführten, doch nun, wo wir von den anderen globalisiert werden, finden wir das Ganze nicht mehr so lustig und schreien plötzlich nach Wurzeln, Mauern, Standorten, Nischen und, wie die Franzosen sagen, 'kulturellen Ausnahmen'."26 Modernization critique thus also came to adopt elements from the field of postcolonial studies, which conceived of modernization as a neocolonial strategy to force the "others" onto a specific path of development and called the altruistic motives of its purveyors into question. In his widely-acclaimed book Provincializing Europe, the Bengali historian of South Asia, Dipesh Chakrabarty (born 1948) joined the chorus of voices that rejected the idea of a universal course of development modeled on the European example and placed it in contrast to autochthonous intellectual traditions of non-Western Societies.27
Indeed, Chakrabarty's assessment was a critique which could be pigeonholed into the same category as the critique of modernization theory: as normative and interest-driven, highly dependent on location and as politically biased. Modernization theory reacted to the string of objections by continuing to develop approaches that were already contained in the original concept but had received scant mention thus far. This is one of the reasons why publications on "modernization" continue to thrive. A short survey of a number of major German library catalogues revealed that of all the books with "modernization" in the title, around half were published after 2000. Admittedly, many of these titles cover the modernization of real estate or administrative practices; however there are also numerous theoretical reflections, historical contextualizations and text books among them, picking up on the discussion over the last fifty years and casting the term into an unmistakably new mould. Already at the beginning of the 1990s, a fresh approach that subsequently stimulated further research and attracted new adherents was being pursued by the Dutch sociologists Hans van der Loo (born 1954) and Willem van Reijen (1938–2012). Dwelling on the critique of the teleological nature of modernization theories, of their situatedness and finally their ethnocentrism, they attempted a reformulation of modernization theory that seeks to pay closer attention to the ambivalences of modernity; just like Zygmunt Bauman, but closer to the traditional discourse of functionalism which had been the hotbed of the modernization approach. They understand modernization as "einen Komplex miteinander zusammenhängender struktureller, kultureller, psychischer und physischer Veränderungen, der sich in den vergangenen Jahrhunderten herauskristallisierte und damit die Welt, in der wir augenblicklich leben, geformt hat und noch immer in eine bestimmte Richtung lenkt".28 They conceive of modernization as the sum of four macro-processes with their own paradoxical implications: differentiation, rationalization, domestication and individualization. The use of such terminology reminds the reader of classical macro-sociological structure theory as practiced by Parsons or Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998). Indeed, their concept of modernization resembles something approaching a comprehensive and general theory of modern societies.29 However, they stress the ambivalent – they would say: paradoxical – characteristics of these four processes, thereby dissolving the antecedent normative bias: rationalization, after all, does not only imply that the actions of social entities are increasingly governed by reason. It can also mean the opposite: that organizational blindness increases and that different system-specific rationalities clash. Domestication – a term that is unmistakably indebted to the strong reception of Norbert Elias' work in the Netherlands – does not simply denote man's subjugation of nature, but also the emergence of a new disciplinary society in which individuals are guided by science and technology and subject to behavioral constraints by the state or other agencies.
Nevertheless, despite its more balanced nature, this reformulation of modernization theory represented but another normative approach, only that the verdict on modernization was no longer either "good" or "bad", but "good as well as bad." One particular form of theoretical advancement exhibited a much higher degree of abstraction, trying to get rid of normative implications. Associated with the sociologists Anthony Giddens (born 1938) and Ulrich Beck (1944–2015), its most important concept is the concept of reflexivity. According to Beck, modernity has nowadays reached a point where it constantly reflects critically upon its own historical position.30 The concept of reflexive modernization takes into account the objections, contradictions and consequences of the modernizing developments. The term was used by Beck in connection with his concept of a "second modernity". The "first modernity" revolved around the production of goods and wealth; but in the meantime it had become increasingly evident that above all, modernity produced risks. This self-observation in the form of a risk society was what defined a second, reflexive modernity. Critiques such as those by Chakrabarty were thus a product of modernity in and of itself, and in turn contributed to the modernization of society, which by now came to be thought of as a global community.
Shmuel Eisenstadt's concept of "multiple modernities" picked up on this criticism in a similar fashion.31 The diversity of pre-modern societies, he argued, also played a role in shaping the idiosyncrasies of modern society. Eisenstadt rejected the theorem of a convergence of industrial societies; in his view, European modernity was merely one possible model among many. But what, then, was the common core of these different modernities, which simply had to exist so as to uphold the concept of "modernity"? Eisenstadt argued that this core was to be found in the radical delegitimization of roots and origins. Indeed, Islamic fundamentalism, despite its constant invocation of a supposed tradition, also represents a new, anti-traditional movement. Nevertheless, Eisenstadt claimed, many non-Western developments explicitly draw on Western experiences and reshape them. He viewed the fundamentalist movements as a resumption of the Jacobin revolutionary tradition, which, after its emergence in the French Revolution, had also been important in the communist movements. Even the radical rejection of Western models, he concluded, cannot avoid references to Western modernity as a benchmark. Traditions, as the sociologist Andreas Langenohl (born 1970) has argued, are aware of this process of delegitimization today, and will therefore prepare for the inevitable onslaught of criticism that is bound to come sooner or later.32 The old method of arguing with incontrovertible truths will no longer suffice for religions and other traditional patterns of discourse to assert themselves: Traditions do not simply vanish but ultimately become reflexive during this process as well.
The multiple modernities of the "second modernity" will thus never be observable as pure, distinct types. As Chakrabarty has shown convincingly, European modernity was a violent, colonialist modernity, which suppressed autochthonous traditions and exploited them for its own ends. Nevertheless, European modernity is there, and even in India or Nigeria it will no longer be possible to simply shed these traditions. The second modernity does not only comprise multiple modernities, but also a multitude of highly interwoven, heterogeneous and hybrid cultures. The second modernity's reflexivity may well even lie in its recognition of these ambiguities and heterogeneities. If this is indeed the case, then post-colonial studies, as critical as they may be towards "western" theorems of modernization, can themselves be construed as an integral part of reflexive modernization. They are an example of how the self-reflection of societies must always expect the possibility of itself being under observation and thus inevitably changing in a critical process.33
More recent contributions thus aimed at an analysis of a modernity which perceives and historicizes itself as such. Anthony Giddens describes four central features of modernity: the disentanglement of space-time dependence (i.e. real-time communication across great distances), the dislodging of social systems, being no longer dependent on spatial interaction, globalization, and increasing self-reflexivity. This effectively amounted to a paradigmatic dispensation of the inherently normative descriptions traditionally associated with classical modernization theory. It is no longer about the relationship between the market economy and democracy in whatever form, but about communications without regard to distance. Global society as a communicative network can, however, mean different things. It can be seized upon as an opportunity to speed up economic relations, just as it can be used for terrorist activities or even the organization of new civic institutions. Al Qaida, secret services and the Arab revolution all drew upon the same communication technologies. Modernization no longer means the establishment of a particular set of economic conditions involving pioneer societies and latecomers, but the awareness of communicative action within ever-changing contexts. Above all, there is a growing knowledge that a society consists of observations, and that every reflection can generate yet another reflection. This is how Luhmann's systems theory describes modernity.34
This in turn raises the question of whether modernization as a concept has in the meantime become a term loaded with meaning but lacking in definition. Between a teleological, normative and easily applicable notion of modernization on the one side, and a conception of undirected, heterogeneous and hybrid processes characterized by the increasing reflexivity of even traditions in a communication society on the other, it became increasingly difficult to bridge this gap and maintain some connection between these conflicting approaches. Perhaps it would be more suitable to use the modernization term in order to describe a paradigm which essentially remains within the conceptual patterns of the 1950s, being possibly aware of different developmental paths, but holding on to an end vision nonetheless. In this sense, modernization theory would be dead – at least theoretically, for in practice the term continues to be used undisguised. Indeed, if we think in terms of a world society and ask questions pertaining to differentiation, ambiguity, and self-reflexivity, the term can no longer be used to explain processes of development without further ado. Otherwise it would simply be yet another word for social change.