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Modernization and Dependency Theory

Modernization and Dependency Theory

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will define, delineate, and discuss the components of modernization theory, Rostow's stages of modernization, and dependency theory.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. Welcome to sociological studies. Got a great lesson. We're going to cover modernization theory as opposed to dependency theory. Both theoretical explanations of global inequality.

Modernization theory, we'll start there, was developed by Walt Whitman Rostow, or W.W. Rostow. Named after Walt Whitman. His parents gave him the name after the American poet, who I'm sure would be rolling over in his grave if he knew the kind of politics that Rostow had.

Rostow was as a political theorist. Very influential. And he was a foreign policy adviser for Lyndon B. Johnson and the Kennedy administration. He was a staunch defender of capitalism to free market politics. And Modernization Theory is essentially a defense of capitalism some have critiqued.

Let's elaborate Modernization Theory now. Rostow developed this really nice, cute, five stage model for economic development. And he used an airplane taking off as his metaphor for how an economy within a country could take off. So Modernization Theory is a technological and cultural explanation of global inequality.

It's that technology and cultural differences, whether you will have a traditional cultural ethos or a more modern, rational cultural ethos, he uses that to explain global inequality. He had these stages. He had a traditional stage, preconditions for takeoff, takeoff, drive to technological maturity, and then finally high mass consumption.

The idea was, again, this was writing in the 1950s. Structural thinking was all the rage. Structural thinking said that society was one big complex interconnected machine. Law bound. You could develop then, laws. And if you applied these laws to society, society would take off and develop how you wanted it. Any nation could become as wealthy as the US. They just had to put in the plan. Lay out the laws. And society would develop, and stabilize, and get a harmonious equilibrium. And this line of thinking goes all the way back to Durkheim, structural functionalism.

Well for starters, stage one, is the traditional stage. What you wanted to get out of. Modernization is antagonistic to tradition. Traditional stage, society is tied to the past. To time-honored ways of doing things. And not a lot of thought was given to alternative ways of organizing society. Tradition, [INAUDIBLE], is an impediment to technological advancement. Because tradition prevents people from wanting to adopt new ways of doing things. They just repeat the traditions. There's not a lot of change in these societies. They're pretty stable.

So in order to then take off and develop economically, in the fashion that Europe had developed and then the United States later, well you had to get rid of the traditional ethos. When this starts to happen, then you starting to lay the preconditions for take off. The second stage. This is when you finally began to shake free of the stifling grip of tradition. And people become more focused on economic growth and individualization.

Individual empowerment through participation in markets. So commodity markets emerged for good, such that people can now produce goods and go take them to market and sell them. Where they can get money, to go engage in more markets to buy things to consume. Rather than producing everything to consume directly for yourself.

So economic activity becomes oriented towards markets. And when this happens, family and community ties begin to lose their strength. The strength that they had in traditional society. Because people would begin to engage each other as atomized, meaning individual, isolated, producers and consumers. And they treat each other as market participants. So the market mentality, as you've heard me say throughout the other lectures, slowly comes to imbue society. It represents a shift in ideas.

The preconditions for take-offs, is really just a shift in ideas about the economy. And about the place of the economy within society. It represents a shift about thinking about the self acting in society, a shift about the family and social relationships, as well as economic activity.

So now then, the airplane begins to take off. Once the runway is laid and all the preconditions are set. The airplane of society goes. And in this take-off stage, the market mentality that I've been talking about, and its associated emphasis on the individual becomes widespread and the norm.

Traditional society, and most of its vestiges, have long been gone. And the society becomes more rational, more organized, towards efficient economic production. Manufacturing starts to take root. And the division of labor spreads. And more goods and services were produced than ever before. This is when society is taking off.

Then once they have taken off, they have the forward drive to technological maturity. It's a shift of production to goods towards mass consumption. So production shifts from building factories and building capital and generating all the economic base that you need, to then produce more consumer goods.

So the industrial base further diversifies, and becomes more rational in its operation. Society is really getting capitalism. It's really starting to understand how the tenets of capitalism work.

This is the drive to technological maturity. Industrialization further weakens broad social ties, as people are focused on themselves and less focused on family and community. And they're more focused on market transactions and increasing their material wealth. The market mentality is finally enthroned.

And once we've done that, we can reach a stage of higher mass consumption. Where the economy becomes oriented toward the production of consumer goods and services. As consumers have enough disposable income to satisfy basic needs, and they can consume other things. Luxuries.

Things that used to be luxuries are now needs in high mass consumption. Consumers have a lot of disposable income generated by the advanced industrial production that they can spend all of this money on satisfying every whim of consumer fancy.

This is the goal of Modernization Theory. We have reached modernization. And everybody can do it. If they just apply the laws of modernization, the tenets of modernization, they will take off in the economic society. Everything will get better.

But Dependency Theory, then in contrast, comes along about the same time. About 1960, just after modernization theory. Comes along and says, oh that's cute. That's a nice model. Isn't that lovely. But you're conveniently leaving out the fact that developed countries have systematically exploited less developed countries since colonialism. And that this helps explain their superior economic situation, their take-off, and not any inherent culture. Or any inherent superiority.

There are no laws of development. We had a colonial situation where colonial powers had a head start and exploited everybody else and integrated them into a system of economic dependence. So then, Dependency Theory, largely developed by Andre Gunder Frank, the development of under development. He argues that the process of development at the same time it enriched richer nations, impoverished and underdeveloped poorer nations. They're two sides of the same coin.

Since colonialism, we have the situation of power and subjugation. So the Dependency Theory is really a recognition of a complex and interconnected global economy, such that some nations became rich only at the expense of, and only because others became poor.

European colonialism formed the global economy some 500 years ago as Europeans started to expand and setup colonies. Colonies were set up to exploit the various resources, natural resources, that people found in these countries.

In an exploitation of the natural resources and the labor within that country, often the colonized people were enslaved, all of this was then funneled right to the colonial powers. And we still have this vestige of this system today. And so, there is no way that every nation can develop along the modernizationist's lines, Dependency Theory maintains, because powerful nations have already established the rules of the playing field. They've already set up the inequality, and they're working to keep that at bay.

So within this system, within this power structure, given to us by colonialization, there is no way that these nations then can develop just by applying these laws. Basically, what they are going to say, is modernization theory, the five stages that you laid out were great for you.

That's what you did. You developed along those five stages. And you basically just retroactively looked back and said, OK, this is what we did. So everybody else is going to do that too. And they'll be just like us. And the world will be great. But Dependency Theory says, no. That is just not possible, considering the situation. And the inherent power asymmetry operating within the global economic system.

Well I hope you enjoyed this introduction to Modernization and Dependency Theory. And the compare and contrast of the ideas. I think they both have merit. They're both critiqued. I think some explanation is needed from both to really explain poverty and persistent economic inequality in countries across the world.

Have a great rest of your day.

  • Modernization Theory

    An explanation for global stratification that asserts that technological and cultural differences between nations serves as the basis of global stratification.

  • Rostow's Stages of Modernization

    A theory that holds that affluence can be attained by all nations if they move through the following stages: 1) Traditional Stage; 2) Preconditions for Take-off; 3) Take-Off; 4) Drive to Technological Maturity; 5) High Mass Consumption.

  • Dependency Theory

    A theory that explains global inequalities with respect to historical oppression.