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K12 LibreTexts

18.2: Modernization

  • Page ID
  • Objectives

    • Summarize the views of modernization theory and world-system theory on modernization in less-developed nations.
    • Describe the positive and the negative effects of modernization on social life and the natural environment.

    Universal Generalizations

    • The countries of the world are divided into industrialized and industrializing.
    • For economic growth to occur, the number and variety of goods and services a nation produces must increase.
    • Modernization has both positive and negative effects on society and the environment.
    • Modern technology exposes moral and ethical questions.

    Guiding Questions

    • What do you think is the most beneficial factor of modernization?
    • How do sociologists explain the process of modernization?
    • What are the significant differences between modernization theory and world-system theory view of the modernization process for less-developed nations?
    • What are some positive and negative consequences of modernization?


    Describes the processes that increase the amount of specialization and differentiation of structure in societies resulting in the move from an undeveloped society to developed, technologically driven society (Irwin 1975). By this definition, the level of modernity within a society is judged by the sophistication of its technology, particularly as it relates to infrastructure, industry, and the like. However, it is important to note the inherent ethnocentric bias of such assessment. Why do we assume that those living in semi-peripheral and peripheral nations would find it so wonderful to become more like the core nations? Is modernization always positive?

    One contradiction of all kinds of technology is that they often promise time-saving benefits, but somehow fail to deliver. How many times have you ground your teeth in frustration at an internet site that refused to load or at a dropped call on your cell phone? Despite time-saving devices such as dishwashers, washing machines, and, now, remote control vacuum cleaners, the average amount of time spent on housework is the same today as it was fifty years ago. And the dubious benefits of 24/7 email and immediate information have simply increased the amount of time employees are expected to be responsive and available. While once businesses had to travel at the speed of the United States postal system, sending something off and waiting until it was received before the next stage, today the immediacy of information transfer means there are no such breaks.

    Further, the internet bought us information, but at a cost. The morass of information means that there is as much poor information available as trustworthy sources. There is a delicate line to walk when core nations seek to bring the assumed benefits of modernization to more traditional cultures. For one, there are obvious pro-capitalist biases that go into such attempts, and it is short-sighted for western governments and social scientists to assume all other countries aspire to follow in their footsteps. Additionally, there can be a kind of neo-liberal defense of rural cultures, ignoring the often crushing poverty and diseases that exist in peripheral nations and focusing only on a nostalgic mythology of the happy peasant. It takes a very careful hand to understand both the need for cultural identity and preservation as well as the hopes for future growth.

    Modernization Theory

    Modernization theory emerged in the 1950's as an explanation of how the industrial societies of North America and Western Europe developed. The theory argues that societies develop in fairly predictable stages though which they become increasingly complex. Development depends primarily on the importation of technology as well as a number of other political and social changes believed to come about as a result.

    For example, modernization involves increased levels of schooling and the development of mass media, both of which foster democratic political institutions. Transportation and communication become increasingly sophisticated and accessible, populations become more urban and mobile, and the extended family declines in importance as a result. Organizations become bureaucratic as the division of labor grows more complex and religion declines in public influence. Lastly, cash-driven markets take over as the primary mechanism through which goods and services are exchanged.

    World System Theory

    Immanuel Wallenstein proposed one of the explanations of how global stratification came about. According to world system theory, industrialization led to four groups of nations. The first group consists of the core nations, the countries that industrialized first (Britain, France, Holland, and Germany), which grew rich and powerful. The second group is the semi periphery.

    The economies of these nations, located around the Mediterranean, stagnated because they grew dependent on trade with the core nations. The economies of the third group, the periphery, or fringe nations, developed even less.

    These are the eastern European countries, which sold cash crops to the core nations. The fourth group of nations includes most of Africa and Asia. Called the external area, these nations were left out of the development of capitalism altogether. The current expansion of capitalism has changed the relationships among these groups.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A world map of countries by trading status, late 20th century, using the world system differentiation into core countries (blue), semi-periphery countries (purple) and periphery countries (red). Based on the list in Chase-Dunn, Kawano, Brewer (2000)

    According to Wallerstein, the world economic system is divided into a hierarchy of three types of countries: core, semiperipheral, and peripheral. Core countries such as United States, Germany, Japan are dominant capitalist countries characterized by high levels of industrialization and urbanization. Core countries are capital intensive have high wages and high technology productionpatterns and lower amounts of labor exploitation and coercion.

    Peripheral countries which include most African countries and low income countries in South America are dependent on core countries for capital and are less industrialized and urbanized. Peripheral countries are usually agarian, have low literacy rates, and lack consistent Internet access.

    Semi-peripheral countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, Mexico, Brazil, India, Nigeria, South Africa are less developed than core nations but more developed than peripheral nations. They arethe weaker nations of "advanced" regions or the leading members of former colonial ones.

    Core countries have most of the world’s capital and technology and have great control over world trade and economic agreements. They are also the cultural centers which attract artists and intellectuals. Peripheral countries generally provide labor and materials to core countries. Semi-peripheral countries exploit peripheral countries, just as core countries exploit both semi-peripheral and peripheral countries. Core countries extract raw materials with little cost. They can also set the prices for the agricultural products that peripheral countries export regardless of market prices, forcing small farmers to abandon their fields because they can’t afford to pay for labor and fertilizer. The wealthy in peripheral countries benefit from the labor of the poor workers and from their own economic relations with core country capitalists.

    A World Sociology screencast examining Wallerstein's World Systems Theory.

    Immanuel Wallerstein took Marx's ideas about exploitation and applied them to his contemporary views of society. His World Systems Theory explains globalization and the market economy as exploitative tools which keep some countries in power over others.

    For further reading on Modernization Theory view the following article by J. Michael Armer and John Katsillisat: