Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The death of modernization theory?

Gary Karbon writes a blog post with a title that could have been written any time in the last third of a century, namely that "____ is the last nail in the coffin of modernization theory"--in this case, the rise of China. He then trots out a familiar series of examples of how the rise of China undermines at a theoretical and empirical level the central tenets of modernization theory.

All of this is well and good and true--and also mostly beside the point. Almost from its theoretical inception, the popularity of modernization theory has had less to do with its ability to provide an accurate empirical description of the developmental patterns of poor countries than with its ability to articulate in seemingly "objective" social scientific jargon a justification and explanation of American global dominance in a manner that resonates with liberal political and economic sensibilities. Insofar as there exists an audience within the United States for such a narrative, the theory has been popular--which helps explain the great return into vogue of modernization theory during the 1989-2004 period in the United States (a rehabilitation initiated, of course, by Francis Fukuyama's famous essay on "The End of History," which he later candidly confessed was but a more philosophically grounded revivification of modernization theory).

Likewise, what appears to cause modernization theory's domestic popularity to wane--for example during the 1970s and again, dramatically, in the last few years--is not its empirical refutation by events in the developing world. Since those events never much supported the theory in the first place, they can't explain the fading of the theory's popularity. Rather, what causes modernization theory's domestic constituency to wane is the implosion of faith in the United States as the ideological and technological model which the rest of the world is destined to follow. To put it technically, the popularity of modernization theory in the United States is essentially a dependent variable that closely tracks America's ideological self-confidence on the global stage. What goes on in China may or may not have an impact on that self-confidence, but the key variable is that self-confidence, rather than the performance of China's (or Ghana's, or Mexico's, or Japan's, or whatever) political economy.

Now, there's an interesting twist to all this, which is that alternate versions of modernization theory have been taken up and developed in other countries in ways that suit those countries' elites' own ideological ambitions. (The reasons and forms of this uptake is variable, and is the subject of quite exciting scholarly research today in the United States, Germany, China, and India.) At a high level, it is not hard to explain what motivates modernization theory's uptake in a variety of contexts outside the United States. It follows from a desire to articulate a secular theory of political and economic progress according to a blueprinted model, and to do so in terms of a language of social science that, by seeming "objective" and "scientific," can help to neutralize political controversies that attach to any particular set of developmental choices. As long as there exists (and wherever there exists) a constituency for social scientific articulations of a liberal developmental inevitablism, modernization theory is likely to continue to reappear, staggering up out of its grave like some undead monster, a nightmare from the past, weighing on the brains of the living.

1 comment:

Gary Karbon said...

Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of my post on "Modernization Theory." You can read my reply here: http://www.culturefeast.com/%e2%80%9cmodernization-theory%e2%80%9d-revisited/#more-693