Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Why modernization theory never dies

How many times does chapter 7 of this book need to be written: “Theories That Won’t Pass Away: The Never-Ending Story of Modernization Theory.”

After going through the usual suspects of modernization theory (Lerner, Shils, etc.), and pointing out all the internal contraditions and tensions, Wolfgang Knobl concludes out that modernization is a pretty lousy theory in terms of explanatory power, and is probably better thought of as a series of modernization "discourses" rather than as a "theory" at all.

But this leaves us with a paradox, he notes: "Why will the theory not die despite all its weaknesses and failures? [This] endurance is based on the fact that the term 'modernization' as well as the related term 'modernity' has a strange kind of (normative) attraction for all those — politicians or intellectuals — debating the contours of contemporary and future societies...." (p. 105).

This is correct, but it begs the question: what is the nature and source of that "strange kind of (normative) attraction"? In other words, what is the normative appeal of something positively misleading? For this, I think one must resort to explanations that are ultimately psychological:
  • Implicit in (and central to) modernization theory is a just-so story about our own civilizational superiority, and more important, our civilization finality — nothing will ever supersede "us." We are the ultimate, final perfected incarnation of mankind’s historical development. This is a deeply self-flattering idea.
  • The theory provides a neat (overly neat) closure to a lot of messiness, and so appeals to a desire for cleanliness, parsimony, clarity, and other Protestant psychic virtues.
  • The underlying historical metanarrative of modernization puts a happy gloss on various ecological and cultural losses and destruction caused by industrial and commercial civilization that might otherwise be hard to stomach. All these losses are in the name of a worthwhile higher goal, namely the completion of mankind’s historical perfection. It thus appeals to our sense of moral purpose.
  • It implies that “all good things go together” and that losers in the process can either be paid off or considered a worthwhile price in the process. The implication is that no ultimately painful choices need to be made. As anyone who's ever had a destructive habit they didn't want to break (quite yet) knows, this idea is also extremely psychologically appealing in an Augustinian manner.
  • It suggests that antinomian movements (from Marxism to Al Qaeda) that resist this narrative and lament the losses or object to the direction of change are fated no matter what to lose their struggle against. It thus provide confidence in long and painful political-historical struggles.
There are probably additional reasons why modernization theory continues to survive despite its manifest failures as an explanatory tool, but these are certainly among the central appeals of the theory. If you have other ideas, please note them in the comments.

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