Modernization Theory: Definition, Development & Claims

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  • 0:01 What Is Modernization Theory?
  • 0:36 Marxist vs. Capitalist
  • 3:11 Western Version
  • 3:43 Present Day Theory
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Kimberly Winston

Kimberly has a MBA in Logistics & Supply Chain Management

Expert Contributor
Joseph Shinn

Joe has a PhD in Economics from Temple University and has been teaching college-level courses for 10 years.

There are many theories on how nations develop. This lesson will explore the origins, developments, and claims of several versions of modernization theory.

What Is Modernization Theory

Modernization theory is a theory used to explain the process of modernization that a nation goes through as it transitions from a traditional society to a modern one. The theory has not been attributed to any one person; instead, its development has been linked to American social scientists in the 1950s.

There are many different versions of modernization theory. This lesson will discuss the opposing views of the Marxist and capitalist versions, a Western version, and a present-day version of modernization theory.

Marxist Versus Capitalist

Early theories were greatly affected by the political climate between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the Cold War era (1947-1991), two versions of modernization theory were prominent.


The Marxist theory of modernization theorized that as nations developed, adopting a communist approach to governing, such as eradicating private property, would end conflict, exploitation, and inequality. Economic development and social change would lead developing nations to develop into a society much like that of the Soviet Union.


The capitalist version of modernization theorized that as nations developed, economic development and social change would lead to democracy. Many modernization theorists of the time, such as W. W. Rostow, argued that when societies transitioned from traditional societies to modern societies, they would follow a similar path. They further theorized that each developing country could be placed into a category or stage of development. Rostow's stages of development are:

  • Traditional - an agricultural-based society
  • Pre-conditions for take-off - characterized by an abundance of entrepreneurial activity
  • Take-off - a period of rapid economic growth
  • Maturation - economic development slows to a more consistent rate
  • Mass production or mass consumption - a period in which real income increases

Other modernization theorists, such as Samuel Huntington, argued that social mobilization and economic development were driving forces behind modernization. Increased social mobilization meant that individuals and societal groups changed their aspirations. Increased economic development meant the capabilities of the newly modern society would change. Huntington argued that these societal changes would inevitably lead to democratization.

Although the Marxist and capitalist versions of modernization held opposing views, both views held that in order for developing countries to modernize the countries needed assistance in economic development and social change.

Communism was deteriorating by the 1970s and democratization had failed to occur in many nations struggling to develop. Many critics declared that the Marxist and capitalist versions of modernization were void.

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Essay Prompts

Prompt 1

During the Cold War Era, there were two primary versions of modernization theory that were applied: the Marxist version and the Capitalist version. Compare and contrast these two versions of modernization theory. In particular, be sure to discuss the role of property and business ownership. Additionally, provide an example of a country that went with the Marxist approach and a country that went with the Capitalist approach, and explain what these countries did to adopt the respective versions.

Prompt 2

The present-day version of modernization theory focuses largely on "when" a change occurs. Specifically, it is argued that a significant change occurs at some "inflection point" that pushes society in another direction. For this question, provide an example of a country that has had a major cultural shift in the past few decades and identify the "inflection point" that caused this change to occur. In answering the question, be sure to explain why this event served as an inflection point. Additionally, discuss whether this "inflection point" was caused by religion or some other political force and whether this change was done through peaceful means or more violent ones (such as the citizens of a country overthrowing the current government in power in order to put a new one in place).

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