Understanding the Modernization of Culture: History and Factors

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  • 0:49 Industrial Growth
  • 1:48 Market Economy and Innovation
  • 2:40 Literacy
  • 3:15 Bureaucratization
  • 4:31 Globalization and Mobility
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson examines the process of modernization, including the variety of factors that have brought us from the past into the present. We'll focus on political, economic, social, and technological trends that have shaped our world today.

The Meaning of Modern

When you hear the term 'modern,' what comes to mind? The latest and best? The 21st century?

While in everyday conversation we use the term 'modern' to describe present technology and experiences, modernization, on the other hand, is a process that began much further back. Modernization is a term often used to describe the transformation from more traditional organizations of society to industrialized society as we see in most cultures today. Put more simply, it is the transition from the past to the present. In this lesson, we'll go back about a thousand years to consider the factors in how the world has become more modernized.

Industrial Growth

Flashback to Medieval England, where we meet a peasant named Agador. He's living in the pre-industrial society of feudalism. His personal world is quite small, and only his family and village are relevant to him on a day-to-day basis. It's a tough life, with severe punishments by local lords and the church if he does not follow their rules. Unable to read or write, the information that he needs to know to survive is primarily about how to farm the land and other practical tasks.

One factor in modernization is the industrial growth that has occurred since Agador's time. The work he performed during the Middle Ages as a peasant is now performed by machinery. The modern era is known in large part for this kind of change, where tasks that used to be performed on a very small scale can be done in far less time. Look around you, wherever you are right now, and you'll probably find many objects that are mass-produced or created using some type of machinery.

Market Economy and Innovation

Modernization has also involved a shift to a market economy, where prices depend on supply and demand and on competition between private businesses. This economy emerged over time as conditions in various regions led to a change from more traditional forms of commerce.

The ability to compete is very important for the survival of a business in a market economy. Each aimed to find ways of doing things more efficiently and effectively through technological innovation in order to make more profit. For instance, businesses that used machinery were able to beat their competition.

Technological innovations are not only good for business but also have been put to use in other ways in society. Think of the impact of innovations, like cars, radios, airplanes, television, computers, and the Internet. These significant innovations have had a complex impact on human culture.


One invention, the printing press, helped spark a dramatic increase in literacy, the ability to read and write, which fueled modernization. Literacy had spread in the past for other reasons, such as one region or religion conquering another and trade between those selling and buying goods and services. But a huge boost to literacy came when the printed word became more widely available. The printing press made this possible. As a result, more people were able to learn new information and ideas.


New ideas can't be implemented without a process. This is where bureaucratization comes in. Bureaucratization is the process of establishing documented rules, regulations, and roles, including a hierarchy.

During Agador's time, local lords and church leaders held considerable power over what happened in his life. Between the Middle Ages and today, political power became much more consolidated rather than spread out among many different groups with different laws. This consolidation of power led to the development of the nation-state as we know it today. While the peasant Agador would not have had a sense of national identity, a citizen of England today would be very conscious of this aspect of who they are in the world.

The laws in Agador's particular region and village were likely different from the laws in another area, even within England. The transition to nation-states during modernization made the laws more consistent across regions. Countries today have laws that apply to all citizens. This is an example of bureaucratization. Many people complain about too much bureaucracy today, and this is because the term has come to mean too much structure, hierarchy, and excessive rules.

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