About 50 years ago, the freshly decolonised, 'underdeveloped' nations began a frenetic process of catching up with the West. 'Development' meant economic growth and industrialisation. But this 'modernisation theory' is increasingly being challenged today
About 50 years ago, many countries around the world—freshly decolonised and newly named underdeveloped or developing, embarked on varying projects of national development. Some began to develop indigenous industries for export, others stepped up industrial production to substitute for imports. Across the Cold War swathe—communist as well as capitalist—industrialisation was thought of, by the political and economic elite, as the key to development.
In this singular conception of ‘development’ as economic growth, industrialisation became a race of catching up with the West or with standards almost entirely set by West-centric institutions for a country to be deemed developed. Accompanying this frenetic activity was the project of modernisation.
This was seen by the presiding figures of many countries as, amongst others: infrastructural changes such as dams and highways; social changes such as getting rid of the perceived ills of traditional beliefs and practices and revamping educational systems with an emphasis on modern science and rationality; and political changes such as creating an efficient bureaucracy and State apparatus to preside over the decolonised domain.
This three-pronged strategy was underpinned by what came to be known as modernisation theory. The ideas of the modernisation school of economists indirectly informed the choices of ‘development’ made by the leaders of many countries.
Modernisation has been a dominant theory in the social sciences in the West since the 1950s. It draws on the biological sciences, which, since the last quarter of the 18th century in Western Europe , studied the growth and development of different species. The biological metaphor was transferred to the social sciences: societies, political institutions, economies were deemed to be growing organisms progressing according to an order natural to them. That is, the development of elements of social life was naturalised: made to appear as if development (as opposed to constant change) is directional, following a path of ever-near perfection. In reality this ‘naturalisation’ was Westernisation in disguise: the so-called natural progress closely followed the trajectory of Western Europe and North America : how they had transformed and ‘developed’ became the blueprint for the rest of the world.
Modernisation theory became the foundation stone of this evolutionary prescription for development. The theory is not homogeneous—numerous proponents disagreed on several key features. But in broad outline, the theory focused on deficiencies in the poorer countries and speculated about ways to overcome these deficiencies. It viewed traditional society as a series of negatives: stagnant and unchanging, not innovative, not profit-making, not progressing, not growing.
It argued that about 500 years ago, most people in the world were poor or living in traditional (often subsistence) social arrangements. Scientific innovation existed in many parts of the world ( China , India , the Middle East ) but for a variety of reasons (not least of them the conquest of the New World and slavery, which modernisation theory bypasses), science and entrepreneurship grew in Western Europe . The engine of this economic growth was capitalism. Innovation and technological growth became self-sustaining in Western Europe because they were embedded in the capitalist system. Entrepreneurs were in competition: profits were pursued by lowering costs and increasing revenues and re-investing in order to make more profits. This ceaseless accumulation and expansion spurred growth.
Some modernisation theorists emphasised the political modernisation that accompanied this economic advance: feudal lords and...
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