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What to Read on Modernization Theory

Modernization theory -- the belief that industrialization and economic development lead directly to positive social and political change -- has been a subject of intense scholarly and policy interest for more than half a century. It came back into vogue in Washington during the 1990s, thanks to the global spread of free markets and the third wave of democratization, and continues to inform much of U.S. policy toward the developing world. After decades of derision, moreover, a loose or weak version of it is experiencing a revival in the academy as well -- something that would assuredly delight or appall the bloodied combatants in the field's original theoretical battles.

"Some Social Requisites of Democracy." By Seymour Martin Lipset. American Political Science Review 53, no. 1 (1959): pp. 69-105.

Seymour Martin Lipset's classic article -- elaborated in his 1963 book Political Man -- is modernization theory's foundational text. His celebrated formulation of the underlying thesis -- "the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy" -- set the stage for one of the most fruitful and long-lasting research agendas in the social sciences. Although often caricatured by both supporters and detractors, Lipset's argument was actually fairly sophisticated. He claimed that economic development sets off a series of profound social changes that together tend to produce democracy. He noted, for example, that wealthier societies tend to have higher levels of education and urbanization, more sophisticated and varied means of communication, larger middle classes, and greater social equality and mobility. All of these things, Lipset argued, are associated with, and necessary for the emergence and proper functioning of, democratic political institutions.
Political Order in Changing Societies. By Samuel P. Huntington. Yale University Press, 1968.
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Following the theory's initial rapid acceptance, by the late 1960s a backlash began to emerge. Critics argued that it was too linear, too teleological, and too optimistic. One major challenge came from Samuel Huntington. In his seminal book Political Order in Changing Societies, Huntington took issue with the theory's relatively unproblematic picture of social change. He argued that modernization theorists were right in seeing economic development as unleashing profound social changes but wrong in assuming those changes would necessarily be benign or progressive. Societies in the throes of dramatic social transformation, he noted, tend to be unstable and even violent. Positive outcomes are likely to emerge only where healthy political institutions capable of channeling and responding to such changes exist -- and building such institutions is an extremely difficult and time-consuming task.

Latin America: Underdevelopment and Revolution. By Andre Gunder Frank. Monthly Review Press, 1970.
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Dependency and Development in Latin America. By Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Faletto Enzo. University of California Press, 1979.
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Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism. By Guillermo A. O'Donnell. University of California Press, 1973.
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Another major challenge came from dependency theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Faletto Enzo, who took issue with modernization theory's relatively unproblematic picture not of social change but of economic development. They argued that non-Western societies were actually doomed by their position in the international economy to a state of underdevelopment and dependence. In a related vein, Guillermo O'Donnell asserted that the type of development foisted on many Latin American countries (and some others in the Third World) led not to democracy but to "bureaucratic authoritarianism." Staggering under the weight of these attacks, and seemingly unable to account for a period of global political stagnation, modernization theory fell decidedly out of fashion by the late 1970s. 

"Modernization: Theories and Facts." By Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi. World Politics 49 (January 1997): pp. 155-183.

In a great historical irony, it was just then that what came to be known as the third wave of global democratization began gathering force -- sweeping across continents, toppling authoritarian regimes and setting up democracies in their place. It seemed as if everywhere one looked -- from southern Europe to East Asia and from Latin America to the Soviet Union -- democratic transitions were the order of the day. In many of these cases, furthermore, transitions seemed to either follow impressive periods of economic development or correlate with a shift to a free-market economy. The result was revived interest in modernization theory, albeit in a more nuanced form. A key participant in these debates was Adam Przeworski, who argued (in a variety of publications with different collaborators) that the first wave of modernization theory had erred in its failure to differentiate between the establishment of democracy ("democratization") and its sustainability ("consolidation"). In fact, he asserted, the evidence showed that economic development played an important role in fostering the latter but not the former.

Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence
. By Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
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Capitalist Development and Democracy. By Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens. University of Chicago Press, 1992.
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Democracy and Redistribution. By Carles Boix. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
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Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. By Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
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The contemporary debate over modernization theory has in many respects circled back to Lipset's original research agenda. Alongside endless empirical studies of the correlation between wealth and democracy, scholars have tried to untangle precisely how and why economic and political development are related. Working with various colleagues over the years, Ronald Inglehart has amassed a vast amount of data through the World Values Survey and argued that mass cultural and attitudinal changes are the crucial intervening variables between economic development and political outcomes. Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens, in contrast, have argued that the most important intervening variable is the changing balance of class forces in society. And Carles Boix, Daron Acemoglu, and James Robinson have examined the ways in which economic inequality and stratification influence a country's regime type (although they disagree over the precise role played by inequality and stratification patterns).

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