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Modernisation theory

Paper Type: Free Assignment Study Level: University / Undergraduate
Wordcount: 1327 words Published: 12th Oct 2017

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Modernisation theory is typically a Western phenomenon; its roots obviously must lie around capitalist society whereby the developing world is to be a mirror image of the civilised, which generally embraces capitalism. It is automatically assumed by thinkers like Rostow that this is the correct way for an underdeveloped society to develop, without considering the implications or alternatives. Dependency theory states that the cause of the low levels of development in less economically developed countries (LEDC’s) is caused by their reliance and dependence on more economically developed countries (MEDC’s). These two theories are often seen as opposing views however, fundamentally they are making the same point.

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Modernisation theory is the “fundamental proposition that people in traditional societies should adopt the characteristics of modern societies in order to modernize their social, political and economic institutions.”[1] In the context of development, it is assumed that the North consists of modern societies, and the South of traditional societies. Modernisation Theory is a presumption that all countries had similar starting points and follow similar paths to ‘development’ along the lines of contemporary ‘first-world’ societies. The theory is concerned with the development gap between the North and South, and how best to lessen this gap so that the Third World can develop quicker and more effectively.

The most commonly version of this theory stems from Walt Whitman Rostow’s views, popularised in the 1960 volume, The Stages of Economic Growth: a non-communist manifesto. Rostow outlines five stages of sociological growth, in an effort to define firstly where the constituent parts of the world stand in this scheme, and then how best for the South to climb the ladder of development. The first of these stages is the traditional society, which can be said to encompass all societies prior to the 17th century, which possess little of the structural characteristics that can be seen today. The next stage Rostow terms the preconditions for take-off, which is best illustrated with respect to the third stage, the take-off itself. The take-off is the period whereby a society begins to grow at a steady rate, both in quantity and quality. Essentially, the political, social, and manufacturing sectors are rehabilitated to allow growth within all aspects of the country, and the nation can be said to be emerging as a modern, typically capitalist, civilization. The final two stages are natural extensions from the take-off: the drive to maturity is the expansion of the newly developed ideas and technology into other divisions of society, and the age of high mass consumption, the final stage outlined is illustrated through the filtering down of the progress made throughout the economy and culture indicating little or no more growth is necessary in order for the nation to maintain itself.

As a theoretical model, Rostow’s perspective on modernisation is useful in that it is, whether purposefully or not, very indiscriminate and simplistic: it requires little remoulding to adapt from one culture to the other, because there is no real substance to modify. The basis of the theory is that the ultimate goal already exists and can be examined readily, and that this is what the developing country should strive for. Rostow makes no attempt to isolate individual cases and discover different ways to adapt the theory to them, because this is not the purpose of the study – his theory, if not others, supplies the structure and ground rules, rather than the solution.

Dependency theory has been criticised for placing too much emphasis on material and economic factors in complete contradiction with modernists. Dependency theorists assert that ‘third-world’ economies became geared more toward the needs of their ‘first-world’ colonial masters than the domestic needs of their own societies. Proponents of dependency theory contend that relationships of dependency have continued long after formal colonization ended. Thus, the primary obstacles to autonomous development are seen as external rather than internal and so ‘third-world’ countries face a global economy dominated by rich industrial countries.

Dependency theory refers to relationships and links between developed and developing economies and regions. Because ‘first-world’ countries never had to contend with colonialism or a world full of richer, more powerful competitors, dependency theorists argue that it is unfair to compare contemporary ‘third-world’ societies with those of the ‘first-world’ in the early stages of development. Dependency theory sees underdevelopment as the result of unequal power relationships between rich developed capitalist countries and poor developing ones. In that sense they point out to those who would call third world countries “developing” countries that it was not development as advertised, but the development of underdevelopment. Dependency Theory’s main project is coming up with plans for a more core-like development in the third world. Dependency Theory calls for a remedy to the discrepancy between North and South to be solved by meeting basic needs, education and care for the health of the people, support and building on the subsistence economy driven by domestic demand.

Dependency theory and modernisation theory on the whole appear to have many similarities although they were founded on different principles. Modernisation pays no attention to the possible impact of external factors, as though the evolution of a society is a job which can be performed ‘on the side’, whereby a society can continue international relations without it interfering with the development of the country. Whereas Dependency theorists believe that the effects of colonisation and the subsequent lack in development for 20-30 years after independence has left colonised nations to face an insurmountable climb to ever become equal players of the global economy with the first world societies upon which they are still dependent. Both centre on the development of a strong core and the progress that can be made if an introverted assessment of one nation is undertaken. Both theories acknowledge that it is a domestic revolution that is required and that change is predominantly required within the developing country. Comparison with the North is not a beneficial aspect at the moment because the road to successful development is long. Modernisation makes development seem easy and feasible whilst still competing for existence with first world nations, whereas dependency theory acknowledges that it is the fault of the first world nations that has left the South dependent upon them and unable to modernise and compete at the same time. Both acknowledge modes of development and both identify the interdependency of the North and the South, both illustrate means by which a nation can recover and both stress that it is dependency on another nation or nations that has left them in an underdeveloped state.


FOSTER-CARTER, A. (1985) The Sociology Of Development Ormskirk: Causeway Press Ltd.

SPYBEY, T. (1992) Social Change, Development & Dependency Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

HARRISON, D. (1988) The Sociology of Modernisation & Development, New York: Routledge.



[1] Tony Spybey, 1992 .


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