As in other social sciences, modernization was the dominant paradigm in communication studies that sought to understand and define the role of communication in development in the late 1950s and 1960s. Modernization was originally proposed as synonymous with development. Development was understood as a transition toward a social order that mirrored the politics and economy of the west, namely, liberal democracy and capitalist and industrialized economies. Modernization’s time of intellectual and policy ascendancy was the postwar years during the period of decolonization. Western scholars and powerful policymakers viewed modernization as an unavoidable and desirable transition for non-western societies.
As a theory, modernization offered both an explanation and a prediction for social change. As a process, modernization was used to describe the experience that so-called “developing” countries had to undergo in order to achieve the levels of economic and political development found in the west.
Communication as Modernization, Modernization as Development
One of modernization’s central ideas was that culture should be considered the independent variable that accounts for specific outcomes (e.g., political, economic, social). Drawing from classic sociological theories, namely Max Weber’s and Emile Durkheim’s views on culture and social change, modernization posited the existence of a necessary fit between culture and a specific economic and political order. Culture had the capacity to switch developmental tracks. Cultural change was proposed as a precondition for political and economic change. The low rate of agricultural output, the high rate of fertility and mortality, or the low rates of literacy found in underdeveloped countries resulted from the persistence of traditional values and attitudes. Modernization theory concluded that values such as individualism, rationalism, and secularism had been intrinsic to the consolidation of modern capitalism in the west. Because it held up the western experience of development as the model on which non-western countries could break away from poverty and tyranny, it suggested that the rise of “modern” societies in “developing” countries had to follow the same path.
If culture was viewed as the obstacle in the way of modernization, then, instilling “modern” values was crucial for change. Modernization’s call for cultural change as the necessary harbinger of social change was embedded in functionalism, then dominant in the social sciences. From this perspective, communication was assigned a crucial role in spearheading cultural changes through the dissemination of “modern” information, values, and innovations through “modern” communication technologies.
As theorized by Daniel Lerner (1958) and Wilbur Schramm (1964) in their seminal works, communication basically referred to the transmission of information. Among other factors (e.g., urbanization, increased literacy), exposure to mass media was seen as the catalyst of modern attitudes. From this perspective, development communication as a field of practice in support of international aid programs was assigned the role of introducing media technologies to promote modernization, and the widespread adoption of mass media such as newspapers, radio, cinemas, and television.
Modernization largely reduced communication to the mass media. Such reductionism was based on the premise that large-scale media were central agents for the diffusion of modern culture. Also, the media indicated the degree of modernization of any given society. The numbers of television and radio sets and the level of newspaper consumption were taken as proxy of levels of development (Lerner 1958, Inkeles & Smith 1974). Researchers found that where people were more exposed to modern media, they were more likely to hold favorable attitudes toward modernization and development.
Everett Rogers’s study on the “diffusion of innovations” became one of the most influential representatives of modernization thinking. Rogers’s intention was to understand the adoption of new, modern behaviors. The premise was that innovations diffuse through five stages: awareness, knowledge and interest, decision, trial, and adoption/rejection. Populations were divided into different groups according to their propensity to incorporate innovations and their timing in actually adopting them. Rogers proposed that early adopters act as models to emulate and generate a climate of acceptance and an appetite for change, and that those who are slow to adopt are laggards. This latter category was assumed to describe the vast majority of the population in the third world.
For Rogers, the culture of the peasantry offered important psychological constraints on the incorporation of innovations, and consequently on development. His view on development reflected the transmission bias also found in Lerner and Schramm. According to Rogers, development communication entailed the transfer of information from a source to a receiver with the intent to change behavior. The goal was to change knowledge and attitude in order to modify behaviors. Diverging from the media-centrism and “magic bullet” theory of effects that underpinned earlier analyses, Rogers and subsequent “diffusion” studies concluded that the media had a great importance in increasing awareness, but that interpersonal communication and personal sources were crucial in making decisions to adopt innovations (Rogers 1983).
Critics and Legacies
In the mid-1970s, main representatives of modernization theories considered it necessary to review basic premises. In a widely quoted article, Rogers (1976) admitted “the passing of the dominant paradigm.” Schramm and Rogers recognized that early views had individualistic and psychological biases. It was necessary to be sensitive to the specific socio-cultural environment in which communication took place, an issue that had been neglected in early analyses. To a large extent, these revisions resulted from the realization that the “trickle-down” model that was originally championed was limited.
Critics charged modernization on various fronts. One of the most powerful critiques called attention to its profound misunderstanding of communication. Modernization sidestepped a long tradition that understood communication as a process of community-building. Communication cannot be reduced to a diffusionist, media-centered process. Communication is not about the use of modern technologies to disseminate ideas and values; instead, it fundamentally entails different forms and spaces where people meet to discuss common concerns. More importantly, such a misconception of communication was problematic on conceptual and political grounds. It had ideological implications that conveniently fit prevailing conceptions of development as a top-down, exogenous process. Challenging its analytical premises was not just an academic exercise, but a way to question the kind of development politics that modernization justified.
In response to these criticisms, Rogers (1976) suggested that communication should not focus on persuasion (the transmission of information between individuals and groups). Instead, he proposed that communication had to be understood as a process by which participants create and share information with one another in order to reach a mutual understanding.
Modernization theory presented other problems in understanding the role of communication in development. The theory’s focus on individual changes downplayed the influence of structural dynamics at both national and global levels that affect development. As long as communication is seen as a matter of changing individual attitudes under the assumption that they will translate into positive and wider social processes, political and economic forces are ignored. In reaction to modernization’s culturalist bias, a substantial literature has argued that “underdevelopment” is not a matter of countries having the “wrong” cultural equipment to achieve better health and literacy, or higher agricultural productivity. As dependentistas and Marxists put it, historical global economic and political linkages explain “underdevelopment.” Consequently, answers to redress problems cannot be limited to spreading the “right” cultural values. Instead, what is necessary is to analyze the complex dynamics (e.g., trade, political relations, domestic politics) that are responsible for poverty and marginalization in the south.
This premise informed studies that criticized modernization theorists for approaching the mass media without considering their relation to economic and political dynamics. For so-called “media dependency” positions, the media are not a set of technologies that function independently, nor do they necessarily contribute to development. Rather, they are political and economic institutions whose functioning is linked to the dynamics that perpetuate underdevelopment.
Another shortcoming of modernization theory was its patronizing, ethnocentric tone. Modernization’s prescriptions were based on the deep conviction that only western ideas could spearhead global development. Modernization posited development as the irreversible process of progressive westernization of the world that would absorb, if not eliminate, indigenous cultures. While critics lamented that process of cultural change on the grounds that it represented the imposition of western values, modernization celebrated it. The latter viewed traditional cultures as nothing but obstacles in the way of modernity, and dismissed local knowledge as a likely casualty in the unstoppable march of western progress.
Several questions have been raised about these ideas. First, experience shows that traditional cultures are resilient. Cultural change is certainly possible, but it is not a necessary process. The modernization juggernaut that, according to its crusaders and critics, would change cultures forever has had dissimilar impacts around the globe. Thus, the question becomes, under what conditions might cultural change occur?
Second, cultural change does not follow a pre-determined, direct path according to western models and experiences. Rather, it is unpredictable, elusive, and full of contradictions. Third, there has been a slow yet growing realization that solutions to development challenges are ultimately based on local knowledge and capacity. Modernization’s disparaging views (and, at times, outright forgetfulness) of indigenous knowledge revealed its underlying universalistic premises. Championing western solutions to a myriad of development challenges is problematic for two reasons: it is ethically deplorable, for it assumes the inherent superiority of western-based forms of knowledge; and it is analytically misguided, for it ignores multiple ways of knowing, engaging, and addressing social problems.
Along this line of argument, one should also point out that modernization was largely inattentive to racial and gender issues. While offering an explanation for how social change was possible among non-European populations, modernization deracialized both knowledge and action. Also, while modernization implicitly discussed how the lives of third world women could change (e.g., in matters of education and health), gender remained conspicuously absent from the theory. Modernization failed to address the power dynamics underlying class, gender, race, and ethnic relations that largely account for unequal access to social services and persistent levels of poverty.
Although its intellectual and policy heyday may be past, key modernization concepts are still present in contemporary thinking and practice in development communication. Current policies and studies that uncritically embrace the latest information technologies follow in the footsteps of modernization’s brand of optimistic techno-futurism. Technologies have proven to be useful to facilitate different types of communication if they are properly integrated into social and political processes that drive change. However, they are not cure-all solutions to deep-seated problems of power and exclusion.
Shades of modernization’s culturalism are also visible in studies and development interventions that aim to modify cultural norms to promote social change. Just to give some examples: programs that aim to prevent early marriage among young girls, eliminate female genital cutting, increase female education, or change gender relations around sexuality confront the challenge of radically transforming cultural norms. Certainly, such interventions are informed by a myriad of theoretical and ideological frameworks. However, they share with modernization the belief that cultural changes (e.g., changing expectations about the proper roles of women) are crucial for effective social changes.
It is worth noting that programs that aim to catalyze cultural changes are less likely to be imbued with deterministic and media-centric views as found in modernization. In fact, it has been recognized in the literature that such changes are difficult. They require a combination of communication processes. Neither the purposeful diffusion of “modern” ideas nor the demonstration effects that result from exposure to alternative norms (e.g., through the media) inevitably lead to cultural and social changes.
That modernization has significantly less influence in contemporary development communication is not only a reflection of its overall falling fortunes in the social sciences. It is also the result of the fact that some of its key arguments fit today’s sensitivity in the field of communication uneasily. Modernization’s unbounded optimism about cultural change, its uncritical view of media technologies, and its confidence about the inevitability of social change seem incompatible with prevalent views in development communication. Current studies and programmatic evaluations advocate the integration of various forms of interpersonal and mediated communication, offer a moderate realism about the contributions of communication to social change, and are skeptical, if not critical, about prescribing other people’s experiences to improve the lives of marginalized populations in the global south.
- Gilman, N. (2003). Mandarins of the future: Modernization theory in cold war America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Inkeles, A., & Smith, D. H. (1974). Becoming modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Latham, M. E. (2000). Modernization as ideology: American social science and “nation building” in the Kennedy era. Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
- Lerner, D. (1958). The passing of traditional society. New York: Free Press.
- Lerner, D., & Schramm, W. L. (1967). Communication and change in the developing countries. Honolulu: East-West Center Press.
- Rogers, E. M. (1976). Communication and development: The passing of the dominant paradigm. Communication Research, 3(2), 213 –240.
- Rogers, E. M. (1983). Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press.
- Schramm, W. L. (ed.) (1960). The impact of educational television: Selected studies from the research sponsored by the National Educational Television and Radio Center. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Schramm, W. (1964). Mass media and national development. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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