Development Doctrine and Modernization Theory

Nick Cullather

Modernization theory, sometimes called development doctrine, supplied the working concepts through which the United States understood its obligations to unindustrialized, newly independent nations in the last half of the twentieth century. Described as both an ideology and a discourse, modernization comprised a changeable set of ideas and strategies that guided policies toward foreign aid, trade, nationalism, and counterinsurgency. Among its core precepts was the idea that the state of economic and political advancement enjoyed by the United States and the industrialized West was normative, and that it was in the U.S. national interest, as well as the general interest of all people, that steps be taken to bring the other two-thirds of humanity up to a comparable level. Social science theories explained the causes of Asian, Latin American, and African backwardness and suggested appropriate remedies.

Historians have traced modernization theory's intellectual lineage back to Aristotle, who first suggested that states followed a natural pattern of growth, like plants. But while linear progress is a recurrent theme in Western thought, it existed alongside Christian doubts about man's fallen state. Americans in the early Republic believed (as did Aristotle) that if societies grow naturally, they also decay. The idea that the process of human progress could be understood and controlled dates to the early nineteenth century, when France and Britain were struggling to reestablish their mercantile empires on a secular, commercial basis, and just before technology and scientific racism ushered in an era of guiltless imperialism. Since then it has tended to recur at times and places where systems of dominance required justification and explanation.


Cooper, Frederick, and Randall Packard. International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley, Calif., 1997. A collection of essays that provides a good introduction to the field of development.

Cowen, M. P., and R. W. Shenton. Doctrines of Development. London, 1996. Traces the development ideas from origins in the European Enlightenment.

Curti, Merle, and Kendall Birr. Prelude to Point Four. Madison, Wis., 1954. An early study of development in American foreign relations prior to Truman.

Gilman, Nils. "Paving the World with Good Intentions: The Genesis of Modernization Theory, 1945–1965." Ph.D. dissertation. University of California. Berkeley, Calif., 2001. Links Rostovian theory to the Parsonian revolution in social science.

Latham, Michael E. Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and "Nation Building" in the Kennedy Era. Chapel Hill, N.C., 2000. An outstanding study of modernization's place in the Kennedy administration's Cold War strategy.

Lerner, Daniel. The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East. New York, 1958. A seminal modernization study and one of the best examples of the discourse at the height of its influence.

Maxfield, Sylvia, and James H. Nolt. "Protectionism and the Internationalization of Capital: U.S. Sponsorship of Import Substitution Industrialization in the Philippines, Turkey, and Argentina." International Studies Quarterly 34 (1990): 49–81. Reveals that the United States systematically encouraged the strategy of import substitution.

Packenham, Robert A. The Dependency Movement. Cambridge, Mass., 1992. Follows the rise and decline of dependency theory in Latin America and the United States.

Pletsch, Carl E. "The Three Worlds, or the Division of Social Scientific Labor, circa 1950–1975." Comparative Studies in Society and History 23, no. 3 (1981): 565–590. Describes how academic politics and federal funding led American scholars to create the Third World.

Rostow, Walt W. The Stages of Economic Growth. Cambridge, 1960. The classic statement of Rostovian theory.

Simpson, Christopher, ed. Universities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences During the Cold War. New York, 1998. Explores how modernization theory emerged from a collaboration between academe and the security establishment.

See also Economic Policy and Theory ; Foreign Aid ; Humanitarian Intervention and Relief ; Imperialism ; International Monetary Fund and World Bank ; The National Interest ; Philanthropy .

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