Modernization Theory: A Step Forward or a Step Back?

Can you measure progress? How? Where does it start? If progress doesn’t have a beginning, does it have an end?

These are the questions my peers brought up in small discussion groups as we dissected DuBois’s chapter, “Of the Meaning of Progress” in his work, The Souls of Black Folk. Personally the chapter challenged me to distinguish between the good and the bad of the “Old” and the “New” aspects and to ask if identifying these changes can be problematic to societal frameworks. The excerpt, “My log schoolhouse was gone. In its place stood Progress; and I understand, is necessarily ugly” (DuBois 73), explains an apparent facade in progress- especially academic progress.

Doctor Levy of Geneseo’s philosophy department spoke to us about philosophical inquiry and how one would go about applying it societal frameworks. To do help the class understand, Dr. Levy showed us a video (which I was thankful for because philosophy is by no means me forte), to further explaining Plato’s Allegory of the Cave which explores how we use perception. How we register what we thought we knew and the remorse we feel when the lift of a veil reveals the actual truth. By trying to understand progressive frameworks we often take for granted, we are met with sudden outcomes. Such outcomes include social barriers which ultimately can lead to an overall unclearness in the world.

The whole “unclearness of the world” really stuck with me when we split up for smaller group discussions. As if reading my mind, my group started bolting out more questions than answers. We tried to face the question: how can we measure progress? …Can you?

As an international relations major, my mind immediately went to a core concept that is taught in introductory political science classes: modernization theory. In the fall of 2017, I took PLSC 228: Developing Third World Politics taught by professor Mfizi of the international relations department. The class discussed that not all states are the same and can rule the same way. States cannot operate the same way because every society has different morals, norms, geography, economies, and a plethora of other elements.

Modernization theory believes that the cultures of ‘traditional’ states, and the way they colonized, industrialized, and operate is the best and only way for a state of any kind to succeed in development. Modernization theory follows a strict linear step by step progression of a state. Mostly everyone I know who studies and is knowledgeable on international relations and political science almost chuckle at modernization theory. It’s simply a recipe for disaster.

This made me rethink back to DuBois’s chapter on progress. I reread the chapter and came across the line, “I was haunted by a New England vision of neat little desks and chairs, but alas!” (DuBois 68). It seems to me that those of higher power and success think it is of their best interest to push their ideas to others (hello again, modernization theory). But what the people of these states do not understand, is how other communities operate and what values they uphold in their cultures. You cannot simply put a stamp on something and expect it to work. It is just repetitive collateral damage; like putting a bandaid on a gunshot wound.

The development of a state can be a rather messy process full of economic, political, and social struggles. This is highlighted especially in Steve Prince’s work. The pieces that we saw in the Lederer Gallery displayed just a scratch of the problems peoples of our society face. Our reading materials, DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk and Vaz-Deville’s Walking Raddy further describe the challenges of what we think about progress, but I believe that alternative perspectives are what make progress happen in the first place.

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