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Modernity and Modernizationfree

Modernity and Modernizationfree

  • Robbie ShilliamRobbie ShilliamSchool of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London


Modernity is defined as a condition of social existence that is significantly different to all past forms of human experience, while modernization refers to the transitional process of moving from “traditional” or “primitive” communities to modern societies. Debates over modernity have been most prominent in the discipline of sociology, created in the nineteenth century specifically to come to terms with “society” as a novel form of human existence. These debates revolved around the constitution of the modern subject: how sociopolitical order is formed in the midst of anomie or alienation of the subject; what form of knowledge production this subject engages in, and what form of knowledge production is appropriate to understand modern subjectivity; and the ethical orientation of the modern subject under conditions where human existence has been rationalized and disenchanted. In its paradoxical search for social content of modern conditions of anomie, alienation, and disenchantment, sociology has relied upon Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. Sociological inquiry of modernity and the anthropological/comparative study of modernization have provided two articulations of sociopolitical difference—temporal and geocultural, respectively—that have exerted a strong impact upon approaches to and debates within IR. The attempt to correlate and explain the relationship between temporal and geocultural difference presents a foundational challenge to understandings of the condition of modernity and the processes of modernization.


  • International Relations Theory


Modernity refers to a condition of social existence that is radically different to all past forms of human experience. Modernization refers to the transitional process of moving from “traditional” or “primitive” communities to modern societies. IR is by and large a derivative discipline when it comes to debates over modernity and modernization. However, these debates have influenced IR in two main ways: firstly, via the exploration of continuity and change in the international system; secondly, and at a more subterranean level, via some of the “great debates” of the discipline and the development of contending theoretical approaches.

Debates over modernity have proceeded most influentially in the discipline of sociology. In fact, the category itself is largely a product of this discipline, and scholars created the discipline in the nineteenth century specifically to come to terms with “society” as a novel form of human existence. These debates have impacted upon IR primarily in the deployment of the contrast between traditional and modern forms of sociopolitical order in order to ascribe and explain the different constitutions of the domestic and international spheres. The sociology of modernity tends to approach different forms of human existence in temporal terms, specifically, the rupture between traditional community and modern society. Indeed, there has often been an implicit assumption in sociological literature that the historical experiences of Western Europe are the defining experiences of the ruptures that created modernity, hence universalizing a particular geocultural experience. Because of this, sociology has usually been reluctant to relate the chronological difference of tradition/modernity to the persistence of synchronous geocultural difference in the modern world order. It is this later form of difference that theories of modernization have directly addressed.

The investigation of modernization as a process has pluralistic intellectual roots: methodologically it utilized a comparative form of analysis in order to illuminate transitional processes between and within Western and non-Western (mainly excolonial) polities in broadly political-economic terms. In fact, the intellectual space available for comparative analysis of different socioeconomically organized polities was provided by social anthropology and its turn to ethnography as a way of exploring the continued existence of “primitive” communities in the modern world. While cognate investigations certainly precede World War II (for example, Veblen 1939), it is in the postwar period that modernization theory really developed as a form of comparative analysis that specifically targeted the political transitions of ex-colonial states towards modern societies. While such analyses experienced their heyday during the Cold War, the legacies of modernization theory – both its insights and its oversights – are still felt in both IR and IPE via the attempts to capture the geoculturally pluralistic character of modern world development.

Together, then, the sociological investigation of modernity and the anthropological/comparative study of modernization have provided two articulations of sociopolitical difference, the former temporal, the latter geocultural. These two articulations of difference have impacted significantly upon approaches to and debates within IR; in many ways, the as yet unresolved relationship between temporal and geocultural difference provides one of the deepest challenges to the investigation of the form and content of international relations.

The first part of this essay investigates modernity by reference to historical and contemporary debates within sociology and illuminates, where appropriate, the influence of these debates upon IR. To begin with, the part sketches out the sociological investigation of the modern subject interpolated as an individual inhabiting an impersonalized society. Subsequently, a number of important debates over the constitution of this modern subject are discussed: how sociopolitical order is formed in the midst of anomie or alienation of the subject; what form of knowledge-production this subject partakes of, and what form of knowledge-production is appropriate to understand modern subjectivity; and finally the ethical orientation of the modern subject under conditions where human existence has been rationalized and disenchanted.

The second part of the essay starts by placing the emergence of modernization theory within the intellectual space provided by social anthropology for investigating continued geocultural plurality in an apparently “modern” world. Subsequently, the part documents the rise of modernization theory focusing on the Third World during the Cold War. The grounding in modernization theory of present-day debates in IR over the security/development nexus (especially the notion of “failed states”) is drawn out, as well as the interface between modernization theory and evolving notions of globality. Critiques of modernization theory are then documented, notably the rise of dependency theory and notions of underdevelopment. The second part finishes by drawing attention to current critiques of the way in which social anthropology has inherited the narrative of temporal rupture from sociology, in so doing conflating the traditional and primitive so that the persistence within modernity of supposedly premodern social relations of, for example, race and religion cannot be adequately accounted for.


Sociology and the Modern Subject

Sociological inquiry starts with the assumption that modernity is temporally distinct from tradition (Shils 1961:1425; Habermas 1987b:8). Although chronological notions of the “modern” existed for centuries before, sociologists have usually placed the beginnings of modernity – and thus their own discipline – within the tumultuous effects of the “dual revolutions” that occurred within Europe at the end of the eighteenth century (Nisbet 1967). In fine, the rupture thesis of modernity states that the (French) democratic and (British) industrial revolutions radically undermined preexisting localized communities and their traditions by profaning sacred values and dismantling associated sociopolitical hierarchies.

The new science of sociology was charged with investigating the theoretical, practical, and ethical challenges deriving from the interpolation – through the abovementioned revolutions – of the “individual” as the subject of an impersonalized organizational form of human coexistence, “society” (Elias 1978:34–7). Standing on the modern side of the chasm, sociologists have claimed that the condition of human being must be thought through without the comforting sureties of timeless tradition and spiritual faith. Rather than considered as part of an enchanted objective whole, the individual must be examined by prizing open its interior life. Subsequently, the development of the modern subject must be investigated in terms of an open-ended, constantly shifting process rather than embedded within an eschatological narrative; and meaning – if there is to be found any meaning – must be understood as immanent in this new human existence rather than transcendental (Lash and Friedman 1992).

With this in mind it is interesting to note that, similarly the sociology problematique, the core problematique of IR theory has always been the paradoxical search for order under conditions of anarchy. However, for this task, sociology has not relied upon a Realist canon of classical political thinkers, but upon Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber.

Order, Anomie, and Alienation

For Durkheim, traditional societies exhibited a mechanical form of solidarity because the individual was bound to the “collective conscience” directly instead of through a series of mediating institutional nodes. With no room to become authors of their own agency, individuals were effectively inorganic matter, hence Durkheim’s mechanical metaphor (Durkheim 1964:130). Alternatively, industrialization prompted the specialization of tasks that, with a more complex division of labor, resulted in institutional differentiation (pp. 354–61). As the totalizing moral code of tradition was replaced with an instrumental approach to social interaction based on institutionalized specialization, individuals came to understand their social existence in terms of anomie (Durkheim 1964:128, 361; 1970:382) Durkheim claimed that the new form of solidarity, unlike the mechanical type of traditional communities, gained its strength by encouraging the development of individual personality, a requirement of the complex division of labor. Because both the parts and the whole were “living,” modern society exhibited an “organic” form of solidarity (Durkheim 1964:124, 131).

Durkheim’s claim regarding the radically different constitution of sociopolitical order in modernity has been mobilized in IR as a way of mapping out the divided terrain of politics so that the “international” is effectively rendered as a premodern space in opposition to the modern space to be found within the state. In the pivotal chapter 6 of his hagiographic neorealist script, Theory of International Politics, Kenneth Waltz (1979) argues for the different structural qualities of domestic and international politics by referring to Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity (see for example Waltz 1979:115). Waltz claims that the international realm is characterized by the mechanical form of solidarity. Populated by an array of non-differentiated functionally like units, the international realm lacks a complex division of labor and can therefore only be composed of relations of thin interdependence, because the functional likeness of parts leads to systemic competition: anarchy is the condition of anomic relations between parts. Alternatively, the domestic realm for Waltz is characterized by an organic form of solidarity wherein a functional differentiation of units allows the parts to be bound together in a socially thick integrative hierarchy. But Waltz radically misinterprets Durkheim’s schema by reversing the social integrity of the two forms of social solidarity. That is to say, contra Waltz, that the more anomie among parts, the thicker their social integration (see Barkdull 1995). By Durkheim’s sociological reading, “anarchy” is at least as socially constituted as “hierarchy,” which puts into question Waltz’s seminal division of the substance of domestic and international politics.

Marx marked capitalist modernity in distinction to precapitalist modes of production, wherein the division of labor was organized through the direct access of the producer to communally regulated land and wherein exploitation – the appropriation of surplus product – proceeded through localized hierarchical relations of personal dependency between lord and serf (Marx 1973:156–66). “Primitive accumulation” was the term Marx gave to the violent and conflict-ridden historical process of privatizing property and, via the “enclosure” of the commons, divorcing the producer from direct access to the means of production (Marx 1990:873–940). In the capitalist mode of production, Marx argued, land and labor became commodities, “things” disembodied from personal and communal attachments. Concomitantly, exploitation proceeded through non-hierarchical relations between impersonalized individuals exchanging commodities, especially labor, via wage contracts (see, for example, p. 179). The capitalist mode of production required a differentiation of spheres to be upheld by the state apparatus (see Wood 1981): between the public sphere of civil society, which allowed for exchange amongst equal individuals as political subjects, and the private sphere of the economy, which allowed for exploitation of contracted workers as their labor power was alienated (Marx and Engels 1973:70) by the owners of the means of production for the accumulation of capital (Marx 1990:270–306). In this respect, the pursuit and amassing of social power in the form of capital accumulation proceeded in the “economic” rather than the “political” realm.

Marx’s thesis on capitalist modernity has been influential to IR in providing both structuralist and agential explanations of the making of the modern world order. Robert Cox (1987) has written an influential argument on this movement using a neo-Gramscian framework to delineate the structural interlocking of political, economic, and ideological aspects of power that made up the capitalist hegemony of the twentieth century Pax Americana (see also Rupert 1995). Justin Rosenberg (1994) has used a classical Marxian standpoint to construct a structural explanation of anarchy which competes with that provided by Waltz. Rosenberg argues that the apparent anarchy of geopolitics – a horizontalized space of like units pursuing their self-interest – is an effect of the global social structure of capitalist modernity, a structure that depends upon the differentiation of economic (the world market) and political (interstate relations) spheres. For Rosenberg, anarchy is not a presocial condition, but the geopolitical condition of possibility for the global instantiation of capitalist social relations and the accumulation of social power on a world scale in the form of capital. Alternatively, agential explanations of the global rise of capitalist modernity are most evident in the Historical Materialist critique of the neo-Liberal policy of the last 25 years as the instrument through which the capitalist class of advanced economies have mounted a new wave of “enclosures” (Midnight Notes Collective 1990). In IR/IPE this interpretation of the socially transformative content of capitalist globalization has been pursued most forcefully by a broad range of neo-Gramscians (for example, Gill 1995; van der Pijl 1998).

Weber developed a sociology of religion in order to understand why and how modern forms of social action and political rule took on the content of “instrumental rationality.” The Protestant calling, for Weber, was historically peculiar among spiritual maxims in that it did not encourage an indulgence in the pleasures of the earthly world, nor did it approve fleeing from the world, but rather demanded an ascetic of methodological labor within the world (on this narrative see Weber 1963:216–21; 1982b; 2001). However, the pursuit of methodological labor led to a “disenchantment” of the world that the subject inhabited. Ultimately, the Protestant ethic produced a self-conscious privileging of predictability and calculability as the means of social interaction over the value-laden ends that such conduct was mobilized towards. Crucially for Weber, this “instrumental rationality” that became the preeminent form of modern social interaction was also distinguishable from other types of political authority, namely charismatic and traditional, by the way that it allowed for a domination of technical means over moral ends. Thus, for Weber, modern political authority was unique in that the form of social solidarity it regulated was a disenchanted one devoid of moral ends, and the epitomic organizational structure of instrumental-rational political authority was the modern bureaucracy. The bureaucratic accumulation of information on society was a legitimate exercise of authority not by dint of its direct moral ends but because it provided for calculable, predictable, and deliberate means of social planning (see Weber 1978a:66–8, 215–26; 1978b:958–75).

Although profoundly influential in organization theory and sociology, Weber’s main impact upon IR has been in historical-sociological accounts of the development of the modern state that do not, by and large, pay attention to the importance that his sociology of religion holds for making sense of his typologies of modern political authority (but see, suggestively, Hurd 2004). Nevertheless, Weber’s articulation of the instrumental-rational form of modern political authority has been used in IR to problematize the neo-Realist and neo-Liberal institutionalist debate regarding the standing and power of international organizations. Specifically, scholars have used Weber to inject the dimension of legitimate rule into the debate: international organizations can be said to hold a relative autonomy from the states that constructed them due to their particular modern purpose of accumulating and disseminating knowledge of the international realm and their claim to legitimacy justified by the instrumental-rational pursuit of this purpose (for example Finnemore 1996; Barnett and Finnemore 1999; and in general see Ruggie 1998).

In fine, all three figures – Durkheim, Marx, and Weber – have been used in sociology to uncover the paradoxically social content of modern conditions of anomie, alienation, and disenchantment, and these uses have been influential on debates in IR over the peculiar substance of the international sphere of relations.

There has, however, developed a sustained and foundational critique of the gender-blind character of the classical sociological approach to modernity (for example, Pateman 1988; Murgatroyd 1989). Absent from these inquiries is a sustained examination of the affective and personalized social relations of the family, and, what is more, an inquiry into the hierarchies of power that construct these relations through the institution of patriarchy. A number of feminist scholars have argued that modern society structurally requires the reproduction of segregated spheres: the public (including both the political realm of civil society and the economic realm of wage contracts) and the personal (especially the family). The latter sphere cannot, then, be understood as a premodern relic; and, because of the substance of its social relations, neither can it be analyzed as simply one more institution within a generic functionally differentiated division of labor. This critique then begs some questions: (1) how rupturing of traditional communities were the revolutions that produced modernity? and (2) how might a focus on the co-constitutive relationship between, for example, anomie and affection, patriarchy and capitalism, or emotive authority and that based, on instrumental rationality affect understanding of the condition of modernity? Various feminist works in IR have addressed these questions (for example, Elshtain 1987; Enloe 1990).

Knowledge Production and the Modern Subject

The epistemological concern for Verstehen, that is, an interpretive understanding of the first-person perspective, was a mid to late nineteenth-century critical response by German intellectuals to the popularity of natural-scientific explanations of the social world that, by positing universally applicable cause–effect models, seemed to rob social explanation of any need to engage with the particular subject. For example, Neo-Kantians of the Heidelberg school took to heart Kant’s claim that abstract universal reason could never be substantively manifest within a pluralistic and imperfect political world, but went further than Kant by claiming that no system of meaning could hold universal validity. Neo-Kantian epistemology allowed scholars such as Georg Simmel (for example 1980) and Weber (for example 1975) to investigate a plurality of culturally specific systems of meanings and values.

Out of these concerns, Karl Mannheim (1936) created a new academic subfield in the interwar period called the “sociology of knowledge.” For Mannheim, any attempt to inject understanding (Verstehen) into social policy would have to recognize that meaningful worldviews were culturally differentiated amongst groups so that morality in the social realm would always be radically relative and could not claim universal anchorage (Mannheim 1936:17–21, 32) In fact, Mannheim proved influential in what has come to be known, retrospectively, as the “first great debate” in IR. In large part, E.H. Carr translated Mannheim’s thesis into the famous Realism/Idealism conundrum in his Twenty Years’ Crisis (Jones 1998): Realism’s purpose for Carr was to uncover the idealism of liberal thought in its positing of a universal morality; yet Realism itself required some idealism – some principled engagement with meaning – because without this, Realism could not inject any direction into political affairs (Carr 2001). If Carr and his retroactively identified Realist ilk are said to have won the debate, then, in this respect, it was decidedly not objectivism that triumphed over idealism (contra Mearsheimer 2005).

Another, related, intellectual current was the rise of a new hermeneutics with scholars, most famously Wilhelm Dilthey (1996), seeking to understand (rather than explain) the inner experience of the individual by reference to his or her particular external historical-social milieu. In the USA, George Herbert Mead utilized Dilthey’s hermeneutics in part to construct a social psychology of “object relativism.” For Mead (2002), the inner meanings held by the individual subject became object when his or her gestures invoked the same responses in other individuals as they had in the subject. Through this aspect of language, subjective meanings became socially constructed as objects. Indeed, the legacy of the Verstehen approach is perhaps strongest in the rise of “social constructivism” as a contender approach to both neo-Realism and neo-Liberal Institutionalism. The intellectual sociological sources of IR constructivism are many and disparate, and have by no means been understood as complementary in their originating academic spheres. But for the purposes of explicating the influence of the sociological debates over Verstehen, the discussion will focus upon Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality (1966), a text that has proved influential for much constructivist theory in IR.

Berger and Luckmann accepted Marx’s claim that what is specific to humanity is the social and historical organization of its relationship with nature (p. 51). And they took from Mannheim the point that meaning is not a question only for philosophers but is constitutive of the everyday social life of the subject (p. 9). They expanded this position by drawing upon the symbolic-interactionist school of sociology, heavily influenced by Mead’s object-relativism, in order to claim that through language, subjective meanings become constructed as social objects. With all this, Berger and Luckmann proposed a dialectical approach to hermeneutics: subjects apprehend the objectified social reality but in turn are involved in an ongoing production of this reality so that the social construction of reality is effectively institutionalized through social roles organized by reference to symbolic universes (pp. 66, 73–4, 103). Berger and Luckmann noted that in traditional societies, there was little room for uninstitutionalized actions within a totalizing symbolic universe; but they argued, in a Durkheimian manner, that with the differentiation of institutional tasks associated with modern society the symbolic universe splits into many particular sub-universes. This, they claimed, makes the process of the integration of subjects into a social whole driven not by functional requisites but primarily by the need for legitimation. In fact, legitimation becomes the prime mode of politically ordering societies due to the constantly transformative hermeneutics that are required for modern subjects to take on meaningful roles in a complex division of labor. Thus modern society was qualitatively more amenable to constant changes within its symbolic universe (pp. 79–86, 199).

It is precisely these specific qualities of modern rule that Nicolas Onuf uses in the book that introduced constructivism to IR (1989) in order to critique the “premodern” focus of Realists on the coercive play of self-interests in world politics rather than on the social construction of meaning. Similarly, although there are other intellectual sources of Alexander Wendt’s constructivism (for example, Anthony Giddens’s structuration theory and Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism), Wendt himself (1995:76) seems to suggest the greater importance of Berger and Luckmann for constructivism. Invoking the above dialectic of hermeneutics, Wendt argues (1992:397) that collective meanings constitute structures that organize actions; and actors acquire identities – “relatively stable, role-specific understandings and expectations about self” – through these collective meanings. With this interpretive approach, Wendt critiques the neo-Realist understanding of anarchy as a purely objective structural feature of international relations and posits, instead, the socially constructed nature of anarchy between (anthropomorphized) states. As such, even if anarchy has become an objectified social meaning within world affairs it cannot be said to be objectively timeless.

In all these ways, then, the “third debate” in IR has relied heavily upon existing sociological investigations into the unique character of modern subjectivity and the forms of knowledge that derive from, and are adequate to represent, this character. And this influence is most clearly exampled in the development of Constructivism, the most popular recent challenge to neo-Realism and neo-Liberal Institutionalism.

Rationality and Freedom

Enlightenment thought posited that human beings could be freed from tradition and blind faith by the use of reason so as to reorder their relationship to nature and other humans according to rational principles (Kant 1991). In short, control over – and improvement of – the social and natural worlds, spurred on by the amassing of scientific knowledge, were considered to be the causes of progressive freedom. However, this optimistic viewpoint was, and has always been, countered by a more pessimistic assessment that the very means for promoting the ends of freedom – knowledge and control – might, instead, end up producing a modern form of unfreedom (Mills 1959). The claim that the promise of Enlightenment turned into the reality of modernity seemed to be empirically confirmed by two world wars, Nazism, Stalinism, and the increasing autonomy of economic activities and industrial advance from public oversight (see especially Marcuse 1964; Bauman 1989; Horkheimer and Adorno 1997).

While Marx (1990:272–3) alluded to the substantive (if not formal) conditions of unfreedom that capitalist modernity placed upon the working class, Friedrich Nietzsche directly explored the socio-psychological dimension of this unfreedom. For Nietzsche ascetic ideals, especially those that seek to regulate action through positing a metaphysical god or transcendent truth, were life-denying in that they rendered the meaning of existence secure and circumscribed; and ascetic ideals found their nadir in the Enlightenment creation of a disenchanted scientific outlook. While Nietzsche argued that the “death of god” should be seen as an opportunity to radically affirm social existence in its contingent and fluid characteristics, i.e. to call the value of truth into question, instead, he observed, the ascetic aspect of modern life produced a self-forgetfulness in the subject by interpolating him or her as an impersonal element in mechanical activity that would be valued for its absolute regularity (see especially Nietzsche 2003:97–8).

Nietzsche (1997) contrasted the possibility immanent in modern subjects of becoming “over-men” who celebrated the open-ended possibilities of living after truth with the tendency for modern subjects to become “last men” – stagnant, herd-like, and contented with a mechanical life. Philosophy failed the “over-man”; instead, the positing of truth as unity had to be understood as a will to power – the will of a particular perspective to dominant others. Accepting this then made the embrace of ontological pluralism an ethical imperative once God was found to be dead (1967: bk. 2:III, bk. 3:III). Taking Nietzsche’s critique of truth and power to heart, Weber believed that in a “polytheistic” world, social science could and should help to answer why the ethical ends of human action had become a problem for modern subjects to believe in (1982a:143). Echoing Nietzsche, Weber argued that the promise of modern freedom lay, paradoxically, in the space opened up by disenchantment and the “death of God” for the cultivation of an awareness of the ethical and practical limits of one’s own subject position. This would help to stem the colonization of social action and interaction by a purely means-oriented instrumental rationality (Weber 1982a).

Nietzsche and Weber have been mobilized in IR to fundamentally challenge the neo-Realist assumption that undistorted knowledge of political action must exclude ethical concerns over those actions (Walker 1993; Barkawi 1998). Instead, scholars have argued that rationality needs to be seen as a value-system peculiar to modernity rather than a transcendental entry-point to “truth.” In fact, such critiques have been used to retrieve Hans Morgenthau’s Nietzschean and Weberian influence and to reinterpret the “godfather” of Realism as not a proto-positivist but ethically anti-positivist (Pichler 1998; Peterson 1999; Bain 2000; Williams 2005). Both of these lines of attack on neo-Realism have cleared the way for the current development of a non/anti-positivist realist position on the ethical character of formulating prudential foreign policies for a polytheistic world (Lebow 2003; Williams 2005; Molloy 2006).

Also gathering pace in the 1980s was an attempt by cultural and political theorists to recover a dialectical approach that presented modernity as constituted by tendencies towards both creation and destruction of freedom (for example, Berman 1983). Subsequently, buoyed by the new possibilities emerging from the end of the Cold War, many scholars began to likewise reinterpret the historical roots and legacies of modernity. Stephen Toulmin (1990) claimed that modern thought had skipped over the skeptical and critical attitude of sixteenth century humanism and instead had selectively appropriated the seventeenth century pursuit of mathematical and logical rigor. In a seminal address to the International Studies Association, Hayward Alker (1992) used this focus on humanism to reclaim an ethical orientation for IR theory in the new world order.

The debate still unfolds regarding the extent to which an ethical promise of freedom can be understood to be immanent in – or transformative of – the modern subject, and it has defined much of the terrain of “post-positivist” debate within IR (Hoffman 1987; George and Campbell 1990; Devetak 1995). But perhaps the most consistent and dominant voice in this debate has been that of Jürgen Habermas. Habermas accepts the Weberian narrative of disenchantment leading to an increased dominance of means-oriented instrumental rationality in the governing of modern society so that reason loses its emancipatory content by robbing the modern subject of an ends-orientation to the social world. In fine, politics becomes the management of technological progress (Habermas 1970). However, Habermas argues that the Weberian narrative should not be understood as the telos of modernity; rather, it is possible to retrieve an ends-oriented rationality within modern society.

To this effect, Habermas (1971) divides up knowledge-constitutive interests – that is to say, the means by which subjects organize social life – into three cognitive areas: technical interests that inform work life; practical interests that inform social life in terms of inter-subjectivity and norm-based communications; and emancipatory interests that inform notions of freedom from existing social constraints including distorted communication between subjects (Habermas 1983: pt. III). For Habermas, the problem arises when means-oriented rationality expands out of the technical realm to “colonize” the practical realm of intersubjectivity and communicative action wherein consensus amongst individuals is arrived at intersubjectively through free and equal dialogue of truth claims and the judgment of existing norms (Habermas 1987a:196). Thus Habermas describes the dialectic of modernity in terms of the dual and frictional development of the instrumental rationality of the social “system” and the communicative rationality of the “life-world” (Habermas 1987). The moral imperative of political thought and action is to recover and promote the latter (Habermas 1987; 1997).

Habermas’s thesis on communicative action has occupied a central position in IR’s “third debate,” especially in the critique of positivist epistemology and its evacuation of ethical considerations from the study of foreign policy (for an overview see Diez and Steans 2005). The most sustained engagement with Habermas in IR probably comes from Andrew Linklater, who has increasingly argued that a thin moral universalism is transforming the nature of the international sphere, and that this transformation is driven by the spread of dialogic reasoning via the universalization of the modern subject across polities (Linklater 1992; 1998; 2005). Habermas himself has now contributed directly to the debate on the possibilities of “global citizenship” with a set of discussions on the development of the European Union. Habermas notes that the EU experiment proceeds through the frictional development of two forms of integration – functional (instrumental-rational) associated with the advance of capitalism, and social (communicative-rational) associated heretofore with the rise of the welfare state but now holding the possibility of developing a post-national constellation; and one that holds a cosmopolitan promise of cultivating a consensual and inclusive foreign policy at stark odds to the self-interested and violent nature of recent US adventures (Habermas 2001; 2006).

There are a number of problems, however, with the universal assumptions that underwrite such cosmopolitan positions, problems, moreover, that example the longstanding parochialism that has accompanied sociologies and social and political theories of modernity. First, Habermas, like many of the “modernist” theorists, renders the dialectic of freedom in purely masculine terms as the struggle over/for rationality in the public realm, yet pays little attention to how this dialectic might play out in the feminized personal realm, for example over libidinal desire (Felski 1995; Hutchings 2005). This makes it difficult to explore the complexities of women’s experiences of social change, as if the personal realm of social existence is immune from the dialectics of modernity. In fact, one might even say that it is in this realm that the struggle for freedom foundationally lies: the revolutionary ruptures responsible for the modern condition, while perhaps creating new opportunities for freedom for (some) men, created new unfreedoms for women by driving them into social roles associated with the nuclear family unit (see Kelly 1984).

Second, and to presage the core issues that accompany theories and narratives of modernization, despite a focus on dialogic politics Habermas shares with many normative political theorists within and outside of IR a peculiar insular geocultural outlook on modernity. For example, Habermas reads the European project of cosmopolitanism as a contestation with its own production of nationalism and barbaric fascism, but does not directly invoke the colonial dimension of European history. In effect, Habermas posits the dynamic of the dialectic of modernity firmly within European history. This sharp temporal and geocultural circumscribing of the formation and condition of the modern subject is by no means a constraint unique to Habermas. Indeed, the temporal openness that many sociologists as well as social and political theorists have ascribed to modern society has always run into tension with the selfsame sociologists’ circumscription of its geocultural origins within (Western) Europe. This has been both a theoretical and practical challenge to understanding modernity in global terms, and it is a challenge that lies at the heart of modernization theory.


Anthropology and the Primitive

There has long been an implicit division of intellectual labor between sociology and anthropology such that the former has studied the individual in modern society, while the latter has studied the primitive in his or her community. However, even the classic sociologists – for example, Durkheim – developed their inquiry of modern social being by direct comparative reference to the non-European “primitive” milieu as much as by reference to the European traditional milieu (for example, Durkheim 1964:58–9; see also Durkheim’s nephew and student, Mauss 1979). With the development of its ethnographic method in the interwar years (Malinowski 1922) English social anthropology opened up the primitive to detailed first-hand observation through the claim that primitive community could be scientifically assessed as a Durkheimian social system composed of roles and types (see especially Radcliffe-Brown 1948:229–34). And with this advance, understanding of the primitive condition shifted from mythic-historical to contemporaneous-sociological, and on this basis the comparative analysis of qualitatively different political institutions could proceed both within primitive societies and between primitive and modern societies. Indeed, Meyer Fortes and Edward Evans-Pritchard (1940), although anthropologists, were amongst the first scholars to produce what would be recognized nowadays as a text on “comparative politics.”

Of special importance in this volume for IR was the difference that Fortes and Evans-Pritchard encountered within the African primitive world between centralized political authorities that displayed administrative machinery and judicial institutions and decentralized sociopolitical networks that displayed no sharp divisions of rank, status, or wealth and, crucially, seemed to lack government. The challenge presented by this latter type was to explain “what, in the absence of explicit forms of government, could be held to constitute the political structure of a people” (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940:23). Roger Masters (1964) used these musings to explain the thin sociality of the international sphere in terms of a primitive form of governance in the absence of government. Hedley Bull (1995:57–62) later used Masters’s musings to, in part, inspire his influential “English School” concept of the “anarchical society.” Alternatively, Aaron Sampson (2002) has argued that the reason why Waltz could paradoxically produce a Durkheimian structural-functional theory of an anarchic state system owes much to his readings of the English school of social anthropology: Waltz’s anarchy was, in short, conceived as a “tropical anarchy.”

Thus the primitive community has been as influential a contrast to modern society as the traditional community in the attempt to describe and explain the difference between the international and domestic spheres. But what is just as important to note is that while sociology approached difference in primarily temporal terms – i.e. the rupture between the traditional and the modern – Social Anthropology sought to address difference in geocultural terms – i.e. the synchronic comparison of primitive communities and modern societies.

Explorations of Modernization

The persistence of the “primitive” in the modern world took on a geopolitically charged dimension with the emergence of the Cold War. The containment of the Communist threat required American political scientists to consider the trajectories of colonies once they had became independent (see for example Pauker 1959). The stakes were high: would the modernization of ex-colonial societies be so disorderly as to lead them towards the Communist orbit, or could there be an orderly management of the rupturing of old forms of social solidarity such that modernization would lead them into the American orbit? Primarily, the different geocultural bases upon which modernization in the Third World proceeded were investigated via the comparative method of political science, an approach that, as already indicated, drew significantly upon the preceding and cognate work of social anthropology (for example, Almond 1960:3–4). Modernization theorists held to the historical narrative that posited and expected a uniformity in development patterns (manifest primarily in the rationalization of bureaucratic structures of fledgling independent states) as well as in the expansion and thickening of social relations through a complex division of labor (for example, Deutsch 1961). But what modernization theorists were much less sanguine about was the uniformity of trajectories towards modernity.

Of special concern, in this respect, was the fact that Third World elites inherited a state that, due to colonialism, had developed no institutions that could provide the seedbed for the modern form of political legitimacy. The attempt to retain order and stability in the midst of modernization could therefore result just as easily in authoritarian, rather than democratic, rule (see Almond 1960, and especially Pye 1966). In search of a solution, Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba looked towards England’s own transition period in the seventeenth century to recover the mix of rationalism and traditionalism that produced a “civic culture” within which both old elites could retain their legitimacy at the same time as allowing newly enfranchised members of the political community to join (Almond and Verba 1963). A militaristic path was posited by others (Pye 1962; Janowitz 1964), and most notably by Samuel Huntington (1968).

Political scientists were mistaken, Huntington claimed (1968:5–8), if they believed that modernization in the Third World entailed the gradual diminution of government and coercion in civil affairs. In fact the opposite was the case, because the military was the one political institution that had been modernized during colonialism. Moreover, its institutional functionality was not exhausted by the exercise of violence but extended to technological advancement and industrial production as well as exhibiting a Weberian ideal-typical rationalized administration that recruited from the new middle class and not from traditional sources of authority (Huntington 1968:201). Recruits could be acculturated into the army, trained in the ways of citizenship, and taught how to identify with a larger political self. In short, modernization through militarization would lead to a “responsible nationalism” (Pye 1962:82) instead of a disorderly populism that might create a gravitational pull towards the communist orbit.

Indeed, the militarization of Third World development also became an issue for IR scholars who imported the notion of weak and strong states from modernization literature. Against the Realist assumption that the international system was populated by functionally like units, these scholars used the notion of weak/strong states to bring attention to the fact that not all governments enjoyed sovereign command over the internal regulation of social life, or the rational mobilization of domestic resources to pursue the national interest. Indeed, the putatively sovereign status of many Third World states depended effectively upon the guarantees of international law and material aid from First and Second World “strong” states (Buzan 1988; Migdal 1988; Jackson 1990). Cognate to the concerns of modernization theory, the heterogeneity between First World and Third World states was considered to be a legacy of colonial rule and the result of late entry into an already formed society of states (Ayoob 1995).

In the early 1990s, however, investigations of the “weak” state started to be replaced by a concern for the phenomenon of “failed” states (see for example Holsti 1995). But in contrast to the concern for path dependency in modernization theory this shift has reintroduced a universally applicable typology of political authority wherein failure is judged according to an ideal-typical Weberian form of modern rational authority (see for example King and Zeng 2001). Concomitantly, the investigation of the threat that Third World instability poses to the security of the West has now become firmly grounded in the idea that the “failed state” is a breeding ground for general social ills such as disease, crime, migrants, and most recently terrorists (Kaplan 2001; Rotberg 2002; Krasner and Pascual 2005). Modernization theory has effectively transmuted into the “securitization of development” discourse (see Duffield 2001). Indeed, back in the late 1960s Robert McNamara, reflecting upon his stint as the US Secretary of Defense and thinking forward to his “fight on poverty” as President of the World Bank, astutely noted that “in a modernizing society security means development” (1968:149).

Alternatively, many scholars by the late 1980s were noting that the shift from a Fordist mode of production to flexible accumulation, the globalization of the production process it entailed, and the new international division of labor it had constructed, was giving rise to a new intensification of “time-space distantiation” (Giddens 1990; Jameson 1991). In IR, aside from the rise of globalization theories and risk analyses, treated elsewhere in this Compendium, in part this debate influenced John Ruggie’s seminal discussion (1993:144–8) on the relationship between territoriality and modernity. Out of these musings has also arisen the idea of “reflexive modernization,” which posits that agents in the original age of modernity – the industrial age – understood their task to be the dissolution of the existing stable traditional order and the reconstruction of a maximal state of human existence; however, once tradition faded into historical memory modern subjects have increasingly come to face the consequences of modernization itself. In this respect, contemporary subjects who now live in a global age might experience cognitive dissonance with the identifying categories of society and the nation-state (Featherstone et al. 1995; Albrow 1997; and in IR see Shaw 2000; Palan and Cameron 2003).

Political Economy Critiques of “Modernization”

The most concentrated and influential critique of modernization theory emerged out of the Latin American experience after World War II, wherein population growth had exceeded economic growth, raising the specter of social disorder amongst the masses. The critique finds its immediate origins in the UN-sponsored Economic Commission for Latin America, wherein economists such as Raúl Prebisch (1963) claimed that modernization was not a spontaneous but rather a politically induced process. Moreover, political intervention and regulation had to tackle the disequilibrium caused by an international division of labor that placed manufacturing in the First World and primary commodity production in the Third. Some scholars versed in Marxist-Leninist theories of imperialism argued that in the peripheral economies, unlike the core economies, capitalism had to be understood as effecting the “development of underdevelopment” (Frank 1971; Amin 1976). In other words, the condition of possibility for capitalist accumulation in the center (ex-colonial) societies was the denial of an endogenously based growth process in the periphery. Other scholars argued that this condition of dependency had, itself, a semi-autonomous developmental logic to it because much depended upon how external economic forces were mediated by the politically powerful national bourgeoisie of particular peripheral states (Dos Santos 1970; Cardoso and Faletto 1979).

For the purposes of this essay, there are two important challenges that arise from the underdevelopment and dependency critiques. First, they presented a challenge to the accepted chronology that placed Latin American societies since 1492 in the “premodern” period and that were only now, belatedly, modernizing. Secondly, dependency and underdevelopment theorists were adamant that political-economic structure could not be adequately examined only by reference to national units; instead, there was a global structure of uneven development that governed at the same time the interaction between national units and the political-economic dynamics internal to each unit. These critiques of modernization theory have been most widely disseminated throughout the social sciences by Immanuel Wallerstein’s “world systems theory” (1974). And although they do not figure in Yoseph Lapid’s (1989) influential assessment of the “third debate,” it is interesting to remember that Wendt’s seminal contribution to the agent–structure debate in IR structure/agency debate (Wendt 1987:335–6) began by contrasting and critiquing both Waltz’s structural realism and Wallerstein’s world systems theory.

Political-economy critiques of the unilinear modernization narrative have persisted beyond the 1980s. There has been a resurgence in interest over the theoretical challenge that the condition of structural unevenness presents to understanding the development of capitalist modernity (Rosenberg 2006). But such interest has also been driven by empirical phenomena. For example, the fact that slums have become the dominant mode of integrating rural dwellers into the “modern” urban milieu has given rise to a new ethical critique of the progressive assumptions of modernization theory that has been termed “post-development” (see Latouche 1993). In fine, the way in which neo-Liberal discourse colonizes the meaning of progress and development with the practices of capitalist modernity has never ceased to be highlighted and problematized (Escobar 1995).

But, again, the gendered dimensions of modernization have been consistently underexplored. A number of feminist scholars argued from the 1960s onwards that assumptions held in the Western Academy regarding the naturalness of the gendered division of labor informed much development policy to the detriment of the social standing of women in many modernizing Third World societies (Boserup 1970; Rogers 1980). Subsequently, feminist political economists introduced the patriarchal family unit to the global structure of uneven development posited by world systems theory (Mies 1986). And at the same time as Marxists and “post-development” scholars have critiqued the “new enclosures” of the 1980s and 1990s, feminist scholars have argued that the neo-Liberal discourse is most dangerous in its avoidance of the harm done to the social institutions of care and nurturing by structural adjustment and privatization (Sassen 2000; Bakker and Gill 2003).

The Anthropological Critique of Modernization

Social anthropology, the intellectual wellspring of modernization theory, has also come under attack (and often by anthropologists themselves) for intellectual complicity in the European colonial project (Asad 1973). For example, Johannes Fabian (1983) argued that, through a stadial narrative of history, ethnography places the contemporaneous object of study – cultural groups – paradoxically in the past, thus rendering them as primitive and feminized objects to be scientifically represented by the modern masculine subject in the form of the ethnographer (for the gender dimension see MacCormack and Strathern 1980). Such critiques of social anthropology have also been mobilized in IR to argue that the positing of an anomic international state of nature standing in contradistinction to a domestic commonwealth was a necessary ideological plank for colonial disavowal of the practical and ethical coeval relationship of colonizer and colonized (Jahn 2000; Inayatullah and Blaney 2004).

The geocultural coordinates of the primitive/modern divide have been increasingly denaturalized, and this has had the effect of bolstering a long-existing critique of the standard definition of modern subjects as – in categorical opposition to the primitive – disembedded from immediate context, thus abstracted, disenchanted, impersonalized, and universalistic in their social action and interaction. Interesting work has been done, for example, regarding the congenital racialization of modern New World identity formations built upon the legacies of slavery (for example Gilroy 1993). But perhaps of more significance for IR, because of the current obsession with “political Islam” due to the “global war on terror,” is the questioning of the assumption that modernization equals secularization (Philpott 2002).

It is becoming increasingly difficult to take as a starting point Habermas’s Weberian claim (1998) that the problem of pursuing a modern ethical life arises from the loss of the religious foundation of moral traditions; even Habermas has recently (2008) qualified – if not entirely disowned – his own secularization thesis. Furthermore, this challenge to one of the central planks of modernization theory undermines the Orientalist assumption – that religious public spheres can only ever exhibit stultified, parochial, and non-progressive ethical codes and thus must be secularized in order to take part in the modern world (see Lerner 1958). Although, back in the 1980s, Edward Said (1985) criticized the neoconservative acceptance of such assumptions, they were again mobilized in the 2000s by the Bush regime to justify its Middle Eastern democracy promotion agenda. While the “civic culture” argument of modernization theory accepted, for the sake of political order, a necessary – but transitional – entwining of old and new social forces in the public sphere, it might be necessary, now, to understand this combination not as a moment of transition but as the enduring substance of the modern public sphere itself. And even from a conservative standpoint, this fraught combination is effectively acknowledged in Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” argument (1993), an argument that we might also consider to be a logical endpoint of his engagement with modernization theory: Westernization is but one form of modernization.

Indeed, Huntington’s argument fits into a broader reinterpretation of modernization theory, amongst sociologists especially, that attempts to reconcile the singular concept of modernity with the existence of an array of culturally particular path trajectories. “Multiple modernities” is a thesis that attempts to allow for cultural variances – often explored through, or lifted from, ethnographic studies – while still retaining a fidelity to the sociological understanding of modernity (Eisenstadt 2000). While scholars of the “multiple modernities” thesis claim that it addresses the plurality of human development, it has been criticized as effectively a modernization narrative in anthropological disguise (Englund and Leach 2000). For example, the threshold for when a civilization can be understood to have reached its modernity is determined not by reference to the cultural codes and understandings of that civilization but by reference to an abstracted description of a particular stage of human development that is itself anchored, ultimately, in an ideal-typical reading of the West European modern experience (Bhambra 2007).

These disputes indicate that understandings of the condition of modernity and the processes of modernization are still foundationally challenged by the attempt to correlate and explain the relationship between temporal and geocultural difference. The challenge can be no less significant for scholars who believe that the structures, processes, and agents of international relations are quintessentially modern in form and content.


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My thanks to Gurminder Bhambra, John Holmwood, Adrienne Roberts, and especially Robert Deuchars for their erudite guidance on readings.