Modernisation Theory: Challenging British Exceptionalism and the Unilinear Model

Written by Ella Raphael. 

Modernisation Theory refers to a model of societal transition, originally meaning the movement from a ‘traditional’ society to an ‘advanced’ society. Since the seventies it has been a topic of contentious debate. Revisionists have challenged traditional theorists, such as Walt Whitman Rostow and Marion Levy, and have criticised their narrow rubric of modernity, which has been based on Britain’s economic success in the Industrial Revolution. Recent historiography has raised the following questions: what constitutes modernity, who’s rubric are we following and why? The new wave of debate has reiterated the benefits of extending the theory, incorporating the ideas of multiple modernities and economic efflorescences, for example. Despite this, moving forward, historians must navigate the risk of making the theory too broad, and must ensure it maintains its sense of structural cohesion. 

Rostow’s 1960 theory of modernisation was incredibly influential, yet vastly criticised. He argues in The Stages of Economic Growth: A non communist manifesto that all societies go through five stages of development, starting in a Pre-Newtonian state and ending in an age of mass consumption. He uses industrialising Britain as a recipe for economic success for “developing” countries. He does not hide his political agenda, explicitly calling his model an “anti-communist manifesto” stating that the Soviet Union can achieve modernisation once it abandons the marxist model of development. Levy, another early theorist writing in the sixties, argued that as the level of modernisation increases, so does the structural uniformity among societies. Since the revival of modernisation theory in the nineties this unilinear model has been adapted. 

The two main criticisms of Rostow’s model of modernisation are that it is eurocentric and teleological. Historians now recognise that there are multiple paths to “modernity”, which in this case means economic maturity. Jack Goldstone argues that within modernisation theory there is too much emphasis on the heroic narrative of the “Rise of the West”. He argues that many early modern and non-European societies experienced “efflorescences” of economic growth, and steady increases in technological change. He also challenges British exceptionalism by arguing that Britain’s industrial success was a historical anomaly which resulted from the lucky conjuncture of an economic efflorescence and a growing culture of engineering. His research on Qing China and Golden Age Holland weakens the unilinear vision, and proves that countries do not all follow the same economic trajectory. 

The enlightenment ideology that every society inevitably develops a similar set of ideas, customs and institutions is a simplification. Adam Smith, an early influencer on modernisation theory, used the framework of the ‘Four Stage Theory’ to suggest that given enough time, every society would converge towards one homogenous form. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, David Porter and Joseph Fletcher address the issues with comparative exercises. There is a tendency to use categories derived from a European experience, and these then shape the questions comparative historians ask. Western modernity has been given a privileged position, and has been set as the benchmark against which all other societies are inferior. Condorcet, another enlightenment philosopher epitomises this Eurocentric idea; he believed that the rest of the world could look to Western European societies and see its future. The rubric of modernity is rooted in the idea of European superiority. As Matthew Lauzon argues, this rigid outlook has provided a “theoretical justification for European cultural and imperial hegemony”. The teleology is problematic because it puts modern European society as the pinnacle of civilisation and human development. 

Additionally, historians now recognise that as well as many paths to modernity, there are many different destinations too. Shmuel Eisenstadt’s concept of “multiple modernities” has helped discredit the notion that modernisation is synonymous with Westernisation. He argues that forms of modernisation across societies are not homogenous because of their varied cultural and historical backgrounds. He looks at fundamentalism and argues that this should be seen as an alternative branch of modernisation rather than as a traditionalist form of governance. He says ‘the distinct visions of fundamentalist movements have been formulated in terms common to the discourse of modernity; they have attempted to appropriate modernity on their own terms.’ Tu supports this through his idea of “Confucian” modernity, in Japan for example. He states that East Asian modernity focuses more on soft authoritarianism, paternalistic polity and government leadership in the market economy. Both Tu and Eisenstadt prove that modernity is not uniform and is also not just derived from Western Europe. Although this adaptation succeeds in addressing the teleology and Eurocentrism of the original theory, there is the risk of it becoming too broad, losing its core meaning and thus being made redundant. Volker Schmidt urges multiple modernists to create a core meaning of the term, so that their claim can be appropriately measured. Nevertheless, the idea provides a potential framework through which future historians can compare levels of development. 

The adaptations made to modernisation theory have helped redefine what ‘modernity’ means. They have brought into question whose rubric we chose to follow and they have helped us understand alternative economic and political trajectories. Eisenstadt’s multiple modernities theory and Goldstone’s concept of economic efflorescences have challenged British exceptionalism and Rostow’s unilinear model. Nevertheless, the adaptations are not perfect and pose a new set of methodological issues. It is now the task of current historians to create a standardised, core meaning of modernisation, in order to fully assess whether societies have reached this stage. 


Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. & Schlechter, Wolfgang (eds.), Daedalus 127.3 (1998), special issue: ‘Early Modernities’. 

Fletcher, Joseph, ‘Integrative History: Parallels and Interconnections in the Early Modern Period, 1500-1800’, in Studies on Chinese and Islamic Inner Asia (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1995) pp.1-35

Goldstone, Jack A., ’Efflorescences and Economic Growth in World History: Rethinking the “Rise of the West” and the Industrial Revolution’, Journal of World History 13, no. 2 (2002): 323-389. 

Goldstone, Jack, ‘The Problem of the “Early Modern” World’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 41.3 (1998), 252. 

Hoff, Karla, ’Paths of Institutional Development: A View from Economic History’, World Bank Research Observer 18, no. 2 (2003): 205-226. 

Hout, Wil. “Classical Approaches to Development: Modernisation and Dependency.” 2016. 

Lauzon, Mathew ‘Modernity’, in The Oxford Handbook of World History, ed. Jerry H. Bentley (Oxford, 2011), pp. 72- 84. 

Levy, Marion J. Jr. 1966. Modernization and the Structure of Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Marsh, Robert M.,’Modernisation Theory, Then and Now’, Comparative Sociology 13 (2014): 261– 283. 

Porter, David (ed.), Comparative Early Modernities (New York, 2012) 2. 

Rostow, Walt Whitman, The Stages of Economic Growth: A non-communist manifesto, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 4-16 (Chapter 2: ‘The Five Stages of Growth – A Summary’). ebook 

Schmidt, V. 2010. “Modernity and Diversity.” Social Science Information, 49: 511–538. 

Scott, Hamish ‘Introduction: Early Modern Europe and the Idea of Early Modernity’ in idem (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern History, 1350-1740. (Oxford, 2015) pp. 1-34. 

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, ‘Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia’, Modern Asian Studies, 31.3 (1997), pp. 735-762. 

Tu, Wei-ming.,“Multiple Modernities” In K. Pohl eds. Chinese Ethics in a Global Context ( Leiden, 2002), pp.63. Walker, Garthine, ‘Modernization’ in eadem (ed.), Writing Early Modern History (London, 2005) ch.2.

Image source:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: