A Reconsideration of Modernization Theory: Contribution to ICT4D’s Research

A Reconsideration of Modernization Theory: Contribution to ICT4D’s Research

Sylvain K. Cibangu (Loughborough University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/jicthd.2013040106


Since evolving into an established science in the 1990s, the field of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) has seen unprecedented and fast-growing rates of publication, curriculum venues, and development projects around the globe. To this effect, ICT4D’s development literature is informed by a variety of theories (e.g., capability approach, livelihoods, participatory development, etc.). In the process of asserting its body of knowledge, however, ICT4D has tended to dismiss the theory of modernization. For example, under theories such as technology fix, technology transplant, a computer per child, etc., the theory of modernization has been equated with the failures of and threats against development. Consequently, reduced to one aspect of its myriad applications, the theory of modernization has lost its value among development practitioners and theorists. This paper traces the theory of modernization. There is no such thing as a developed society/nation without modernization. The paper derives some points of interest for ICT4D’s research and managerial skills.
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In recent decades, ICT4D has seen its body of literature grow at an indescribable speed. From a vast array of disciplines, various theories have been imported and implemented in an attempt to best accommodate the goals, scopes, and benefits of development in our poverty-plagued world. Chief among imported theories are the capability approach, livelihoods, participatory development, and modernization theory (Clark, 2006; Heeks, 2009a, 2009b; Heeks & Molla, 2009; Gurumurthy & Singh, 2009; Kleine, 2009; Kleine & Unwin, 2009; Potter, Binns, Smith, & Elliott, 2008; Unwin, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c, 2009d; Geldof, Grimshaw, Kleine, & Unwin, 2011). In the meantime, modernization theory has come to represent the failures of and threats against development practice. Before we begin our discussion, we need to clarify two concepts central to the paper, namely: modernization and development. Modernization has preoccupied humans under different circumstances, at different times, and in different spaces. In more ways than one, the concept development has been envisaged as the endeavor to modernize people’s lives.

Besides the literary meaning reserved for the historical period of Modern Times, The Oxford American dictionary (1999) defines the verb modernize as the endeavor to adapt to modern needs and habits, and the adjective modern as that which is of the present and recent times. To modernize simply means to improve and/or adapt the conditions of societies. The word modernization comes from the Latin adjective modus, meaning: of the present, of just now, etc. or modernus, meaning: things or institutions of the present. Several Latin words derive from this adjective, such as the noun moderamen, meaning: management, direction, control, etc., the verb modero, and its participle moderatus, meaning to manage, moderate, keep within due bounds, etc. The underlying meaning (Lewis & Short, 1879) is that of management, order, bounds, extent, etc. Interestingly, the Greek word μέδoμαι [medomai] from which the Latin words cited above derived has stronger connotations. Medomai (Liddell & Scott, 1843/1996) means to provide for, be mindful of, to plan, contrive, devise, etc. With these etymologies one can get an idea of what modernize tends to imply. Modernization is the extent to which one manages, provides for, and plans welfare in response to people’s needs and habits. As seen below, however, this fundamental view of modernization will be supplanted by the success and imitation of Western societies. Reduced to one aspect of its myriad applications, therefore, modernization theory loses its potency and becomes a recipe of mere replication, regardless of local realities and needs. At varying degrees, the connotations drawn from the etymology and semantics of the word modernization resonate in the discussions that have characterized the efforts of development over time.

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