Sociopedia isa 1 Theories of modernization and the framework of multiple modernities

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Theories of modernization and the

framework of multiple modernities

The major approach to the study of modernity and

modernization presented here goes against some of

the explicit and implicit assumptions of the classical

sociological tradition and above all of the theories of

modernization predominant in the 1950s and 1960s

as well as against some of the themes dominant in

contemporary discourse.

The ‘classical’ theories of modernization from the

1950s identified the core characteristics of modern

society as the decomposition of older ‘closed’ institutional

frameworks and the development of new structural,

institutional and cultural features and

formations, and the growing potential for social

mobilization (Deutsch, 1961). The most important

structural dimension of modernity was seen in the

tendency to structural differentiation – manifest

among others in growing urbanization; commodification

of the economy; the development of distinctive

channels of communication and agencies of education.

On the institutional level such decomposition

gave rise to the development of new institutional formations,

such as the modern state, modern national

collectivities, new market, especially capitalist,

economies, which were defined as autonomous, and

which were regulated by specific mechanisms of the

market; of bureaucratic organizations and the like. In

later formulations the development of such

autonomous spheres, each regulated by its own logic

was often defined as the essence of modern institutional

formations. Concomitantly modernity was seen

as bearing a distinct cultural program, and shaping a

distinct type of personality.

These theories, like the classical sociological analyses

of Marx, Durkheim and at least one reading of

Weber (Durkheim, 1973; Kamenka, 1983; cf. Weber,

1978, 1968a, 1968b) implicitly or explicitly conflated

major dimensions of modernity as they saw it developing

in the West. In these approaches, analytically

distinct dimensions combine and become historically

inseparable. An often implicit assumption of modernization

studies was that cultural dimensions of modernization,

the ‘secular’ rational worldview including

an individualistic orientation, are necessarily interwoven

with the structural ones. Most of the classics of

sociology as well as studies of modernization of the

1940s and 1950s and the closely related studies of

Modernity and


SN Eisenstadt The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

and Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Israel

abstract This article analyzes the major characteristics of modernity, of modern civilization; the major

analytical approaches related to the major social structures and the contemporary state. The core of this

analysis is the notion of multiple modernities. This idea assumes that the best way to understand the contemporary

world is for modernity to be seen as a story of continual formation, constitution, reconstitution

and development of multiple, changing and often contested and conflicting modernities.

keywords antinomies and tensions u democracies u globalization u modernity u modernization u

national and revolutionary states u traditional societies


Eisenstadt Modernity and modernization

convergence of industrial societies have assumed that

the basic institutional formations that developed in

European modernity, and the cultural program of

modernity as it developed in the West with its hegemonic

and homogenizing tendencies, will ‘naturally’

be taken over, with possible local variations, in all –

or at least in the ‘successful’ – modernizing societies,

and that this project of modernity will continue in

the West, and will ultimately prevail throughout the


But the reality that emerged proved to be radically

different. Developments in the contemporary era

did not bear out the assumption of ‘convergence’ of

modern societies. They actually indicated that the

various modern autonomous institutional arenas –

the economic, the political, the educational or the

family are defined and regulated and combine in different

ways in different societies and in different

periods of their development. The great diversity of

modern societies, even of societies relatively similar

in their economic development, like the major

industrial capitalist societies in Europe, the USA and

Japan, became more apparent. Far-reaching variability

developed even within the West , within Europe

itself, and above all between Europe and the

Americas – the USA (Sombart, 1976), Latin

America, or rather the Latin Americas.

This was even more evident with respect to the

cultural and structural dimensions of modernity.

While the different dimensions of the original

Western project constituted crucial reference points

for tracing the processes of continual expansion of

modernity, the developments in these societies have

gone far beyond the original cultural program of

modernity; and far beyond many of the initial premises

of this project, as well as beyond the institutional

patterns that developed in Europe.

Contrary to the claims of many scholars from the

1970s on that the best way to understand the

dynamics of different ‘modernizing’ societies is to see

them as continuations of their traditional institutional

patterns and dynamics, the institutional formations

which developed in most societies of the

world have been distinctively modern, even if their

dynamics were influenced by distinctive cultural

premises, traditions and historical experiences. Of

special importance in this context was the fact that

the most important social and political movements

which became predominant in these societies were

basically modern, promulgating distinctive ways of

interpreting modernity. This was true not only of the

various reformist, socialist and nationalist movements

which came into being in all these societies

from about the middle of the 19th century up to and

after the Second World War, but also of contemporary

fundamentalist movements.

From the outset, in attempts in modern societies

to understand the nature of this new era or civilization,

there developed two opposing evaluations,

attesting indeed to the inherent contradictions of

modernity. One such evaluation, implicit in theories

of modernization and of the ‘convergence of industrial

societies’ of the 1950s and the 1960s, saw

modernity as a progressive force which promises a

better, inclusive, emancipating world. The other

such evaluation, which developed first within

European societies and later resonated in non-

Western European societies, espoused a highly

ambivalent approach to modernity – seeing technology,

or the empowerment of egoistic and hedonistic

attitudes and goals as a morally destructive force.

The classics of sociology, de Tocqueville, Marx,

Weber and Durkheim, were already highly conscious

that modernity was full of such contradictory – constructive

and destructive – forces. Such ambivalence

intensified in the 1920s and 1930s with the rise of

fascism and communism, the confrontation with

which constituted one of the major concerns of

European sociology in that period, above all in the

Frankfurt School of the so-called ‘critical’ sociology.

Paradoxically, after the Second World War, a new

optimistic view of modernity with but weak emphasis

on its contradictions prevailed, both in the ‘liberal’

pluralistic, and the Marxist, especially the

communist versions. But such an optimistic view of

modernity gave way to a more pessimistic one with

the intellectual rebellion and protest of the late

1960s and early 1970s, with the waning of the Cold

War and with the rise of ‘postmodernism’. The critical

themes and the ambivalent attitude to modernity

re-emerged, emphasizing again the menacing aspects

of the development of technology and science such

as the nuclear threat and the destruction of the environment

(Eisenstadt, 1973).

Awareness of the destructive potential of modernity

was reinforced by the recognition that the continual

expansion of modernity throughout the world

was not necessarily benign or peaceful; that it did not

assure the continual progress of reason. The fact that

these processes were continuously interwoven with

wars, with imperialistic political constitutional and

economic expansion, with violence, genocides,

repression and the dislocation of large populations –

indeed sometimes of entire societies – was recognized.

In the optimistic view of modernity, such phenomena

were often portrayed as ‘survivals’ of

pre-modern attitudes. Increasingly, however, it was

recognized that the ‘old’ destructive forces were radically

transformed and intensified by being interwoven

with the ideological premises of modernity,

with its expansion, and with the specific patterns

in the institutionalization of modern regimes. This


Eisenstadt Modernity and modernization

generated a specifically modern barbarism. The most

important manifestation of such a transformation

was the ideologization of violence, terror and war,

which became central to the constitution of the

modern European state system, and of the nationstates

as well as of the European imperialism often

legitimized in terms of some components of the cultural

programs of modernity. The Holocaust became

a symbol of the negative, destructive potentialities of

modernity, of the barbarism lurking within the very

core of modernity.

Modernity as a distinct civilization –

the cultural program of modernity

Modernity has indeed expanded to most of the

world and given rise to civilizational patterns which

share some central core characteristics, but which

unfold differently even if with cognate ideological

and institutional dynamics. Moreover, far-reaching

changes, beyond the original premises of modernity,

have also been taking place in Western societies.

Modernity crystallized into distinct institutional

formations – the modern capitalist systems and the

modern state spheres system which developed in tandem

with the establishment of new hegemonies and

counter-hegemonies with processes of dislocation

and construction. They developed first of all in

Europe and then became exacerbated with the imperial,

colonial, economic and political expansion.

These continually changing structural and institutional

dimensions of modernity were interwoven

with the cultural program of modernity, giving rise

to multiple modernities.

The interpretation of modernity, of the development

of modern societies, and of the contemporary

scene in terms of ‘multiple modernities’ entails a

view of modernity as a new type of civilization – not

unlike the formation and expansion of the Great

Religions. According to this view, the core of modernity

is the crystallization of a mode or modes of

interpretation of the world, of a distinct social ‘imaginaire’

(Castoriadis, 1987), an ontological vision or a

set of epistemological presuppositions (Wittrock,

2002) – or, in other words, of a distinct cultural program,

combined with the development of a set or

sets of new institutional formations with a central

core of unprecedented ‘openness’ and uncertainty.

The combination of such institutional formations

constituted the core of modernity which generated

tensions and dynamics.

The cultural and political program of modernity

entailed a shift in the conception of human agency,

of autonomy, and of the place of the individual in

the flow of time. First of all, the premises and legitimation

of the social, ontological and political order

were no longer taken for granted. Second, the core of

this program was the ‘naturalization’ of cosmos, man

and society and a quest for emancipation from the

fetters of ‘external’ authority or tradition. Third, central

to this cultural program was the assumption that

this order can – and is – being constituted by conscious

human activities – and hence that it entails

the possibility, even perhaps the certainty, of its continual


The central core of this cultural program has

been formulated most succinctly by Weber.

According to Faubion (1993: 113–15), ‘Weber finds

the existential threshold of modernity in a certain

deconstruction: of what he speaks of as the “ethical

postulate that the world is a God-ordained, and

hence somehow meaningfully and ethically oriented

cosmos” … [He asserts that] one or another modernity

can emerge only as the legitimacy of the postulated

cosmos ceases to be taken for granted and

beyond reproach. … One can extract two theses: …

Modernities in all their variety are responses to the

same existential problematic. … [They] are precisely

those responses that leave the problematic in question

intact, that formulate visions of life and practice

neither beyond nor in denial of it but rather within

it, even in deference to it. …’

A central characteristic of the modern program is

manifest in the fact that within it an intensive reflexivity

has developed around the basic ontological

premises as well as around the bases of the social and

political order of authority in society – a reflexivity

which was shared even by the most radical critics,

who in principle denied its legitimacy. The modern

program focused not only on the possibility of different

interpretations of the transcendental visions and

basic ontological conceptions prevalent in societies,

but questioned the taken-for-granted nature of such

visions and of the institutional patterns related to

them and of the institutional order (Lefort, 1988). It

gave rise to an awareness of the multiplicity of such

visions and of the possibility that such conceptions

can indeed be contested – and continually reconstituted.

Such reflexivity was reinforced by the emphasis

on novelty, and on a break with the past. This

reflexivity also entailed a conception of the future of

open possibilities, in which the social and political

order can continually be transformed by

autonomous human agency.

All these developments entailed, to follow

Lefort’s (1988) formulation, the ‘loss’ of markers of

certainty with respect to the ontological and the

institutional orders alike, giving rise to contestations

around the constitution of the major dimensions of

the social order.

Such awareness was closely connected with two


Eisenstadt Modernity and modernization

central components of the modern project, emphasized

in early studies of modernization by Lerner

(1958) and later by Inkeles and Smith (1974). First

is recognition of the possibility of undertaking a

great variety of roles beyond any fixed ascriptive

roles, and the receptivity to messages of such open

possibilities. Second is recognition of the possibility

of belonging to trans-local, changing communities.

These contestations were most fully played out in

the political arena, and the ways in which they were

played out were shaped first by the tendency to

restructure center–periphery relations as the focus of

political dynamics in modern societies; second, by

the openness of political contestation; third, by the

tendency toward politicization of the demands of

various sectors of society and of conflicts between

them; and fourth, by the struggle about the definition

of the realm of the political, and of the distinction

between public and private spheres, all of them

entailing the loss of markers of certainty.

The other side of this ontological doubt, the loss

of the markers of certainty, was the quest to overcome

it. This quest was closely connected with the

other components of the cultural program of modernity,

namely those of the naturalization of the cosmos,

of nature and of humankind, and of human

emancipation and autonomy (Blumberg, 1987). The

autonomy of man – his or hers – but in the first formulation

of this program certainly ‘his’ – comprised

several components: (1) reflexivity and exploration;

(2) active construction of nature and its modernity,

possibly including human nature, and of society. The

naturalization of humankind and the cosmos as it

initially developed in Europe entailed several conflicting

premises: first, the change of the place of

God in the constitution of the cosmos and of

humankind; second the autonomy and potential

supremacy of reason in the exploration and even in

the shaping of the world. Humanity and nature were

increasingly perceived not as directly regulated by

the will of God, as in the monotheistic civilizations,

or by some higher, transcendental metaphysical principles,

as in Hinduism and Confucianism, or by the

universal logos, as in the Greek tradition. Rather

they were conceived as autonomous entities regulated

by internal laws that could be fully explored and

grasped by human reason, through human rational

inquiry. Thus the rational exploration of ‘natural’

laws became a major focus of the new cultural program.

It was assumed that exploration of these laws

would lead to the unraveling of the mysteries of the

universe and of human destiny, and thus that reason

would become the guiding force in the interpretation

of the world and in shaping human destiny. For

many, scientific exploration became the epitome of


Yet in this program there also developed a contradictory

tendency – namely a belief in the possibility

of bridging the gap between the transcendental and

the mundane orders, of realizing in the mundane

order some utopian, eschatological visions. Such

exploration was not purely passive or contemplative.

This modern cultural vision also assumed that such

exploration would achieve not only the understanding,

but even the mastery of the universe and of

human destiny.

The ‘rational’ exploration of nature and the

search for potential mastery over it extended beyond

the technical and scientific spheres to that of the

social, giving rise to the assumption that the application

of knowledge acquired in such inquiries was relevant

to the management of the affairs of society and

to the construction of the socio-political order.

Two complementary but also potentially contradictory

tendencies about the best ways in which such

construction could take place developed within this

program. One was a ‘totalizing’ tendency that gave

rise to the belief in the possibility of realizing utopian

eschatological visions through conscious human

actions in the mundane orders of social life and/or

technocratic planning and activities. The totalizing

version of this tendency assumed that those who

mastered the secrets of nature and of human nature

could devise appropriate institutional arrangements

for the implementation of the good society. The second

major tendency was rooted in a growing recognition

of the legitimacy of multiple individual and

group goals and interests and of multiple interpretations

of the common good.

The loss of markers of certainty and the contestations

about major dimensions of the social order

were exacerbated in the discourse of modernity by

the fact that the opening up of numerous institutional

and cultural possibilities was connected with

the dissolution of hitherto existing social bonds, giving

rise to the feeling of uprootedness. ‘Modernity

paints us all into a morass of perpetual disintegration

and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity

and anguish, a universe in which “all that is

solid melts into air” ’ (Berman, 1988). The continuous

prevalence of these tensions and the continuous

change inherent in modernity has added another

crucial dimension to the repertoire of themes in the

self-understanding of modern society, namely the

perennial awareness of ambivalence inherent to the

very program of modernity. This ambivalence is

manifest in the fact that all programs of modernity

entailed a ‘double’ orientation (Miller, 1997): an

affirmation of existing hegemonic arrangements and

an attempt to find spaces in which a private or communal

orientation can be instituted – indeed of

stimulating alternative modernities. Modernity was


Eisenstadt Modernity and modernization

perceived to be on ‘endless trial’ (Kolakowski, 1990).

The combination of these components of the

new ontological vision led to what Wittrock (2002)

and others have designated as the great promissory

themes of modernity – the view of modernity as

bearing within itself the continual progress of knowledge

and of its rational application; of human emancipation,

of continual inclusion of sectors of society

within its frameworks and of the expansion of such

emancipatory forces to entire humanity. But it was

also this combination that bore within itself the

seeds of the possibility of the great disappointments

and traumas attendant on the attempts to realize

these promises with modernity beset by internal

antinomies and contradictions, continual critical discourse

and political contestations.

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