Modernization theory is a grand theory encompassing many different disciplines as it seeks to explain how society progresses, what variables affect that progress, and how societies can react to that progress. This theory focuses specifically on a type of modernization thought to have originated in Europe during the 17th century, which brought social mores and technological achievements into a new epoch.
The foundations of this theory go back to the Age of Enlightenment, when a number of philosophers began to look at how society changed and progressed. Theories were laid out as to how technological advancement necessarily led to social advancement, which in turn led to an examination of how different facets of advancement were connected. The basic premise of this phase of modernization theory was that humans were able to change their society within a generation, and that this change was often facilitated by advancements in technology, production, and consumption.
In the modern age, the theory looks at how new technologies and systems are leading to a more greatly homogenized world. Modernization theory encompasses the world of globalization, where cultural mores and ideas are easily spread throughout the world, leading to a sort of universal culture that serves as a baseline for all cultures. As societies in the world modernize further technologically, some theorists hold those cultures will also become more like one another.
Communication technologies are seen as a pivotal advancement when viewed through the lens of modernization theory, as are mass transport technologies such as air travel. Advances in communications have allowed culture to make its way throughout the world in a relatively unchanged fashion, disseminating everything from fashion sensibilities and standards of beauty to the assumptions of capitalism and consumer desire.
Modernization theory in the current day often looks at globalization critically, analyzing its negative consequences. For example, some theorists point out that globalization appears to be leading to greater disparities between the wealthy and the impoverished, with hundreds of millions of people being left behind in conditions of starvation and homelessness.
As societies modernize, modernization theory points out that they leave behind their historical agrarian lifestyles in favor of modern industrial or technological lifestyles, losing the ability to feed themselves directly, and leaving themselves at risk in the case of economic downturns. Often, because of the dynamic between established industrial nations and developing nations, modernizing nations are left in a weak position, leading to widespread poverty.
At the same time, the theory looks at the positive benefits of nations modernizing. New technologies often bring with them advancements in medical care, food production, education, and disaster protection. At the same time, while modern communications can lead to a homogeneous culture, it can also help spread social ideals of greater liberty and freedom. Societies that modernize tend to move towards more free and open systems of government, greater equality between genders, religions, and races, and more invested populaces.
Modernization theory itself, however, takes no stance on whether modernization is a good or bad thing. Instead, it represents a broad framework within which to look at the pros and cons of globalization and the worldwide migration from agrarian societies to industrialized and technological societies.