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Dizon, Kurt Zeus L.

January 29, 2016

Pol Sci 504: Politics of Modernization

David Lerner’s Modernization Theory

Daniel Lerner was an American scholar and writer known for his studies on modernization
theory. Lerner's study played a critical role in shaping American ideas about the use of
mass media and US cultural products to promote economic and social development in
post-colonial nations. Lerner's book “The Passing of Traditional Society” is a great deal of
attention has been given to communication as an instrument to accelerate development.

The Passing of Traditional Society

 “The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East” was among the
first book-length publications to set out psychosocial theory of modernization.
 The book was based on research that the U.S. State Department funded in the late
 The original purpose of the research was to determine whether people in the
Middle East were listening to Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts and, if so, to
ascertain their reactions to the programming.
 In the mid-1950s, Lerner reanalyzed the data in light of a new conceptualization
revolving around the notion that Western values and ideas disseminated by
Western mass media could help transform countries of the Middle East from
traditional and primitive nations into countries with modern forms of social,
economic, and political organization.
 The book was a study based on roughly three hundred surveys conducted in each
of six countries—Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Syria—in 1950 and 1951.
 Respondents answered 117 questions about their living conditions, their opinions on
politics and foreign countries, their use of mass media, their level of happiness, and
their basic demographic characteristics. Based on a final total of about 1,600
respondents across all countries, Lerner statistically extracted three types or
categories of people and nations—the traditional, the transitional, and the modern.

1. The Village Chief and the Grocer

In the first part of his book, he introduced the Chief of Balgat, (Balgat –village in Turkey) a
man steeped in traditional values that were depicted as outdated and out of step with
the modern world. Lerner presented the Chief as hopelessly parochial, judging all issues
and events from the perspective of his “traditional virtues” and possessing old-fashioned
wisdom about “wives and cows.” The Chief had no desire to leave his village and only
wanted his sons to be good soldiers and his daughters to marry well. The Chief had the
only radio in the village, and he carefully monitored and controlled the use of this “Devil’s
Box.” Although he invited village elites to his home to listen to the news from Ankara, he
alone interpreted its meaning and significance for the gathered crowd

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The grocer, on the other hand, was brimming with opinions, particularly regarding other
people's business. Moreover, the interviewer learned that villagers sought out the grocer's
opinions on such issues as what movies to watch when they visited Ankara. The chief and
the shepherd, at opposite ends of the social spectrum, were pious, contented, and
cautious; the grocer, a marginal figure, was skeptical, self-conscious, and with an eye for
the main chance.

Transitional Personality

Lerner's theme is the psychology of the "transitional personality," the grocers whose
restlessness would unsettle established orders and lifeways, hastening the advent of
modernity.When Lerner first visited Balgat in 1954 he found the village transformed. A new
road and bus line, as well as municipal water and electricity, made it a suburb of the
capital. The chief's sons were now grocers and the original grocer was dead but
remembered as a prophet.

What is modern?

Lerner’s modernization theory was clear in its position that any nation could be modern.
No nation was destined to be traditional and backward.

To be modern, a nation’s citizens had only to emulate the actions and ideas of people in
the Western nations that had earlier moved away from tradition bound backwardness and
into the modern world. People (and nations) unwilling or unable to accept Western norms
and adapt to the “new ways” of the modern West were not deemed naturally or
genetically incapable of change but thought to be unsteadily by backwardness
characterized by traditional cultural practices.

Lerner’s Modernization Theory

 He argues that the Western modernization process is the basic model that any
society might follow in order to achieve modernization.
 Western society still provides the most developed model of societal attributes
(power, wealth, skill, rationality). The notion of mobility is central to Western
modernization. (Industrial revolution: large numbers of people have shifted from
rural to urban areas)
 He further argues that "it is modernization, not capitalism that accounts for the basic
shape of social mobility in Western societies. "Regarding such massive movements
in the West due to people's search for a better life, Lerner stresses that they
"became intimate with the idea of change by direct experience.
 He further argues that this physical mobility brings about social mobility and with it
"came into operation a 'system' of bourgeois values that embraced social change
as normal

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Social Mobilization

• Social mobilization makes people more available for change. It does so by

inducing them or teaching them to change their residence, their occupations, their
communications, and their associates among other factor.

• Social mobilization gives rise to new needs, new aspirations and new demands.
Social mobilization implies increased political development of the population, but
also increased challenges to political development of the institutions.

• Lerner depicts rationality as a distinct feature of Western societies and emphasizes

that a "mobile society has to encourage rationality, for the calculus of choice
shapes individual behavior and conditions its rewards. People come to see their
future as manipulate rather than ordained and their personal prospects in terms of
achievement rather than heritage."

Development from Traditional to Modern

Drawing from the history of Europe and North America, Lerner said modernization
began through social mobilization when a nation’s rural population started moving
from the countryside to cities as he said “from farms to flats, from fields to factories”.

Growing population density brought about by urbanization then led to demand for
schools, mass media, markets for free trade, and other modern and democratically
organized institutions.

Finally, as literacy and media consumption grew, so did the general levels of economic
participation (in the form of higher levels of material consumption) and political
participation (in the form of voting in free elections). For Lerner, the ability to buy things
and vote were among the clearest indicators of a modern nation.

Role of Mass Media

 Mass media were assigned the key task of making this modernization model
attractive and irresistible.
 Lerner assumed that exposure to media messages and images from the West
would help people in the postcolonial world replace old traditional ways of
thinking and doing with modern ways of thinking and doing.
 Lerner considered mass media to be a multiplier and enhancer of the
modernization process. The driving cognitive mechanism for this process was
“empathy” or “psychic mobility,” the ability and desire to project oneself into
unfamiliar situations and places such as the modern world that the West
represented and the aspiration to experience those conditions.

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Empathy and Psycho Mobility

 His key concept of empathy is defined by "the inner mechanism which enables
newly mobile persons to operate efficiently in a changing world. Empathy is the
capacity to see oneself in the other fellow's situation or the individual with a
capacity to envision himself in another's place, a place better than his own.
 The main hypothesis of Lerner's theory is that "high empathic capacity is the
predominant personal style only in modern society, which is distinctively industrial,
urban, literate and participant."
 In brief, what creates empathy is the psychic mobility. So empathy is psychic
mobility; in the first stage, physical mobility creates it. In turn a mobile psyche
creates a psychologically mobile individual, which is a key element of modern
societies and that the mass media fostered its expansion.
 Lerner, "suggested that the mass media of communication are particularly effective
in non-formal teaching, because they simplify reality, presenting information in a
context that facilitates perception and learning."
 "Empathy," as Lerner called this quality, stirred people from traditional apathy,
leading them to question old ways and hierarchies and making them full
participants in the economic and political life of the new nation. Lerner's theory
later provided a conceptual foundation for the strategic hamlet program and the
forced depopulation of the Vietnamese countryside as a counterinsurgency


 Lerner offers a careful definition of several key factors in the modernization process
and explains in what order they occur.
 He takes into consideration four other variables, namely urbanization, literacy,
media participation and political participation.
 Concentration of people makes possible mass education which provides literacy
skills. It thereby helps to form a market for mass media.
 Literacy was followed by a rapid increment of media consumption. Lerner defines
media participation "as the proportion buying newspapers, owning radios, and
attending cinemas."
 In turn, this higher consumption of media brings about political and economic
 Lerner advances the following argument: "rising media participation tends to raise
participation in all sectors of the social system.

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Lerner, Daniel. (1958). The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East. New
York: Free Press.

Baressi, Mariana. (1989). Analysis on David Lerner’s Theory of Communication and


Wilkins, Karin. (2004). Considering “Traditional Society” in the Middle East: Learning Lerner
All Over Again. Department of Radio-TV-Film, University of Texas.

New American Nation. (2013). Development Doctrine and Modernization Theory - The
Rostovian Revolution.
Advameg, Inc.

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