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June 12, 2017

Modernising ‘the Rest’

By Sean Rai-Roche, University of Edinburgh

“What does it mean to be modern?” (Latour, 2012: 8)

“Coloniality and modernity constitute two sides of a single coin.” (Grosfoguel, 2011: 13)


The meaning of the terms ‘modernisation’ and ‘Westernisation’ are highly contested. Often conflated in popular understanding, they have come to express particular ideas within ‘development’ discourse. The discursive construction of the rigid dichotomy between ‘modern’ and the ‘traditional’ has had profound effects upon how those seen as ‘traditional’ have been emplaced, imagined and treated by those considered as ‘modern’. The idea of modernity is historically a Western concept, emerging as a result of the struggles of the Enlightenment and consolidating through the industrialisation and colonisation that followed. This, however, does not necessarily mean that they equate to the same thing. Instead of following post-development thinkers and abandoning the possibilities of modernisation without Westernisation completely, I identify possibilities and trajectories of different kinds of modernisation, which are based on a set of cultural values that are seen to contribute to the formation of a alternative type of modernisation.

Clarifying Concepts

Often associated with European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea of modernity in Western discourse came to represent social change from a ‘pre-modern’ or ‘traditional’ society to a ‘modern’ one through the use of science and rationality. Inherent in this understanding is that there is a linear path to progress that all countries must follow if they are to become ‘modern’. In contrast, some argue that modernity began with the conquest of the Americas in the 16th century (Cupples, 2013) and that it should be seen as a “European phenomenon but one constituted in a dialectical relation with a non-European alterity that is its ultimate content” (Mignolo, 2007: 453). The idea is that Europe’s self-definition of being modern depends on the existence of an inferior, ‘non-modern’ alterity, against which claims of modernity and progress can be based.

Modernity may be understood as a discourse about the linear ‘march toward progress’, one that gains its currency from the division of societies into ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’. In doing so, it prescribes to those deemed as ‘pre-modern’ a process of ‘development’, aligned with Western capitalist imperatives and ideologies, as the only way to achieve modernity. Westernisation, then, is understood as the process whereby non-Western states become more like the capitalist economies and societies of the West. Thus, Westernisation is an extremely broad concept that covers changes in the political economy, social relations, epistemologies and cultures across the world, which have increasingly conformed to Western ‘ways of doing things’. This is not to say that countries undergoing Westernisation are doing so in the same ways, nor do they necessarily have their own cultures eroded or dominated as a result.

So, if it is the case that modernisation refers to the aspiration to attain a certain state of development, which is symbolised and embodied by the West, then is modernisation not synonymous with Westernisation?

Modernisation as Westernisation

Beginning in the late 1940s, colonial powers retreated in the face of growing independence movements; by the 1960s most colonised nations had become independent states. Formal decolonisation, however, did not mean an end of colonial relations. Instead, colonialism took a more subtle, concealed and epistemological form. ‘Coloniality’, a concept used by Peruvian scholar Anibal Quijano, conceptualises this hegemonic relationship between the West and ‘the rest’. The term aims to highlight how “the relation between European culture and the other cultures was established and has been maintained, as a relation between ‘subject’ and ‘object’” (Quijano, 2007: 174). Edward Said uses the concept of 'Orientalism' to demonstrate a “style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between 'the Orient' and (most of the time) 'the Occident'” (1978: 2). Hence, “‘the West’ is much more an idea than a fact of geography” (Slater, 1993: 421). It is important to be cognisant that the self-proclaimed ‘modern’ Occident viewed all ‘Other’ societies as being effectively the same: they were pre-modern, homogenous, irrational and without history. We can observe echoes of Orientalist discourses running through contemporary modernisation theory. Henry Bernstein (1971) asserts that modernisation is a totalising social process, which treats all ‘traditional’ societies as universal and homogenised. He argues the imaginary of the traditional “simply reflects the ethnocentrism underlying the formation of modernity” (Bernstein, 1971: 146). So, following this, if the idea of modernity is a colonial/Western concept, predicated on a division that is inherently ethnocentric, then any attempt to achieve said state of modernity must be seen within a process of Westernisation. This will be further illustrated by examining the development discourse of the 20th century.

If we consider how modernisation theory has shaped development practices in the post-WWII period, it becomes clear how intertwined it is with the process of Westernisation. Daniel Lerner, a key influence on US development policy in the post-War period, argued that for former colonies “their only hope is to be modernized by an injection of Western values and expertise” (Lerner, 1958: 1). The reason for the ‘underdeveloped’ state of many former colonies was purported to be their lack of Western values and cultural practices: “cultural Europeanisation was transformed into an aspiration” (Quijano, 2007: 169). Payne and Philips (2010) show how development theory after WWII was based on the assumption that the Third World countries needed to ‘catch up’ with the developed West. Thus, development policy in the post-War period was characterised by an insistence on the adoption of Western knowledge systems, social relations and institutional structures. Walt Whitman Rostow, and his famous work on the Stages of Economic Growth (1959), was perhaps one of the most influential theorists within development policy throughout the 1960s. Rostow asserted that all societies could be placed within five distinct categories – traditional society, preconditions to take-off, take-off, drive to maturity and the age of mass consumption – and that modernisation involved progressing from one category to the next. The theory became extremely influential within development studies and came to characterise much of US policy approach in the 1960s and 70s. It had a strong commitment to universality and assumed all countries desired capitalism and wanted to emulate the type of societies that were observable in the West. Thus, Rostow thought, “traditional society is a kind of degree zero of history corresponding to a natural state of ‘underdevelopment’” (Rist, 2008: 95). He did not value what he saw as ‘traditional society’ and did not appreciate that other cultures may not desire Western forms of social organisation.

Linking back to Bernstein, who argues “ethnocentrism is most overt when modernization is rendered synonymous with Westernization” (Bernstein, 1971: 147, emphasis added), we can see how the inherent ethnocentrism that pervades modernisation theory comes out in the equation of the idea of modernity with that of the West. This is evident in a justification of colonialism by Rostow: “colonies were often established initially […] to organise a traditional society incapable of self-organisation (or unwilling to organise itself) for modern import and export activity” (1990: 109). It is this justification of colonialism, on the grounds that it created the economic organisation necessary for modernisation, which is most disturbing. The assertion that non-Western populations were ‘incapable of self-organisation’ is an unashamedly colonial discourse, which occludes any understanding and appreciation of how such societies were previously structured and run, along with their local forms of knowledge. As Grosfoguel (2011: 13) contends, “Coloniality and modernity constitute two sides of a single coin”, in that the idea of modernity – and in turn modernisation – is a colonial concept, one that cannot be divorced from its Westerncentric origins. Thus, we see how modernisation discourse in the immediate post-War period gave primacy to Western understandings of progress and adhered to colonial rhetoric concerning the inability of non-Western people to develop their societies without external influence.

Although the 1960s was dominated by the ideas of Rostow and his ‘stages of growth’, there emerged somewhat of a crisis in development in the 1980s (Kothari, 2005; Booth, 1985). This was a result of rising and intensifying levels of inequality, poverty and exclusion (Schuurman, 1993; Keily, 1995), which led to dominant development theories and narratives being brought into question. It is in this context that neoliberalism emerged as an economic paradigm, which placed emphasis on individualism, rationality, economic liberalisation, institutional restructuring and modernisation of production (Harvey, 2007). James Scott shows how “today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization” (1998: 8) because of its ability to coerce societies into adopting Western, capitalist forms of economic organisation. Moreover, capitalism’s need for homogenised global demand has contributed to a process of ‘McDonaldisation’ (Ritzer, 1998) as Western fashions and tastes become more prominent and ubiquitous in non-Western societies.

In parallel to the ascendency of neoliberalism, the increasing recognition that international development had not succeeded in alleviating issues of poverty and inequality engendered the emergence of ‘alternative’ forms of development, such as participatory approaches, feminist critiques and post-development theory (Kothari, 2005). According to Kothari, however, these alternative approaches have been overshadowed and subsumed into a neoliberal agenda (2005: 429). Control over the construction of discourses of development was vital for colonial powers to maintain their authority and the practice has continued today under neoliberalism. Hence, we can observe how alternative approaches to development, often advanced by oppressed, non-Western groups, become incorporated into neoliberal, capitalist discourse and thus lose their potency in terms of offering potential for radical change. This demonstrates how the very idea of development, as a means to modernity, reproduces and valorises certain claims to the superiority of Western knowledge while maintaining its intellectual and epistemological dominance through the appropriation and subsuming of other knowledges. Thus, the only way to ‘modernise’, when assessed by standards of the capitalist West, is to Westernise.

Homogenising Development?

Post-development theory has been subject to several criticisms since its emergence within academia. I would like to touch on just one critique: its homogenising and universalising perspective. I examine this aspect of post-development thinking because it illustrates how the discipline often uses discursive framing to construct binary categories (a charge it accuses development of), which circumscribes the capacity of nation states to modernise while avoiding processes of ‘Westernisation’.

Ironically, post-development thinkers, such as Escobar, have tended to homogenise the idea of development, overlooking the many complexities and contestations within development approaches. As Pieterse argues, “Escobar plays games of rhetoric: in referring to development as ‘Development’ and thus suggesting its homogeneity and consistency, he essentialises ‘development’” (2000: 183). By homogenising the very idea of development, Escobar is not only constricting the potential for different, and perhaps subaltern, articulations of what development might mean, but also buys into the very dichotomous thinking he has critiqued in his work. Kiely suggests that “post-development theory is guilty of homogenising the idea of development, thereby conflating all theories of development with the outmoded (and long discredited) theory of modernisation” (1999: 30). The point here is that by relegating the words ‘development’ and ‘modernity’ to nothing more than a symbol of oppression and exploitation, one is restricting the potential for different expressions of what they could potentially mean. Thus, the dichotomous thinking of many post-development writers “is implicitly attempting to impose a new binary divide between First and Third Worlds” (Kiely, 1999: 38) and in doing so illustrates their political perspective: North-West bad, South good. Attempting to frame such complex histories and processes into such simple groupings is unwise and reproduces the same binary divisions that post-development abhors.

The ‘Asian Values’ System and Non-Western Modernisation

The purpose of this critique of is not to undermine post-development’s overall analysis of the cultural hegemony of development regimes, but to open up the possibilities for alternative forms of modernisation and theories of development to be imagined. By recognising the shortcomings of post-development theory, it becomes more plausible to view particular forms of modernisation within the context of society-specific goals, transcending these constricting totalities, which seek to modernise while also retaining their specific social values and cultural norms.

For example, the debate surrounding an ‘Asian value’ system, purported to be instrumental in Southeast Asia’s modernisation process, allow us to identify different, non-Western forms of modernisation. From the end of the 1970s the role of, and the debate surrounding, ‘Asian values’ gained prominence on the international stage. Previously, most social scientists adhered to the Weberian view that the ‘Protestant Ethic’ had led to the development of Western capitalism and that the Confucian values of East-Asian societies presented an obstacle to economic growth and development (Hill, 2000). This discourse, however, was brought into contention due to the dynamic growth of Asian economies and thus set the stage for a discussion of the role of societal values in modernisation programmes. The idea of Asian values gained traction with policy makers and politicians in East-Asian countries and became a key part of the construction of national identity. Berger (1997: 270) shows how Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore and co-founder of the People’s Action Party (PAP), suggested how Singapore had been ‘infected by the West’ and that the solution was a ‘strong assertion of Asian values’ in order to counter the destructive individualism of the West. Deepak Lal, in his piece entitled Does Modernisation require Westernisation (2000), states, “as Lee Kwan Yew has noted, the family-based societies can still rely on the social safety nets of the family rather than having to create welfare states like those in the West” (2000: 21). This invocation of particular cultural values in relation to social services highlights how the development process in Singapore was seen as very separate from a Western model. Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, another founder and prominent politician within PAP, explicitly addressed a distinction between modernisation and Westernisation, disregarding the latter as glorified fashions and trends in society that lead to a misplaced sense of superiority (Hill, 2000: 183). Thus, we see how the processes of modernisation in Singapore were based on, or at least explained through, the idea of a specific set of Asian values that encouraged economic development. The promotion of these values was designed to counter the ‘infection’ of Western influences, which were blamed for the creation of social ills because of a ‘crisis of Westernisation’ (Hill, 2000: 184). The Singaporean nation-state consolidated around ideas of Asian values in the 1980s, which became a distinguishing feature of their modernisation programme.


The concept of modernity arose out of the colonial categorisation of societies as ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’ in order justify their subjugation and exploitation. By examining development theory in the post-WWII period I have demonstrated how modernisation approaches were very much processes of Westernisation, as it was believed this would instil in former colonies the capacities and expertise needed to reach modernity. The advent of the neoliberal project, however, saw the restructuring of societies and institutions to reflect elements of the modern, Western state. It witnessed the subsuming of alternative, critical voices under a Western project that limited the space for alternative meanings of development. However, with the rise of the East-Asian economies during the same period, which challenged and destabilised historic power relations, there became a somewhat alternative form of modernisation that drew on cultural values very different from those in the West and can thus be seen as a processes of modernisation devoid of cultural Westernisation.

Essentially, what this question comes down to, is what we understand by the term ‘modernisation’. If modernisation is simply a process of technological innovation and productive expansion, within particular social structures and institutions, then it is possible for countries to modernise without Westernising. But if, however, we consider the historical conceptualisation of modernity as a colonial construct used to exploit and dominate its subjects, then it is very hard to see any process of modernisation as separate from a process of Westernisation, even when Western imperatives have been hybridised, tweaked or even discarded.


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Cupples J (2013) Latin American Development. London: Routledge

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