Modernization theory

Research Maarten F. Van Dijck

The founding fathers of the social sciences – Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Ferdinand Tönnies and in some ways also Max Weber – provide classical examples of modernization theories. This means that their theoretical models assumed that all societies have to follow the same historical development from traditional into modern civilizations. Modernization theorists not only believe that all societies will develop in the same direction, they also expect that the differences between societies will disappear at some point in the future. Although this development-perspective offers an interesting starting point for historical research, these sociological concepts are not directly applicable in historical research. Focusing on modernization theory, this research project investigates the interdisciplinary relation between historical and social sciences in order to improve the use of sociological concepts in the historical sciences and to expand the use of historical reasoning in social research.

Modernization theory will be explored by looking at processes of social and political modernization between 1300 and 1850. A long term perspective makes it possible to discern abrupt revolutions and slow evolutions. This distinction is crucial since modernization theorists emphasize the importance of quick transformations between 1750 and 1850 while historians are more inclined to stress long-winded transformations. The rise of modern forms of sociability with broad middle groups and a strong civil society will form the core of our research project, because modernization theory suggests that these developments were necessary conditions for the rise of bourgeois pubic spheres and participatory democracies in Western Europe. However, recent research cast doubts on traditional modernization theories. On the one hand, historians have shown that public spheres could develop in other parts of the world without the presence of a strong civil society. European historians – on the other hand – became aware of the development of civil societies in Europe before the eighteenth century. This implies that the history of European civil societies, the formation of public spheres and the origins of participatory democracies have to be adapted and revaluated.

This research project will examine (1) the formation of broad middling groups, (2) the rise of civil societies and public spheres, and (3) the politicization of large groups of citizens.