Mass Communication Talk

Modernization Theory

Complementary to the doctrine of ‘free flow’ in the post-war years was the view that international communication was the key to the process of modernization and development for the so-called ‘Third World’. Modernization theory arose from the notion that international mass communication could be used to spread the message of modernity and transfer the economic and political models of the West to the newly independent countries of the South. Communications research on what came to be known as ‘modernization’ or ‘development theory’ was based on the belief that the mass media would help transform traditional societies. This promedia bias was very influential and received support from international organizations such as UNESCO and by the governments in developing countries.
One of the earliest exponents of this theory was Daniel Lerner, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose classic work in the field, The Passing of Traditional Society (1958) – the product of research conducted in the early 1950s in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iran – examined the degree to which people in the Middle East were exposed to national and international media, especially radio. In this first major comparative survey, Lerner proposed that contact with the media helped the process of transition from a ‘traditional’ to a ‘modernized’ state, characterizing the mass media as a ‘mobility multiplier’, which enables individuals to experience events in far-off places, forcing them to reassess their traditional way of life. Exposure to the media, Lerner argued, made traditional societies less bound by traditions and made them aspire to a new and modern way of life.
The Western path of ‘development’ was presented as the most effective way to shake off traditional ‘backwardness’: according to Lerner:
[The] Western model of modernisation, exhibits certain components and sequences whose relevance is global. Everywhere for example increasing urbanisation has tended to raise literacy; rising literacy has tended to increase media exposure; increasing media exposure has ‘gone with’ wider economic participation (per capita income) and political participation. (Lerner, 1958: 46)
Western society, Lerner argued, provided ‘the most developed model of societal attributes (power, wealth, skill, rationality)’, and ‘from the West came the stimuli which undermined traditional society that will operate efficiently in the world today, the West is still a useful model’ (ibid.: 47).
Another key modernization theorist Wilbur Schramm, whose influential book, Mass Media and National Development, was published in 1964 in conjunction with UNESCO, saw the mass media as a ‘bridge to a wider world’, as the vehicle for transferring new ideas and models from the North to the South and, within the South, from urban to rural areas. Schramm, at the time Director of the Institute for Communication Research at Stanford University, California, noted:
the task of the mass media of information and the ‘new media’ of education is to speed and ease the long, slow social transformation required for economic development, and, in particular, to speed and smooth the task of modernising human resources behind the national effort. (Schramm, 1964: 27)
Schramm endorsed Lerner’s view that mass media can raise the aspirations of the peoples in developing countries. The mass media in the South, he wrote, ‘face the need to rouse their people from fatalism and a fear of change. They need to encourage both personal and national aspirations. Individuals must come to desire a better life than they have and to be willing to work for it’ (ibid. 1964: 130).
The timing of Schramm’s book was significant. The UN had proclaimed the 1960s as ‘the Decade of Development’ and UN agencies and Western governments, led by the USA, were generously funding research, often in conjunction with private companies, through universities and development bureaucracy, notably the newly established United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States Information Agency (USIA), and the Peace Corps, to harness the power of the mass media to ‘modernize’ the newly independent countries of the South.
In the 1970s, modernization theorists started to use the level of media development as an indicator of general societal development. Leading theorists of the ‘development as modernization’ school, such as Everett Rogers, saw a key role for the mass media in international communication and development (Rogers, 1962; Pye, 1963). Such research benefited from the surveys undertaken by various US-government-funded agencies and educational foundations, especially in Asia and Latin America for what Rogers (1962) called ‘disseminating innovations’.
This top-down approach to communications, a one-way flow of information from government or international development agencies via the mass media to Southern peasantry at the bottom, was generally seen as a panacea for the development of the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa. But it was predicated on a definition of development that followed the model of Western industrialization and ‘modernization’, measured primarily by the rate of economic growth of output or Gross National Product (GNP). It failed to recognize that the creation of wealth on its own was insufficient: the improvement of life for the majority of the populations depended on the equitable distribution of that wealth and its use for the public good. It also failed to ask questions like development for whom and who would gain or lose, ignoring any discussion of the political, social, or cultural dimensions of development In many Southern countries, income disparities in fact increased over the succeeding thirty years – despite a growth in GNP.
Moreover, the mass media were assumed to be a neutral force in the process of development, ignoring how the media are themselves products of social, political, economic and cultural conditions. In many developing countries economic and political power was and remains restricted to a tiny, often unrepresentative, elite, and the mass media play a key role in legitimizing the political establishment. Since the media had, and continue to have, close proximity to the ruling elites, they tend to reflect this view of development in the news.
The international communication research inspired by the modernization thesis was very influential, shaping university communication programmes and research centres globally. Though such research provided huge amount of data on the behaviour, attitudes and values of the people in the South, it tended to work within the positivist tradition of what sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld (1941) had long identified as ‘administrative’ research, often failing to analyse the political and cultural context of international communication.
However, the outcomes of this type of research in international communication can be useful in analysing the relationship of media growth to economic development, measured in terms of such indicators as sales of communication hardware and gross national product. They are also useful in international promotion of advertising and marketing.
It is important to understand the Cold War context in which modernization theory emerged, a time when it was politically expedient for the West to use the notion of modernization to bring the newly independent nations of Asia, the Middle East and Africa into the sphere of capitalism. As Vincent Mosco comments: ‘The theory of modernisation meant a reconstruction of the international division of labour amalgamating the non-Western world into the emerging international structural hierarchy’ (1996: 121). It is now being accepted that some of modernization research was politically motivated. It has been pointed out that Lerner’s seminal study was a spin-off from a large and clandestine government-funded audience research project, conducted for the Voice of America by the Bureau of Applied Social Research (Samarajiva, 1985).
Despite its enormous influence in the field of international communication, Lerner’s research had more to do with the East-West ideological contest of those days of Cold War, when in the Middle East radical voices were demanding decolonization – Iran had nationalized its oil industry in 1951, leading to the CIA-backed coup, two years later, which removed the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Musaddiq. Given the prominence of radio propaganda during the 1950s, this research could also be seen as an investigation of radio listening behaviour in a region bordering the Soviet Union. In this context it is interesting to note that Lerner had worked for the Psychological Warfare Division of the US Army during the Second World War.
One major shortcoming of the early modernization theorists was their assumption that the modern and the traditional lifestyles were mutually exclusive, and their dismissive view of the culture of the ‘indigent natives’ led them to believe in the desirability and inevitability of a shift from the traditional to the modern. The dominant cultural and religious force in the region – Islam – and a sense of collective pan-Islamic identity were seen as ‘sentimental sorties into the symbolism of a majestic past’. The elites in the region had to choose between ‘Mecca or mechanisation’. The crux of the matter, Lerner argued, was ‘not whether, but how one should move from traditional ways toward modern life-styles. The symbols of race and ritual fade into irrelevance when they impede living desires for bread and enlightenment’ (Lerner, 1958: 405).
What modernizers such as Lerner failed to comprehend was that the dichotomy of modern versus traditional was not inevitable. Despite all the West’s efforts at media modernization, Islamic traditions continue to define the Muslim world, and indeed have become stronger in parts of the Middle East. In addition, these cultures can also use modern communication methods to put their case across. In the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, for example, radical groups produced printed material and audiocassettes and distributed them through informal networks to promote an anti-Western ideology based on a particular Islamic view of the world (Mohammadi and Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1994).
In Latin America most communication research, often funded by the US government, was led by proponents of the modernization thesis. However, since the gap between the rich and poor was growing, as elsewhere in the developing world, critics started to question the validity of the developmentalist project and raised questions about what it left out – the relationship between communication, power and knowledge and the ideological role of international organizational and institutional structures. This led to a critique of modernization in Latin America, most notably from Brazil’s Paulo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) had a major influence on international development discourse, though how far his views were adopted in devising international communication strategies remains an open question.
Southern scholars, especially those from Latin America, argued that the chief beneficiaries of modernization programmes were not the ‘traditional’ rural poor in the South but Western media and communication companies, which had expanded into the Third World, ostensibly in the name of modernization and development, but in fact in search of new consumers for their products. They argued that modernization programmes were exacerbating the already deep social and economic inequalities in the developing countries and making them dependent on Western models of communication development.
Partly as a result of the work of Latin American scholars, the proponents of modernization in the West acknowledged that the theory needed reformulation. Despite decades of ‘modernization’, the vast majority of the people in the South continued to live in poverty, and by the mid-1970s the talk was of the ‘passing of the dominant paradigm’ (Rogers, 1976). In a revised version of modernization theory, a shift has been detectable from support for the mass media to an almost blind faith in the potential of the new information and communication technologies – in what has been called ‘a neo-developmentalist view’ (Mosco, 1996: 130).
Also noticeable is the acceptance of a greater role for local elites in the modernization process. However, the importance of Western technology remains crucial in the revised version too. According to this view, modernization requires advanced telecommunication and computer infrastructure, preferably through the ‘efficient’ private corporations, thus integrating the South into a globalized information economy.

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