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8.3D: Modernization and Technology

Modernization deals with social change from agrarian societies to industrial ones, with new technologies playing an important role.




Discuss some problems with modernization theory, especially for poorer countries



Key Points


  • The Renaissance period (14th-17th centuries) was an important era of introducing new technologies of mechanization and efficient production which paved the way for the Industrial Revolution.
  • The printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenburg in the 15th century, is regarded as one of the most important Renaissance inventions because it allowed the rapid spread of information across borders.
  • The mass production technologies perfected during the Industrial Revolution led to a dramatic change in production processes, which in turn spurred on patterns of urbanization, wage labor, and nuclear family life.
  • The Information Revolution refers to the most recent era of technological developments, including cell phones and the Internet.
  • The assumption that it is always beneficial to adopt new technologies in order to modernize must be questioned, because it can sometimes lead to value judgments against societies and groups who do not use the latest technologies.


Key Terms


  • Information Revolution: Refers to the most recent era of technological developments, including cell phones and the Internet.
  • Industrial Revolution: The major technological, socioeconomic, and cultural change in the late 18th and early 19th century, resulting from the replacement of an economy based on manual labor to one dominated by industry and machine manufacturing.
  • modernization: A model of an evolutionary transition from a “pre-modern” or “traditional” society to a “modern” society, including the adoption of new industry and technology.




New technology is a major source of social change. Modernization deals with social change from agrarian societies to industrial ones, so it is important to look at technology changes across contexts. New technologies do not change societies by themselves. Rather, it is the response to technology that causes change. Frequently, a new technology will be recognized but not put to use for a very long time. Later, it may be taken up on large scale such that an entire society is revolutionized by it.

From the perspective of Western societies, one of the most important epochs for technological innovation was the Renaissance, which spanned roughly the 14th through 17th centuries starting from Italy and spreading throughout the rest of Europe. Many technologies which had profound impact of social life were either invented or popularized during this time. For example, the compound crank and connecting rod converted circular motion into reciprocal motion and was of utmost importance for the mechanization of work processes, later becoming integrated into machine design. The mariner’s astrolabe played an important role in sea navigation, aiding in the discovery of the Americas and other overseas lands. Other technologies introduced during this time include the cranked reel (used to wind skeins of yarn), the blast furnace (enhanced iron production), and the rotary grindstone with treadle.


The Printing Press


Of extreme significance during this period was the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s by Johannes Gutenburg. Paving the way for mass production of printed material, the printing press is widely regarded as one of the most important inventions of the Renaissance. It made possible the relatively free flow of information, which transcended borders and induced a sharp rise in Renaissance literacy, learning, and education. It also allowed for greater circulation of (sometimes revolutionary) ideas among the rising middle classes and peasants and threatened the traditional power monopoly of the ruling nobility. The printing press became a key factor in the rapid spread of the Protestant Revolution and is thought to have enabled the development of national identities.


The Renaissance


The technologies of the Renaissance period, which introduced methods of mechanization, were the predecessors of the mass-production techniques that fueled the Industrial Revolution during the 18th and 19thcenturies, which started in Great Britain and emanated outwards. Key technologies developed during this period included the steam engine, new iron smelting methods, and the water frame, spinning Jenny, and spinning mule (in the textile industry). As a result of these developments, new factories sprung up everywhere and production shifted from homes or small workshops to factories. These developments also shaped new patterns of urbanization, labor, and family life, all of which may be deemed a process of modernization. For example, people moved from the countryside into the city in search of new work opportunities, more people were employed as wage-laborers doing repetitive tasks in a factory, and nuclear families became disconnected from the more extended kinship networks found in rural areas as people moved into cities.

Modernization continues apace today as technologies spread into areas that were previously less technologically advanced and as new innovations are introduced almost daily. Cell phones, for example, have changed the lives of millions throughout the world. This is especially true in Africa and parts of the Middle East where there is a low cost communication infrastructure. Spread of Internet connection is another powerful factor which facilitates rapid flows of information and interconnection between people in all corners of the globe. These processes may be considered the phase of technological innovation following the Industrial Revolution, which some have labeled the Information Revolution.

Modernization through technological innovation is seen by modernization theorists as a key way that poor countries can “catch up” to the developed world. The converse may also prove to be true though, if nations that do not adopt cutting edge technology at the same pace as developed nations are shut out of the global economy. This can lead to ethnocentric bias and prejudice against poorer countries who do not develop the new technologies that higher income countries do. Another flaw with modernization theory is its failure to recognize that if poorer countries adopt the technologies of higher-income countries, this may foster dependence. Poorer countries will rely on higher-income countries for support and guidance, thus widening (rather than narrowing) the power differential.