Modernization is a composite concept It is also an ideological concept. The models of modernization covary with the choice of ideologies. The composite nature of this concept renders it pervasive in the vocabulary of social sciences and evokes its kinship with concepts like development, growth, evolution and progress. In the book on Essays on Modernization in India Yogendra Singh has analyzed the varied and complex processes involved in the modernization in India, the forces released by it and their bearing on the stability, creativity and development in India as a dynamic nation and composite civilization.

The emphasis on historicity in preference to universality defining the context of modernization the pre-eminence of structural changes in society to render the adaptive process of modernization successful in the developing countries particularly India and the eclectic nature of cultural and ideological response of India to the challenges of modernization represent some of the unifying principles. Singh portrays the challenges and contradictions that India encounters in the course of its modernization.

Modernization is a process associated with the sweeping changes that took place in the society, particularly social, economic, political and cultural changes. It represents substantial breaks with traditional society. Modernization is an idea before it is a process. As it is an idea, there is no agreement among social scientists on its meaning and interpretation. The concept of modernization, emerged as an explanation of how Western countries/ societies developed through capitalism.

According to this approach, modernization depends primarily on introduction of technology and the knowledge required making use of it. Besides, several social and political prerequisites have been identified to make modernization possible. Some of these prerequisites are:

  1. Increased levels of education;
  2. Development of mass media;
  3. Accessible transport and communication;
  4. Democratic political institutions;
  5. More urban and mobile population;
  6. Nuclear family in place of extended family;
  7. Complex division of labour;
  8. Declining public influence of religion, and;
  9. Developed markets for exchange of goods and services in place of traditional ways of meeting such needs.

Modernization is, thus, supposed to be the result of the presence of these prerequisites in the social system. It is clear that the term modernization has been used here in a very broad sense. We, therefore, find different views about the scope and area to be covered by the concept of modernization.

Debate on Concept of Modernization

  1. Some sociologists limit modernization to its structural aspect, others emphasise its cultural dimension. A few studies highlight the issue of political modernization and still others analyze its psychological meaning. Of course, the treatment of the concept in terms of it being a process of social change is found in writings of many scholars.
  2. Daniel Thorner in his essay on ‘Modernization’ explains the modernization in these words: “modernization is the current term for an old process of social change whereby less developed society’s acquired characteristics common to more developed societies.” He further writes “Modernization, therefore, is the process of social change in which development is the economic component”.
  3. Obviously this understanding of the term corresponds with the meaning which we have given to the term at the beginning of our discussion. Accordingly, modernization is a process of change, which takes a country from underdevelopment to development It produces social environment for economic development. The growths in industrialization, urbanization, national income and per capital income are taken as criteria of development.
  4. However, while accepting the economic criteria of development, some sociologists have added non-economic criteria to judge development. They argue that rising output alone is not sufficient to assess the level of development. A society has to move from rising output to self-sustaining growth. Therefore, non-economic criteria such as the level of education, function of media, growth of communication and social norms conducive to change have to be taken into consideration.
  5. The meaning of modernization given above incorporates, primarily, structural aspects of change. In other words, under modernization structural transformation takes place in economy, polity and social institution. It is to be noted here that the concept of modernization has also been explained in cultural terms. In cultural term, modernization implies change in values and attitudes.
  6. Modernity involves values and norms that are universal in nature. Explaining this aspect of modernization Yogendra Singh suggests that ‘modernization implies a rational attitude towards issues and their evaluation from a universal view point’. Thus, technological advancement and economic growth are not the sole criterion to judge the level of modernization of the society. The commitment to scientific world view and humanistic ideas are equally important.
  7. Moreover, the idea of modernization has also been analyzed in terms of the paired concepts of tradition and modernity. It has been argued that modernity stands as opposite to tradition. In this sense, all the underdeveloped societies are characterized as traditional and the developed societies as modern. Modernization, thus, implies a change from tradition to modernity. Change occurs according to this view, in predicable direction. In other words, in order to modernize, every society has to follow the same direction and adopt a similar path. All the existing values and structures have to be replaced by the new values and structures.
  8. Nonetheless, sociologists from the developing countries are critical of this understanding of modernization. They maintain that modernization does not stand as a polar opposite to tradition. Traditional values and institutions are not necessarily discarded while taking up new values in the process of change. Society adopts new values because they are considered more efficient and rewarding. In view of this, these sociologists hold that modernization would develop typical forms in different societies. Patterns of modernization, thus, may vary from society to society. The discussion shows that processes of modernization involve both structural and cultural dimensions.


According to Yogendra Singh, tradition refers to those ‘value-themes’ which encompass the entire social system of Indian society prior to the beginning of modernization. These value themes were organized on the principles of hierarchy, holism, continuity and transcendence. These four value themes were deeply interlocked with other elements of Indian social structure:

  1. Hierarchy was engrained in the system of caste and subcaste stratification. It was also there in the Hindu concepts of nature, Occupational lifecycles [Ashramas] and moral duties [Dharmas].
  2. Holism implied a relationship between individual and group in which the former was encompassed by the later in respect of duties and rights. Here precedence was given to community or sangha, not the individual. This over shadowing of individual by collectivity persisted all along the line of traditional social structure, e.g. family, village community, caste and nation.
  3. Continuity in Hinduism was symbolized by principles of karma, transmigration of soul and a cyclical view of change. Communalism in traditional social system was reinforced through the value system of continuity.
  4. The principle of transcendence also posited that legitimating of traditional values could never be challenged on grounds of rationality derived from the non-sacred or profane scales of evaluation. It formed a super concept contributing to integration as well as rationalization of the other value themes of the tradition.

The organization of tradition based on these value-components could not be called typical only of the Indian society, since at one level similar phenomenon also existed in the traditional West The divergence between the two traditions, however, arose from their unique social heritage, existential situation and historicity of circumstances.

Modernization of Indian Tradition:

Some sociologists make a distinction between social change and modernization in order to assess the nature of change in the traditional Indian society. Though, social change occurred in traditional India. It was essentially pre-modern in nature. One traditional institution was just replaced by the other and no basic structural change took place in social system and culture.

Historically, modernization in India started from the establishment of the British rule and had continued even after the independence. The nature and direction of modernization during these two phases have been different.

Initially, the contact with British led to growth of a modernizing sub-culture or Little tradition of Westernization, especially during the seventeenth century in Bengal, Madras and Bombay, where a small nucleus of interpreters, trader-cum-middlemen emerged who were slowly being socialized to Western ways. Subsequently, there also emerged sects which emphasized assimilation of Western cultural norms, and Western modes of learning (e.g. Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, etc.); these also ran a crusade against obscurantism in Hindu traditions. These movements on one hand and the consolidation of the British power towards the middle of the nineteenth century on other finally led to the institution of a modernizing Great tradition. Its components were :

  1. The contact with the West brought about far reaching changes in social structure and cultural institutions. Changes were witnessed in almost all-important areas of life. The British administration introduced new arrangements in legal agrarian, educational and administrative domains. Most of these led to structural modernization.
  2. For instance, the bureaucratic system of administration and judiciary introduced by them were based on modern rational norms, which replaced the traditional Indian legal norms, based on the principle of hierarchy and ascription.
  3. A similar transformation took place in the system of education and agrarian structure.The Western system of education was introduced towards the middle of the nineteenth century and expanded significantly thereafter.
  4. New patterns of land settlements such as Zamindari, Ryotwari and Mahalwari covering the whole of British India resulted in systematization of revenue administration.
  5. Some other areas experiencing modernizing trends were industrialization, urbanization, transport and communication, army and the emergence of industrial working class and so forth.
  6. The emergence and growth of a nationalist political leadership was also the result of growing modernization of Indian society. In fact the nationalist leadership became so strong that freedom movement itself generated a new culture of modernization.

It is apparent from the above that the colonial phase of modernization created wide networks of structure and culture which were modern and had an all India appeal. There was, however, one important feature of Indian modernization during the British-period The growth of this process was selective and segmental. It was not integrated with the micro-structures of Indian society, such as family, caste and village community. At these levels, the British by and large followed a policy of least interference, especially after the rebellion of1857. Moreover, some British administrators were wrongly impressed by the staticness and autonomy of these microstructures compared with the rest of the Indian society. This was especially so about the notion of village community and importance attributed to caste. For a long time caste and ethnic factors were given recognition in recruitment of officers to army and middle and lower ranks of bureaucracy. Later, in the twentieth century, as the nationalist movement gathered momentum, a communal electorate system was introduced. These historical factors have deeply influenced the process of modernization which followed during the post-colonial period. It increased the contingency of traditional institutions and symbolisms to the Indian process of modernization.

Freedom movement ushered in a new political culture of modernization. At its centre was the personality of Mahatma Gandhi whose one foot was always deeply embedded in tradition. His emergence during the peak of Westernization process in India signifies an orthogenetic response of Indian tradition to the new challenges of social change. Gandhi successfully mobilized Indian people for the attainment of freedom, but he could not, however, avert one serious breakdown in the process… the partition of India into two independent nations. As we mentioned above, it followed from the uneven growth of subcultural traditions of modernization in Hinduism and Islam, each conditioned by unique historicity of their own. The quest for a separate nationhood by the Muslim community in India reflected a crisis of aspiration along with that of confidence.

After the independence modernization process has undergone some fundamental changes. Every domain of social system is under the active influence of modernizing process. Modernization has, now, become an integral part of the developmental strategy. Now modernization has been envisaged for all levels of cultural and structural systems. Discontinuity in modernization between macro-structures and micro-structures and between the Little and Great traditions, as during the British regime, has now been consciously abolished.

  1. The political system has assumed a new shape after adoption of the parliamentary form of government based on adult franchise. Political parties have emerged as powerful organs of the system. Thus, democratic political structure has effectively led to increasing political consciousness among the people. The process of politicization has further, been accelerated through the Panchayat Raj institutions.
  2. The foundations of traditional family structure have come under influence of legal reforms in marriage and inheritance. The family introduced equalitarian norms in family leading to raised status of women.
  3. Community Development Projects have carried the cultural norms and role-structures of modernity to each and every village in India, and this, coupled with introduction of land reforms and elective village panchayats, has initiated villagers to a bureaucratic form of participation in local level management and administration of justice.
  4. Similarly, caste has assumed new functional roles. It has acquired an associational character. New consciousness has emerged among dalits. Increasing role of caste in politics is a pointer to this trend
  5. Moreover, land reforms, too, have brought structural transformation in agrarian social structure. However, it is pertinent to call attention to the fact that modernization in India has not been uniformly progressive movement. Two crucial issues may be pointed out in this regard :
    • First in the process of modernization several traditional institutions and activities have been reinforced For example, religious preachers are using modern media to spread their ideas. Now, there are television channels in India exclusively developed to religious preaching. Caste associations are using new modes of communication to consolidate their position.
    • Second inconsistencies are visible in patterns of modernization. Though structural change is witnessed in family, joint family loyalties and norms still prevail. Democratic participation is increasing despite of increasing caste conflicts.

Thus, modernization in India has not thoroughly dispensed with traditional institutions. Yogendra Singh has, appropriately, highlighted this fact in his study entitled Modernization of Indian Tradition. He writes, “The form of traditional institutions may remain intact but their substance might undergo major transformations incorporating modernization.” In this sense modernization process in India has acquired a typical form. Traditional institutions have displayed their potential for adaptations in course of change.

Continuity and breakdowns in modernization in India

According to Eisenstaedt, modernization, in its initial stages in India, did not lead to any serious breakdown because of the peculiar structural characteristics of the Indian society. Here, cultural system was fairly independent of political system. Louis Dumont writes: This domain of polity or artha is, in the dominant tradition, relatively autonomous with regard to absolute values; there was also independence between the political system and the system of caste stratification.’ Castes had their own panchayats and plural traditions, and similarly there also existed autonomy for groups and regional communities. This inter-structural autonomy facilitated assimilation of modernizing innovations, without introducing major breakdown. Modernity, however, mainly developed as a sub-culture without pervasive expansion in all sectors of life.

The colonial phase of modernization did not seriously articulate many structural challenges which now with the totalization of this process in free India implies. As segmental nature of modernization becomes encompassing, relevance of structural autonomy ceases to operate as a shock absorber. Changes in political system begin increasingly to impinge upon the system of stratification (caste, class, ethnic communities), and these together create serious stresses for the cultural system as a whole. The cultural pre-requisites of a comprehensive modernization necessitate adaptive changes in the system of values which come in direct confrontation with tradition cultural values and norms. For instance, secularism, untouchability, non-parochialism are some cultural demands of modernization in contemporary India which its traditional value system continues to resist Important trends of social and cultural change in India which are relevant to the process of modernization are,

  1. In cultural sphere, major changes have been introduced by legislations.
  2. These seek to abolish social inequalities and exploitations handed down bytradition and accord democratic rights and constitutional privileges to all members of society.
  3. This has led to a trend away from Sanskritisation (Emulation of the Great tradition) and towards formation of new identities and associations of castes, regional groups and tribes.
  4. These processes are accelerated by ‘Great traditions’ of modernization such as, urbanization, industrialization, spread of education and politicization.
  5. The traditional structures and loyalties are being mobilized for objectives which are essentially modern and an increased emphasis is on protest movements.

However, the tradition also gets reinforcement in the process; modern media of communication and transport are increasingly used for spreading ritual order and for national organization of religious groups and their mode of activities and social participation. There is a tendency among religious sects to organize themselves on rational bureaucratic model and the previous fission of each new sect form the parent body has now changed into strong orientation towards fusion.

Inconsistencies are also there in structural changes that India has undergone during the postcolonial phase of modernization. These are :

  1. Micro-structures like caste, family and village community have retained their traditional character. Caste has shown unexpected elasticity and latent potential for adaptation with modern institutions such as democratic participation, political party organization and trade unionism, and it persists unabatedly. Joint family loyalties and particularistic norms continue to prevail.
  2. These contradictions are, however, further magnified at the level of macrostructures, such as the political system, bureaucracy, elite structure, industry and economy.
  3. The post-colonial period of modernization had homogeneity in elite structure. These elite from industrial civil and military bureaucracies, as well as political spheres came from similar class- caste stratum; they had equitable exposure to Western education and socialization. They also had uniformity of ideologies and aspirations.This was because the social base for recruitment of these elite was limited.
  4. Elite structure has fairly widened during the post-Independence period; it may not be equitable in terms of stratification system, but in cultural background there is enough representativeness which leads to many contradictions.
  5. A gap is specially coming into being between political elite and non- political elite; the former are less Westernized and externally at least identify with traditional cultural symbolisms more strongly than the latter.
  6. There is also evidence that, in the course of three five-year plans additional income generated by economic investment has gone in favour of only the well-to-do classes to the detriment of poorer sections. Planning has thus accentuated and sharpened the gaps in social stratification.
  7. This along with slow rate of economic growth and rapid increase in population creates additional intensities for structural tensions.
  8. Despite the years of effort at industrialization, India continues to be rural-peasant dominated society with general poverty of living standards.

Thus, major potential sources of breakdown in the Indian process of modernization may, in one form or another, be attributed to structural inconsistencies, such as :

  1. Democratization without spread of civic culture (education),
  2. Bureaucratization without commitment to universalistic norms,
  3. Rise in media participation (communication) and aspiration, without proportionate increase in resources and distributive justice,
  4. Verbalization of a welfare ideology without its diffusion in social structure and its implementation as a social policy,
  5. Over-urbanization without industrialization, and
  6. Finally modernization without meaningful change in the stratification system.

Gunnar Myrdal refers to similar impediments to modernization in India and other Asian countries in his work Asian Drama. According to him,

  1. Nationalism and democratic institutions themselves have grown in a structurally uneven form in these countries.
    • Gunnar Myrdal gave the concepts of
      • Instrumental Values are pre condition for rise of modernity. Goal orientation, rationality are some of its characteristics. While,
      • Differential Values manifest in people belonging to different cultures, social background and traditions. Therefore impact of modernity varies on these axes.
        • Therefore, Instrumental values which are precursor of modernity, when introduced, they contest with the differential values of society. So the impact/benefits of modernity varies among societies and also with is society. (Classes)
  2. In Europe, he says, strong independent State with a fairly effective government and a common pattern of law enforcement, preceded nationalism, and both preceded democracy. In South Asian countries democratic ideology has, due to special historicity, preceded strong and independent State and effective government, and this is further complicated by onslaught of nationalism. This uneven historicity goes along with economic dependence of these countries on developed nations and slow rate of economic growth and still slower pace in institutional changes.
  3. According to Myrdal India, which has a more viable size of intellectuals and middle classes necessary for democracy, planned economic growth has not made as deep an impact towards liberalizing the structural bottlenecks for modernization.
  4. According to him, India’s ‘soft-state’ policy after Independence inhibited its leadership from going to the root of the problem, that is, introduction of basic changes in the institutional structure of society.
  5. The inegalitarian structure of society continued to grow and consolidate itself; there developed a long gap between verbalization and implementation of policies of reform;
  6. The decentralization of power in rural sectors led to concentration of power in the hands of a petty plutocracy. Also the leadership of the country as a whole remained with those who are opponents of real economic and social change.

Rustos approach to modernity:

W.W. Rustow wrote a book “Economic development – a non communist manifesto” his approach was based on Market capitalism. He rejects any ideological mooning to process of modernization. According to his theory, All Nations in globalised age will undergo same processes in their course of development. He proposed five stage, in which first stage is Primitive Stage, characterized by theological, superstitions and backward society. In 2nd stage, which he calls Pre-take off stage. There are changes in these societies. Live exposure to colonialism, trade, modern education preparing ground for modernity. Next stage is Take off. In which National aspirations will be manifested in protest against outsiders. So Independence is the objective in this stage.4th stage is Drive towards maternity. In this stage by controlling state power and policies. Nation embraces rationality, technology, skill and multipronged approach to developed 5th stage is stage of mass consumption. In which Aircraft come to auto pilot mode, country becomes developed Rate of mobility increases and citizen become right conscious. Some sociologist in India are influenced by Rustow’s writing. It reflects in their unidirectional approach to modernity.

Structural functionalist view – M.N. Srinivas

In opinion of Srinivas modernity is value loaded concept It establishes superior -inferior stereotype between modern-traditional It looks down upon traditional Everything modern is not good. Therefore modernity is not a valid concept in India. So he developed concepts like westernization, Sanskritisation. Which reflect on continuity as well as change.

Morxist/ Dialectial approach to modernity in India

  1. Dialectics may have both conflicts and contradictions. So applying dialectical approach to Indian modernity gives the Marxian understanding of social change. In Indian Sociology DP.Mukharjee was early Marxist who wrote book “Social structures of values” reflecting on social change. He argues that India had well defined body of values which were derived from culture and religion. But these were class values forced by brain maniacal class on masses. So he contradict indological notion of voluntary value consensus.
  2. Instead value consensus was forced on masses through dominant class of Brahmins. After Islamic invasion, there was percolation Islamic values in Indian society. This led to dialectics between Hindu cultural values and Islamic values. The oppressed classes which were suffocating under brahmanic value domination got a chance to liberate themselves. This led to conversion of lower castes to Islam. The dialectical conflicted led to destruction of temples, mosques and cruel taxes by elites of each religion.
  3. When British arrived in India. They along with them brought new value system. Modern education spread this value system process of institutionalization of modern occupation such as Army, bankers, lawyers, happened in this period. But Indians were also committed to their cultural values. This was reflected in restless emerging middle classes in British India. For example Muting of 1857 shows the dialectics between values of institutions (Army) and cultural values of sepoys.
  4. Finally, he argues that in independent India, we have to sort out these contradiction of values. For that we noed constructive politices by state. Modern education based on modern values i.e. inclusiveness, humanism, welfare will lead to uniformisation of values. Secularism, democracy and equality should be basis of socialism in India.]
  5. Further, A.R. Desai Applied Marxian approach through study of changes in made of production he views national movement as creation of class interest While contemporary Marxists lie Randhir Singh argues that modernization of Indian tradition has given way to rise of petty-bourgeoisie in the form of rich landlords, owners of small industry, controllers of cooperatives, major beneficiaries of horticulture etc. He argues that capitalistic development is taking place in Indian agriculture which was earlier traditional People from the poverty ridden zone of India are migrating to resource rich agricultural region of country. It is resulting in alienation, exploitation and pauperization of masses.
  6. In tribal belts, expansion of industry, dams, mining projects and urbanization have produced massive displacement of tribals. It has created problem of developmental refuge.
  7. He sees the modernization in field of education through dialectics of class interest Education actually was envisaged to promote equality end to end hierarchy but he says that it has led to class schools- Good quality private education, which has inbuilt structure of better jobs in future and Mass School -paid through public money where quality of education is low. And masses are enrolled here. This commercialization of education has created gap between haves and have nots.
  8. Therefore, modernization of India has led to consolidation of class interest Land is consolidating in few hands. 80% of industrial wealth in just 19% of industrialists. So it is leading to consolidation or prosperity in upper strata and mossifciation of poverty. This is creating paradox of development and becoming reason for social discontent.

Concluding analysis:

  1. The emergent tensions caused by process of modernization in India, direct our attention to much needed further coordination in the strategy of change. Contradictions are emerging in the system at various levels as a result of uncoordinated institutional reforms and economic measures introduced for modernization during the post-Independence period.
  2. These contradictions, however, also inherit and symbolize the frictions caused by upward movement of hitherto suppressed aspirations and interests of groups. Protest movements whether disguised (like Sanskritisation, Islamization, formation of parochial associations based on caste, language and regional culture) or overt (Centre-State tensions) are inevitable in democratic transition to modernization.
  3. These, of course, indicate the specific areas where institutional and other reforms could further be accelerated to remove friction in the process of change. Modernization should thus proceed by a series of conciliatory steps through a forceful strategy of mobilization in the course of the developmental process. The need is also simultaneously to reinforce the democratic values and institutions. Given a democratic political framework, there exists a built-in mechanism in this system to build pressures for removal of inconsistencies emerging from uncoordinated changes in the ‘conditions’ of modernization; but the same cannot be said to be true for other forms of totalitarian political systems.
  4. On the whole it appears that, despite continual tensions and contradictions, chances of the institutional breakdown are minimal democratic values have fairly institutionalized in the political system; cultural gap which has recently widened between various levels of the elite does not go far enough to introduce major conflict about the ideology of modernization.
  5. Caste, which represents institutionalized form of inequality sanctioned by tradition now fights battles against inequality and in egalitarianism by its own rational self-transformation into associations: many independent or categorical values of tradition have shown a surprising degree of elasticity of adapt them selves to the cultural system of modernization.
  6. Some of these traditions even thrive as modernization processes accelerate without creating major contradictions. In the realm of material resources too, the recent ‘agricultural revolution’ in the country side has created a new atmosphere of optimism for future progress. This, along with people’s increasing awareness to curb the birth-rate may point towards new hopeful signs of modernization without a breakdown. A constant coordination of mobilization with conciliation is a pre-requisite for democratic form of modernization in India.

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Umme Jasmine

Very rich discussion on modernization of India and the subcontinent.


Very helpful!