effects of the modernization process on human communication

History and Orientation

A macro-theory with a historical and sociological inspiration. Developed in large-scale historical research investigating the effects of the modernization process on human communication. Modernization means the appearance of ‘modes of social life or organization which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence’(Giddens, 1991). Modernization theories explain the changing ways of communication and media use in traditional and (post)modern societies.

Core Assumptions and Statements

Modernization theory has evolved in three waves. The first wave appeared in the 1950s and 1960s. One made the attempt to explain the diffusion of Western styles of living, technological innovations and individualist types of communication (highly selective, addressing only particular persons) as the superiority of secular, materialist, Western, individualist culture and of individual motivation and achievement (Lerner, 1958), Schramm, 1964).

This first wave of theory produced three variants (McQuail, 2000: 84):

  1. Economic development: mass media promote the global diffusion of many technical and social innovations that are essential to modernization (Rogers, 1962). See Diffusion of Innovations theory.
  2. Literacy and cultural development: mass media can teach literacy and other essential skills and techniques. They encourage a ‘state of mind’ favorable to modernity, e.g. the imagination of an alternative way of life beyond the traditional way.
  3. National identity development: mass media could support national identities in new nations (colonies) and support attention to democratic policies (elections).

Most of these theories have been discredited because of their pro-Western bias.

The second wave of modernization theory is a part of the critical theory that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. It does not support but criticize the influence of Western modernization. This is held to be a case of Western cultural and economic imperialism or dominance (Schiller, 1976).

One of the theories concerned is media dependency theory. Peripheral (developing) countries are assumed to be dependant on mass media in the core (the Western world).

The third wave of modernization theory rising in the 1990s is the theory of late-, high- or post modernity. It tries to be more neutral, being not in favor or against Western modernization. Rather it attempts to unearth the contradictions in the modernization process and to explain the consequences of modernity for individuals in contemporary society (Giddens, 1991a, 1991b). Giddens showed that modern society is characterized by time-space distantiation and disembedding mechanisms. Traditional society is based on direct interaction between people living close to each other. Modern societies stretch further and further across space and time using mass media and interactive media. Disembedding mechanisms such as money, symbolic means, English as the lingua franca and the Internet help to lift out and activities in an abstract or online form that were once embedded in particular material goods and in places. 

Benjamin Barber tried to explain the clash of Western and non-Western cultures of the world in his Jihad versus McWorld: How the Planet is both Falling Apart and Coming Together (1996).

This theme of the combination of unification and fragmentation in society and in media use also is present in the work of Meyrowitz (1993) – See Medium Theory- and van Dijk (1993, 1991/1999). Van Dijk tries to explain the rise of the new media such as computer networks and mobile telephony as important tools for modern life. They enable scale reduction and scale extension, a unitary and a fragmented world and, finally, a world that is both social and individualized (network individualism).

Conceptual Model

To be added

Favorite Methods

Historical sources research, literature research and critique.

Scope and Application

Very broad. All global relationships from a historical, sociological, economic and cultural point of view. Attention to the role of mass media and new media in world affairs.


Key publications

  • Barber, Benjamin and Schulz, Andrea. (1996) Jihad versus McWorld: How the Planet is Both Falling Apart and Coming Together. New York: Ballantine Books
  • Dijk, J.A.G.M. van (1993b). Communication Networks and Modernization. Communication Research, 20(3), 384‑407.
  • Dijk, Jan van (1991/1999). De Netwerkmaatschappij, Sociale aspecten van nieuwe media. Houten: Bohn Stafleu en van Loghum/ London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications.
  • Giddens, A. (1991a). The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford (Cal): Stanford University Press, Oxford: Basill Blackwell, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Giddens, A. (1991b). Modernity and Self‑Identity; Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Lerner, D. (1958). The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East. Glencoe ILL.: The Free Press.
  • Meyrowitz, J. & J. Maguire (1993). Media, Place and multiculturalism. Society 30, (5): 41-8.
  • McQuail, D. (2000). McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, 4th Edition, / London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications.
  • Rogers, E.R. (1962). The Diffusion of Innovations. Glencoe, ILL: The Free Press.
  • Schramm, W. (1964). Mass Media and National Development, The role of information in developing countries. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

See also Media, Culture and Society