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Is Modernization dead? Why developments in world politics place an epistemic challenge for social scientists

hilton root

a Max Weber Occasional Talk

Hilton Root (George Mason University)

16 March 2017

The Max Weber Occasional Talks are informal seminars by distinguished scholars invited by members of the Programme as the academic year develops.


Modernization theory has postulated a strong relationship between socio-economic development and democratization. The pivotal work of Seymour Martin Lipset triggered decades of empirical research into the causes of development and democratization. Working within this epistemic framework a group of economists in the New Institutionalist Approach (NIE) sought to refine claims about the direction of causality in the relationship between socioeconomic development and democratic change. While the earlier literature argues that socioeconomic development leads to consolidated democratic systems, NIE’s claim is that good institutions with the observance of the rule of law promote economic growth, which is likely to trigger a path to democracy (most notably, Rodrik 2007 and Acemoglu and Robinson 2012 developing Douglass North’s theory). Recent developments cast a heavy shadow of doubt on these predictions. China’s authoritarian path to development, Turkey’s descent to one-party hegemony despite its notable economic growth, and the rise of authoritarianism and populism in parts of Europe are key indications of remarkable divergence and variety in institutional trajectories.

Drawing on his experience as a policy adviser and fieldwork in directing development projects in five Muslim-majority countries, Professor Hilton Root critiques this linear approach which has become a dominant trend in the social sciences. He also questions whether the key assumptions of the equilibrium models of the senior branch of economic analysis are the prudent way to describe political and economic developments. His book ‘Dynamics Among Nations’ (2013, MIT Press), provides an alternative framework for understanding how structures form and change over time. Instead of focusing on variables independently by ‘holding all things constant’, so that cause and effect could be determined, he argues human societies should be seen as complex systems made up of networks of interacting agents – families, ruling coalitions, governmental bureaucracies, markets, unions – that influence each other within the larger system. The behaviour of one agent affects the behaviour of another, and the resulting dynamics produce novel and powerful self-organizing behavioural patterns that change the system, and create a spiral of feedback loops and linked responses. No equilibrium exists in the sense that is commonly understood in economics. Social actors change their behaviour as the system evolves, and their adaptations cause changes in the system as well. The coevolution of behaviour, function, and structure constitutes the traits of a particular system, and in their interactions the actors form networks that are in constant flux.

With this alternative analytic framework for the study of institution building, governance, and economic policy reform, Root challenges New Institutionalism and modernization theory, and sheds light on the divergent trajectories of China, Turkey, and Korea.

About the speaker

Dr. Hilton Root is a policy specialist in international political economy and development, and a member of the faculty at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. His current research examines three related areas: (1) global power transition and the challenge of legitimacy; (2) the comparative and historical dynamics of state-building; and (3) the use of complexity models to understand the evolution of social institutions.


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