In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Development

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Edited Volumes
  • Journals
  • Classic Works
  • Internal Colonialism
  • The Market Transition in the Post-Communist World
  • Global Value Chains
  • Social Capital

Sociology Development
Andrew Schrank
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0011


Development occupies an ambiguous position in contemporary sociology. It is simultaneously a cause (or correlate) of phenomena that are of general sociological interest (e.g., urbanization, stratification, democratization), an outcome to be explained by way of sociological analysis, and a contested concept that is defined, interpreted, and operationalized in different ways by different people. The sociology of development is therefore an expansive subfield with porous boundaries. Sociologists who study development frequently identify with other subfields (e.g., political sociology, economic sociology, demography); sociologists who associate with other subfields frequently brush up against the sociology of development in the course of their research; and sociologists who invoke development—as either cause or consequence—frequently take it to mean different things. Nevertheless, the subfield’s lineage is as distinguished as its boundaries are porous, for development loomed large in the classical tradition and played a central part in the theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim—not to mention their offspring. For instance, the “modernization” theories that dominated the postwar era drew their primary inspiration from Weber and Durkheim. They posited a more or less universal, albeit uneven, process of development animated not only by endogenous evolutionary processes but also by the diffusion of Western technologies and values to non-Western environments over time. While Marx agreed that the growth of capitalism would eventually draw “even the most barbarian” of nations into the modern world, and therefore anticipated the modernization perspective by almost a century, his descendants portrayed capitalism as less aid than obstacle to late development, and therefore abandoned orthodox Marxism for neo-Marxist perspectives (e.g., “dependency” and “world systems” theories) that posited an antagonistic, rather than symbiotic, relationship between the developed and developing worlds in the late 1960s and 1970s. Only by embracing socialism, they argued, could the developing world overcome the legacy of colonialism and usher in an era of prosperity and generalized well-being. By the late 1980s, however, neo-Marxist pessimism had run aground on the shoals of the East Asian “miracle,” and sociologists had begun to embrace middle-range alternatives that focused on specific states, firms, sectors, and communities.


The following textbooks provide basic introductions to the different sociological perspectives on development. Harrison 1988 and So 1990 provide solid, if by now somewhat dated, introductions to the modernization, dependency, and world-systems approaches. Sklair 2002 and especially McMichael 2004 offer more contemporary visions that take account of the empirical and theoretical landscape of the field since around 1990.

  • Harrison, David. 1988. The sociology of modernization and development. New York: Unwin Hyman.

    A summary and assessment of key debates within and between the modernization and “underdevelopment” (or neo-Marxist) perspectives in the mid- to late 20th century.

  • McMichael, Philip. 2004. Development and social change: A global perspective. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.

    Incorporates a discussion of rival development theories into a historical analysis of the demise of a “development project” that allowed poor countries to pursue state-sponsored national development and the rise of a “globalization project” that demands their incorporation into a liberal international trade and investment regime.

  • Sklair, Leslie. 2002. Globalization: Capitalism and its alternatives. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Reviews existing approaches to globalization and development in the course of calling for an alternative focused on the “transnational practices” that are pursued by transnational corporations, classes, and media elites, among others.

  • So, Alvin. 1990. Social change and development: Modernization, dependency, and world-system theories. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

    A thorough overview of the modernization, dependency, and world-systems perspectives that concludes by adducing their continued relevance in the late 20th century.

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