As with any social issue, global or otherwise, scholars have developed a variety of theories to study global stratification. The two most widely applied perspectives are modernization theory and dependency theory.
According to modernization theory, low-income countries are affected by their lack of industrialization and can improve their global economic standing through (Armer and Katsillis 2010):
- an adjustment of cultural values and attitudes to work
- industrialization and other forms of economic growth
Critics point out the inherent ethnocentric bias of this theory. It supposes all countries have the same resources and are capable of following the same path. In addition, it assumes that the goal of all countries is to be as “developed” as possible. There is no room within this theory for the possibility that industrialization and technology are not the best goals.
There is, of course, some basis for this assumption. Data show that core nations tend to have lower maternal and child mortality rates, longer life spans, and less absolute poverty. It is also true that in the poorest countries, millions of people die from the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, which are benefits most of us take for granted. At the same time, the issue is more complex than the numbers might suggest. Cultural equality, history, community, and local traditions are all at risk as modernization pushes into peripheral countries. The challenge, then, is to allow the benefits of modernization while maintaining a cultural sensitivity to what already exists.
Dependency theory was created in part as a response to the Western-centric mindset of modernization theory. It states that global inequality is primarily caused by core nations (or high-income nations) exploiting semi-peripheral and peripheral nations (or middle-income and low-income nations), which creates a cycle of dependence (Hendricks 2010). As long as peripheral nations are dependent on core nations for economic stimulus and access to a larger piece of the global economy, they will never achieve stable and consistent economic growth. Further, the theory states that since core nations, as well as the World Bank, choose which countries to make loans to, and for what they will loan funds, they are creating highly segmented labor markets that are built to benefit the dominant market countries.
At first glance, it seems this theory ignores the formerly low-income nations that are now considered middle-income nations and are on their way to becoming high-income nations and major players in the global economy, such as China. But some dependency theorists would state that it is in the best interests of core nations to ensure the long-term usefulness of their peripheral and semi-peripheral partners. Following that theory, sociologists have found that entities are more likely to outsource a significant portion of a company’s work if they are the dominant player in the equation; in other words, companies want to see their partner countries healthy enough to provide work, but not so healthy as to establish a threat (Caniels and Roeleveld 2009).
We’ve examined functionalist and conflict theorist perspectives on global inequality, as well as modernization and dependency theories. How might a symbolic interactionist approach this topic?
The book Factory Girls: From Village to City in Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang, provides this opportunity. Chang follows two young women (Min and Chunming) employed at a handbag plant. They help manufacture coveted purses and bags for the global market. As part of the growing population of young people who are leaving behind the homesteads and farms of rural China, these female factory workers are ready to enter the urban fray and pursue an ambitious income.
Although Chang’s study is based in a town many have never heard of (Dongguan), this city produces one-third of all shoes on the planet (Nike and Reebok are major manufacturers here) and 30 percent of the world’s computer disk drives, in addition to an abundance of apparel (Chang 2008).
But Chang’s focus is centered less on this global phenomenon on a large scale, than on how it affects these two women. As a symbolic interactionist would do, Chang examines the daily lives and interactions of Min and Chunming—their workplace friendships, family relationships, gadgets and goods—in this evolving global space where young women can leave tradition behind and fashion their own futures. Their story is one that all people, not just scholars, can learn from as we contemplate sociological issues like global economies, cultural traditions and innovations, and opportunities for women in the workforce.
For more information about economic modernization, check out the Hudson Institute.
Learn more about economic dependency at the University of Texas Inequality Project.
Think It Over
- There is much criticism that modernization theory is Eurocentric. Do you think dependency theory is also biased? Why, or why not?
- Compare and contrast modernization theory and dependency theory. Which do you think is more useful for explaining global inequality? Explain, using examples.
1. One flaw in dependency theory is the unwillingness to recognize _______.
- that previously low-income nations such as China have successfully developed their economies and can no longer be classified as dependent on core nations
- that previously high-income nations such as China have been economically overpowered by low-income nations entering the global marketplace
- that countries such as China are growing more dependent on core nations
- that countries such as China do not necessarily want to be more like core nations
2. One flaw in modernization theory is the unwillingness to recognize _________.
- that semi-peripheral nations are incapable of industrializing
- that peripheral nations prevent semi-peripheral nations from entering the global market
- its inherent ethnocentric bias
- the importance of semi-peripheral nations industrializing
3. If a sociologist says that nations evolve toward more advanced technology and more complex industry as their citizens learn cultural values that celebrate hard work and success, she is using _______ theory to study the global economy.
- modernization theory
- dependency theory
- modern dependency theory
- evolutionary dependency theory
- dependency theorist
- modernization theorist
- symbolic interactionist
- core nations and peripheral nations exploit semi-peripheral nations
- semi-peripheral nations exploit core nations
- peripheral nations exploit core nations
- core nations exploit peripheral nations
- dependency theory:
- a theory which states that global inequity is due to the exploitation of peripheral and semi-peripheral nations by core nations
- modernization theory:
- a theory that low-income countries can improve their global economic standing by industrialization of infrastructure and a shift in cultural attitudes towards work
Self-Check: Theoretical Perspectives on Stratification
You’ll have more success on the Self-Check, if you’ve completed both Readings in this section.