Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain global stratification using modernization theory and dependency theory

While the three main sociological paradigms all help explain global stratification, there are two major theories that developed out of the structural-functional and conflict theories that are best positioned to explain global inequality: modernization theory and dependency theory. Modernization theory posits that countries go through evolutionary stages and that industrialization and improved technology are the keys to forward progress. Dependency theory, on the other hand, sees modernization theory as Eurocentric and patronizing. According to dependency theory, global inequality is the result of core nations creating a cycle of dependence by exploiting resources and labor in peripheral and semi-peripheral countries.

Macrosociological Theories of Global Stratification

Modernization Theory

Modernization theory comes out of the structural-functional viewpoint, as it frames inequality as a function of industrial and cultural differences between nations. It holds that low-income nations were left out of the industrial gains that followed both the Columbian Exchange, which produced a transfer of goods and technologies between Europe and the “New World” beginning in the late 15th century, and the Industrial Revolution, due to an inability or reluctance to adopt new technologies. 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 toward 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 extreme 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.

Try It

Dependency Theory

Dependency theory coincides with the conflict viewpoint, as it focuses on ways that poor nations have been wronged by rich nations. It 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 in a self-determined sense. Further, the theory states that since core nations, as well as the World Bank, choose which countries are eligible for loans, as well as deciding what types of projects the loans may finance, they are creating highly segmented labor markets that are built to primarily 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).

Watch IT

Watch this video to learn more about modernization and dependency theories. It explains how modernization developed through four stages: the traditional stage, the take-off stage, the drive to technological maturity, and then high-mass consumption. Modernization theory holds that increases in technology will increase wealth throughout the globe, and that low-income nations can follow the path taken by wealthier, modernized nations. Dependency theory holds that some nations gained wealth at the expense of other nations, especially through colonization.

Further Research

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.

Try It

Key Takeaways

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


Did you have an idea for improving this content? We’d love your input.

Improve this pageLearn More