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Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America.

Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America, Nils Gilman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 329 pp., $48 cloth.

Intellectual fashions come and go, and this well-researched book artfully analyzes the rise and fall of one of the more powerful paradigms in post-World War II American political science--so-called modernization theory. Much of the book is a sophisticated history of ideas, tracing the influence of such luminaries from sociology as Talcott Parsons and the Harvard Department of Social Relations, the political scientists associated with Gabriel Almond and the Committee on Comparative Politics of the Social Science Research Council, and culminating with the policy application of these ideas through MIT's Center for International Studies and especially the influence of Walt Rostow as President Lyndon Johnson's national security adviser during the Vietnam War.

As I read Gilman's book, I felt that I was back in graduate school, struggling to make sense out of Parsons's often impenetrable prose; trying to relate "pattern variables" to something I could recognize in the real world; and remembering some of the fine professors with whom I studied at MIT who are discussed here--Lucian Pye, Ithiel de Sola Pool, Myron Weiner, and Daniel Lerner. Gilman mostly gets it right. Those who pushed the modernization paradigm were anchored in an America-centric world; they tended to be optimistic and liberal; and their self-confidence led them astray, especially in Vietnam, where "nation building" earned its bad name. But he fails to appreciate the extent to which they encouraged their students to go out and study the world. They were much less insistent that we follow their lead in terms of theory than that we get our hands dirty doing research abroad. They were actually more tolerant and accepting toward ideas with which they disagreed than one would ever guess from this book. In short, whatever the shortcomings of their theories, they were actually excellent teachers and mentors.

I sometimes felt that Gilman was a bit condescending in his attitude toward those who were struggling to figure out the politics of the Third World, as it was then called. Many of these countries were new to Americans, and not surprisingly we tended to project what we did know--the politics of our own country and perhaps of Western Europe--onto others. But some of that parochialism began to fade as more field research was carried out. Gilman also tends to discount some of the very real diversity that existed among the "modernizers." In a sense, he takes their theories too seriously--there was never a complete consensus on theory or concepts, as he demonstrates--and he undervalues some of the excellent empirical work that grew out of the study of "developing areas." Just to take one example, a scholar like MIT's Myron Weiner was never dogmatic about theory; was deeply interested in empirical research on India; but also made a major effort to do comparative work on the role of ethnicity, religion, and migration in other regions, particularly the Balkans. When the modernization vogue passed in the mid-1970s, he and many others kept on doing interesting work.

As intellectual history, Gilman's account makes several key contributions. He rightly notes the influence of a few key personalities who happened to have been well established in prestige institutions; he then places emphasis on the role of foundations (Ford and Carnegie, in particular) in providing the funding that helped to legitimize and support the ideas of the scholars; and then he shows how some of these scholars went on to play important roles in policy-making. Drawing on Thomas Kuhn's notions of how science develops, he points out that the modernization paradigm did not win out by persuading its critics; instead, it succeeded by marginalizing them.

Gilman does a good job of showing how modernization theory came under attack from both left and right by the mid-1970s. But he also argues, correctly in my opinion, that the optimism of the modernizers collapsed in the lace of the Vietnam War and its domestic fallout, including the deep political divisions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As optimism about America faded, so did the confidence of the modernizers that the American model could be exported abroad without too much alteration. They even began to have doubts about how truly "modern" the United States was, and how well our political system functioned.

As I read the book, I thought about the resilience of American optimism and the return of some of the modernizers' views as the United States emerged victorious from the Cold War. Today's so-called neoconservatives, who took some credit for defeating the Soviet Union, share much of the America-centric optimism of the liberal modernizers of the 1960s, and their eagerness to export democracy American-style is almost as simplistic as the earlier faith that "transitional" societies were on their way to resembling "rational" Western models.

The rise and fall of modernization theory is by no means a unique occurrence in the field of political science. We have seen something similar with the waves of enthusiasm for postmodernist studies and now rational choice theory. Both have made major claims, both have sought to marginalize those who disagree with them, and both have shared some of the same hubris as the modernizers who thought they could develop a unified theory of human behavior. Perhaps the lesson of a book like this is that the study of human beings, whether by political scientists or sociologists or economists, will never produce a single, all-encompassing theory. Instead, we should welcome a kind of methodological and theoretical pluralism; we should be skeptical of grand claims; we should be insistent that empirical research is valued; and we should be worried when policy-makers enthusiastically embrace the newest intellectual fashions and try to use them to justify questionable policies. In short, we should be less arrogant and more tolerant. All in all, this is a book well worth reading.


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Author:Quandt, William B.
Publication:Ethics & International Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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