Modernization Theory Revisited: A Cross-Cultural Study of Adolescent Conformity to Significant Others in Mainland China, Taiwan, and the USA

By Jie, Zhang; Thomas, Darwin L. | Adolescence, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Modernization Theory Revisited: A Cross-Cultural Study of Adolescent Conformity to Significant Others in Mainland China, Taiwan, and the USA


Jie, Zhang, Thomas, Darwin L., Adolescence


Modernization theory can be traced to the writings of Emile Durkheim (1987) and Max Weber (1992). Modernization is a broad concept that refers to major social changes which occur when a preindustrial society develops economically and the workplace shifts from the home to the factory (industrialization), people move from farms into cities where jobs are available (urbanization), and large-scale formal organizations emerge (bureaucratization). These three components of modernization accompany changes in such major asocial institutions as the family, religion, and education. These changes in turn affect power relations among people in a society.

Modernization theorists in social psychology have established a relationship between economic advancement and the power structure. Many previous studies, including those of Inkeles (1972) and Thomas and his associates (1971, 1972, 1974), have found a decrease in traditional face-to-face social relations and an increase in secondary social relations as industrialization and urbanization increase. These studies established that as the modernization level increases, traditional authoritative others such as leaders in the family, religion, and community have less power because they control fewer resources, while those in education, employment, and media control more resources and have greater power.

However, much of the previous modernity research has treated culture in a problematic fashion, failing to measure it adequately or to systematically analyze for cultural differences. Thus the effect of culture in a society on power and conformity has not yet been fully specified. Although Thomas and his associates dealt with multiple cultures, culture in their studies was confounded with modernization level. As a result, cultural effects could not be easily identified. Since culture to a society is as personality to an individual, cultural differences are very important in studies of power and conformity. For instance, if a society values education highly such as in the tradition of Chinese culture, modernization will hardly result in much increase in the youths' conformity to educators. Therefore, the study of the effect of modernization on power relations needs to include the cultural variable.

THEORETICAL FORMULATION

The dependent variable of this study is adolescent conformity to significant others. From modernization theory we begin with the assumption that the higher a society ranks on the industrialization-urbanization continuum, the lower the tendency of its youths to conform to the expectations of traditional significant others (such as parents and religion leaders), and the higher the tendency to conform to rational/legal significant others (such as professors). It is further hypothesized that culture will modify adolescent conformity patterns predicted by modernization theory.

The first purpose of this research was to test for hypothesized differences in adolescent conformity behavior in three different societies varying in their level of modernization and culture: the United States, Taiwan, and mainland China. Since these three societies are on the urbanization-industrialization continuum from high to low,(1) and the culture of the U.S. is different from that of the two oriental societies,(2) a comparison of conformity patterns among different levels of modernization across cultures is possible. Hypotheses of this research are illustrated in Table 1.

Taking the first significant others, parents, as an example, modernization theory predicts that the more modernized the society, the less power parents have, since they control fewer resources in such a society. But when we consider the cultural tradition of Confucianism in Taiwan and mainland China, we expect no significant difference between these Chinese societies on adolescent conformity to parents. Modernization theory posits that religion will lose its influence in society as a result of secularization, but the cultural values that emerged in mainland China after the communist takeover will result in less influence for religion.

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