9.3 Explaining Global Stratification

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the main arguments of modernization theory.
  2. Describe the main arguments of dependency theory.

Explanations of global stratification parallel those of U.S. stratification (see Chapter 8 “Social Stratification”) in their focus on individual versus structural problems. One type of explanation takes an individual approach by in effect blaming the people in the poorest nations for their own poverty, while a second explanation takes a structural approach in blaming the plight of poor nations on their treatment by the richest ones. Again there is evidence to support both types of explanations, but many sociologists favor the structural explanation. Table 9.2 “Theory Snapshot” summarizes the two sets of explanations.

Table 9.2 Theory Snapshot

Theory Major assumptions
Modernization theory Wealthy nations became wealthy because early on they were able to develop the necessary beliefs, values, and practices for trade, industrialization, and rapid economic growth to occur. Poor nations remained poor because they failed to develop these beliefs, values, and practices; instead, they continued to follow traditional beliefs and practices that stymied industrial development and modernization.
Dependency theory The poverty of poor nations stems from their colonization by European nations, which exploited the poor nations’ resources and either enslaved their populations or used them as cheap labor. The colonized nations were thus unable to develop a professional and business class that would have enabled them to enter the industrial age and to otherwise develop their economies.

Modernization Theory

The individual explanation is called modernization theory (McClelland, 1967; Rostow, 1990). According to this theory, rich nations became wealthy because early on they were able to develop the “correct” beliefs, values, and practices—in short, the correct culture—for trade, industrialization, and rapid economic growth to occur. These cultural traits include a willingness to work hard, to abandon tradition in favor of new ways of thinking and doing things, and to adopt a future orientation rather than one focused on maintaining present conditions.

Modernization theory has direct relevance for the experience of Western Europe. According to the theory, Western European nations began to emerge several centuries ago as economic powers because their populations adopted the kinds of values and practices just listed. Max Weber (1904/1958), one of the founders of sociology, wrote that Western Europe was able to do this because the Protestant Reformation diminished the traditional distrust of the Catholic Church for material success and social and economic change. The new Protestant ethic that Western Europeans adopted stressed the importance of hard work and material success in one’s lifetime rather than the Church’s traditional emphasis on rewards in an afterlife.

Poor women with their children on the streets

According to modernization theory, poor nations are poor because their people never developed values such as an emphasis on hard work.

According to modernization theory, nations in other parts of the world never became wealthy and remain poor today because they never developed the appropriate values and practices. Instead, they continued to follow traditional beliefs and practices that stymied industrial development and modernization.

Modernization theory has much in common with the culture of poverty theory discussed in Chapter 8 “Social Stratification”. It attributes the poverty of poor nations to their failure to develop the “proper” beliefs, values, and practices necessary for economic success both at the beginning of industrialization during the 19th century and in the two centuries that have since transpired. Because modernization theory implies that people in poor nations do not have the talent and ability to improve their lot, it falls into the functionalist explanation of stratification.

As should be clear, modernization theory has direct implications for strategies to reduce global poverty. The theory implies that people in poor nations must learn the proper beliefs, values, and practices to succeed economically. If they do not do so, they will prevent themselves from profiting as fully as possible from the financial aid they get from wealthy nations, with much of this aid thereby being wasted.

Dependency Theory

The structural explanation for global stratification is called dependency theory. Not surprisingly, this theory’s views sharply challenge modernization theory’s assumptions (Packenham, 1992). Whereas modernization theory attributes global stratification to the “wrong” cultural values and practices in poor nations, dependency theory blames global stratification on the exploitation of these nations by wealthy nations. According to this view, poor nations never got the chance to pursue economic growth because early on they were conquered and colonized by European ones. The European nations stole the poor nations’ resources and either enslaved their populations or used them as cheap labor. They installed their own governments and often prevented the local populace from getting a good education. As a result, the colonized nations were unable to develop a professional and business class that would have enabled them to enter the industrial age and to otherwise develop their economies. Along the way, wealthy nations sold their own goods to colonized nations and forced them to run up enormous debt that continues to amount today. Because dependency theory implies that poor nations remain poor because of lack of opportunity owing to exploitation by wealthy nations, it falls into the conflict perspective on stratification.

In today’s world, huge multinational corporations continue to exploit the labor and resources of the poorest nations, say dependency theorists. These corporations run sweatshops in many nations, in which workers toil in inhumane conditions at extremely low wages (Sluiter, 2009). Often the corporations work hand-in-hand with corrupt officials in the poor nations to strengthen their economic stake in the countries. An example of this dynamic occurred during the 1990s in the poor western African country of Nigeria, where the Royal Dutch/Shell oil company at the time was pumping half of that nation’s oil. Activists in southern Nigeria began to claim that Shell’s oil drilling was destroying their land and that Shell was paying them too little for their oil. In response to their protests, the government sent in police at Shell’s request, with Shell paying some of the police costs. The police put down the activists’ dissent by destroying several villages and killing 2,000 people (Lewis, 1996).

Dependency theory also has direct implications for strategies to reduce global poverty. Very simply, the theory implies that wealthy nations and multinational corporations must stop exploiting the resources of poor nations. Until that happens, poor nations will be unable to develop their natural resources and to enter the industrial age. Some dependency theorists also say that poor nations should limit their importation of goods from wealthy nations, and that wealthy nations should even be forbidden from investing in poor nations.

Which makes more sense, modernization theory or dependency theory? As with many theories, both make sense to some degree (see the “Learning From Other Societies” box), but both have their faults. Modernization theory places too much blame on poor nations for their own poverty and ignores the long history of exploitation of poor nations by rich nations and multinational corporations alike. For its part, dependency theory cannot explain why some of the poorest countries are poor even though they were never European colonies; neither can it explain why some former colonies such as Hong Kong have been able to attain enough economic growth to leave the rank of the poorest nations. Together, both theories help us understand the reasons for global stratification, but most sociologists would probably favor dependency theory because of its emphasis on structural factors in the world’s historic and current economy.

Learning From Other Societies

Why Haiti Is So Poor: Culture or Exploitation?

In January 2010, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 devastated Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. The quake reportedly killed more than 200,000 people, about 2.5% of Haiti’s population, injured 300,000, and left 1 million homeless. Because Haiti had ramshackle buildings, a weak infrastructure, and inadequate public services, many more people died or otherwise suffered from this earthquake than from earthquakes of similar magnitude in wealthier countries.

In the aftermath of this natural disaster, a flurry of news articles and op-ed columns discussed why Haiti had been so poor before the earthquake despite efforts by thousands of international agencies during the past few decades. The contrasting positions presented in these articles reflected the views of the modernization and dependency theories presented in the text, and they illustrate the complexity of understanding global poverty.

Reflecting the views of modernization theory, some observers attributed Haiti’s situation to a culture of poverty. They noted that Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic, which is not nearly as poor as Haiti. Beyond sharing a general location and climate, the two nations also have similar histories of colonialism and governmental corruption. Given these similarities, why, then, was Haiti so desperately poorer than the Dominican Republic?

To answer this question, Jonah Goldberg, a Los Angeles Times columnist, reasoned, “Haiti’s problems in large part boil down to a culture of poverty. Haitians do not lack the desire to make their lives better, nor do they reject hard work. But what they sorely lack is a legal, social and intellectual culture that favors economic growth and entrepreneurialism” (Goldberg, 2010, p. 9A). Western nations, he continued, must do more than provide aid to Haiti and other poor nations, as they must also teach them “how to stop being poor.” People in these nations, he said, must learn the concept of entrepreneurialism (the development and practice of a business), and they must also learn how to be entrepreneurs.

Taking a similar stance, David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, wrote that several aspects of the Haitian culture contribute to the nation’s poverty by inhibiting its ability to achieve economic growth. First, Haitians’ voodoo religion prompts them to believe that life is unpredictable and that planning is futile. Second, Haitians have high levels of social mistrust and a low sense of personal responsibility. Third, parental neglect during early childhood is common. Brooks concluded, “We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy [the damage caused by Haiti’s earthquake] was just exacerbated by one of them” (Brooks, 2010, p. A27).

Reflecting the views of dependency theory, other observers attributed Haiti’s deep poverty to its history of colonialism, which puts it at a severe disadvantage even compared to other formerly colonized nations. Michele Wucker, executive director of the World Policy Institute, and Ben Macintyre, a columnist for The Times of London, both wrote that Haiti was a rich slave colony of France before a bloody revolution won Haitians their independence in 1804. The new nation’s economy then suffered for two reasons. First, the revolution destroyed much of the country’s agriculture and infrastructure. Second, France used ships to block Haitian trade and required Haiti to pay a huge indemnity, equal to about $13 billion in today’s dollars, to restore normal trade and diplomatic relations. Haiti had to take out huge loans from Western nations’ banks at very high interest rates to do so. The consequence for Haiti was devastating, wrote Macintyre (2010, p. 30):

Weighed down by this financial burden, Haiti was born almost bankrupt. In 1900 some 80 per cent of the national budget was still being swallowed up by debt repayments. Money that might have been spent on building a stable economy went to foreign bankers….The debt was not finally paid off until 1947. By then, Haiti’s economy was hopelessly distorted, its land deforested, mired in poverty, politically and economically unstable, prey equally to the caprice of nature and the depredations of autocrats.

Haiti’s plight only worsened when U.S. Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and when a series of corrupt dictators afterward “left Haiti economically devastated,” added Wucker (Smith, 2010). In short, as one headline put it, Haiti’s dire poverty stems from a “crippling legacy of imperialism” (Macintyre, 2010).

Where does the truth lie? Is Haiti’s poverty today due more to its culture or more to its history of colonialism and imperialism? People who favor modernization theory would answer culture, and those who favor dependency theory would answer colonialism and imperialism. In the end, both sets of factors probably matter. The debate over Haiti’s poverty shows that the experience of other societies can illuminate theories of global poverty and, in turn, help us understand which types of strategies hold the most potential for helping poor nations.

Key Takeaways

  • According to modernization theory, rich nations became rich because their peoples possessed certain values, beliefs, and practices conducive to the acquisition of wealth. Poor nations remained poor because their peoples did not possess these values, beliefs, and practices and never developed them.
  • According to dependency theory, poor nations have remained poor because they have been exploited by rich nations and by multinational corporations.

For Your Review

  1. Which theory makes more sense to you, modernization theory or dependency theory? Explain your answer.
  2. What strategies does modernization theory suggest for helping poor nations? What strategies does dependency theory suggest for helping poor nations?

Reducing Global Stratification: What Sociology Suggests

Years of international aid to poor nations have helped them somewhat, but, as this chapter has shown, their situation remains dire. International aid experts acknowledge that efforts to achieve economic growth in poor nations have largely failed, but they disagree why this is so and what alternative strategies may prove more successful (Cohen & Easterly, 2009). One trend has been a switch from “macro” efforts focusing on infrastructure problems and on social institutions such as the schools to “micro” efforts, such as providing cash payments or small loans directly to poor people in poor nations (a practice called microfinancing) and giving them bed nets to prevent mosquito bites, but the evidence on the success of these efforts is mixed (Bennett, 2009; The Economist, 2010). Much more obviously needs to be done.

In this regard, sociology’s structural approach is in line with dependency theory and suggests that global stratification results from the history of colonialism and by continuing exploitation today of poor nations’ resources by wealthy nations and multinational corporations. To the extent such exploitation exists, global poverty will lessen if and only if this exploitation lessens. As the “Sociology Making a Difference” box indicated, a sociological approach also emphasizes the role that class, gender, and ethnic inequality play in perpetuating global poverty. For global poverty to be reduced, gender and ethnic inequality must be reduced.

Writers Kristof and WuDunn (2009) emphasize the need to focus efforts to reduce global poverty of women. We have already seen one reason why this emphasis makes sense: women are much worse off than men in poor nations in many ways, so helping them is crucial for both economic and humanitarian reasons. An additional reason is especially illuminating: when women in poor nations acquire extra money, they typically spend it on food, clothing, and medicine, essentials for their families. However, when men in poor nations acquire extra money, they often spend it on alcohol, tobacco, and gambling. This gender difference might sound like a stereotype, but it does indicate that aid to women will help in many ways, while aid to men might be less effective and often even wasted.


Bennett, D. (2009, September 20). Small change. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/2009/2020/small_change_does_microlending_actually_fight_poverty/#.

Brooks, D. (2010, January 14). The underlying tragedy. The New York Times, p. A27.

Cohen, J., & Easterly, W. (Eds.). (2009). What works in development? Thinking big and thinking small. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Goldberg, J. (2010, August 3). End poverty: Export capitalism. USA Today, p. 9A.

Kristof, N. D., & WuDunn, S. (2009, August 23). The women’s crusade. The New York Times, p. MM28.

Lewis, P. (1996, February 13). Nigeria’s deadly war: Shell defends its record. The New York Times, p. 1.

Macintyre, B. (2010, January 21). The fault line in Haiti runs straight to France. The Times (London), p. 30.

McClelland, D. C. (1967). The achieving society. New York, NY: Free Press.

Packenham, R. A. (1992). The dependency movement: Scholarship and politics in development studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rostow, W. W. (1990). The stages of economic growth: A non-communist manifesto. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Savings and the poor: A better mattress. (2010, March 11). Economist, 394(8673), 75–76.

Sluiter, L. (2009). Clean clothes: A global movement to end sweatshops. New York, NY: Pluto Press.

Smith, K. F. (2010, January 16). Haiti: A historical perspective. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/2010/2001/2015/haiti-a-historical-perspective.html.

Weber, M. (1958). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (T. Parsons, Trans.). New York, NY: Scribner. (Original work published 1904).


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