Modernization Theory

This theory holds that religion is just as important a feature of modern society as it is of traditional society, but it takes different forms and possesses different characteristics. While compatible with functionalist theories, this theory does not depend upon them, because it concerns the historical transformation of religion, whereas religion’s functions may be constant. Among the most influential variants of this perspective is the pattern variable theory of Parsons and Shils.

According to them, five socio-cultural dimensions of variation together describe modernization and are applicable to religion as well as to all other major institutions of society. With the traditional end of the dimensions on the left, the pattern variables are:

  1. Affectivity – Affective Neutrality
  2. Self-orientation – Collectivity-orientation
  3. Particularism – Universalism
  4. Ascription – Achievement
  5. Diffuseness – Specificity

Modern religion, as defined by the right end of these dimensions, is emotionally cooler than traditional religion, which is oriented toward very large social collectivities such as all humanity rather than the self and which promulgates universalistic norms and hopes of salvation, placing responsibility for moral choice in the individual. Modern religion becomes differentiated from other institutions of the society. These continua are intended to be five dimensions, rather than aspects of one, implying that prior to the completion of modernization some societies and their religions might be mixed types.

A recent critique of this theory, which grants that it has been exceedingly influential, comes from Nils Gilman (2003).  Various forms of modernization theory are also intertwined with theories of secularization.  Although these links were at one time conceptualized in a teleological fashion (see Gorski and Altinordu 2008), more recent scholarship has suggested that the link between secularization and modernization is more complex (e.g. Almond et al. 2003 Casanova 1994; Warner 1993). 


Almond, Gabriel A., R. Scott Appleby and Emmanuel Sivan.  2003.  Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Casanova, Jose.  1994.  Public Religions in the Modern World.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Gilman, Nils. 2003. Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gorski, Philip and Ates Altinordu.  2008.  “After Secularization?”  Annual Review of Sociology 34:55-85.

Parsons, Talcott, and Edward A. Shils (eds.). 2001. Toward a General Theory of Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Warner, R. Stephen.  1993.  “Work in Progress toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States.”  American Journal of Sociology 98(5):1044-1093.

The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.
The state of being without effective rules for living. A breakdown at the level of the entire society, which Emile Durkheim measured in terms of economic instability. Strain between the norms and values of a society (Robert K. Merton), as experienced by the individual, which could be measured by items about frustration in achieving conventional life goals.
The type and amount of religious actions an individual exhibits. Closely tied to the concept of religiosity, religious behavior focuses upon what individuals are doing in relation to religion specifically. The most commonly used measure of religious behavior is church or worship service attendance. Research shows that the act of attending alone exerts a powerful influence on individuals. Private forms of practice such as frequency of prayer or the reading of sacred scriptures are also important considerations.  Other forms of religious behavior that can be operationalized are contributions toward, and participation in religious activities or entities outside of worship. Self-reported religious experience can also be used as a measure of religious behavior. This measure is less well-known and as such, utilized less in research.
On its most basic level, religious belief refers to views toward the supernatural. Usually paired in research with measures of religious tradition and religious behavior, measuring religious belief allows researchers to gain insight into what respondents are thinking concerning the supernatural. One of the most common religious belief measures is whether or not respondents believe in God. A new strain of research is focusing not just on if individuals believe in God, but specifically what they believe God to be like. The images of God variables are used to create various scales that have proven to be highly predictive of attitudes and behavior. Probably the most common religious belief measure used in religious research is biblical literalism. This variable grouped with religious tradition and religious behavior is a common set of religious controls for any statistical model. Beyond these religious beliefs, a less-used list of other beliefs exists. Belief in Hell, Jesus, salvation, Satan, angels, demons, heaven, or the "end times" provide a rich palate of possible research opportunities dealing with religious belief.
A breakdown of society marked by high rates of migration and by sparse or fragmented networks of social relations.  This concept is more often used in the literature on criminology.  Accordingly that is the best place to look for precedent regarding measurement and application.  Common indicators used for social disorganization include: population turnover, density, and heterogeneity (racial and/or economic), as well as crime rates, unemployment, and single-parent households.  Social disorganization is also notable for its introduction of spatial elements into criminological theory and research.
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