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  • Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America
  • Johanna Bockman
Nils Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. 329 pp.

In Mandarins of the Future, Nils Gilman examines the rise and fall of modernization theory in Cold War America. After World War II, new government resources, increasing East-West tensions, and widespread decolonization prompted social scientists to develop plans for the modernization of entire societies to move them along a universal path from "tradition" to "modernity." The post-Cold War era has witnessed a proliferation of histories of modernization theory and the Cold War social sciences more generally. Gilman makes a welcome contribution with his rich and detailed focus on the scholarly terrain, illuminating the academic ideas, institutional networks, and personalities behind modernization theory.

Gilman's three case studies—Harvard University's Department of Social Relations, the Committee on Comparative Politics of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), and the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—draw the reader into the deeply insular world of the modernization theorists. Not only does Gilman discuss these three institutions as a network, but he also shows the increasingly coercive and conservative nature of modernization theory over time. In the early days, modernization theorists argued that economic development would bring political and social liberation, but they later changed their tune and supported the funding of authoritarian governments and military regimes to enforce stability in the supposedly childlike Third World. Gilman proposes several explanations for the hegemony of modernization theory: that the modernization theorists' shared assumptions about American society "made [these] scholars believe that they were onto something" (p. 16); that the deep insularity of the group caused them to ignore other, countervailing intellectual trends; and that the status of modernization theory as the dominant paradigm induced its adherents to continue working within this paradigm and to ignore criticisms and anomalies until a paradigm shift occurred in the late 1960s. Although Gilman could have developed these explanations further, they contribute to our understanding of the hegemony of modernization theory.

Gilman's first case study focuses on the work of Talcott Parsons and the Department of Social Relations (DSR) at Harvard. Reflecting the ideas and concerns of the 1930s and 1940s, Parsons and later the rest of the DSR developed the idea of a "social system," an approach that reinterpreted Max Weber as an anti-Marxist culturalist, depicted modernization as a benign, homogenizing process of convergence, and emphasized the need for elites to carry out the modernization process. Gilman explains Parsons's ideas in such a lucid and fascinating way that this in itself is an exciting contribution. The Parsonian categories and assumptions were then applied to the political realm by the SSRC's Committee on Comparative Politics (CCP), which is Gilman's second case study. The CCP highlighted the need for an interventionist state, along with a scientific elite, to oversee the modernization process. Although this [End Page 140] scholarly coterie was insular, modernization theory had a profound and sometimes deadly impact on people around the globe because some modernization theorists worked in the Kennedy administration and used their ever-more-authoritarian ideas as rationales and strategies for foreign development aid and military action. This increasingly coercive and conservative influence is seen most clearly in the third case study, which examines the MIT Center for International Studies. After reading about the suffocatingly insular world at the MIT Center, one is relieved to turn to the collapse of modernization theory in the sixth chapter, where Gilman examines the wide-ranging criticisms of modernization theory.

Gilman's introduction and substantive chapters are all solid, and his "Essay on Sources" is fascinating, but unfortunately his concluding chapter is disappointing. Gilman discusses the return of modernization theory in the 1990s and begins to examine the intriguing continuities between modernization theory, the neoliberal "Washington Consensus" that influenced the East European transitions from socialism, and globalization theory. Yet, the discussion cannot be fully explored because Gilman sets up a strawmanish dichotomy between modernity and "the cultural despair of postmodernism" (p. 273). He includes in the postmodernist camp a mishmash of critics...