Huntington Examines Processes of Change in Developing Countries Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Global decolonization after World War II made the Southern Hemisphere a prime arena for Cold War competition. To block the spread of communism, the United States pinned its hopes on economic modernization paired with electoral democratization in the hemisphere. Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington perceived the disruptive consequences of this strategy. He urged analysts and policy makers to focus first on the importance of institution-building as the key prerequisite to orderly change.

Summary of Event

In March, 1962, U.S. president John F. Kennedy told Latin American diplomats that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Convinced not just of the desirability of such progress but of its inevitability, much of the American academy eagerly supported an ambitious agenda of reform in the world’s developing nations that was presented by the Kennedy administration and its successors. Policy makers and most political analysts of modernization in that era shared in a consensus that economic growth, secularization of culture, and broadened political participation would lead the political evolution of developing nations to follow the same pattern that Anglo-American political history had followed. Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, however, was the proverbial skunk at this cozy picnic: He argued that this powerful consensus was largely wrong. Developing nations Political Order in Changing Societies (Huntington) Modernization [kw]Huntington Examines Processes of Change in Developing Countries (1968) [kw]Change in Developing Countries, Huntington Examines Processes of (1968) [kw]Developing Countries, Huntington Examines Processes of Change in (1968) Developing nations Political Order in Changing Societies (Huntington) Modernization [g]North America;1968: Huntington Examines Processes of Change in Developing Countries[09580] [g]United States;1968: Huntington Examines Processes of Change in Developing Countries[09580] [c]Publishing and journalism;1968: Huntington Examines Processes of Change in Developing Countries[09580] [c]Political science;1968: Huntington Examines Processes of Change in Developing Countries[09580] [c]Cold War;1968: Huntington Examines Processes of Change in Developing Countries[09580] Huntington, Samuel P. Castelo Branco, Humberto de Alencar Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and developing nations[developing nations]

Huntington understood better than his peers that broadening demands for mass political participation were having profound effects on developing nations. He had authored two books on the roles of military institutions in developing countries prior to presenting his general theory, first as a 1965 article in World Politics and then more fully in Political Order in Changing Societies, published in 1968 by the Yale University Press Yale University Press . Surveying the entirety of the ancient and modern political history of regions outside Europe, Huntington exposed the limited perspective and ethnocentrism that, since the time of James Madison, had focused Americans on a perceived need to place limits on government. The eighteenth and nineteenth century roots of this American model, he argued, inappropriately drew attention away from the quite different cultural contexts and challenges faced by developing states in the late twentieth century.

Huntington argued that the rapid changes advised by the Kennedy administration and its academic supporters—changes such as broad land reforms and industrialization—were inherently politically destabilizing. Therefore, he continued, the key to successful modernization lay in establishing strong institutions that could impose political order. Otherwise, excessive focus on democratization would produce not the political development its advocates imagined, but a dangerous political decay instead. Huntington urged policy makers and academic colleagues to refocus away from deterministic theories built on assumptions of progress and to focus anew on the actual processes of change that were occurring in the developing nations of the Southern Hemisphere.

Huntington returned the study of institutions to a central place on the agenda of political scientists. When studying political institutions in underdeveloped settings, analysts and policy makers who followed the Huntington line of thought were encouraged especially to be open to the reciprocal interactions between socioeconomic changes, mass political movements, and responses by governmental institutions. Controversially, Huntington suggested that in some states, when military institutions assumed a guardian role to block lower-class aspirants from gaining power, they “in a sense assume constitutional functions analogous to those of the Supreme Court of the United States: they have a responsibility to preserve the political order. . . .” Thus, Huntington supplied an intellectual rationale for military institutions that chose to overthrow elected governments, such as in 1964 when the Brazilian military, led by Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco, had removed President João Goulart by force.

However, Political Order in Changing Societies was not a crude and partisan apology for tyrants. In analyzing the capacities for all types of political systems to respond to the stresses created by economic modernization and other changes, Huntington held his central purpose to be to weigh dispassionately the actual evidence of accumulated human history. Thus, as he surveyed ancient empires and forgotten states to inform his book, and even as he viewed modern monarchies as largely antique, he still took care to assess them and to note their internal differences from one another.

An especially sensitive foreshadowing of later events inadvertently accompanied Huntington’s portrait of the roots and branches of the reform-oriented regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran. Huntington stated that “[t]he prerequisite of reform, however, is the consolidation of power. Hence, first attention is given to the creation of an efficient, loyal, rationalized, and centralized army. . . . The land reform of 1961-62, was accomplished only when the Shah also evaded the constitution and got rid of Parliament.” Ultimately, it was cracks in the loyalty of the army of the shah in 1978 that contributed to his downfall and to the rise of the Islamic Revolution. Prescient as Huntington was about the importance of strong political institutions in the creation of orderly policies of modernization, in Political Order in Changing Societies he—like nearly all other political analysts of that era—erred in regarding the Islamic religion in Iran as a largely conservative social force.

Close attention to the argument in Political Order in Changing Societies can reward a careful reader, but few slogan-length axioms can be extracted from the nuanced and careful comparisons that guided Huntington. He did contend that older institutions tend to be more capable, at least in some measure because they have had to adapt through several generations of succession to their original leaders. Even there, however, Huntington found limits that must be sketched in by precise examination of particular settings: A moribund monarchy may be just as brittle, just as vulnerable to collapse under strong societal pressures, as a newly created democratic system.


Political Order in Changing Societies had a significant impact at two levels. First, it reoriented the academic study of modernization in the developing world away from deterministic models and toward methods of study in which the central importance of political factors was better recognized. Huntington put politics back into the study of development. When responding to the pressures attending modernization, Huntington recognized better than had his predecessors that the governments of developing nations exercise choices. Some of these choices undermine their authority; some enhance their capacity to govern.

Thus, Huntington understood that the political management of economic modernization may lead either to the expansion or to the contraction of human liberty. Where his predecessors had imagined a largely one-way street, in which modernization would produce political development of an ultimately democratic kind, Huntington dissented and urged his professional colleagues to return to the study of history and evidence. Modernization, he argued, certainly involves change, but the political choices state leaders make may not produce any one type of outcome.

A second important effect of Political Order in Changing Societies was indirect, though ultimately of greater consequence: The book influenced the policies of the U.S. government. It appeared in 1968, a pivotal year in which much of the optimism over the prospects of democracy to thwart communism—optimism that had previously guided U.S. policy and aid toward the developing world—crashed against harsh realities. The book offered policy makers a ready justification for setting reform aside and imposing order first. Notably, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration had already begun to downplay Kennedy’s reformist ethos in its approach to disorderly developing allies such as Brazil. Guided by Huntington, an emphasis on institution-building and a preference for aid to institutions of public order acquired a more scientifically validated and respectable status. Developing nations Political Order in Changing Societies (Huntington) Modernization

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. No work better forecast the dynamics of the twenty-first century. Emphasizes social origins of political disorder in the tradition of Political Order in Changing Societies by focusing on transnational sources of political identity and conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Political Development and Political Decay. ” World Politics 17, no. 3 (April, 1965): 386-430. Succinctly argues the main themes presented later in Political Order in Changing Societies. Faults mainstream political science for employing a view of political development unable to explain the disorder accompanying modernization in the developing world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Inglehart, Ronald, ed. Human Values and Social Change: Findings from the Values Surveys. Boston: E. J. Brill, 2003. Frankly indebted to Huntington’s work, this volume surveys seventy-eight nations to determine differences in social norms, institutions, and values crucial for understanding the differences between the industrialized and the developing world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khan, M. Maimul Ashan. Huntington’s Civilizational Issues and Morality in Law. Dhaka, Bangladesh: EMCO, 1998. A critique of Huntington’s work and its implications for ethics and for international law. Bibliographic references.

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