The application of social theory and analysis to societies (usually in the Third World) which are undergoing a late transition to capitalist industrialization. It has been particularly concerned with analysing the social effects of development on class relations and on social groups such as the peasantry and the urban poor.
Development studies emerged as a distinct area of research in the post-war period, and was associated with the growing concern for the political and economic development of the post-colonial world. The first sociological account of development was modernization theory, which held that the less developed countries would eventually catch up with the industrialized world, providing they emulated the economic and social systems of Western capitalism. Based largely on the theoretical premisses of structural functionalism, modernization theory conceptualized development as a staged transition from tradition to modernity, to be brought about at the economic level by the operations of the market and foreign investment; at the social level by the adoption of appropriate western institutions, values, and behaviours; and at the political level by the implementation of parliamentary democracy. A product of the Cold War, and motivated by the concern to challenge socialist ideas in the post-colonial world, modernization theory was criticized for its optimism, over-simplification, and ethnocentrism. It was displaced in the late 1960s as the most popular sociological analysis of development by the dependency approach. This was in turn charged with over-simplification and with merely inverting the assumptions of the previous orthodoxy.
Criticism of these approaches has left the sociology of development as a fragmented field in which various competing and more modest theories jostle for supremacy. In recent years there has been a growing awareness that the nation-state cannot be analysed in isolation from the international context. The field also has significant and growing overlaps with the sociological debates about globalization and the environment (see, for example, John Brohman's Popular Development, 1996). There has also been a renewed analytic emphasis on the interdependency and integration among nations, not just in terms of economic processes, but also at the level of culture and ideology. For example, in The Westernization of the World (1996), Serge Latouche argues that the concept of ‘Third World development’ is rooted in specifically Western ideas of technical progress and the accumulation of capital. This leads to development policies which destroy the cultures of non-Western populations. In particular, Latouche maintains that the drive towards global uniformity in cultures, life-styles, and ‘mentalities’ has been responsible for endemic civil wars, ecological disasters, and the widespread national debt throughout the Third World. David E. Apter's Rethinking Development (1987) gives a good overview of the more established literature. See also centre-periphery model.