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Cultural Preconditions for Development

Tradition and Modernity Reconsidered in the Light of Post-modernism

Dawa Norbu

Most theorists of both modernization and revolution had previously assumed the replacement of tradition by modernity as development progresses (e.g., see Lerner 1958, Stalin 1975). In such a preconceived theory of development, tradition has no function to perform; it is, in fact, considered an obstacle to modernization. However, from the perspective of the late twentieth century, it is clear that neither revolution had completely destroyed tradition as amply evident in post-Communist societies nor modernization has entirely replaced tradition as richly evident in the newly industrializing Countries (NICs). In fact, in the later cases, tradition has been an invisible maid-servant of industrial revolution. This raises the possibilities of harnessing cultural resources from great traditions for doable development in other parts of the Third World. Thus, we may shift our view of the tradition as an obstacle to modernization to a tradition as a labyrinth of development.

In this paper I examine the various positive functions that tradition has so far played in the process of development and modernization in several Asian societies since Independence. In order to do so I venture to enumerate some of the basic imperatives of industrial development and demonstrate how such requirements might be met by the congruent structures of tradition. This means we must consider not only state intervention in the economy but also social sources of productivity which owe their origins to a great tradition.

Cultural Sources of Productivity and

Imperatives of Industrialization

We have already encountered some troublesome but necessary terms which call for some explanations. By tradition I refer to a literate culture usually based on a world religion; and modernization means rationalization of means to given ends as applied to economy, society and polity. Often I use a broader term, development to include both economic and social changes associated with industrialization. By doable development I mean possible basic (not excessive) industrial development that is people-oriented, ecology-friendly and congruent with cultural patterns.

Previous writers postulated certain necessary preconditions or prerequisites without which presumably no modernization could take place. But the historical fact is that modernization "could, and did, in fact, occur because human ingenuity discovered a number of ways to substitute for the missing and allegedly necessary prerequisites" (Gerschenkron 1966: 257). Being an economic historian, Alexander Gerschenkron understandably did not dabble with cultural factors. I would argue that the possibilities of "human ingenuity" to discover a number of ways to substitute for the missing prerequisites are greater where there is a great tradition which implies at least a literate culture. We shall later demonstrate how the Eurocentric ideal-type prerequisites of industrial development may be and have been substituted by cultural resources of a great tradition.

Outside the Western orbit successful industrialization and modernization have taken place in societies which have had traditionally high literate cultures, such as Japan and NICs. In most of these societies there existed – and still continue to exist – two great traditions, Confucianism and Buddhism, both of which have enriched and increased the possibilities of human ingenuity for centuries. At any rate such traditions propagated and promoted high literate cultures which have made the tasks of modernization much easier.

If the Buddho-Confucian culture – areas as cases of successful industrialization appear to be an exercise in retrospective determinism, we may turn to pre-literate societies which might falsify our argument. Up-to-date we don’t see any case of successful industrialization and modernization taking place in societies that have traditionally been preliterate. Greater parts of Africa, Oceania and Asian tribal areas are cases in point. No great industrial nation has ever emerged out of a preliterate culture and fragmented social structure.1 One of the reasons may be that such societies’ engagement with any of the world religions is rather short and shallow, such as they characteristically lack most cultural preconditions for modernization. They are too fragmented along tribal lines to enjoy sustained political stability. Their minds are not used to play with ideas that literate cultures encourage. Nor are they used to large-scale organized activity that encourages self-discipline and work culture. However, that does not mean that preliterate societies cannot modernize. They can and do modernize such as African societies but with much more difficulty than a literate society. The reason may be that they typically lack cultural resources which most world religions have endowed their followers over the ages.

The preceding illustrative evidences might then suggest that the scope for various substitutions for the Western historical experience of industrialization may be greater where there is a great tradition and what it (tradition) sociologically implies. The central question is not really whether what perceived to be `prerequisites’of modernization are present in non-Western societies. Rather it is whether the functional equivalents of industrial imperatives of development are present or absent in given cultures. That will determine the relative success or failure to develop in any sustained way. Any sociology of development in the Third World must ask more relevant questions than rush out to programme neat solutions. Does a given community have historical experiences of similar nature and functions that industrial civilization demands today? Can we find enough substitutions for the technical imperatives of industrial development from the existing cultural resources of a given tradition? Is there a literate culture that makes transition to modern education system easy? And so on. Our intention is to examine whether cultural resources of a great tradition are congruent with the industrial imperatives of doable development.

While looking for functional equivalents of prerequisites that modernization supposedly necessitates, we realize the importance of adaptability that has historically come out of a given community’s exposure to, and experience of, multiple traditions such as the Buddho-Confucian culture illustrates. In a sense it boils down to the question of whether a given society have had in its history enough experience of thinking and doing certain things methodically (no matter how non-rational in economic sense) whose structure and functions, though not their scale, are objectively or functionally similar to the tasks and challenges of modernization. For the transition from tradition to modernity, if there is such a thing, entails a great structural adjustment, but not a revolution.

My discussion might sound like an attempt to elevate commonsense sociology to the level of academic discourse. However, the fact is that historical experiences of a complex nature have made critical differences to the ways in which a community faces that structural adjustment even in the West. In the late 1940s Harold Pedersen compared the rate of adoption of farm ideas by Danish and Polish farmers in Wisconsin (USA). The Polish farmers came from subsistence farming background whereas the Danish farmers were accustomed to producing for a world food market. The cultural values of the Danish farmers facilitated the adoption of new ideas whereas the norms of Polish community perpetuated the status quo" (Rogers 1962:59).

The natural history of industrial development suggests certain pre-conditions for primary development such as cultural adaptability, political stability, organizational discipline, work culture etc., and certain other prerequisites for modernization2 such as literacy, rationality, entrepreneurship, innovation and so on. I shall try to argue that most of these prerequisites for development and modernization may be functionally inherent within the structure and praxis of a world religion. The more a society has been exposed to multiple and complex cultures, the better are its chances for successful modernization.

One of the first problems that confronts any attempt at industrial development is how to train a relatively disciplined labour force out of the agrarian population. A study of economic history verifies the fact that peasants of Europe, North America, Australia and Japan did migrate "from farm to factory, from village to city, they introduced new techniques and new products, they saved their money and acquired new skills when opportunity arose, they accepted – sooner or later – new agricultural techniques and new organizations" (Higgins 1977: 107). Similar trends are observable in several Latin American countries, Taiwan, South Korea, China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia. Such basic modernization of agrarian population is, in no small measure, facilitated by the great or little traditions in which peasants or farmers are embedded, which sensatizes us to draw our attention to the fairly favourable psychological conditions that religion had unintentionally created in society prior to the modern era.

Not all world religions are equally open to economic changes. The adaptability of a religious tradition may be measured by two criteria: whether its sacred texts are open to translation and interpretation. Islam and Catholicism, for example, did not until recently allow any translation of their canonical texts which had to be read in their original languages, Arabic and Latin. Nor do they, especially Islam, sanction new interpretations of the Koran and the Old Testament. Where tradition has inbuilt hostility to modernization, modernization revolutions were imposed from above by certain charismatic leaders such as Kamel Attartuk, Nasser and Sukarno in Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia respectively. This was not the case with Buddhism, Confucianism or Hinduism. In fact Kingsley Davis comments on the relative openness of the Hindu tradition to economic changes: "One trait of Hinduism that presumably permits, if it does not favour, economic changes as its syncretic, non-dogmatic, and rather tolerant character" (singh, 1978: 165).

While the non-dogmatic and open-ended character of a tradition does ease the problems of modernization, especially in the initial stages, the same tradition must be able to maintain social order. Political stability is one of the basic conditions for sustained development. Such a stability stems from shared value system emanating usually from religion in most traditional societies. The value system engenders social consensus and makes political stability possible. A well-ordered society is as important a consideration as economic resources or labour before the consideration of any investment company.

Since modernization is essentially a vocational civilization, it presupposes discipline and work culture. Freedom may be one of the blessings of a modern society; yet paradoxically discipline is required in any modern setting, school, college, university, office, factory, mines, plantations all of which operate on the basis of routinization and regulation. That is why traditional learned classes such as Brahmins, Mandarins, Sumarois have made easy transition to modern professions. That is why also the nineteenth-century factory owners in the Western societies made sure that their workers went to church regularly. Religion is among other things a great discipline, which is not imposed from above but internalized from below.

Closely associated with self-discipline is work culture, both of which owe their origins to religion. Following Max Weber’s theory of "Protestant work ethic". Many scholars have tried to find similar analogies in Asian industrializing countries (Bellah 1965). The critical question is whether a world religion orients its followers into an activist interpretation of `salvation’ or not. If not originally, then has it experienced in its religious history a Protestant type reformation? Buddhism gives an activist interpretation of Karma which makes Buddhists work hard for their enlightenment. Herein lie the seeds of work culture. Similarly, Confucian tradition emphasizes personal self-cultivation as the central goal of its followers. The Mahatma Gandhi and other Indian religious reformers tried to give an activist reinterpretation to the notion of Dharma: "Work is Worship", Clifford Geertz describes how Javanese entrepreneurs in the 1950s resemble New England Puritan and Dutch Calvanist reformists; religious, serious petty businessmen who believed in the virtue of hard honest work and saving (Geertz 1963:28-81). Similar are the cases with Marwaris and Jains whose religiosity, thrift and business acumen are well-known in India. It is also interesting to note that the most successful business ventures in Dharamsala belong to ex-lamas; also Bhutan’s first and largest business company (Tashi Commercial Corporation) was started and is run by an ex-lama.

It is, therefore, understandable why the deeply religious background of certain social classes, has lent itself to be quite congruent with the dictates of modern entrepreneurship: business ethics, discipline and work culture. Apart from the ability to plan far ahead of time, business ethics is equally important. In most traditional societies, the relations between a merchant and his or her customers were often once-over transactions; there was no need to maintain a scrupulous attitude toward the buyer. Hence, in several European languages trade meant cheating and deception (Gerschenkron 1966:248). In contrast modern enterprises and entrepreneurship do not encourage such practices; they practice business ethics in their long-term interest. The stronger the reputation of a company, the larger is its market share.

We have explained some general ways by which religion, however unintended from its original scheme of other-worldly things, have contributed towards laying the foundations of industrial development. We may now consider some finer legacies of a great tradition which have action consequences to modernization, such as high literacy, rationality and innovation.

Connections between literate culture and modernity are obvious, but often ignored in development literature. Industry runs on oil but modernity operates on the basis of literacy as a minimum requirement. Whatever might have been the original purpose behind the invention of various writing-systems, it is historical fact that religious propagation necessitated large-scale usage of such writing-systems in the late ancient and early medieval periods. In due course high literate cultures flourished in societies where world religions had penetrated. And where there is a culture of learning it is easier to make the transition to modern education system. This is where the transformation of priests into professionals begins. The Jha community in Bihar is a good example. Jhas are high-caste Brahmins previously noted for their Sanskrit learning, in recognition of which a Moghul ruler conferred upon them the title of Jha (derivative of Upadhya in Sanskrit, meaning `scholar’ in Persian). This culture of learning facilitated the Jha community to make quick and easy transition to modern education and professionals3. Nor is this an isolated case. Anil Seal (1968: 118) records that vast majority of first Indian professionals to emerge by 1887 were of Brahmanic background, having, graduated from the universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.

Modern education system is essentially designed to train manpower to man various specialized sectors of the modern economy. As such its main tenets are scientific and rational, though value inculcation in education is being increasingly realized. But rationality which is the soul of modernization, is not alien to some world religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism. If modernization is defined as the rationalization of means to given ends, the end means that strategic thinking is apparent in most religious systems. But the departure for such religions has theologically, though not sociologically, been the ends for which rational means are deployed but they are not economic, as they are characteristically other-worldly. That is why modern Indian thinkers such as Gandhi (Iyer 1986: 238-320) critiqued modernization as the misuse of reason which is meant for a higher purpose.

Finally, in order to maintain a competitive edge in the world market, producers must have a sense of perfection, that is rigid quality control over their products. Among the world religions perhaps Buddhism may be said to have inculcated and encouraged a greater sense of perfection among its advanced practitioners in their ceaseless quest for enlightenment. The semi-empirical orientation of Confucian tradition and its emphasis on personal self-cultivation as the end and essence of life-also may encourage a sense of perfection. Where there is a cultured sense of perfection such as Japan there is more evidence of advanced modernization, excelling in international competition.

Modernization Mediated by Culture

We have discussed some ways in which religion has facilitated or accelerated the process of modernization in industrializing Asian societies. Such a discourse assumes continual interaction between tradition and modernity over a long period of time under the conditions of industrial development. So what is the relationship between tradition and modernity in the age of post-modernism? What is the fate of tradition in the age of globalization of economy and modernization of industry? What have been the consequences of the continual interaction between tradition and modernity to the evolving nature of each? We have perhaps raised some questions than we can answer; they are intended to point the direction towards which the rest of the discussion will be addressed.

Early Asian responses to modernity are similar. They all cherished their traditions but thought modernization was an economic and political necessity. In so doing, they tended to treat tradition and modernity as autonomous entities with no possibilities of interaction between the two sets. The Chinese scholar officials in the nineteenth century perhaps gave the clearest expression of this thesis: preserving tradition while modernizing. Chang Chih-tung (1837-1909) argued traditional Chinese learning would constitute ti (essence/value), and Western learning vung (utility). (Levenson 1958:60) Translated into our idiom, this means that Confucian tradition would continue to be the sources of value system, and modernization for material gains.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-97) and his pupil Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) argued that modernization was useful and necessary in order to preserve and defend Islamic culture and civilization in the modern world. (Tibi 1981:65) The rationale for modernization from the early Arab perspective was not for its own sake but power and plenty that modernity promised which would be used in the defence of tradition.

The central message of Bengal Renaissance in the nineteenth century, though more complex than those in China or Arab countries, was similar. That is why a contemporary Indian sociologist characterizes modernity as "instrumental values". (Singh 1978: 35) That is, modernity has no intrinsic values, which presumably emanate from tradition, except its powerful utility. In other words early Asian modernists identified the place of modernity: the factory, not the temple or family.

In contrast to the early Asian views of tradition and modernity as autonomous realms, a number of influential post-war Western theoirists of modernization swang to the other extreme. They emphasized "the importance of cultural change as a part and precondition of economic development" (Singer 1977:3). In their view "cultural resistance to change" was a definite obstacle to modernization. Thus, they advocated a wholesale modernization of society, economy and polity, including modernization of religion (Singer 1966: 55-67), social relations (Smelser 1966: 110-21) and man (Inkles 1966: 138-50). In short, modernization was seen as "a unilinear evolutionary process whose growth would bring all societies to a level of cultural homogeneity washing their original cultural identities" (Singh 1978:24). Nowhere in the Third World do we see such a prediction coming true after nearly half a century of development.

To be sure there have been more cautious scholars who did not observe the simple replacement of tradition by modernity, but they are few in number. Reinhard Bendix(1969:210) saw Germany’s and Japan’s industrializations as "characterized by a symbiosis between tradition and modernity that was tension-ridden but enduring",. Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph(1967:12) wrote about "the modernity of tradition and its correlate, that modernity incorporates traditional aspects".

Seen from such a perspective, tradition and modernity are misplaced polarities. This is a good corrective to the orthodox Western paradigm of modernity which bulldozed tradition as an obstacle to an all-encompassing modernization. But neither Bendix nor Rudolphs tried to show the precise relationship between tradition and modernity that might have evolved in the course of development. Nor did they indicate which of the two idea-systems was an ascendant one, which might have induced more changes in the other. They observed the symbiotic and continual nature of tradition and modernity, a great corrective to the Eurocentric theory of modernization but quite vague.

On the other hand the early Asian visions of modernization still enjoy a great deal of attraction in the Third World. For the pioneer neo-traditionalists in China, India and the Middle East reasoned that it was possible to modernize while preserving tradition. They envisaged modernization to be purely a technical process, meaning industrialization which, they assumed, would have no impact on tradition. But is such a clinical separation of tradition from modernization possible? It might indeed be desirable from the point of those who embark upon modernization in traditional societies because their cultural or national identities are bound up with one religious tradition or the other. However, our paper as a whole argues that such a clinical separation of tradition and modernity is a historical and asociological. It may be highly desirable but practically impossible for the simple reason that modernization does not occur in a vacuum. It takes place in society which makes the interaction between tradition and modernity inevitable.

Our interaction hypothesis should specify the critical variable. There is little doubt that modernity is the ascendant idea-system because its rationalizing logic is rooted in the modern state power structure and national economy, whereas tradition is a psycho-cultural phenomena essentially rooted in society. This explains the economic appeal of modernity and at the same time the tenacity of tradition. Neither can replace the other. Nor is there much need to replace tradition by modernity. Religious tradition has played a positive role in the course of development, especially during the early critical stages in several Asian societies. Such experiences show that although tradition and modernity are two contrasting idea-systems, their potential conflict may be diffused and their differing roles transformed into complimentary ones through skilful political management.

Development induces continual interaction between tradition and modernity, generating creative tension between the two sets. Even though modernity is the ascendant idea-system, it can neither replace nor erase tradition completely. Modernization only compels tradition to reformulate its ideas and to redefine its functions in the light of modernity. Thus, what is implicit in tradition is made explicit; more systematic what is random. In other words, tradition makes a structural adjustment, not a total transformation during the process of modernization. The only tentative generalization we can make at the present state of our knowledge is this: Modernization is a relatively universal process but mediated by specific cultures. Different cultures have responded differently to the challenges of modernization. That mediation shows the specific ways to industrialization as well as the manners in which the functions of tradition are reoriented both for its own survival and in the service of development, and how traditional ideas are reformulated.

Culturetology is usually associated with conservatism with no theory of social change. Our study of culture in relation to modernization and nationalism in the Third World (Norbu 1992: 223) reveals three distinct ways in which social change is possible: (a) exigencial necessity, (b) instrumental utility, and (c) elective affinity. These are the typical ways by which different cultures have accepted modernity to varying degrees, causing considerable social change in their wake.

To be sure the initial reaction of tradition to modernity in Asian societies was one of fear, suspicion and hostility. This was so because modernity appeared to pose challenges to authority structures which are closely ound up with tradition as the sole legitimation mechanism. But once the sheer utility and benefits of industrialization were demonstrated by authorities, limited modernization programmes in Chinese. Arab and Indian societies were accepted and embarked upon in the nineteenth century. To be sure early reformers like Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) in India, Lin Tse-hsu (1785-1850) in China, Jjamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-97) in the Middle East had to advocate modernization in the name of tradition as absolutely necessary in order to defend traditional value systems and authority structures on the face of European imperialism. This was the case of exigencial necessity by which modernization began in leading Asian societies. Such programmes were initially confined to a limited modernization of armed forces due to intense threat perceptions. (Blunt 1907: 482; Teng and Fairbank 1970:28-30)

Secondly, instrumental utility that drives societies towards industrialization includes science and technology that can produce power, plenty and progress. As we have noted earlier, it was this sheer utility of modernization that attracted the early Asian modernists to modernity. This appeal and attraction still continues to hold true in the Third World. There is today hardly any country in world that does not want to embrace science and technology for their sheer utility, even though many have serious reservations about `modernizing’ the superstructures of their societies. Whether they can in practice maintain a clinical separation of science and technology from society, insulating the social consequences of industrialization – or not remains problematic. There may be an element of truth in Marxian theory; Marx argued that once you introduce changes in the economic base, such changes in turn will bring about changes in the superstructure. The remaining Marxist-Leninist regimes and others are today faced with this dilemma.

Elective affinity refers to the way in which the members of a society easily accept those changes or apparently new ideas which have echoed in their past experiences. Work culture which modern society demands and which was present in Buddho-Confucian societies – is an example. A number of other religious callings which have been reoriented to fit the imperatives of modern enterprises may belong to this category of social change. We can cite more examples but our point should be clear. These are the three principal ways by which culture has absorbed or accepted several aspects of modernity. They suggest that modernization is not a wholesale Westernization but a deliberate and discriminating process by which a given culture absorbs new techniques and ideas on the ground of exigencial necessity, elective affinity and instrumental utility.

Our essay is a theoretical exercise with practical intent. In conclusion, therefore, we may ask what are the implications of our exploration into the tradition – modernity debate in the age of post-modernism. If most of what we have argued in this essay is correct, then it is high time to realize that tradition need not be an obstacle to development. In fact, high literate culture may provide favourable conditions, if not one of the preconditions, for development and modernization. Most of the great traditions may be considered a significant part of the human resources to be skilfully utilized in the process of development, and not an obstacle to be destroyed4. If that proposition is somewhat convincing, then development planners and practitioners need to study not only economic viability or feasibility of a development programme but its cultural conditions for successful implementation. And the relevant key question to be asked is this: Are the major components of a proposed development programme congruent with certain aspects of a culture concerned? If not, discourage (but not destroy) those inhibiting aspects of a culture. If yes, encourage such traits of a culture that facilitate or accelerate the process of modernization. Japan’s industrialization, in particular, shows the ingeneous ways by which Japanese entrepreneurs made skilful use of their society’s traditional social structure and value system in the course of industrial development. The strong sense of group loyalty that feudal society had fostered over the ages has been transformed into loyalty to the company one works for through lifelong employment. The importance of the family as a natural and venerable social institution that Confucian tradition had always emphasized has been transformed into an efficient unit of industrial production. If we go by the orthodox tenets of modernization, feudal loyalty and the extended family are anathema to modernity.

We end this paper with some disclaimers and clarifications, which might make the limited purpose of our discourse clear. We have tried to demonstrate how and why religion-induced culture might have provided some of the necessary favourable cultural preconditions for development in most of the industrializing Asian societies. That is, the behaviour-orienting values and ideas of Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism have over the centuries dug deep psychological and ethical grooves (habits) along which the initial wheels of industrialization found it easier to run. This assumption is verified by illustrative evidences from East, Southeast and South Asia.

Our focus, therefore has been on the role of tradition in economic development but this does not mean we rule out other competing explanations. For example the role of the state in Korean, Taiwanese, Singaporian and even Japanese economic development is quite obvious and worthy of being considered as a competing explanation. Or the favourable US policy, both defence and economic, towards East Asian countries except China. We have not discussed such explanations because they have already received enough scholarly attention. Our purpose has been to delineate the role of culture in development as a plausible explanation for the relatively successful cases of industrialization in Asia and to re-examine some of the earlier assumptions about tradition/modernity debate.


    1. Such remarks might smack of cultural chauvinism, which in fact goes against the grain of my personal philosophy. However, such reasoning flows from the logic of my analysis. My argument implies that it is not race per se but high literate culture that basically shapes one’s ability to function in the modern world.
    2. In this context I give slightly differentiated meanings to development and modernization. Development refers to primary industrialization, whereas modernization here and elsewhere means to update and further improve the means of production, following the current usage.
    3. The Jha example is particularly instructive, because otherwise Bihar is believed to be one of the educationally most backward states of the Indian union.
    4. Apart from their ideological objections, one aspect of the main rationale behind Communists’ destruction of traditional culture is their view that tradition is an obstacle to progress and modernity. A similar view is shared by early liberal social scientists but their means differ from the Marxists’.

Liberals advocate cultural change as a precondition for modernization, whereas Leninist regimes sought to destroy culture as happened in Russia and China.



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