This paper extends theory and research concerning cultural models of development beyond family and demographic matters to a broad range of additional factors, including government, education, human rights, daily social conventions, and religion. Developmental idealism is a cultural model—a set of beliefs and values—that identifies the appropriate goals of development and the ends for achieving these goals. It includes beliefs about positive cause-and-effect relationships among such factors as economic growth, educational achievement, health, and political governance, as well as strong values regarding many attributes, including economic growth, education, small families, gender equality, and democratic governance. This cultural model has spread from its origins among the elites of northwest Europe to elites and ordinary people throughout the world. Developmental idealism has become so entrenched in local, national, and global social institutions that it has now achieved a taken-for-granted status among many national elites, academics, development practitioners, and ordinary people around the world. We argue that developmental idealism culture has been a fundamental force behind many cultural clashes within and between societies and continues to be an important cause of much global social change. We suggest that developmental idealism should be included as a causal factor in theories of human behavior and social change.
Developmental Idealism: The Cultural Foundations of World Development Programs
Arland Thornton is Professor of Sociology, Population Studies, and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Much of his career has focused on family and demographic issues. During the past decade he has theorized and researched developmental idealism. His presidential address to the Population Association of America discusses it, as does his award-winning book Reading History Sideways: The Fallacy and Enduring Impact of the Developmental Paradigm on Family Life. Working with others, he has conceptualized, collected, and analyzed developmental idealism data from Albania, Argentina, Bulgaria, China, Egypt, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Malawi, Nepal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Turkey, the United States, and Vietnam.
Shawn F. Dorius is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Iowa State University, where he teaches courses in research methods and international development. His research uses demographic theories and methods to analyze social change within and between societies. His work, which has been featured in such places as Social Forces, Sociology of Education, and Population and Development Review, documents world trends in beliefs about gender equality and changes in objective global gender inequalities, world historic patterns of change in schooling enrollments and educational attainments, and changes in the world demographic structure. His current work explores the relationship between culture, structure, and social change.
Jeffrey Swindle is a graduate student of sociology at the University of Michigan. His research on cultural change spans a wide variety of studies, including a global, longitudinal analysis of individuals' attitudes about violence against women, a historical investigation of people's ideas about societal development categories, an assessment of publics' beliefs about freedom and democracy in the Middle East, and a case study on the cultural implications of an NGO intervention in Mexico. His research is supported in part by a training grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan (T32 HD007339).
Culture lies at the heart of world development.
—john boli and george m. thomas, “ingos and the organization of world culture” (1999)
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Arland Thornton, Shawn F. Dorius, Jeffrey Swindle; Developmental Idealism: The Cultural Foundations of World Development Programs. Sociology of Development 1 June 2015; 1 (2): 277–320. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/sod.2015.1.2.277
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