Modernization theory proposes that high-income nations became wealthy by adopting the proper values, technologies, and beliefs. Low-income nations, on the other hand, are poor because they failed to adopt the proper modern values and behaviors. Modern behaviors, according to this theory, include embracing hard work, willingness to abandon old ways and evolve, and a future-oriented outlook. Modernization theory holds that low-income nations stay poor because they have failed to adopt market-friendly behaviors, such as industrialization, education, and savings, and market-friendly beliefs such as individualism (belief in the value of individual action, rather than collective action or government regulation) and meritocracy (belief that people occupy social positions based on their abilities and achievements). Approaches and attitudes toward technology are also central issues for modernization theorists. They view the adoption of new technology as a key difference between high-income and low-income countries. They argue that the cultural values of some nations produce a resistance to embracing new technology. Societies that are very rooted in traditional values around kinship and tribal systems are often not on the leading edge of embracing technological change, according to this perspective.
Modernization theory is influenced by the work of German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920). Weber believed that Western Europe rose to economic prominence because of its embrace of modern industrial values. These values included hard work, discipline, and frugality, what Weber termed "the Protestant work ethic." He believed the Protestants embraced these values because of their belief in predestination. They thought hard work and frugality could help them be chosen as part of "the Elect." Predominantly Catholic nations, he felt, lagged in development because of the Catholic church's emphasis on preparing for the afterlife in other ways.
Critics of modernization theory believe that it blames the victim, placing too much emphasis on the supposed failure of low-income nations. This fails to account for the legacy of colonialism, a practice that enriched the colonizing countries. This enrichment occurred at the expense of the colonized countries, leaving them as low-income nations. While many colonized countries became independent over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, colonial systems were often replaced with neocolonial systems, with former colonies dominated by the corporate and political powers of the former colonizer. So, while France no longer rules over North African and West African nations, French corporations and French foreign policy maintain France's power in the region. Britain no longer governs East African nations, but British cultural and economic influence remain strong there. The United States also functions as a neocolonial power through its corporate, political, and military presence in countries around the world. Modernization theory ignores these political and economic power structures and how they are utilized by powerful nations to maintain the status quo.