Modernization theory was among the most influential historical and policy paradigms to emerge in the United States during the 1950s, but fell into steep academic disrepute from the 1970s forward. Despite this loss of intellectual credibility, however, it has for fifty years continued to exercise a major influence on the developmental imaginary both in the United States and in many other countries. This article examines how modernization theory’s leading progenitor, Walt Whitman Rostow, developed his narrative of modernization to provide a metahistorical theory of development and asserts that the enduring appeal of modernization theory, despite its intellectual flaws, rests on the optimistic historical narrative it proposes and the flattering role it provides in that narrative for policy and intellectual elites.

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