Samuel P. Huntington


A Summary


In a Nutshell 

“Economic development and political stability are two independent goals and progress toward one has no necessary connection with progress toward the other.”

Huntington is arguing that institutions are not a necessary condition for economic growth nor modernization. Economic growth and specifically modernization do not wait to be invited by a set of good institutions, they force themselves on societies and governments without waiting for certain conditions to exist that would enable them to continue in a persistent and sustainable manner. So what role do institutions plays for Huntington? Are they thus non-essential components of society? Quite the contrary: Huntington states that that very stability of society is founded on the institutions in place. Modernization and growth are destructive forces for him, and they have a tendency to rip societies apart if strong political institutions are not in place to mediate the chaos that can ensue. Therefore, although good institutions may not be essential for growth and modernization, an absence of such institutions in the face of the unstoppable tide of modernization will lead to political and social decay, and eventually to failed states, constants coups, political violence and stagnation.

He uses the USA, USSR and GB as counterexamples drawn from Latin America (LA), Asia and Africa. I am going to leave out of this summary a lot of the country specific examples as I think the ideas are more important in this case.

 The Political Gap

“The most important distinction between countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government.”

In the US/GB/USSR the people and the government share a vision of the public interest and the principals upon which political order is based. There is consensus as to the legitimacy of the rulers. This gives them power to execute policy, collect tax etc. In short, it allows them to govern, and for Huntington nothing is more important than in a complex group of people, there is effective government.

  • In LA government do not govern – the political community is fragmented and institutions have little power. This difference between US/USSR/GB etc. and LA/Africa/Asia is the “political gap”.
  • There is also an “economic gap” but the two are not identical, although they are related. Countries with underdeveloped economies can be highly developed politically and vice-versa.
  • Huntington observes chaos is developing countries: coups (17 from 20 LA countries experienced coup since WWII), revolutionary violence, oligarchic dictatorships (Nicaragua etc.) – i.e. instability. He asks, what is the cause of this instability?
  • Thus the core thesis of his book was that it was caused by rapid social change brought on by modernization coupled with the slow development of political institutions (the political gap).
  • Modernization is increasing political participation before people have learnt how to associate with each other i.e. political and institutional development is lagging behind political participation and the result is instability.
  • Modern aid and overseas development plans are too focused on economic development rather than addressing the promotion of political stability as they assume that the latter follows the former. But this is not the case, as you see in the opening quotation.
  • Indeed it seems that preoccupation even with democratic institutions is folly. American always believe that free elections are the solution but Huntington says that in many modernizing countries they only exacerbate problems and tear down the structure of public authority. “The primary problem is not liberty but the creation of a legitimate public order. Men may of course have order without liberty but they cannot have liberty without order.” Thus in the chaos of competing forces Communism can provide an alternative. It may be no better at creating a prosperous society, but they do provide effective authority. [I am not sure of the extent to which he is approving or even recommending authoritarianism here. It would seem he is at least tacitly saying that authoritarianism is better than chaotic democracy, but then perhaps he is simply stating what appears to be an intuitive truth that we cannot have absolute liberty for all without governing structures to mediate human relationships when they reach out beyond the immediate family or clan level.]

Political Institutions

“The level of political community a society achieves reflects the relationship between its political institutions and the social forces which comprise it.” 

  • Political community and institutions are only needed when societies move beyond interaction merely within their own clan. If all belonged to the same social force, conflict would be resolved through the structure of that social force. In modern, heterogeneous societies no single force can rule without creating political institutions that exist outside of the forces that created them.
  • When communities form outside of the clan or family men relate themselves to something other than themselves, an idea, a myth, a principal or code of behaviour. This is commonwealth – an agreement on the laws and rights that allow all to participate in mutual advantages. This type of complex community is thus ”produced by political action and maintained by political institutions”.

The strength of the community thus depends on the support for the organizations and the “level of institutionalization” How do we judge institutionalization?

  1. Adaptability/Rigidity – the more adaptable the more institutionalized they are, the more rigid, well, you get the idea. Institutions are set up for a specific purpose. Once the purpose is spent the institution may adapt or die. It must also adapt as new situations come along. Eventually this process of adaptation makes the organisation exist beyond its initial function – it valued by leaders and members for its own sake and it thus “develops a life of its own”.
  2. Complexity/Simplicity – the more complicated an organisation the more institutionalized they are. This involves multiplication of subunits, hierarchy etc. Simple systems are overburdened by modernization and will destroyed, a political system with several different political institutions is more likely to be able to adapt. It is more likely to be a mixed state which is more stable and will not dissolve into tyranny (if pure kingship), oligarchy (if pure aristocratic rule) nor mob rule (if pure democracy).
  3. 3.       Autonomy/Subordination – the more political institutions exist outside of other social groupings the more institutionalized they are. They are insulated from social pressures from particular power groups. “Political organisations and procedures which lack autonomy are, in common parlance, said to be corrupt.” Complexity contributes to autonomy.
  4. 4.       Coherence/Disunity – the more unified and coherent the more institutionalized. Effective organisations require substantial consensus about functional boundaries, conflict resolution etc. and that consensus must extend to those active in the system [rule of law].

 Political Institutions and Public Interests

 “The public interest in this sense is not something with exists a priori in natural law or the will of the people. Nor is it simply whatever results from the political process. Rather it is whatever strengthens government institutions. The public interest is the interest of the public institutions.”

E.g. the public interest if GB might be approximated by the interests of the Crown, the Cabinet, and the Parliament.

  • Representative theory states that government institutions/actions are legitimate if they represent the will of the people. Huntington says this is wrong, rather they are legitimate to the extent that these institutions have distinct interests of their own apart from other groups [I do not fully understand this point. Perhaps it is just an extension of the autonomy criterion].
  • How are institutions related to the culture of a country? One of their key functions is to institutionalize trust that already exists at the heart of society. But they cannot do this without the existence of some trust ex ante the work of institutions. Thus, those societies where there is no trust will have difficulty building good institutions. He gives the example of LA where “self-centred individualism and distrust and hatred for other groups in society have prevailed”. The prevalence of such distrust means societies cannot progress beyond familial boundaries. [Putnam]
  • This problem is compounded by the fact that economic change and modernization erode or destroy traditional bases of association.

 Modernization and Political Decay

  • Modernization involves social mobilization where major clusters of old ties and commitments are broken down. This means a change in values and attitudes. It also involves economic development (however measured). Modernization requires both these factors.
  • This is a disruptive process that can cause instability.

 Effect of Modernization on Politics and Institutions

        I.            Political modernization means replacement of large number of traditional authorities by one single national authority. Government becomes the product of man not of God.

      II.            Political functions become differentiated

   III.            There is increased participation by groups in society. Whether this means greater control of the state by the people or the other way around depends on the general consensus. More people participate and more people are affected by politics.

  • The fact of social modernization (urbanization, industrialization, GNP rise, mass media expansion etc.) does not mean a necessary political modernization. E.g. LA progress toward democracy, stability etc. is “at best dubious”.
  • The effect of social modernization is disruptive to political systems – traditional loyalty is undermined; local chiefs are challenged by elite beaurocrats. Identity is eroded . There is a growth of group consciousness and this has an integrating and disintegrating effect on the social system e.g. it creates prejudices and conflicts between groups due to competition for resources, inequalities of economic development, unequal distribution of power etc.

 “It is not the absence of modernity but the efforts to achieve it which produce political disorder. If poor countries appear to be unstable it is not because they are poor, but because they are trying to become rich. A purely traditional society would be ignorant, poor and stable.” [This refutes the poverty thesis – that countries are unstable because they are poor]. The evidence for this claim is that it was generally low middle income countries that experienced violence and coups, rather than the poorest of the poor.

  • Thus modernization creates instability and the higher the rates of change the greater the instability. This idea explains why when change was spread over centuries in US/GB etc. there was little violent instability, whereas in developing countries “problems of the centralization of authority, national integration, social mobilization, economic development, political participation, and social welfare have arisen not sequentially but simultaneously.”

 Social Mobilization and Instability

  • Urbanization, education, media etc. give rise to increased aspiration which produces tension if the aspirations cannot be met. It will also increase the public’s voice in politics. In the absence of strong and adaptable institutions such increases in participation will cause instability.
  • In general the higher the level of education of the unemployed the more extreme the destabilizing behaviour: “alienated university graduates prepare revolutions”.

 Economic Development and Instability

Economic development provides the capabilities social mobilization demands so it should tend to reduce tension. However, it also leads to social frustration:

  1. Disrupts social groupings
  2. Produces “new money” classes who want power and status to reflect their wealth and are imperfectly assimilated into the social order
  3. Increases geographical mobility which undermines social ties. Increased urbanization can lead to political extremism.
  4. Widens gap between rich and poor and all the tension that goes with that
  5. Relative incomes do not rise for all so there is dissatisfaction
  6. Increased literacy and aspiration levels beyond what can actually be provided
  7. Aggravates regional/ethnic conflict over distribution and consumption
  8. Increases organizational capabilities of groups to make demands on the government which it will most likely be unable to satisfy.


  • There is much evidence in favour of the idea that economic development creates instability (Mexican revolution after 20 years of excellent growth/French Revolution the same), but much evidence against (USSR, Japan, West Germany). The conflicting evidence suggests the link is complicated. It is hypothesized that the relationship varies with the level of development. At low levels of development, economic growth creates instability. The effect is neutralized somewhat for middle development countries, and the link is reversed in highly developed countries.

 The Gap Hypothesis

“Social mobilization…expose the traditional man to new forms of life, new standards of enjoyment, new possibilities of satisfaction. These experiences break the cognitive and attitudinal barriers of traditional culture and promote new levels of aspirations and wants. The ability of a transitional society to satisfy these new aspirations however, increases more slowly than the aspirations themselves. Consequently a gap develops between aspiration and expectation, want formation and want satisfaction…This gap generates social frustration and dissatisfaction.”


  • The reason for the frustration is found in a lack of social opportunity, and a lack of adaptable political institutions.

 Civic and Praetorian Polities

  • Political systems can be distinguished by their levels of institutionalization (INS) and their political participation (PP). The former can be either high or low (for Huntington) and the latter can be highly participatory (populace at large) middle (middle classes) low (aristocratic or other elite). The stability of a system depends on both of these factors. It depends on the ratio, and so a country with similarly low levels of both may be in fact more stable than a country with a highly institutionalized system and an even more highly participatory system.
  • Countries with low INS and high PP are societies where social forces act directly in the political sphere these are “praetorian polities”. High INS and low PP conversely are “civic polities”


Political Participation Ration of Institutionalization to Participation



Low: traditional Organic (Ethiopia) Oligarchical (Paraguay)
Medium: transitional Whig (Chile) Radical (Egypt)
High: modern Participant (USSR) Mass (Argentina)


  • Essentially the difference between civic and praetorian is that one set of systems are law abiding legitimate states, and the others are law neglecting systems where rulers act in general in their own interest.

 Praetorian: fragile, fleeting forms of authority, charismatic leaders, military junta, populist dictator. All forms of government whirl and change in unpredictable manner. Politics and political participation are neither stable nor institutionalized.

  • Civic: recognizable, stable patterns of institutional authority, feudal or centralized, or federal. Parliamentary assemblies etc.
  • “Institutions impose political socialization as the price of political participation. In a praetorian society groups become mobilized into politics without becoming socialized by politics.”

 [Huntington goes on to talk about differences in these types of societies. However, I have no teased out his main ideas and the summary is quite long enough.]



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