Image credit: babasteve

Think. Discuss. Act. Middle East

Print Friendly and PDF

Review: The Passing Of Traditional Society

Lerner, D. with Pevsner, L. (1958, 1964). The passing of traditional society: Modernizing the middle east. New York City: The Free Press of The Macmillan Co.


This important book reports on and interprets studies implemented primarily during 1950, in six Middle East Arab countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iran. The interviewers provided an extensive 111-item questionnaire to 2000 persons. Of those, approximately 1600 questionnaires were used in the writing of this book.

The questions sought opinions and reaction to modern media as it affected the attitudes and opinions of the respondents regarding themselves, their community, nation, and the world. The assumption of the author is that modern persons develop an ability to get beyond themselves and their local setting in order to understand or empathize with others in distant situations. Such persons are able to become participants in modern nations and the global community.

It is a major hypothesis of this study that high empathetic capacity is the predominant personal style only in modern society, which is distinctively industrial, urban, literate, and PARTICIPANT. Traditional society is nonparticipant-it deploys people by kinship into communities isolated from each other and from a center; without an urban-rural division of labor, it develops few needs requiring economic interdependence; lacking the bonds of interdependence, people’s horizons are limited by locale and their decisions involve only other KNOWN people in KNOWN situations. (author’s emphasis) (p. 50)

This book attempts to develop a typology of cultural transition. Lerner sees “Moderns” as cosmopolitan, urban, literate, highly specialized in their vocation, more financially stable, capable of understanding various world situations, interdependent, and more secular than devout.

“Traditionals” are seen as rural, non-literate, living at a subsistence level, highly respectful of authority, possessing a local world view, and usually devout.

In between are the “Transitionals.” The author places them in several categories, depending on their proximity to a modern lifestyle. “Transitionals are people who share some of the empathy and psychic mobility of the Moderns while lacking essential components of the Modern style, notably literacy…Transitional is defined as one who attends to mass media, but cannot read.” (Introduction, p. 13)

Voices of the Old and the Changing Orders

In 1950, an interviewer found in a small village not far from Ankara, Turkey a chief and a grocer. Fascinated by what these two men represented, Lerner describes them as “A Parable” in his first chapter. Asked about satisfaction with his life, the Traditional chief responds, “What could be asked for more? God has brought me to this mature age without much pain, has given me sons and daughters, has put me at the head of my village, and has given me strength of brain and body at this age. Thanks be to Him.”

To such probes into his life, the city-dressed, Transitional, and restless grocer replies:

I have told you I want better things. I would have liked to have had a bigger grocery shop in the city, have a nice house there, dress in nice civilian clothes.

I am not like the others here. They don’t know any better. And when I tell them, they are angry and they say that I am ungrateful for what Allah has given me.

When asked what would they do about Turkey’s problems if they were president, the answers of three persons in Balgat are significant:

The poorest shepherd states, ‘My God! How can you say such a thing? How can I…I cannot…a poor villager…master of the whole world?’

The chief adds, ‘I am hardly able to manage a village, how shall I manage Turkey?’

The grocer responds, ‘I would make roads for the villagers to come to towns to see the world and would not let them stay in their holes all their life.’

Here is how these same men responded to the challenge: “Suppose you had to leave Turkey?”

The shepherd notes, ‘I would rather kill myself.’

The chief offers, ‘Nowhere. I was born here, grew old here, and hope that God will permit me to die here. I wouldn’t move a foot from here.’

The grocer explains, ‘To America because I have heard that it is a nice country, and with possibilities to be rich even for the simplest person.’ (pp. 23-25)

The grocer was the least-liked person in Balgat, but it was to him the people came for advice about the city.

The unhappiness of the Transitional is expressed in another way by a Syrian hairdresser, “I am illiterate and so can understand nothing about life. Another thing that makes me unhappy is my inability to teach my only son, and I can’t find the way how to do this.” (p. 289)

Mass Media and Transition

Describing the effect of media on Bedouin youth in Jordan, the author heads one section (p. 326) “PIERCING THE ISOLATE’S ARMOR: Our theory enjoins us to seek those who are becoming outwardly-oriented through exposure to modern media.” He finds that “Bedouin youth are still kept in line by patriarchal authority”:

Cinema is bad and has nothing good to offer me. (How do you know that?) That is what my father tells me, and I believe him…I don’t know a radio. But I heard our elder telling us it is an evil device and dangerous for our character. What he says I believe.

But some Bedouin youth had become resentful and resistant. One seventeen-year-old shepherd “had seen an American movie once and has been restless ever since.” He adds that he is

…fairly unhappy…because we are not free to do what we want in camp. (Like what?) Go to cinemas and listen to radios…to see good things like beautiful girls, horses, and very nice fighting between Indians and white men.


This lad did not care to learn to read or write, but he did hope to have a radio, “Only it has to be very small and very easy to conceal so that I will not meet the disapproval of my father.”

Other voices from Jordan summarize the effect of radio:

At the beginning I considered the radio to be against our religion and the devil is in it, but when I heard the Koran on it I changed my idea and considered it my best friend. I can hear besides the Koran the talks in the Mosques and many religious sayings besides music.

The radio teaches me many things.

Radio is a very good friend at home who is very loyal and useful. I consider it my best friend.

Radio is the best friend at home. You can order him any time to stop talking without him being angry or disappointed…

And Jordan’s elite Moderns add:

Radio? Wonderful…A school in its own. Takes one all around the world in one sitting.

Radio is a necessity in life because during this age of speed one must know everything as soon as it takes place, otherwise he is outdated.


Traditional Jordanians declare the evils of the movies:

We Bedouin don’t need the cinema…Those who go are not real men. They are useless and have lost all value of morals.

Movies spoil men…Those who go get a very bad character and are no more men. But if you don’t go, you are a man in all senses of the word.

By God, our hair tents to us are better than a kingly palace. What care we for your movies?

Those who go are town people and all of them are bad.

In Lebanon, two aged Traditionals are specific about the effects of the movies upon youth:

It spoils our youth. It develops in them all these feelings-gambling, drinking, they also follow girls.

Movies show films of naked girls…with gambling…They teach them to kiss girls…please convince my son that cinema is bad.

From the same country a “young male respondent, caught in the throes of a romantic courtship, turned to foreign movies for guidance. Another young Muslim girl acknowledged the tutelary role of such movies.” She asserts, “When they see a love story full of kissing, the young men or women get so excited as to go directly from the movie to practice what they have seen.”

Although some Traditionals found movies that increased patriotism and the value of courage, a Jordanian summarizes its negative effects:

Movies are detrimental and spoiling for the conduct in general of people…people who don’t go are far wiser and better off. They cling to their old customs and habits. They never have any tendency to change their present situation.

Youth and a Changing Social Order

According to the book

The Traditional rule that AGE BRINGS WISDOM probably worked well in immobile isolate villages, where change was slow and experience was the only teacher. The longer one lived, the more experience he gained and the greater his title to wisdom. Now the young men no longer await their patrimony. They go off to the cities, take jobs under the modern discipline, learn from newspapers and movies. On many matters they are better informed-perhaps ‘wiser,’ perhaps not-than the old timers…others turn to the young men for opinions and advice. The structure of influence changes in the community and in the family. (p. 399)

Young Women in a Changing Order

As the patriarchal family weakens, other ancient behavioral routines are questioned. The Traditional rule that woman, by nature, is inferior, for example, worked well as she was offered no alternatives to her assigned sex- and work-roles. However, as men evolve out of the rural subsistence agriculture, women are no longer counted as essential units of the family’s total labor force. The homemaker frequently maintains a conservative influence, but the daughter pursues new opportunities for some education and new enticing experiences. The boy is no longer his father’s protégé; the girl is no longer her mother’s reflection. Therefore, mobility frees younger generations, and the framework of Traditional society begins to shift. As noted, “The male vanity culture which underlay Traditional institutions has proved relatively defenseless against the inroads of the mass media, particularly the movies.”

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. How does Lerner avoid simplistic stereotypes such as rural-urban or illiterate-literate in his analysis?
  2. In your opinion, does the author display a bias toward modern ways that hinders the objectivity of his study?
  3. What types of persons do the shepherd, chief, and grocer of Balgat represent? Are these found worldwide?
  4. How do the lives of boys and girls change as elements of modernization touch rural villages?
  5. What significance do you find in the effects of media upon the Transitional youth?
  6. How do the social roles of young men and women change with the impact of the mass media and education?
  7. How can this (1950) study help us to understand the world today?
  8. What do you like most and least about the Traditional, Transitional, and Modern people and lifestyles?


  1. Lerner and the social scientists of the 1950s provide a model to help us understand the important phenomenon of change in our world. It may not be a perfect model, but it does provide a basis for analysis.
  2. It is hard for Westerners to realize the gradual lessons learned as they passed from Traditional to Modern world views through 12th to 20th centuries. Those who settled America, for instance, came with centuries of social learning and transition behind them having left commercial and urbanized societies. To see this gradual development of Western civilization is to appreciate the trauma and difficulties of sudden change from tribal or traditional ways to technological and urban life in other parts of the world.
  3. Those who bring aid, development, technology, mass media, or religious faith and instruction to other cultures should strive to understand their own cultural “baggage” and biases. They must be willing learners, realizing that change will not produce a replication of Western models but a new modern synthesis in new settings.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *