Rostow on the Wrong Tracks?

Walt Whitman Rostow was a U.S. economist and political theorist who worked under Johnson Presidency. Although he did serve as a U.S. National Security Advisor, he’s much more well known through the development community for his famous, or dare I say infamous, Rostow Stages of Economic Development. While learning about these stages in class this week, I found myself developing a very critical stance to this approach which I later found was shared by a number of different scholars. In fact, according to Criticism of Rostow’s Stage Approach: The Concepts of Stage, System and Type by Yoichi Itagaki, when Rostow’s book The Stages of Economic Growth: A non-communist Manifesto was first published, it was originally met with harsh, scathing criticism from the international community.


Before analyzing these stages, let’s take a look at what they are:

1. Traditional Society – “The economy is dominated by subsistence activity where output is consumed by producers rather than traded (Ford 2004).”

2. Transitional Stage – (Preconditions for takeoff) “Increased specialization…(and) an emergence of a transport infrastructure to support trade…(and) entrepreneurs emerge (Ford 2004)”

3. Take Off “Industrialization increases, with workers switching from the agricultural sector to the manufacturing sector (Ford 2004).”

4. Drive to Maturity “The economy is diversifying into new areas. Technological innovation is providing a diverse range of investment opportunities…producing a wide range of goods and services and there is less reliance on imports. (Ford 2004).”

5. High Mass Consumption “The economy is geared towards mass consumption…consumer durable industries flourish. The service sector becomes increasingly dominant (Ford 2004).”


Itagaki explains that within the Japanese community, criticism was especially nuanced and varied. In one aspect, scholars claim that “Rostow regards the process of growth not as a homogeneous continuum but as a discontinuous course involving qualitative changes. This historical process of ‘continuity of discontinuity’ is then ‘generalized’ in a ‘sequence of stages’ (Itagaki 1963).” As another scholar, Paul Baran states, another flaw is how Rostow merely states the various stages without further explanation of how each stage is reached or what changes must take place before a transition to the next stage can take place.

Next, the model of stages themselves was met with criticism especially since Rostow does a poor job of explaining their function exactly. In fact, some supporters have tried to assuage the criticism by saying that Rostow’s stages were originally developed for the purposes of Western countries specifically. Overall, I do think that Rostow’s stages make economic sense in that this is a pathway towards economic development. However, I most strongly disagree with any suggestion that these stages can be considered universal. The main problems here are that they ignore cultural and social factors that different countries face and assume that all countries share the same values and aspirations of achieving an industrialized state of high mass consumption. Overall, I don’t see these stages serving as a very useful model for a modern grassroots approach to development, which relies much more on tailoring development initiatives to specific community cultural needs. Although they may identify historical stages through which some Western states have developed, this is not applicable or malleable to accommodate for varying conditions.




Yoichi Itagaki: (Itagaki 1963)

Rostow’s Stages of Development: (Ford 2004)


4 responses to “Rostow on the Wrong Tracks?

  • ohaberer

    I am critical of Rostow’s myself as well. Echoing your concerns, it seems his models just serves to drive the same over-consumption that is plaguing our society today and is by no means sustainable under any economic models. For Rostow to model his system as though those communities that sustain themselves are primitive in terms of development reflects an alarming condescending Western approach. Here in the States, we are seeing many come out of the system of mass consumption in hoping towards working to complete self-sufficiency. It doesn’t seem Rostow accounted for this stage.

  • dbarnes4

    I agree that Rostow’s stages are becoming outdated, and that they do not account for regional and cultural differences. You mention that the model does not work for the modern grassroots-centered development paradigm. Something to think about: Even though development approaches are becoming more and more localized and community tailored, is the goal of the communities still economic growth and mass consumption? Or have their goals fundamentally changed along with their preferred development model?

  • kamyaraja

    Thanks for sharing your comments. I definitely agree with both of your perspectives. Rostow seemed very narrow-minded in his creation of these stages. As ohaberer points out, he definitely doesn’t take into consideration the aftermath of a high mass consumption society. We are especially plagued by concerns of pollution, availability of fresh water, and poor food distribution as a result of poor urban planning across the States. I think the push for a more sustainable and self-sufficient society is the backlash to high consumerism.
    In response to dbarnes4, I think that the goals of each community depend on the situation including physical limitations like access to resources, need, demographics, but also less tangible limitations like social and cultural norms and values.

  • gugulethu neta

    Gugu Neta…..

    Iam also critical of the Rostow’s theory in the sense that they is some overlapping of the stage; historically what can be viewed as development in Zimbabwe is opposite to USA.. last but not least Rostow creates a false impression of reality that one stage comes after another, to further emphasize on this point rostow has a condom approach of dev which is
    one size fits all, Africa has its basis of development so are the western countries.

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