Of all of Samuel Huntington's contributions to the study of politics, the most important was his 1968 work Political Order in Changing Societies. This book was probably the last major attempt to write a general theory of political development, and its significance needs to be placed in the context of the ideas that were dominant in the 1950s and early 1960s. This was the heyday of "modernization theory," probably the most ambitious American attempt to create an integrated, empirical theory of human social change. Modernization theory had its origins in the works of late 19th-century European social theorists like Henry Maine, Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Max Weber. While based primarily on the experiences of early modernizers like Britain or the United States, they sought to draw from them general laws of social development.
European social theory was killed, literally and figuratively, by the two world wars. The ideas it generated migrated to the United States, and were taken up by a generation of American academics after the Second World War at places like Harvard University's Department of comparative politics, the MIT Center for International Studies, and the Social Science Research Council's Committee on Comparative Politics. The Harvard department, led by Weber's protégé Talcott Parsons, hoped to create an integrated, interdisciplinary social science that would combine economics, sociology, political science, and anthropology.
The period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s also corresponded to the dissolution of European colonial empires and the emergence of what became known as the third or developing world -- newly independent countries with great aspirations to modernize and catch up with their former colonial masters. Scholars like Edward Shils, Daniel Lerner, Lucian Pye, Gabriel Almond, David Apter, and Walt Whitman Rostow saw these momentous developments as a laboratory for social theory, as well as a great opportunity to help developing countries raise living standards and democratize their political systems.
If one were to sum up the Americanized version of modernization theory, it was the sunny view that all good things went together: Economic growth, social mobilization, political institutions, and cultural values all changed for the better in tandem. There was none of the tragic sense of loss that one sees in Weber's concepts of disenchantment or the iron cage of capitalism, or in Durkheim's anomie. The different dimensions of social change were part of a seamless and mutually supportive process.
Political Order in Changing Societies appeared against this backdrop and frontally challenged these assumptions. First, Huntington argued that political decay was at least as likely as political development and that the actual experience of newly independent countries was one of increasing social and political disorder. Second, he suggested that the good things of modernity often operated at cross-purposes. In particular, if social mobilization outpaced the development of political institutions, there would be frustration as new social actors found themselves unable to participate in the political system.
Political Order pointed out that from the vantage point of the year 1968, political development was not occurring in much of the recently independent, former colonial world. The world was rather characterized by coups, civil wars, upheavals, and political instability. Huntington suggested that if the pace of social mobilization outran the ability of political institutions to incorporate new actors, you would get a condition that he called praetorianism, or political breakdown and political decay.
It is safe to say that Political Order finally killed off modernization theory. It was part of a pincers attack, the other prong of which was the critique from the left that said that modernization theorists enshrined an ethnocentric European or North American model of social development as a universal one for humanity to follow. American social science found itself suddenly without an overarching theory and began its subsequent slide into its current methodological Balkanization.
Huntington drew a practical implication from these observations, namely that political order was a good thing in itself and would not automatically arise out of the modernization process. Rather the contrary: Without political order, neither economic nor social development could proceed successfully. The different components of modernization needed to be sequenced. Premature increases in political participation -- including things like early elections -- could destabilize fragile political systems. This laid the groundwork for a development strategy that came to be called the "authoritarian transition," whereby a modernizing dictatorship provides political order, a rule of law, and the conditions for successful economic and social development. Once these building blocks were in place, other aspects of modernity like democracy and civic participation could be added. (Huntington's student, Fareed Zakaria, would write a book in 2003, The Future of Freedom, making a somewhat updated variant of this argument.)