Faces of Republican Turkey: Beyond the Modernization Hypothesis

DOI :10.26650/B/SS30.2020.004   
EditorEmine Zeynep SudaAteş UsluEmre Eren Korkmaz

Methodologies and problématiques in social sciences and humanities are closely linked with the dominant ideologies in which they are produced, which, in turn, are deeply embedded in a specific social and economic formation. Thus, it is not a coincidence if, throughout the twentieth century, Turkish politics and society have been frequently analyzed through the lens of modernization. Generations of thinkers, politicians, social scientists, and historians have asked questions related to a presupposed transition from traditional to modern society in Turkey. Some of them supposed that the transition took place in the early republican period, in the 1920s and 30s, in an abrupt way, while it was a smooth, lengthy process, spanning from the late 18th to the late 20th century. Those idealizing the modernization and exaltating the modernizers were confronted by critiques of modernity; while the former camp was a heterogenous mixture of various political and historiographic tendencies, the latter was also far from being homogenous, and included both traditionist and post-modernist critical voices towards modernity.
While differences of opinion and methodology within and between the modernist and anti-modernist tendencies are striking, there are also common denominators uniting them in a single narrative. According to this narrative, modernity consists of a set of references allegedly developed in Western Europe: Women’s emancipation, bureaucratization of state apparatus, development of literacy and creation of a new education system, secularization in political references, anticlerical politics, transition towards a representative democracy, and many other developments are considered within a single, unitary process of (Western) development. Whig historians, Hegelian philosophers, and positivist thinkers praised this supposedly combined development as the March of Intellect, and late-19th century vitalism, culminating in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, condemned it as a unitary process of decadence of humanity.
Both pro- and anti-modernist approaches to the 20th-century politics and society in Turkey are heir to these broader pro- and anti-modernist theories. Through this scope, the foundation of the Turkish Republic was praised or criticized as the culmination of a modernization process launched by a conscious, Westernizing elite. The modernization literature, despite its considerable contribution to the understanding of modern Turkish politics and society, suffers from striking shortcomings. As a teleological approach, it transforms specific historical events and tendencies into the moments of one single line of development towards modernization: Electoral reforms, administrative centralization, or the rise of the printing press are taken as the examples of a grand march towards modernity, or as the symptoms of a belated involvement in modernization. As an opinionated approach, the modernization literature takes for granted a series of debatable assertions: The bureaucratic circles of the late Ottoman and early republican Turkey are conceived of as independent social and political actors, and the republican state is placed in continuity with an allegedly all-powerful Ottoman state apparatus.
The present volume, Faces of Republican Turkey, is an attempt at presenting an alternative reading of Turkey’s twentieth-century politics. Rather than drawing on an elite-based study of Turkish politics, it examines the interplay between the variety of social actors, and their relationship with political power. Avoiding a homogenizing look towards society, it focuses on the analysis of gender and property relations within the society, and emphasizes the embeddedness of political thought and institutions in the social dynamics. The contributors use a wide range of critical methodologies, including, amongst others, historical materialism, social reproduction theory, social and political memory analysis, discourse analysis, and Frankfurt School critical theory. Each contribution is expected to focus on a topic related to Turkish politics and society. The authors present a critical account of the modernity and modernization-centered literature on the selected topic, and develop alternative approaches through the analysis of a specific case, using qualitative and historical research methodologies.
The transformation of gender roles and the emancipation of women has been evaluated as a consequence of the modernizing will of the republican elites in the modernization literature. This hypothesis has been questioned by a revisionist historiography from the 1980s on, and the history of the women’s movement in the late 19th century has been widely documented. Ayla Ezgi Akyol’s contribution on “Contradictory Process of Women Liberation during the Emergence of Modern Turkey” is both heir to, and critical of, the revisionist historiography. The author analyzes the question of women’s liberation from the perspective of social history. After defining gender as a class relation, she analyzes the articles of the review Kadınlar Dünyası, published in the 1910s in Istanbul, in the light of the transformation of relations of production and social reproduction.
For both modernist and revisionist historiographies, the early republican discourse reflected a self-confident, even triumphalist, attitude. Mehmet Arısan’s chapter on “Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu and The Republican Imagination” questions this widespread presupposition. Karaosmanoğlu was an influential novelist and columnist of the early republican era, and his two famous novels, Yaban (1932) and Ankara (1934), are analyzed by Arısan as documents that indicate the paradoxes in the mentalities of the Westernizing intelligentsia in Turkey, which was bifurcated between the uncertainties of the Republican transition and the imperial nostalgia.
E. Zeynep Suda, in her chapter entitled “Building the Memory of the Early Republican Period: La Turquie Kemaliste”, focuses on the construction and reconstruction of social memory in the 1930s. Her main source, the journal La Turquie Kemaliste is relevant and interesting in many senses: It was not only a propaganda journal sponsored directly by state authorities, but also a publication in French, designated to build a self-image for being consumed in the West. After enumerating a variety of visual examples that reflect the selfrepresentation of the republican elites, Suda points to the absence of daily life and lower classes in this self-image.
The late 1940s, and the 1950s, that is, the period of transition to multi-party politics in Turkey, has been widely analyzed in the scholarly literature. Sinan Yıldırmaz focuses in a lesser-explained aspect of that period: The restructuring of academic knowledge. In his article on “Developmentalism and Rural Sociology: The Ideological Reconstruction of Academic Knowledge in the Early Cold War Period in Turkey”, he presents a concise history of sociological thought in Turkey, and explains the reconstruction of rural sociology as an academic field as a result of a broader social and economic transformation in the early Cold War Period, namely, the transition from the self-sufficient small scale agricultural production to cash-crop production.
Güven Gürkan Öztan and Elif Çağlı Kaynak deal with another aspect of Turkey’s politics and society in the 1950s: Anti-communism in education, in their chapter on “Anti-Communism in Turkish Education and Childhood in the 1950s”. Drawing on primary source material, including the debates in the Turkish parliament, comments in newspapers, and journals destined to educators, they reconstruct the ideological sphere in the 1950s with its manifold of actors, including political parties, bureaucrats, technocrats, and USA experts in education, whose interplay shaped the restructuring of education policies in Turkey in the early Cold War period.
Cangül Örnek’s study of “The Bureaucracy and its Discontents in Modern Turkey” starts with an analysis of the Democratic Party period, and covers the subsequent decades. She questions the mainstream approaches that take bureaucracy as a supra-historical actor, and she historicizes Turkey’s bureaucracy in many senses; she points to the differences between traditional and republican bureaucracies, but she also stresses on the complex relationship between the relations of social production and the transformation of ideologies. Örnek establishes links between the bureaucracy and capitalist classes and states that “antibureaucratic discourse and the actual policies to re-structure the state institutions and to staff the bureaucracy in the neo-liberal fashion have resulted in a serious erosion in the institutional infrastructure of Turkish capitalism”.
Emre Eren Korkmaz, in his chapter on “Building a Public Sphere: Turkey-origin Workers in Germany”, elaborates on a theme that is crucial for republican Turkey and that has a transnational importance: Workers’ migration to Germany. He not only draws a brief history of workers’ migration from Turkey to Germany since the 1960s, he also establishes a theoretical framework for analyzing the building of a workers’ public sphere amongst the Turkey-origin workers in Germany, thus enriching the existing critical literature on public sphere in Turkey with a focus on a labor-centered and transnational approach.

SubjectsPolitical Science


PublisherIstanbul University Press
Publish Date21.07.2020
Cover (PDF)
Front Pages (PDF)
Full Text (PDF)


Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.



Istanbul University Press aims to contribute to the dissemination of ever growing scientific knowledge through publication of high quality scientific journals and books in accordance with the international publishing standards and ethics. Istanbul University Press follows an open access, non-commercial, scholarly publishing.