The Social Impact of the Industrial Revolution

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The Social Impact of the Industrial Revolution


The Industrial Revolution increased the material wealth of the Western world. It also ended the dominance of agriculture and initiated significant social change. The everyday work environment also changed drastically, and the West became an urban civilization. Radical new schools of economic and philosophical thought began to replace the traditional ideas of Western civilization.


The Industrial Revolution precipitated the world's second great increase in economic productivity. The first occurred 15,000-20,000 years ago during the Neolithic Revolution, when small communities became less nomadic and began to base their existence on animal husbandry and agriculture. The Industrial Revolution, which began in the mid-1700s and lasted into the mid-1800s, was similarly a revolutionary experience. It increased material wealth, extended life, and was a powerful force for social change. It undermined the centuries-old class structure in Europe and reorganized the economic and philosophical worldview of the West.

Preindustrial Europe was static and based upon privilege. The most powerful social group was the aristocracy. Its power came from the ownership of the means of production; this consisted of possessing the land and the mills that transformed the crops into material that could be processed into food. The class that labored to produce the agricultural wealth was the peasantry. They were at the bottom of society, and their lives were dictated by both the seasons and the direction of the landowner. They worked the noble's land and used his mills to process their grain. The lord also had the right to impose a tax demanding a certain number of days' labor from the peasants. The construction and repair of roads, dams, windmills, and canals were completed as a result of this tax.

Directly above the peasants were the artisans. These were highly skilled craftsmen who produced the utensils of the preindustrial world. They had far more control over their destiny than did the peasants. Most of their power rested in the right to form professional organizations known as guilds. These groups controlled standards, prices, and wages. The guilds were also a social welfare organization that had the responsibility of looking out for the craftsman's family if he should meet with an early death.

Finally, there was an emerging, vibrant, economic and politically powerful independent class known as merchants. This group made money by moving goods and services through the economic system of the preindustrial world. They were an urban class, acquiring charters from nobles that allowed them to incorporate towns. Many of these urban centers were guaranteed political autonomy and were run by a group of the most successful merchants, known as Burgers.

The family structure of preindustrial Europe was nuclear. The common belief that there were large extended families is an inaccurate description of life at this time. The average family consisted of a husband, wife, and children. Everyone worked for the economic survival of the group. In an artisan household, the father practiced his trade and also trained the eldest boy to continue the business after he retired or died. His wife ran the shop that sold his products. The rest of the children had chores, usually determined by age and gender, all of which added to the economic success of the family. The husband and wife worked as a team, with the children supporting their efforts. Children usually left the household in their early teens. Boys of merchants and artisans usually went off for training or apprenticeship, while girls for the most part took positions as household servants. Since life was so precarious, couples usually did not enter into marriage before they had acquired the skills to insure an economically self-sufficient unit.

The Industrial Revolution was preceded by an agricultural revolution that increased the food supply while decreasing the amount of labor needed. Traditionally, the primary goal of agriculture was to produce enough food to prevent famine. This overwhelming fear of starvation made most farmers very conservative and highly skeptical of change. Poor harvests would lower the supply of food, which would result in increased prices. The basic effect of supply and demand was at the center of most of the class conflict in this preindustrial world. Both bad harvests and increased population affected the price of food. High prices increased the wealth of the aristocratic class and led to death and starvation among the peasants; therefore, the primary reason behind most peasant uprisings was the high price of food.

A multifaceted revolution in every aspect of agricultural production would eventually eliminate this ancient curse. The traditional mode of farm production that had existed for centuries was abolished. Small, disconnected plots of land were combined into large commercial operations that implemented both new crops and the latest farming methods. Practical research had identified a number of crops that would both provide feed for animals and increase the fertility of the land. Clover and turnips were two of the most widely used for this purpose. Information concerning these revolutionary changes was transmitted in the popular scientific literature of the time.

The greatest social and economic impact of the agricultural revolution came from the "enclosure movement," in which farmers were able to enclose their fields and grow different crops during different seasons. This drastically changed the centuries old model of the "open field system," in which farmland was used in a semi-public fashion that prevented farmers from growing patterns that differed from traditional ones. This method of farming had been established during a prior agricultural revolution that occurred during the early medieval period. Initially this led to a substantial increase in agricultural productivity. Gradually there was a Malthusian effect; the population increased and the threat of famine reemerged. This reality made the peasants question any proposed changes in the accepted method of farming. They were not risk takers, so they typically fought to maintain the status quo. Records show that by the middle of the seventeenth century, the price of grain, especially of wheat, increased considerably. The scientific literature of the time stated that production would increase if the land were used in a more structured fashion. Researchers insisted that small, individual peasant plots would become more productive if they were restructured into large agricultural farms. Labor, machinery, fertilizer, and seed would be used more efficiently, thus increasing the bushels per acre. Initially this was met with resistance on the part of the peasants. Eventually, the increase in the supply of food tempered much of the anxiety, and significant changes began to occur within preindustrial society.

The reliance on science and technology, the questioning of traditional methods of agriculture, and the centralization of factors of production set the stage for the onset of industrialization. Also, at this time the traditional peasant-lord relationship began to dissolve. The quest for large profits undermined the bond that once existed between the two classes, and at the same time the gradual acceptance of a market economy began to take root. This moved the aristocratic class to change its view of the peasant class. The highly religious and land-based society of the medieval world believed that social structure was ordained by God. The deep belief that all souls were equal in His eyes produced a social system where all classes had both rights and responsibilities. With the onset of a profit-oriented market economy, the wealthy landowners began to perceive the peasant as just a source of labor. It was the fruit of their labor that was of the greatest interest and importance in this entrepreneurial economy. This created an expectation of greater profits, which in turn increased the demand for greater material prosperity. This revolution in expectations would both stimulate and focus the drive toward industrialization. The new demand for consumer goods produced the first workshops and factories.


Industrialization increased material wealth, restructured society, and created important new schools of philosophy. The social impact of industrialization was profound. For the first time since the Neolithic Revolution, people worked outside of the local environment of their homes. They arose every morning and traveled to their place of employment. This was most often in a workplace known as a factory. The new machinery of the Industrial Revolution was very large and sometimes required acres of floor space to hold the number of machines needed to keep up with consumer demand.

As in all productive revolutions, skill greatly determined the quality of life. The most important aspect of this new economic order was the fact that the skills needed to succeed were in many ways different from those that had been needed in the earlier economy. Artisans had the easiest time transitioning to the new economic paradigm. The fact that they had highly developed manual skills enabled them to adapt to the new machinery much easier than their agricultural counterparts. This was also the case when it came to dealing with the new, enclosed work environment and strict schedules. The worker from the countryside had over the centuries constructed a cycle of labor that followed the seasons. There were times, especially during planting and harvesting, when he was expected to put in long hours, usually from sunrise to sunset. The term "harvest moon," which today is looked upon as a quaint metaphor for autumn celebrations, was in preindustrial Europe a much-needed astronomical occurrence that allowed the farmer extra time to harvest his crops. In turn, the long winter months were a relatively easy time. The lack of electricity and central heating kept most people in bed ten to twelve hours a day, affording them relief from the busy periods of planting and harvesting.

The industrial economy had a new set of rules and time schedules for the common laborer. The work environment not only moved indoors, but the pace of the work changed drastically. Instead of driving a horse that pulled a plow or wagon, the machines drove the worker. The seasons of the year were no longer relevant to the time spent at work. Adult males were now expected to labor twelve to fourteen hours a day, five-and-a-half days a week, all year long. This was a very hard transition to make. A great many people who had once been considered highly productive agricultural workers were unable to hold jobs because of their inability to adjust to this new regime.

In many ways women suffered more than men. In both the urban artisan economy and the rural agricultural world, women were traditionally regarded as playing an equally important role as men. They were full partners in the family's quest for economic success. Their status changed substantially as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Their labor became a commodity to be exploited. They were as a rule given the lowest-skilled, lowest-paying jobs. They were regularly bullied by both their bosses and their husbands. In many ways their labor and responsibilities doubled. They were not only responsible for their jobs in industry, but they were also expected to continue their traditional roles at home. They labored for ten hours in the factory and continued for untold hours once they arrived home. It must be remembered that by law men still controlled their families. Women had no political, social, or economic rights outside the home. They were forbidden to vote or own property. The "rule of thumb" was still supported by most courts in the Western world. This "rule of thumb" referred to the fact that a man could beat his wife with a stick, as long as it was not larger than the width of his thumb. Women did make some strides in their ability to choose a marriage partner; traditionally, marriages had been arranged for the most part to establish economic connections between families. When young women moved to the cities to work in the factories, they most often chose a marriage partner from among the young men they came into contact with at their boarding houses or place of employment.

Child labor also changed as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Children were expected to help the family in the traditional economy, but usually they had been assigned tasks that were commensurate with their age. Not unlike their mothers, young children began to be exploited by their bosses. The most dangerous assignment for children in the factories was unjamming the great textile machines that wove cloth. Since their hands and arms were so small, they could reach into small spaces where the fabric tended to jam. The foreman would not turn the machine off but would insist the child reach in to dislodge the jam. If he were not quick enough, his hand or arm would become caught in the mechanism, and this could result in severe damage to the child. All laborers, male, female, and children, were eventually looked upon as interchangeable parts. As technology increased and machines became more sophisticated, the employer began to value machinery more than his work force. This would remain the case until the early 1830s, when legislation was passed to protect the workers.

The Industrial Revolution also accelerated the growth of the urban population. One of the more important consequences of urbanization was a rapid increase in crime. This was the result of three factors that dominated the urban landscape. The first two were poverty and unemployment. There was no job security or social security for the factory worker. If someone was injured on the job or laid off, he had little chance to replace his lost income. The few charitable organizations that were available were so over-taxed their aid never matched their good intentions. Overcrowding was the third important source of crime. Industrialization drew thousands of people to the urban areas in search of employment. Cities such as Manchester, England, were completely unprepared for the great influx of workers. This overcrowding fueled social dysfunction that resulted in a rapid increase in crimes against property and people.

One major attempt to deal with these problems was the creation of a professional, full-time police force whose members were trained in the latest techniques of crime prevention. Secondly, there was a vigorous attempt to reform the prison system. It was accepted among most intellectuals of the time that prisons should not be solely places of punishment. There was widespread acknowledgement of the belief that, through proper training and guidance, criminals could be reformed. Education would allow prisoners to find a productive place in the new urban industrial society.

The Industrial Revolution also accelerated change in the area of political and economic thought. The dominant economic model of the early industrial period was mercantilism, a command economy based upon the belief that there are a finite number of resources in the world. The primary economic goal of each nation was to control as many of these resources as possible. Its trade policies were a form of eighteenth-century protectionism. Great Britain not only forbade its colonies to develop any domestic industry, but the government also controlled colonial trade. Everything was done for the betterment of the "mother country."

The first major political economist to challenge this concept was Adam Smith (1723-1790). He was one of a number of Enlightenment thinkers who believed there were natural laws that governed the economic, political, and social relationships of men. These natural laws were discernible through the exercise of human reason. Smith believed that the natural law of economics revolved around the exercise of economic choice. He argued that the best way to bring about economic expansion was to allow people to make decisions regarding the products they wished to produce. The Industrial Revolution, because of its increased productivity, greatly expanded peoples' ability to choose. At the same time, it also raised expectations concerning issues of quality of life. Smith believed that through proper application of Enlightenment scientific principles, a nation could produce a society free of poverty. This revolutionary theory, that a government was obliged to create an environment in which these expectations could be met, would act as the foundation of the Declaration of Independence crafted by American revolutionaries in the 1770s.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, economic thought became very pessimistic because of the inability of society to solve the conditions of the industrial working class. Over time it became widely accepted that the quality of life of the working class would remain forever wretched. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), in fact, believed this condition was necessary to prevent widespread political and social unrest as the result of famine. Malthus's theory centered on the belief that if left unchecked, the population would outstrip agriculture's ability to feed it. Industrial wages were kept low in order to control the size of working families. This began the modern fear of the population bomb, which is still a hotly debated issue. This pessimism continued in the writing of David Ricardo (1772-1823). He formulated the Iron Law Of Wages, which mandated that monetary compensation be kept low. Ricardo believed that there were only a finite number of jobs available in industry. If a particular generation experienced too much economic security, they would marry earlier and have larger families. This would result in their children's generation experiencing the frustration of competing for a limited number of jobs. The resulting political and social upheaval would undermine the social stability of the nation. It is quite evident that both Malthus and Ricardo were still under the influence of a mercantilist world view in which humanity would be forever governed by the limits of its productive capacity.

The success of the Industrial Revolution in expanding both productivity and jobs eventually changed the economic pessimism of the early nineteenth century. The dismal view of the future of the working class would eventually be replaced by utilitarianism and socialism. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) helped create a philosophy based upon the concept that all social, political, and economic models should be concerned with creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This was based upon confidence in the correct application of reason. All social models would be judged on their ability to create utility. Thus, if properly implemented, the fruits of industrialization would be shared by all.

Socialism was an alternative theory, based upon the premise that true economic equality could only be attained if the workers controlled the means of production as well as the distribution of goods. This was a reaction against both the hardships of the working class and the economic inequality of capitalism. Basic socialist theory predicted that competition, the lifeblood of the free market, would eventually reduce to a small minority the number of capitalists controlling the economic system. Eventually, the large number of exploited workers would rise up and overthrow this small, very rich capitalist class. Economic, social, and political equality would then be achieved. The power of industrialization would be used to create a socialist utopia based upon the practice of the equal and rational distribution of goods.

In the end, utility carried the day. Over time reform legislation increased the basic social, economic, and political rights of the working class. They in turn realized it was in their own best interest to work for continued change through the existing political system.

The Industrial Revolution increased the material wealth of humanity, especially among the nations of the West. It increased longevity and accelerated the growth of the middle class. It helped to create the modern world view that through the proper use of science and technology, a more fruitful quality of life could be achieved.


Further Reading

Clarkson, L.A. Proto-Industrialization: The First Phase of Industrialization. London: MacMillan, 1985.

Deane, Phyllis. The First Industrial Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Kemp, Tom. Industrialization in Nineteenth-Century Europe. 2nd ed. London: Longman, 1985.

Rule, John. The Vital Century: England's Developing Economy, 1714-1815. London: Longman, 1992.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Random House, 1966.

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The Social Impact of the Industrial Revolution

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