industrial society

views updated Jun 11 2018

industrial society It is important to distinguish the descriptive from the analytical uses of this term. At a descriptive level, an industrial society is simply one displaying the characteristic features of industrialism, as listed under that heading. However, the term is also used in the abstract to denote the thesis that a definite type of society exists whose culture, institutions, and development are determined by its industrial production process. As such, theories of industrial society constitute a species of technological determinism, or scientific evolutionism. It is claimed that the logic of applied science, or of the technical processes based on scientific expertise and values, makes necessary certain fundamental and irreversible modifications to the traditional culture and institutions of a society. This view is expressed in the writings of Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon and by many nineteenth century social theorists, including Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Émile Durkheim. But the most influential example in classical sociology is to be found in Max Weber's interpretation of the modernization of the Western world as progressive rationalization, and the disenchantment of the traditional magical and supernatural systems of beliefs and values which once gave meaning to human life. For Weber's critics, however, a profound metaphysical pathos—a deeply pessimistic but unsubstantiated moral philosophy—underlies his claim that bureaucracy is inescapable in modern industrial society and politics.

The industrial society thesis assumed a much more tangible shape in the writings of post-war, mostly American, functionalist sociologists and industrial-relations specialists. These writers claimed to be following Durkheim in arguing that the cohesion and similarity of industrial societies depended on a social consensus, in each case around the same set of organizing values and norms. But in talking about the contents of these norms they were influenced by Weber, and stressed the rationalistic, impersonal (or universalistic) aspects of these societies, the primacy they gave to rationalized production of material goods and services, and the emphasis they placed on deferred gratification. Such societies, it was claimed, would tend over time to base the allocation of people to positions on their achievements, especially their education and technical competence, rather than on traditional ascriptive characteristics such as family connections, race, or gender. Simultaneously, mechanization and technical development would raise living standards and render many unpleasant manual jobs unnecessary, resulting in the embourgeoisement of the manual working class. The combined effect of all these factors would be that the dichotomous class structure typical of early capitalist industrialism would be replaced by a more divergent and less polarized system of occupational stratification. Marked class conflict in the workplace and industry would under mature industrialism, be replaced by institutionalized industrial conflict and collective bargaining. Political consequences would follow, for the complexity and diversity of industrial stratification implies a dispersal of power, referred to by these theorists as pluralism. Basically, this means the demise of authoritarian political systems, and their replacement by representative non-ideological mass parties. These predictions were synthesized in the work of a group of so-called convergence theorists who claimed that, because of the alleged logic of industrialism and its technology, capitalist and communist societies alike would develop into something resembling the ideal pattern of mature pluralist industrialism described above.

Critics of this theory have noted that the general features it ascribes to mature industrialism correspond very closely to the ideal picture which Cold War propaganda had painted in the United States. However, alternative and less blatantly ideological models of mature industrialism can be developed, by revising the assumptions made about the logic of the industrialization process. Students of Japanese society, for example, noted the persistence of ascriptive elements in the industrial culture of that country, elements which appeared to be compatible with a high rate of technological advance, aided organizational functioning, and prevented industrial unrest. They argued that emergent tendencies in the labour-markets, in the labour relations, and in the industrial enterprises of societies like the United States and Britain suggested that these nations might well be converging on a quasi-Japanese model of mature industrialism. The pattern of Japanese industrialism and industrial management has kept alive the search for universal and convergent trends affecting a number of highly industrialized societies in the form of theories of post-industrialism.

The notion of an abstract type of industrial society, with causal implications for the study of contemporary social change, is open to the same objections as its celebrated rival, the theory of capitalist society. Arguably, both are over-generalized, and cover too large an expanse of time and space to be of value for rigorous analysis. Even when reduced in scope they tend to ignore the specifics of history and culture. In particular, similar technologies injected into different social and cultural meaning systems may mean that individual nations coexist as similarly industrialized states, but remain vastly different entities in most other respects. The analytical usage of industrial society considered above is also open to objection on the grounds that its pedigree as a species of evolutionary theory implies the following: that the principal processes of social change are endogenous rather than exogenous; that the most decisive processes of social change are economic or material, rather than cultural, political, or military in nature; and that a society is the same thing as the nation-state. None of these statements would go unquestioned today and the concept therefore probably belongs to the discipline's past rather than its future.

The classic statement of the industrial society thesis is to be found in Clark Kerr et al. , Industrialism and Industrial Man (1960, 1973)
. For a critique see John H. Goldthorpe , ‘Employment, Class and Mobility: A Critique of Liberal and Marxist Theories of Long Term Change’, in Hans Haferkamp and and Neil Smelser ( eds.) , Modernization and Social Change (1991)

society, industrial

views updated May 29 2018

society, industrial See INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY.

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