Mass Society

views updated May 18 2018

Mass Society

The structure of mass society

Criticism of mass society


“Mass society” is best understood as a term de-noting a model of certain kinds of relationships that may come to dominate a society or part of a society. Terms like “mass production” and “mass communication” refer to activities that are intended to affect very large numbers of people who are seen, for these purposes, as more or less undifferentiated units of an aggregate or “mass.” Similarly, a “mass society” is one in which many or most of the major institutions are organized to deal with people in the aggregate and in which similarities between the attitudes and behavior of individuals tend to be viewed as more important than differences. Societies or institutions organized in this way are said to have a “mass character,” and the life of individuals in such societies is said to be governed primarily by “mass relations.”

The structure of mass society

Large populations do not by themselves produce mass relations, although mass relations are less likely among small populations. In the past, large societies were divided into many segments with relatively clear boundaries separating each segment from the other. Even though a society contained thousands of villages, all of them much alike, it was not a mass society because human relations centered on the village and supported the integrity of the village as a social unit.

Unlike the village-based society, the mass society does not help to sustain spontaneously evolving and durable social units. “Mass” in its simplest sense means an aggregate of people without distinction of groups or individuals. In mass production, for example, workers are organized according to the logic of specialization and control rather than as members of social groups or as distinct persons, and production is geared to a market of similarly undifferentiated people. Mass production, of course, involves a highly structured mass, by virtue of the division of labor and administrative organization, and it is therefore to be distinguished from the unstructured mass represented, for example, by the aggregate of unemployed workers. Moreover, some industries have more of a mass character than others: the assembly-line system of automo-bile factories is much more conducive to the emergence of the mass than is the craft-based system of printing (Blauner 1964). Nevertheless, the mass character of the market is a decisive factor in the organization of most manufacturing industries.

It is not so much the large size of the population as it is the large scale of activities that favors mass relations. Where the scale of activity is very great, it is more likely that the social relations which individuals bring with them or develop will be easily ignored or transformed by the dictates of technical efficiency or effective control. Thus, mass relations are likely to emerge where large-scale activities predominate, as in nationwide organizations, markets, audiences, and electorates.

The decline of community. Large-scale activities favor the emergence of the mass because they tend to develop at the expense of communal relations. The local community comes to provide for fewer of its members’ needs and therefore cannot maintain their allegiance. The rural community no longer is isolated and self-sufficient. As it becomes dependent on the city, and particularly on national markets and organizations, the rural community loses its significance and cohesion. The city does not develop the communal life that was formerly provided by the rural community. The individual who migrates to the city does not enter the community as a whole, nor is he likely to enter a sub-community of the city. The urban subcommunity loses its coherence as a result of the increasing scale and specialization of common activities. Instead of affiliation with a community, the urban resident frequently experiences considerable social isolation and personal anonymity.

Ethnic and religious groups also tend to lose their coherence as their members are drawn into large-scale organizations and arenas. Individuals derive less of their social identity, style of life, and social values from their ethnic and religious back-ground. As ethnic cultures come in contact with mass culture, they cease to preserve their unique qualities. Religious groups tend to de-emphasize their theological and liturgical differences. The particular religious affiliation loses its significance for both religious and secular beliefs and conduct. Even if people continue to associate primarily with coreligionists, this has little influence on the quality of their lives or on the manner of their participation in the larger society.

Like local, ethnic, and religious communities, class-based communities tend to lose their importance and coherence where the whole population is incorporated into large-scale activities. Social classes weaken as sources of distinctive values, styles of life, and social identity; and they increasingly resemble one another in the beliefs, values, and interests of their members. Class distinctions are leveled, and class boundaries are blurred. Class consciousness and class solidarity dissolve into mass consciousness and mass solidarity. The lower classes are increasingly brought into arenas of communication, politics, and consumption previously limited to the higher classes. Class differences in opportunities and modes of participation that remain are no longer believed to be desirable or permanent. Common symbols of the good life and of rights and obligations replace class-differentiated concepts. Classes remain as categories of people who differentially share in common ways of life rather than as self-conscious groups with distinctive ways of life. Status strivings and anxieties abound, but this testifies to the ambiguity of status where fixed social hierarchies no longer exist.

The ascendance of organization

Mass organizations replace communal groups as the characteristic units of society. Mass organizations are large and formal, but some large and formal organizations exhibit more of a mass character than do others. The additional features that constitute a mass character include a membership that is structured primarily by administrative devices rather than through social relations, and, correlatively, activity that is mobilized from the center rather than generated through various groups within the organization (Selznick 1952). Mass organizations do not build on the primary relations of members, nor do they support and facilitate primary relations among members. The result is a relatively unmediated and depersonalized relationship between the membership and the organization. Where the organization seeks a highly active membership, as in certain kinds of mass parties, intense identifications with the organization may be created. Most mass organizations do not seek a mobilized membership, however, and do not possess the symbols or other resources for mobilization. Instead, they are content with passive support from their members, who in turn acquire little social identity from the organization. Solidarity tends to be weak under these conditions, and symbolic or personal gratifications correspondingly slight. Unlike membership in communities, membership in mass organizations tends to be a fragile bond because relations are impersonal and leveled. This weakness is indicated by high rates of mobility of members, as they respond to opportunities for greater benefits and to new interests elsewhere.

As mass organizations replace communities, so do “mass arenas” displace local arenas. Mass arenas, including national markets and electorates, are spheres of activity common to all sections of the population. Like mass organizations, mass arenas are managed from the center rather than structured through social relations. They are man-aged primarily through the mass media of communication, since only in this way can an entire population be presented simultaneously with the same objects of attention. People participate in mass arenas by selecting from among the alternatives presented through the mass media. Since the alternatives are standardized in order to reach the entire population simultaneously and since they are directed to individuals as undifferentiated members of the society, participation transcends the individual’s social relations (Blumer 1939).

Mass equalitarianism

Pervading all kinds of mass relations is a common normative orientation of equalitarianism. All members of mass society are equally valued as voters, buyers, and spectators. Numerical superiority therefore tends to be the decisive criterion of success. In the political realm this means the number of votes; in the economic realm it is the number of sales; and in the cultural realm it is the size of the audience. Mass equalitarianism is strengthened by the attenuation of the social bases of inequality, notably membership in ethnic and religious groups and especially in social classes. In contrast to the equalitarianism of small numbers, as in friendships, mass equalitarianism emphasizes the similarities of individuals rather than the uniqueness of persons.

Mass equalitarianism is also linked to the bureaucratization of organization. Mass organization simultaneously encourages the bureaucratic centralization of governing powers and the leveling of social differences among the governed (Weber 1906-1924). The incorporation of all sections of the population into large-scale activities summons centralized organization for coordination and control. Mass bureaucracies favor the leveling of social differences in the interest of efficiency. By treating everyone alike, according to functionally rational rules and procedures, mass bureaucracies foster equalitarianism. However, bureaucratic recruitment on the basis of professional competence raises new hierarchies. To be sure, careers open to talent are in greater harmony with equalitarian beliefs than is selection according to family and property. But professional elites are nevertheless elites and thereby introduce new social distinctions. This is a source of strain in modern society; in the political realm, for example, there is a tension between planning by experts and participation by mass electorates [see Elites].

Mass equalitarianism is expressed in the populist character of mass society. Whatever is believed to express the popular will or to meet the most widely shared expectations is considered legitimate (Shils 1956). Political regimes strive to be popular regimes, whether they are dictatorial or constitutional. While this popular legitimation of authority centers in the polity, it pervades all kinds of social institutions. Populism places a premium on the capacity of leaders to create and placate popular opinion. Those who are effective in mobilizing large numbers of people have great power, and this generally means the leaders of mass parties. The mass leader seeks to embody and reflect popular desires; masses, not elites, are the ultimate sources of legitimation in mass society. This leads elites to make themselves readily accessible to popular pressures: that is, they are forced to be responsive not only to periodic expressions of public opinion through regular channels such as elections, but also to momentary and ad hoc representations of whatever is claimed to be popular.

Leaders, of course, do not seek merely to respond to mass opinion. They also try to control it. Since they lack firm bases of independent authority, their control tends to take the form of manipulation and mobilization rather than command. The very presence of large numbers of only loosely organized and committed people summons efforts of leaders to manipulate and mobilize them. For if elites are highly accessible to mass pressures, so are masses readily available for mobilization by elites. People are receptive to direct appeals from remote elites, because they are poorly attached to proximate symbols and relationships and increasingly caught up in distant events and activities (Kornhauser 1959).

Mass movements

As mass society develops, there is a growing cleavage between those who continue to be integrated in local groups and those who have already been incorporated into mass relations. In part this is a difference between the old classes and the new classes—craftsmen versus industrial workers, independent entrepreneurs versus industrial managers, free professionals versus members of professional staffs, and so forth. Increasingly isolated from the larger society, members of the declining classes readily come to believe that they are the victims of it. More generally, the locally attached, in their resentment of the ascendancy of big cities, big government, big business, and big labor, become receptive to the appeals of mass movements directed against the forces of mass society.

Then there is the growing number of people who have been detached from communal relations but who are not, or not yet, incorporated into mass relations. It is likely to include, among others, new migrants to the cities, new workers in the factories, and, generally, the younger and newly mobile members of the society. In the absence of strong group ties, they are less constrained and more restless than those who continue to be rooted in communal groups or those who have been fully incorporated into mass relations. These poorly attached and unintegrated people are readily available for activistic modes of intervention in political life and for participation in mass movements that promise them full membership in the national society.

Thus, modern mass movements are characteristically composed of people who either seek entry into mass society or seek to reverse the processes of mass society. Like mass organizations, mass movements do not build on existing social relations but instead construct direct ties between participants and leaders. When a mass society has successfully incorporated most sections of the population into its central institutions, mass movements may become less widespread. In a highly developed mass society, mass participation is institutionalized in the form of mass organizations, especially mass parties, but also mass unions and similar associations, universal suffrage, extensive publicity of political men and events, and the official symbolism of popular government [see Social Movements].

Criticism of mass society

Early critics

The concept of mass society had its major intellectual origin in the nineteenth century criticism of the revolutionary changes in European (and especially French) society. Many thinkers believed that the decisive social tendency was the change from aristocratic to democratic society. It was not simply that a shift occurred in the class composition of governing groups. More fundamental was the shift that these thinkers perceived in the bases of social order. Formerly, standards of value and conduct had been assumed to exist as part of a natural order of society; in democratic society, by contrast, the arbitrary will and opinion of the masses were replacing established standards.

Early representatives of this kind of social criticism of the democratization of society were Catholic thinkers like Joseph de Maistre and the vicomte de Bonald. Following the ascendancy of portions of the middle classes, marked by such events as the accession in 1830 of Louis Philippe, the bourgeois king, in France and the passage of the 1832 Reform Act in England, liberal thinkers adopted mass society ideas, not to defend the old order but to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the new order. Thus, Tocqueville (1835) moved from a fairly hopeful analysis of the possibilities of preserving standards in a democratic society (in light of his examination of America) to a more pessimistic view of the matter following the 1848 revolution in France. Even so influential a liberal thinker as J. S. Mill found himself in wide agreement with Tocqueville’s more pessimistic diagnosis of democratic culture. Burckhardt and Nietzsche, among many other late nineteenth-century romantic thinkers, sought to interpret changes in European society as the erosion of culture. Ortega (1930) later formulated a highly popular version of this view.

This aristocratic criticism of the development of nineteenth-century society profoundly influenced democratic criticism of the development of twentieth-century society. Where the first centered on the intellectual defense of elite values against the rise of mass participation, the second developed as a defense of democratic values against the rise of totalitarianism. The defensive posture of the aristocratic thinkers was adopted by democratic thinkers who, having won the nineteenth-century war of ideas and institutions, now sought to preserve their gains against the totalitarian challenge. Thus, such students of totalitarianism as Lederer (1940), Mannheim (1935), Fromm (1941), Neumann (1942), Arendt (1951), and Kornhauser (1959) see in the fragmentation of society the opportunity for new forms of domination based on the mobilization of large populations.

Two kinds of analysis closer to the social sciences have contributed significantly to the development of the idea of mass society during the past century. One is the effort to distinguish between traditional and modern societies, a line of analysis that has become a central theoretical perspective of sociology. An early formulation of this perspective was Maine’s distinction between societies dominated by status relations of kinship and those dominated by contract relations of individuals. Tonnies (1887), in his highly influential analysis of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, elaborated Maine’s thesis. Further evolution of this line of analysis is to be found in Durkheim’s theory of social solidarity and anomie (1893; 1897) and in Max Weber’s treatment of traditional and bureaucratic authority (Weber 1906–1924). What made this kind of sociological theory relevant to the idea of mass society was its analysis of the atomization and depersonalization of social organization resulting from modernization. This became a central thesis of urban sociology, as in the writings of Simmel (1902–1903), Park (1916–1939), and Wirth (1933–1953). [SeeCommunity-SocietyContinua.]

The development of mass psychology provided still another source of ideas about mass society (Reiwald 1949). Gustave Le Bon, Scipio Sighele, and Gabriel Tarde were leading students of mass behavior at the turn of the century. In their analysis of the heightened suggestibility and manipulability of people no longer constrained by communal ties and traditional authorities, these theorists contributed to the social psychology of mass society. This line of analysis was given a more sociological and less polemical cast by American students of what came to be called “collective behavior” (Blumer 1939) [seeCollectiveBehavior]. Many of these themes from sociology and social psychology were drawn together in Mannheim’s critical analysis (1935) of the effects of the “fundamental democratization” and “growing interdependence” of society.

A common perspective unites these theories and makes them part of the history of the idea of mass society. It is a view of modern society as containing certain fundamental pathological tendencies, which are believed to inhere in its development. The theory of mass society adds to such concepts as “democratic society,” “urban society,” and “industrial society” an emphasis on the socially disintegrative effects of democratization, urbanization, and industrialization. Foremost among these effects are the decline of community and authority and the spread of pseudo-community and pseudo-authority.


During the 1920s and 1930s, a number of American sociologists reported on various aspects of modern life and generally stressed the anonymity and atomization of persons in contemporary society. Following World War II, this portrait of modern life was subject to considerable criticism on the grounds that primary relations are much in evidence in the factory, the army, and other allegedly impersonal organizations. Kinship networks, neighborhood bonds, and local activity were observed in a number of urban and suburban settings, and primary-group mediation of mass communications was shown to pre-vail over completely atomized audiences. Such observations suggest that the decline of community is at most relative to the condition of premodern society (Greer 1958).

There is much more to the problem of community than the question of the mere presence or absence of personal attachments and communal bonds. Students of mass society assert that the functions of primary groups are weakened under conditions of modern society, not that primary groups are absent. The decreasing role of primary relations in the social organization of mass society and their increasing isolation from the larger society weaken them as sources of meaning and support for the individual in the larger society. Moreover, they are more easily broken because they receive less support from the institutional framework of society. Both weaknesses stem from the attenuation of the links between primary relations and the major functional areas of society.

The isolation of primary relations creates the need for more inclusive bonds of solidarity and gives rise to a search for new forms of community. The barriers to community thrown up by the mass character of society heighten receptivity to the appeals of pseudo-community. This hypothesis has been applied to otherwise widely diverse social con-texts. The German middle-class youth movement at the beginning of the century made the “return to Gemeinschaft” its cardinal article of faith. The Nazi movement subsequently inscribed the “folk community” on its ideological banner and won many adherents on the strength of this appeal. The totalitarian mass movement is only the most dramatic and extreme case of pseudo-community. Much more mundane cases have been examined in the context of American life. For example, campaigns of mass persuasion exploit themes of community and personalization (Merton 1946), and programs of “human relations” in industry exploit unfulfilled needs for social bonds and participation in the interest of greater worker efficiency (Mayo 1933). These ideologies and programs simulate but do not create community, and consequently they make people more available for manipulation and mobilization. They exploit a general dilemma facing the individual in mass society: either he demands highly personalized meaning from the mass enterprise and suffers frustration, or he withholds commitment to it and suffers loss of identity.

“Social alienation,” “false personalization,” “enforced privatization,” and similar notions found in the writings on mass society point, however un-steadily, to the pathology of community in modern society (Nisbet 1953; Riesman 1950). This concern with the quality of social relations—the fabrication of symbols and relations, the exploitation of unfulfilled needs for personal response, and related matters—marks the perspective of mass analysis. As a perspective, it invites attention to the various distorted forms and expressions of the search for community, to the social conditions that promote them, and to the consequences for individuals and institutions that flow from them.

Pseudo-authority. The decline of authority ac-companies the decline of community. For the loosening of the various cohesive groupings that make up a society is at the same time the dissolution of the authority of these groups over the individual. Traditional standards and customary authorities anchored in kinship, church, and community are replaced by bureaucratic systems of legal and political control. The rationalization of authority liberates the individual from the often harsh and always close constraints of the cohesive group; however, it also removes the direction and support supplied by such a group but not by the large and impersonal bureaucracy.

Many students of such relatively democratic political societies as those of England and the United States have been quick to criticize this conception of the bureaucratic society on the grounds that it fails to see the pluralist character of these societies, especially the dispersion of power and authority among diverse and independent social groups. Thus, interest-group activity and influence are found to be extensive on all levels of government; power and authority in many local communities are observed to be widely distributed among competing groups; and party loyalties are reported to possess considerable stability. Such findings appear to contradict notions of contemporary society as a condition of social and political atomization (Bell 1960).

Mass theorists question, however, whether these observations in fact confirm a continuing vitality of social pluralism, or whether the pluralist group structure is not itself subject to the forces of mass society. Social pluralism undoubtedly receives a certain impetus from the elaborate functional differentiation of the large-scale industrial society: the proliferation of specialized occupational groups is the principal case in point. But since these associations are specialized, tend to be nationwide, and often do not incorporate the work group or other social relations of the individual, they are transformed into mass organizations (Nisbet 1953; Selznick 1952).

Moreover, the interests underlying the formation of diverse organizations tend to be creatures of a complex and specialized economy that splits the person from the role, so that they possess only a limited capacity to elicit broad or deep personal commitment. If the interests are not very substantial and distinct, the organized representation of interests that constitutes a pluralist system will be correspondingly insubstantial and amorphous. The affluent society and welfare state also reduce the urgency of these interests. New sources of dis-affection appear in the mass society, but they are not readily articulated and mitigated by means of pluralist organization and bargaining.

Whether or not mass theorists are correct in this particular argument, the general principle is clear: “the differentiation … which disintegrates is very different from that which brings vital forces together” (Durkheim [1893] 1960, p. 353). The functional differentiation of structures may increase efficiency, but it simultaneously may disintegrate what was a viable social entity without creating the conditions for the formation of new social entities. A great deal depends upon whether a given social function can sustain a social identity or whether the function is so specialized or otherwise limited that it cannot provide sufficient meaning to summon commitment.

As organizations become very large, specialized, and removed from the network of social relations of their members, they lose their authoritative character. The modern trade union, for example, ap-pears less capable of providing meaning and identity to its members than occupational associations of former times, so that its power may seem more arbitrary and less authoritative. When similar processes occur in the church, profession, corporation, and other secondary groups, the society begins to lose its pluralism and experiences a general dissolution of authority.

The decline of authoritative standards and leadership creates anxiety and insecurity; feelings of aimlessness and lack of social direction become widespread. Such a state of anomie generates the quest for new authority and heightens receptivity to pseudo-authority. As in the case of the search for community, mass analysts try to identify the symptoms and consequences of inappropriate and inauthentic responses to genuine needs for authoritative standards and direction. The rise of charismatic leadership testifies to this need. But of greater significance is the quality of this leadership—whether it is the carrier of new values or merely the popularity of a demagogue or celebrity. Where mass media of communication and the techniques of manipulation and mobilization are highly developed, it hardly suffices to say that popular enthusiasm is sufficient to demonstrate a charismatic relationship. The conditions of mass society facilitate the fabrication of charisma in the absence of value commitment on the part of either leaders or masses.

More generally, whenever the claim to authority is based substantially on the manipulation of symbols rather than on the invoking of standards, one may speak of pseudo-authority. What concerns mass analysts are situations in which there is a marked discrepancy between the symbols and the substance of authority. The claim that public opinion is authoritative under conditions of modern mass democracy is a case in point. Where public opinion becomes a slogan for whatever is believed to be popular, rather than a process and product of public deliberation and discussion, it is a form of pseudo-democracy. This is a powerful tendency in mass society because of the difficulties of making and eliciting personal responses in mass arenas and bureaucratic institutions. The ease of mass manipulation and the difficulty of public deliberation favor the symbols of democracy without the substance, especially where the symbols are widely stereotyped in terms that do not invite close scrutiny or comparison with actual experience (Selznick 1952).

The most extreme manifestation of manipulated and mobilized opinion is found in totalitarian systems. The unanimous elections, the staged demonstrations, and the mass indoctrination programs reveal the possibilities of pseudo-democracy. Totalitarianism itself is greatly facilitated by the existence or creation of masses of people who are not attached to independent social groups. Indeed, the study of totalitarianism is instructive because it shows how the effort to mobilize a whole population actually requires the destruction of bonds of authority and community and their replacement by ideological organizations. However, the ultimate reliance of totalitarian regimes on the use of force testifies to the limits of this strategy of mobilization. Moreover, mass conditions do not by themselves produce totalitarianism. The existence of modern technology plus the availability of large numbers of socially unintegrated people make totalitarianism possible, but a number of other conditions must be present to prepare the way for totalitarianism.

Theories of mass society are sometimes said to be prophecies of despair (Bell 1960; Shils 1962). But they need not be so construed. That the mass analyst tends to be a pathologist of contemporary society in no way denies the existence in that society of creative and value-sustaining social forces. Properly incorporated into social science, the concepts of mass society invite analysis of the conditions under which mass processes are strong or weak. Thus, mass analysis may take on new significance in alerting students of non-Western societies to certain pathologies of social development. Perhaps more important for social thought than any particular proposition of mass society is the concern this perspective represents for assessing the quality of culture and social institutions. If social science is to pursue this kind of inquiry, however, it will have to renew its communication with the humanities. For if the idea of mass society has greatly influenced social science, its formulation and development have been to a considerable extent the work of philosophy, history, and literature.

William Kornhauser

[See alsoCommunication, Mass; Democracy; Totalitarianism; and the biographies of Burckhardt; Durkheim; Maine; Mannheim; Mayo; Ortega Y Agsset; Tocqueville; Tonnies; Weber, Max.]


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Mannheim, Karl (1935) 1940 Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction: Studies in Modern Social Structure. New York: Harcourt. → First published as Mensch und Gesellschaft im Zeitalter des Umbaus.

Mayo, Elton (1933) 1946 The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization. 2d ed. Boston: Harvard Univ., Graduate School of Business Administration, Division of Research. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Viking.

Merton, Robert K. 1946 Mass Persuasion: The Social Psychology of a War Bond Drive. New York: Harper.

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Riesman, David 1950 The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → An abridged paperback edition was published in 1960.

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Mass Society

views updated May 18 2018


The mass society theory, in all its diverse formulations, is based on a sweeping general claim about "the modern world," one announcing a "break-down of community." The leading nineteenth-century proponents of this position were Louis de Bonald, Joseph de Maistre, and, from a different perspective, Gustave Le Bon. These formulations argue the collapse of the stable, cohesive, and supportive communities found in the days of yore. In modern times, as a consequence, one finds rootlessness, fragmentation, breakdown, individuation, isolation, powerlessness, and widespread anxiety (Giner 1976; Halebsky 1976).

The original formulations of this position, those of the nineteenth century, were put forth by conservatives, by persons identified with or defending the old regime. These were critiques of the liberal theory or, more precisely, of liberal practice. The basic aim of the liberals was to free individuals from the restraints of traditional institutions. That aim was to be accomplished by the dismantling of the "irrational" arrangements of the old regime. Liberals, understandably, were enthusiastic about the achievement: Free men could do things, achieve things, create things that were impossible under the old arrangement. The collective benefits, they argued, were (or would be) enormous. The conservative critics agreed about some aspects of the history. They agreed about the general process of individuation. They, however, called it fragmentation or a decline of community. More important, they provided very different assessments of the consequences. At its simplest, the liberals argued an immense range of benefits coming with the transformation, a conclusion signaled, for example, in Adam Smith's title, The Wealth of Nations. The mass society theorists agreed with the basic diagnosis but drew strikingly opposite conclusions pointing to a wide, and alarming, range of personal and social costs.

The modern world begins, supposedly, with an enormous uprooting of populations. Ever greater numbers are forced from the small and stable communities into the large cities. In place of the strong, intimate, personal supports found in the small community, the large cities were characterized by fleeting, impersonal contacts. The family was now smaller. The isolated nuclear family—father, mother, and dependent children—was now the rule, replacing the extended family of farm and village. The urban neighborhoods were and are less personal. The frequent moves required in urban locales make deep, long-lasting friendships difficult if not impossible. As opposed to the support and solidarity of the village, instrumental and competitive relationships are typical in the large cities and this too makes sustained social ties problematic. In the mass society people are "atomized." The human condition is one of isolation and loneliness. The claims put forth in this tradition are typically unidirectional—the prediction is "more and more." There is ever more uprooting, more mobility, more societal breakdown, more isolation, and more anxiety.

The nineteenth-century versions of this theory focused on the insidious role of demagogues. In those accounts, traditional rulers, monarchs, aristocracy, and the upper classes did their best to govern fundamentally unstable societies. But from time to time, demagogues arose out of "the masses," men who played on the fears and anxieties of an uneducated, poorly informed, and gullible populace. The plans or programs offered by the demagogues were said to involve "easy solutions." But those, basically, were unrealistic or manipulative usages, ones providing no solutions at all. The demagogues brought revolution, which was followed by disorder, destruction, and death. The traditional patterns of rule were disrupted; the experienced and well-meaning leaders were displaced, either killed or driven into exile. The efforts of the demagogues made an already-desperate situation worse.

Conservative commentators pointed to the French Revolution as the archetypical case with Robespierre and his associates as the irresponsible demagogues. Mass society theorists also pointed to the experience of ancient Greece and Rome. There too the demagogues had done their worst, overthrowing the Athenian democracy and bringing an end to the Roman republic. The republic was succeeded by a series of emperors and praetorians, men who, with rare exceptions, showed various combinations of incompetence, irresponsibility, and viciousness.

The lesson of the mass society theory, in brief, was that if the masses overthrew the traditional leaders, things would be much worse. The "successes" of liberalism, the destruction of traditional social structures, the elimination of stable communities, and the resulting individualism (also called "egoism") could only worsen an already precarious situation. The theory, accordingly, counseled acceptance or acquiescence.

It is easy to see such claims as ideological, as pretense, as justifications for old-regime privilege. Such claims were (and are) given short shrift in the opposite liberal dramaturgy and, still later, in the dramaturgy of the left. In those opposite accounts, the old regime is portrayed as powerful. The rulers, after all, had vast wealth and influence; they controlled the police and the ultimate force, the army.

In private accounts, however, the leaders of the old regime reported a sense of powerlessness. Their "hold" on power, they felt, was tenuous; they stood on the edge of the abyss. Chateaubriand, the French ambassador, congratulated Lord Liverpool on the stability of British institutions. Liverpool pointed to the metropolis outside his windows and replied: "What can be stable with these enormous cities? One insurrection in London and all is lost." The French Revolution itself proved the flimsiness of "established" rule. In 1830, the restored monarchy in France collapsed after only a week of fighting in the capital. In 1848, Louis Philippe's regime fell after only two days of struggle. A month later, the Prussian king and queen, effectively prisoners of the revolution, were forced to do obeisance to the fallen insurgents. The queen's comment—"Only the guillotine is missing." More than a century later, the historian J. R. Jones declared that "during long periods of this time, many conservatives felt that they were irretrievably on the defensive, faced not with just electoral defeat but also doomed to become a permanent and shrinking minority, exercising a dwindling influence on the mind and life of the nation."

Early in the twentieth century, sociologists in Europe and North America developed an extensive literature that also argued a loss-of-community thesis. Among the Europeans, we have Ferdinand Tönnies, Georg Simmel, and, with a difference, Emile Durkheim. Simmel's essay, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," had considerable influence in North America, especially in the development of sociology at the University of Chicago. The Chicago "school" was founded by Robert Ezra Park who had studied under Simmel. Park's essay, "The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment," provided the agenda for generations of sociologists. Another central work in the Chicago tradition was Louis Wirth's 1938 article, "Urbanism as a Way of Life." The city, Wirth wrote, is "characterized by secondary rather than primary contacts. The contacts of the city may indeed be face to face, but they are nevertheless impersonal, superficial, transitory, and segmental . . . . Whereas the individual gains, on the one hand, a certain degree of emancipation or freedom from the personal and emotional controls of intimate groups, he loses, on the other hand, the spontaneous self-expression, the morale, and the sense of participation that comes with living in an integrated society. This constitutes essentially the state of anomie, or the social void, to which Durkheim alludes" (p. 153).

Writing almost a half-century after Wirth, sociologist Barrett A. Lee and his coworkers—in an important challenge to those claims—commented on this tradition as follows: "Few themes in the literature of the social sciences have commanded more sustained attention than that of the decline of community . . . . In its basic version, the thesis exhibits a decidedly antiurban bias, stressing the invidious contrast between the integrated small-town resident and the disaffiliated city dweller" (pp. 1161–1162). Those sociologists do not appear to have had any clear political direction. Their work was value-neutral. It was pointing to what they took as a basic fact about modern societies without proposing any specific remedies.

Later in the twentieth century, a new version of the mass society theory made its appearance. This may be termed the left variant. All three versions of the theory, right, neutral, and left, agree on "the basics," on the underlying root causes of the modern condition, all agreeing on the "decline of community." But the right and left differ sharply in their portraits of the rulers, of the elites, the upper classes, or the bourgeoisie. In the rightist version, the rulers face a serious threat from below, from the demagogues and their mass followings. Their control is said to be very tenuous. In the left version, the rulers are portrayed as skillful controllers of the society. The key to their successful domination is to be found in their adept use of the mass media.

The bourgeoisie, the ruling class, or its executive agency, the "power elite," is said to control the mass media of communication, the press, magazines, motion pictures, radio, and television, using them for their purposes. News and commentary, much of it, is said to be self-serving. It is essentially ideological, material designed to justify and defend "the status quo." The entertainment provided is diversionary in character, intended to distract people from their real problems. Advertising in the media serves the same purposes—distraction, creation of artificial needs, and provision of false solutions. The bourgeoisie, it is said, owns and controls "the media." With their vast resources, they are able to hire specialists of all kinds, market researchers, psychologists, and so forth, to aid in this manipulative effort. The near-helpless audience (as ever, atomized, powerless, and anxious) is psychologically disposed to accept the "nostrums" provided.

Elements of this position appeared in the writings of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, with his concept of ideological hegemony. Some writers in the "Frankfurt school," most notably Herbert Marcuse, also argued this position. It appeared also in the work of C. Wright Mills, in his influential book, The Power Elite. Many others have offered variants of this position.

The left mass society theory provided a third "revision" of the Marxist framework, that is, after those of Bernstein and Lenin. It is the third major attempt to explain the absence of the proletarian revolution. Marx and Engels assigned no great importance to the mass media. They occasionally referred to items in the "bourgeois" press, adding sardonic comments about its "paid lackeys." But newspaper reports were treated as of little importance. They could not stop or reverse the "wheel of history." But in this third revision, "the bourgeoisie" had found the means to halt the "inevitable" course. The controllers of the media were able to penetrate the minds of "the masses" and could determine the content of their outlooks. The masses were said to be drugged or, to use a favored term, they were "narcotized."

In the 1950s, in the Eisenhower era, the mass media were unambiguously affirmative about "society" and its major institutions. Families were portrayed as wholesome and happy; the nation's leaders, at all levels, were honorable and upstanding. It was this "affirmative" content that gave rise to the argument of the media as manipulative, as distracting. In the late 1960s, media content changed dramatically. Programs now adopted elements of the mass society portrait, dwelling on themes of social dissolution. Families, neighborhoods, and cities were now "falling apart." Many exposés, in books, magazines, motion pictures, and television, in the news and in "investigative reports," told tales of cunning manipulation. Unlike the right and left versions of the mass society theory, these critics do not appear to have any clear political program. They appear, rather, to be driven by an interest in "exposure." No evident plan, directive, or call for action seems to be involved. Studies indicate that most of the participants are modern-day liberals, not socialists or Marxists.

The mass society theory has had a peculiar episodic history, a coming-and-going in popularity. It had a wave of popularity in the 1940s when Karl Mannheim, Emil Lederer, Hannah Arendt, and Sigmund Neumann, all German exile-scholars, attempted to explain the major events of the age. A sociologist, William Kornhauser presented an empirically based synthesis in 1959, but this effort, on balance, had little impact. In the 1960s, the wave of "left" mass society theorizing appeared, beginning with the influential work of Herbert Marcuse. In 1970, Charles Reich's The Greening of America appeared, a book destined to have, for several years, an enormous influence. It provided a depiction of the nation that was entirely within the mass society framework: "America is one vast, terrifying anti-community. The great organizations to which most people give their working day, and the apartments and suburbs to which they return at night are equally places of loneliness and isolation. Modern living has obliterated place, locality, and neighborhood" (p. 7).

Few research-oriented social scientists have given the mass society theory much credence in the last couple of decades, this for a very good reason: virtually all the major claims of the theory have been controverted by an overwhelming body of evidence (Campbell et al. 1976; Campbell 1981; Fischer 1981; Fischer 1984; Hamilton and Wright 1986).

The mass society portrait is mistaken on all key points. Most migration is collective; it is serial, chain migration, in which people move with or follow other people, family and friends, from their home communities. Most migration involves short-distance moves; most migrants are never very far from their "roots." Cities do grow through the addition of migrants; but they also grow through annexation, a process that does not disturb established social ties. The typical mass society account, moreover, is truncated, providing an incomplete narrative. The "lonely and isolated" migrants to the city supposedly remain that way for the rest of their lives. Those lonely people presumably have no capacity for friendship; they are unable to get together with others to overcome their powerlessness, and so forth.

Many academics in other fields, however, continue to give the theory considerable credence. It is a favorite of specialists in the literary sciences, of those in the humanities. The theory, as noted, is also a favorite of journalists, of social affairs commentators, of writers, dramatists, and poets.

This paradoxical result requires some explanation. The literature dealing with "the human condition" has a distinctive bifurcated character. The work produced by research-oriented scholars ordinarily has a very limited audience, most of it appearing in limited-circulation journals for small groups of specialists. Those specialists rarely attempt to bring their findings to the attention of larger audiences. Attempts to correct misinformation conveyed by the mass media are also infrequent. The producers of mass media content show an opposite neglect: they rarely contact academic specialists to inquire about the lessons found in the latest research.

Those who argue and defend mass society claims, on the whole, have an enormous audience. Writing in 1956, Daniel Bell, the noted sociologist, stated that apart from Marxism, the mass society theory was probably the most influential social theory in the Western world. Four decades years later, the conclusion is still valid. The intellectual productions based on this theory reach millions of susceptible members of the upper and upper-middle classes, most especially those referred to as the "intelligentsia."

The mass society theory proves well-nigh indestructible. It continues to have wide and enthusiastic support in some circles regardless of any and all countering evidence. Some people know the relevant evidence but engage in various "theory-saving" efforts, essentially ad hoc dismissals of fact. Some people, of course, simply do not know the available evidence, because of the compartmentalization of academia. Some academics do not make the effort required to find out what is happening elsewhere. Some others appear to be indifferent to evidence.


Bell, Daniel 1961 "America as a Mass Society: A Critique." End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. New York: Collier.

Campbell, Angus, Philip E. Converse, and Willard L. Rodgers 1976 The Quality of American Life: Perceptions, Evaluations, and Satisfactions. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

——1981 The Sense of Well-Being in America: Recent Patterns and Trends. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fischer, Claude S. 1981 To Dwell Among Friends: Personal Networks in Town and City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——1984 The Urban Experience, 2nd ed. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Giner, Salvador 1976 Mass Society. London: Martin Robertson.

Halebsky, Sandor 1976 Mass Society and Political Conflict: Toward a Reconstruction of Theory. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Hamilton, Richard F. forthcoming "Mass Society, Pluralism, Bureaucracy: Explication, Critique, and Assessment." Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

——, and James D. Wright 1986 The State of the Masses. New York: Aldine.

Jones, J. R. 1966 "England." In Hans Rogger and Eugen Weber, eds., The European Right: A Historical Profile. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Kornhauser, William 1959 The Politics of Mass Society. Glencoe: Free Press.

Lee, Barrett A., R. S. Oropesa, Barbara J. Metch, and Avery M. Guest 1984 "Testing the Decline-of-Community Thesis: Neighborhood Organizations in Seattle, 1929 and 1979." American Journal of Sociology 89:1161–1188.

Nisbet, Robert A. (1953) 1962 The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, New York: Oxford University Press. Reissued as Community and Power. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reich, Charles 1970 The Greening of America. New York: Random House.

Sennett, Richard, ed. 1969 Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Richard F. Hamilton

mass society

views updated May 23 2018

mass society The modern image of mass society, although not the label, begins with the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured the United States in the 1830s in search of the secret of democracy. He was struck by the similarity of ideas and values among the people, and speculated that such a society might fall victim to a mass or herd mentality which he called ‘the tyranny of the majority’. Tocqueville's classic description of mass society has echoed through the whole subsequent history of social theory: ‘…an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is a stranger to the fate of all the rest. His children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them but he sees them not; he touches them but he feels them not.’

Nineteenth-century sociologists shared many of de Tocqueville's concerns about the emerging culture of industrial societies. Émile Durkheim diagnosed anomie in the new order, and Max Weber focused on the dead hand of bureaucracy. Ferdinand Tönnies, in Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887), reflected unfavourably on the crowded, urban, mass societies then emerging in Europe.

These ideas were largely ignored or dismissed as élitist nostalgia until the 1950s, when sociologists and political scientists began to write about the immediate past history of totalitarianism in Europe and the Soviet Union. In The Politics of Mass Society (1959), William Kornhauser argued that populations cut adrift from stable communities, and having uniform and fluid values, would be highly vulnerable to the appeals of totalitarian mass movements.

Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, and others of the Frankfurt School (see CRITICAL THEORY) focused their attention on the narrowly ideological nature of ‘mass culture’, and a whole critical literature developed around this perspective. Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man (1964) developed this line of argument to its fullest extent, asserting the absolute hegemony of mass culture and the impossibility of social change. Salvador Giner provided a comprehensive summary of both conservative and radical theories in his 1976 book Mass Society.

The term mass society has fallen out of fashion in sociology because of its essential vagueness and its value-laden character. But social theorists as various as Krishan Kumar, Christopher Lasch, Peter Berger, and Robert Bellah continue to explore the social relationships and cultural meanings created within large-scale, highly institutionalized societies which lack traditional community ties.

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