Mass Society Research Paper

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‘Mass society’ is a notion central to the assumption that modern, advanced societies possess the following features: a growing internal homogeneity, a combination of elite and bureaucratic control over the majority of the population (the so-called ‘masses’), a specific kind of predominant culture (‘mass culture,’ linked to the ‘mass media’), and an illiberal form of politics (‘mass politics’ and ‘mass parties’). They are also said to reflect a new stage in the development of the industrial economy through ‘mass production’ and ‘mass consumption.’ ‘Mass society’ frequently assumes that, in such advanced societies, a certain type of human personality, the so-called ‘mass man,’ is proliferating and becoming omnipresent. This mass man is thought to embody the mindless uniformity of social conditions and moral attitudes.

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1. The Twentieth Century Origin of the Concept

In its contemporary sense, the term ‘mass society’ (Massengesellschaft) was coined by Karl Mannheim in Germany in 1935. However, the first general description of a mass society, as it was to emerge in the social sciences and in the sphere of social ideas in the post-World War II period, was first put forward by the philosopher Jose Ortega in 1929, in his influential essay The Re olt of the Masses. Ortega also launched the expression ‘mass man’ (hombre masa in Spanish), a notion intimately related to that of mass society. These contributions from Mannheim and Ortega were preceded by other notions, such as ‘mass production,’ but most of the ‘mass society’ expressions appeared after these had become accepted terms. Of these, ‘mass politics,’ ‘mass culture,’ ‘massification’—a translation of the German Vermassung—and ‘mass consumption’ are the best known. Still others, which did not always include the qualifying word ‘mass,’ were often used as synonyms of mass society or equivalents for it: for example, David Riesman’s ‘lonely crowd’ and his concept of ‘outer directed personality’ which largely overlaps with standard descriptions of ‘mass man.’

Despite the twentieth century origin of the expression (as well as of the set of concepts to which it soon became inextricably linked), both the notion of mass society and the arguments (or theories) behind it are much older. Thus the idea of a mass society contains some conceptions (and prejudices) about the nature of human society which are truly ancient, while some of the most elaborate interpretations of the world it claims to describe hark back to classical nineteenth century thinkers, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, to several pre-World War I philosophers and sociologists, and to contributions made by the socalled ‘crowd psychologists’ of the same period.

2. The Classical Origins of The ‘Mass Society’ Conception

2.1 The Ancient Roots of the Concept

The set of problems destined to occupy the minds of modern theorists of mass society are clearly related to those which inspired the ideas of the earliest conservative critics of democracy. The latter were concerned that the extension of citizenship and equality to the majority of the people making up the body politic might also entail the access of common, ignorant, vulgar, and politically and legally untrained men to public office. Public office, they thought, ought to be the preserve of legally trained, well educated, and wise citizens. Although Plato in the Republic put forward a scheme for the selection of the ablest and best citizens for high office (both women and men) on an egalitarian basis—through equal educational opportunities for all—most conservative observers at the time feared that all actual democracies would easily degenerate into mob rule.

Later, some historians, such as the Greek Polybius who lived under Roman rule, suggested that humankind underwent a cyclical historical process and that periods of democracy quickly and inevitably degenerated into what he called ‘ochlocracy,’ that is, mob rule and social chaos. Saint Augustine for his part was probably the first to use the word ‘mass’ for the majority of the people, by referring to those incapable of saving their own souls as the massa damnata. He explicitly distinguished an elite—those to be saved, to use his Christian term—and the rest, the undistinguished, united in their failure to free themselves from sin.

Thus the association between crowd behavior, unruly assemblies, emotional and irrational meetings, on the one hand, and the general breakdown of social order, on the other, appeared at the earliest period in the history of Western political thought. Similarly the people’s supposedly innate vulgarity and lack of moral fiber was contrasted with the refinement, creativity, courage and distinction, and individuality of the select and responsible few. The dangers of demagoguery— irresponsible leadership of the plebs or populace, often coming from isolated members of the elite—were also mentioned by numerous political thinkers during the classical period—from Aristotle to Cicero—in terms not altogether different from those used by some representatives of the modern theory of mass politics.

2.2 Classical Underpinnings from Hobbes to Tocqueville

Neither medieval nor Renaissance thought permitted much further development of the seminal ideas about the majority and its relationship to privileged and powerful minorities, much less the rise of a conception of the social world in which egalitarianism was seen as posing a danger to freedom and a source of human bondage. The social upheaval of the seventeenth century, however, inspired Thomas Hobbes in Le iathan and especially in his reflections on the disturbances of the English Civil War, the Behemoth, to return to ancient themes about the pernicious results of upsetting the hierarchical order of society by demagoguery and mob rule. Political obedience to the sovereign by the many might entail strains and injustice, but anarchy led to much greater evils, both for the body politic and for the preservation of civilization and human life. In Le iathan, by simplifying the structure of a viable body politic and making it quite homogenous under the power of a single sovereign, Hobbes pointed to some of the features and problems of government to which theorists of mass politics (i.e., of the political dimension of mass societies) would turn their attention in the twentieth century.

In the history of the concept of mass society, it is worth noting that neither the first fully-fledged interpretation of such phenomenon (Ortega 1929) nor the first general presentation of anything approaching the notion of a mass society, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America actually used the expression itself. Although Tocqueville’s study (1835 and 1840) did not describe the rise of a mass society, his analysis of the dynamics of a liberal, individualistic and democratic polity, clearly pointed out the trends (both manifest and ‘subterranean,’ to use his characteristic expression) that would eventually lead to it: thus the pressure of a growing ‘equality of conditions’ in the modern world would make people more similar to each other and therefore erase the distinctions between would-be unique individuals. The powerful ideology of egalitarianism would also have similar repercussions: concessions to majority wishes made by politicians would produce a more mediocre kind of democracy; conformity, rather than orderly dissent, would undermine the vitality of the new culture of the age; hedonism, rather than striving for higher forms of culture and ideals, would inspire the behavior of a selfish citizenry. In a word, a world of lonely, aimless, vulgar pleasure-seeking and disoriented citizens could eventually—though not necessarily—arise from the general trends to be perceived in the age of democracy.

2.3 Conservatism and ‘Fear of the Masses’

Tocqueville’s contribution is important because, for the first time, and almost explicitly, he made a distinction between crowd and mob behavior, on the one hand, and the increasingly uniform structure of advanced democratic societies, on the other. Nevertheless, in the decades that followed, observers tended to concentrate on crowd and mass behavior rather more than on the homogenization (or ‘massification’ as it later was called) of the entire society.

This interest in crowd behavior came, almost entirely, from the conservative quarter. In their eyes, the progress of democracy during the nineteenth century, especially in the great urban settings of the West, would bring many people—i.e., particularly industrial workers—into the streets to confront governments or to defy public order with demonstrations, strikes, and public meetings. An entire series of observers—mostly the so-called crowd psychologists—produced studies and speculated about the irrational, emotional, and manipulable behavior of the masses. Gustave Le Bon’s The Psychology of Crowds (1896) is the best-known, though many other similar studies were produced, especially in Italy and England. A best-seller for its time, Le Bon’s study brought the concept a step closer to the identification of crowd behavior with the general structure of society, already described by some at the time as ‘the age of the masses.’ A later essay by Ortega bears a title that still refers to the ‘masses’ rather than to an ‘age’ or ‘society.’ Meanwhile Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West ends with a somber and catastrophic view of the future of civilization precisely in terms of an ‘age of the masses,’ the ‘barbarians from below.’ For his part, Sigmund Freud wrote one of his most significant studies by developing critically some of Le Bon’s ideas and intimated, like Le Bon and Spengler, that the future would belong to the rising masses and their dangerous manipulators. The masses were, by definition, incapable of rational and analytical thought and were also undemocratic in every way.

An alternative, democratic view, of the majority had difficulty emerging. At a given moment, anarchist and socialist thinkers began to accept the notion of ‘the masses’ in order to refer to the people at large (industrial and peasant workers together) in an entirely different vein to that of conservatives. Yet, with the rise of Bolshevism and, later, Stalinism, the ‘masses’ came to refer abstractly to a given population as controlled by the single party (the ‘vanguard of the proletariat’) and its ‘cadres.’ As such, the ‘masses’ were only assigned a subordinate role of acquiescence and obedience to the monopolistic party, instead of the autonomy characteristic of the people making up a truly free civil society. It cannot be said that, during the period of (Stalinist) Communist predominance in large parts of the world (1917–89), observers within the narrow bounds of the official Marxist–Leninist ideology showed any confidence on the ‘masses.’ Thus, paradoxically, their views coincided with the pessimistic liberals’ view of the same period.

Some Marxists or Neo-Marxists would eventually come to accept the term ‘mass society,’ which they applied mostly to advanced capitalist and ‘imperialist’ countries. Nevertheless, Western Marxists who escaped the discipline of their Stalinist counterparts often incorporated the concept of mass society to their analyses, as we shall presently see.

3. The Rise of the Modern Theory of Mass Society

3.1 Ortega and Mannheim

As pointed out above, the ‘standard’ interpretation of the modern world in terms of a mass society found in Ortega’s The Re olt of the Masses represented the first general synthesis. His essay also included a number of original ideas (e.g., specialism as a form of ‘barbarism,’ or the notion that ‘mass man’ is not necessarily linked to the lower classes or to the proletariat). The anxieties and preoccupations of liberals (Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill), philosophers of civilization’s decline (Spengler, Burckhardt), crowd and mass psychologists (Le Bon, Freud) elegantly and forcefully converged with Ortega’s considerations but did not use the expression. Mannheim’s notion of ‘society of the masses,’ more easily translated into ‘mass society,’ completed Ortega’s vision, with his greater insistence on the bureaucratic and industrial structure of such universe. This was developed in his 1935 Mensch and Gesellschaft im Zeitalter des Umbaus (Man and Society in the Age of Reconstruction 1940). Mannheim, less conservative than Ortega, put forward possible solutions in a reformist, social democratic spirit.

Translated into English by Edward Shils—himself later a critical analyst of the notion—Mannheim’s essay opened the way for the widespread use of the expression ‘mass society’ in the English-speaking world. In Spanish, many writers retained the plural (sociedad de masas), but this has not always been the case in other languages, such as French (societe de masse) or Italian (societa di massa; also, for mass politics, regime di massa; while Ortega’s hombre masa was translated into Italian as uomo di massa).

3.2 Predominance and Expansion of the Mass Society Conception

As Daniel Bell was to point out in his The End of Ideology (1960), the mass society conception of advanced societies had become the predominant general vision of the world at the time amongst critics and thoughtful observers, save for the then widespread Marxist views about capitalism and its future. It remained so for a long time, although ramifications, schools of thought, and rival interpretations would also appear. This is not the place for a description nor a classification of such interpretations, however, we should mention that, alongside more conservative (in some cases, overtly pessimistic) views about the rise of a mass society in the framework of Western industrial advanced societies, there emerged some observers who embraced the notion from a left-wing or radical stance. C. W. Mills’ attacks against the supposed degeneration of American society and democracy in his two studies White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956) were typically made from a libertarian position against the development of a mass society on American soil (as a consequence of mass marketing, political manipulation, the undemocratic elite control over the citizenry by a ‘military-industrial complex,’ etc.)

Likewise, the widely influential neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, on both sides of the Atlantic, embraced the mass society interpretation and had a vast influence upon a wide educated public. Some of its products (see Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950), which included a re-working of the mass man notion) were significant contributions in terms of social research; other studies, such as Horkheimer and Adorno’s 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment (English translation 1972) included a relatively sophisticated ‘hegelianization’ of the mass society theory. Yet others from the same school—e.g., Marcuse’s Onedimensional Man, 1964—popularized the notions of mass society and mass man for a large and quite anxious audience with less philosophical rigor.

More significant perhaps than any division of the notion and theory of mass society into a conservative and a radical version (from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, by which time it had become truly dominant) was the development of ‘specialized’ branches of the conception. Two stood out. Firstly, the study of mass politics (further divided into speculations and research on totalitarian mass politics, and the study of pluralistic and democratic mass politics and parties). Secondly, considerable interest was aroused by what Shils had called ‘the culture of mass society’ (1975a, 1975b). Mass culture and media studies, sociological or otherwise as well as philosophical essays, proliferated and soon became a highly developed field of research and analysis. Most of the debates about the nature and dynamics of mass society took place (or often, raged) within this new field.

4. Accommodation and Persistence of the Concept

The successful emergence of other general concepts for referring to advanced societies in the most general terms (for instance ‘post-industrial societies’) either relegated or, in some cases, even drove out the use of the term ‘mass society’ from its frequent use by the mid-1970s. It did not disappear, however. The mass society conception was anything but a fashion, as its credentials in social philosophy, political theory, and the rigorous critique of civilization demonstrate. The predominant tendency, from the 1980s till the first years of the twenty-first century has seen the mass society notion finding accommodation within a number of other general descriptive concepts (and corresponding interpretations). Thus, along with such concepts as ‘post-industrial societies,’ we find ‘postcapitalist’ societies, ‘corporate’ societies, ‘consumer’ societies, ‘information’ societies, and several others.

These expressions are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they refer to different facets or dimensions of the same highly complex phenomenon. To give one example, the widespread interest in the development of corporatism, neocorporatism, and the so-called ‘corporate societies’ in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrated that theories and interpretations produced by students of these phenomena were often highly compatible with the mass society theory. The latter’s emphasis on administrative control, the rise of large transnational corporations, and anonymous social forces seemed to complement theories of corporatism. The situation at the turn of the twenty-first century seems to indicate a certain decline, although a number of examples can be produced to demonstrate its persistence. Of all its several branches, the concept, research field, and theories of mass culture and the mass media have not lost—the contrary seems to be the case—any ground at all, either in the West or elsewhere.

More recent general interpretations, notoriously the ‘globalization’ literature, are not only compatible with the classical tenets of the mass society interpretation but are partly, it can be easily claimed, extensions of it. The notion of mass society always included a view of the expansion, interdependence, and general global- ization of the supposed mass characteristics of late industrial Western civilization. The idea of world convergence of mass societies was explicitly built into it.


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