Through this lesson, you will learn what defines a mass society, and gain an understanding of the ways that mass societies influence cultures. When you are through with the lesson, you can test your new knowledge with the quiz.
Definition of Mass Society
As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time studying the history and cultural evolution of the United States, I’m constantly in awe of the speed with which digital technology has changed American lives. The internet, for example, has opened new channels for expression and communication that, only a short time ago would have been considered science fiction by most people.There are those, however, who feel as though such technological and cultural advances have led Western societies towards greater disconnection and dysfunction. Regardless of how you feel about technology, the fear that such rapid social change could weaken society is, at least in some part, due to the fact that it’s happened before!In a cultural or social context, a society that consists largely of disconnected groups and is controlled by large impersonal institutions is known as a mass society.
Although the term is broad and without a clear and comprehensive definition, mass societies tend to be characterized by a lack of cultural diversity, a strong commitment to capitalism or industry, and fragile or non-existent social ties between groups.The concept of the mass society emerged from the considerable social and cultural upheaval brought on by the Industrial Revolution, which was a sweeping shift from agrarian to urban lifestyles that occurred throughout the 19th century in the United States and Europe. From the perspective of cultural critics, the Industrial Revolution encouraged an unhealthy emphasis on capitalism and wealth, which tended to result in exploitation of laborers.
Labor and Industry
While the Industrial Revolution did produce considerable wealth for a small number of people, critics were not entirely wrong in their claims of exploitation. For example, in the United States, the mechanization of labor throughout the 19th century meant that in the nation’s two biggest industries, manufacturing and agriculture, jobs no longer required the technical skills and physical strength that they had in the past.
This opened up job opportunities for many Americans, but it also created considerable competition for employment, in which employers would often exploit women, minorities, and even children who would work for lower wages.These circumstances put Americans in direct competition with one another, which weakened the bond between neighbors and co-workers, who were living under the constant threat of unemployment. Because of these technological advances and rising demand for goods, the American economic system developed into laissez-faire capitalism, which is a business model that has few restrictions and is allowed to develop without interference from the government.
In this system, laborers tended to work long hours in dangerous environments, often for low wages.The American industrial era is a good example of how a mass society develops because, before it was reeled in by government regulations, it awarded a considerable amount of power to a small number of business owners, who often oppressed and exploited laborers. These circumstances led to the population growing further and further apart as they did just about anything that they could to give themselves an edge in the competition for employment.
Theories of Mass Society
From the perspective of the social sciences, mass societies and cultures have had a fairly negative influence on social systems. Several analyses of these societies have produced what is referred to as mass society theory.
While the theory is somewhat complicated, the basic premise is that when people become disenfranchised or isolated in this way, they become more susceptible to conservative social movements or extremist rhetoric.For example, in the case of the United States during the 19th century, considerable economic competition from women and minorities led to a significant rise in racism, xenophobia, and increasingly rigid gender roles in order to marginalize immigrants or other minorities. This is an incredibly complex era of history, but you can probably imagine that such strong emotions and divisions didn’t exactly have a positive effect on the American social structure.In a more modern context, mass society theory has been concerned with the ways that such widely distributed cultural standards have begun to obscure diversity and erode a population’s autonomy.
For example, following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001, the government exerted a considerable amount of social control and the media transmitted very strong messages about the American identity. This situation created an insider /outsider mentality that portrayed the American identity as universal or singular, rather than the diverse collection of people that it actually is.
In this case, many Muslims and people of Middle Eastern heritage felt disenfranchised by an increasingly national culture, which weakened their ties to their communities and country.
In a social or cultural context, a mass society is a disconnected society in which political or cultural institutions, like capitalism, are over-emphasized at the public’s expense. The concept of mass societies emerged from the social upheaval brought on by the Industrial Revolution, which was a sweeping shift from agrarian to urban lifestyles that occurred throughout the 19th century in the United States and Europe.From a social science perspective, researchers have developed what is known as mass society theory. While mass society theory is somewhat complicated, it’s based on the premise that mass societies tend to isolate and disenfranchise people, leaving them susceptible to extremism, and weakening social bonds.