mass society

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mass society

a model of society which pessimistically depicts the social transformation brought about by modernization (e.g. urbanization, the democratization of politics and the growth of mass communications and popular education) as involving a process in which individuals become:
  1. increasingly detached from previous social groupings, i.e. a process of social fragmentation and atomization;
  2. increasingly open to commercial and political manipulation by centralized ÉLITES.

This process in which people are increasingly treated en masse is also referred to as the massification of society Diversity in the intellectual and political orientations of writers using the concept has resulted in a variety of theoretical meanings. However, general themes are a decline in social VALUES and COMMUNITY, a lack of moral core, and growing levels of social alienation. Because relationships between people are weakened the suggestion is that they become vulnerable to manipulative forces, to proposed simple solutions to problems, and to lowest common denominator forms of MASS CULTURE (forms of culture produced, sold and consumed in the same way as any other commodities for the masses). Theorists on the right (e.g. T. S. Eliot, 1948) have generally emphasized the threat to élite forms of ‘high culture’ presented by mass culture, and a loss of the social continuities associated with rule by traditional élites.

While also echoing some of these themes, theorists on the left (e.g. members of the FRANKFURT SCHOOL OF CRITICAL THEORY) have focused instead on the new opportunities for political manipulation of the masses by right-wing forces (e.g. FASCISM) and the general seductiveness of commercial forms of mass culture in incorporating the working class within CAPITALISM. More generally, in a now classical modern discussion, C. Wright MILLS contrasts modern forms of ‘mass society’ with a situation in which multiple ‘publics’ once existed. Mills argued that in a mass society’:

  1. ‘far fewer people express opinions than receive them’;
  2. channels of opinion are relatively few and centrally controlled;
  3. the autonomy social actors once possessed in the formation of opinion is increasingly lost.

The heyday of the concept of mass society was in the period immediately before and after World War II. Subsequent research and theorizing has tended to suggest that the concept was too sweeping. Thus although, for example, it was influential in the early years of mass communications research (see MASS MEDIA OF COMMUNICATION), this research has resulted in studies which have demonstrated that the audience for the mass media is not an undifferentiated ‘mass’, that the manipulative power of the media is relatively limited and that the growth of POPULAR CULTURE did not occur at the expense of art or community (see also TWO-STEP FLOW OF MASS COMMUNICATIONS, LAZARSFELD). Similarly, research into forms of political behaviour and political participation in modern Western democratic societies has revealed no overall tendency to ‘mass society’ (see also PLURALISM).

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Mass Society


a concept used by non-Marxist sociologists and philosophers to designate a number of features of modern society. In sociology and economics the term “mass society” is associated with industrialization and urbanization, standardization of production, mass consumption, the bureaucratization of public life, and the spread of the mass media and mass culture.

Theories of mass society originated in the conservative aristocratic criticism of bourgeois democratic reforms in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. E. Burke (Great Britain) and J. de Maistre and L. G. A. de Bonald (France) expressed their opposition to the destruction of medieval social groups and corporations, without which, in their opinion, society would become a mass of isolated individuals. Clearly aware of the inevitability of a new order, A. de Tocqueville (France) used the concept of mass society to describe the developing bourgeois society from the standpoint of the relationship within it between freedom and equality. He showed that centralization and bureaucratization, which had been carried out in the name of equality in the fight against the feudal aristocracy, led to the bourgeois state’s control over all aspects of society and to the suppression of freedom. Beginning in the late 19th century the concept of mass society was developed in elitist criticism of “mass socialization” and “the tyranny of the masses” (F. Nietzsche and O. Spengler [Germany], J. Ortega y Gasset [Spain], and N. A. Berdiaev).

The emergence of fascism in Europe in the 1920’s and 1930’s caused a sharp change in theories on mass society. The aristocratic defense of the values of the elite against the “superdemocracy” gave way to a defense of bourgeois democratic rights against the unlimited rule of the “power elite” (K. Mannheim, E. Lederer, and H. Arendt [Germany]). These new theories failed to uncover the real socioeconomic causes and class essence of fascism, ignored the fact that a fascist dictatorship is the opposite of socialism, and intertwined criticism of fascism with anticommunism.

After World War II criticism of the authoritarian tendencies of state-monopoly capitalism from the standpoint of bourgeois and petit bourgeois liberalism and romanticism became the principal trend in theories of mass society. C. W. Mills, E. Fromm, and D. Riesman (USA) criticized various aspects of bourgeois society: economic, political, and social alienation; centralization of power and the decline of autonomous intermediate associations and organizations; the conformism of “mass” man; and the propagation of a standardized culture. Frequently, this social criticism turned into an indictment of modern state-monopoly capitalism. However, it made alienation into an absolute and denied the existence of social forces capable of destroying the sinister world of mass society.

Many bourgeois sociologists (T. Parsons, A. Etzioni, D. Bell, and H. Wilensky [USA]) opposed these concepts, underscoring their one-sidedness and their abstract character. They showed that the critics of mass society underestimated the importance of primary groups and organizations that are intermediate between the individual and the state, as well as the significance of the individual’s value orientations, which act as a prism, refracting his perception of the mass media.

In contemporary bourgeois sociology there have also been attempts to arrive at a “positive interpretation” of mass society (D. Martindale, D. Bell, and E. Shils [USA]). Heavily influenced by the doctrines of “people’s capitalism” and “the state of universal prosperity” and especially by the theory of a “single middle class,” the positive theory breaks with the intellectual tradition that engendered the critical concept of mass society. In analyzing the material foundations of mass society and its social and cultural institutions, the spokesmen for this school contend that, under the influence of mass production and mass consumption, economic, social, and political homogeneity is increasing and class differences are being eliminated. Thus, in the positive interpretations of mass society, social criticism gives way to a straightforward apology for bourgeois society.

The Marxist analysis of theories of mass society reveals their untenability and the ideological illusions and fictions underlying them. At the same time, it admits that they present a critique of bourgeois civilization and point out many important problems, such as the fate of social freedom, of the individual, and of culture in the modern bourgeois world; the significance of the mass media; and the role of primary and intermediate groups.


Mills, C. W. Vlastvuiushchaia elita. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from English.)
Strel’tsov, N. N. “Teoreticheskie istoki i evoliutsiia kontseptsii ’massovogo obshchestva.’” Voprosy filosofii, 1970, no. 12.
Ashin, G. K. Doktrina “massovogo obshchestva.” Moscow, 1971.
Kornhauser, W. The Politics of Mass Society, 4th ed. New York, 1965.
Mass Society in Crisis, 2nd ed. Edited by B. Rosenberg et al. New York, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.