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Mass Society

The mass society theory, in all its diverse formulations, is based on a sweeping general claim about ‘‘the modern world,’’ one announcing a ‘‘breakdown of community.’’ The leading nineteenthcentury 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 smalltown 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 shortdistance 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 uppermiddle 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.

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