Modernity & Mass Society Research Paper Starter

Modernity & Mass Society

Even though the term modern is generally used to describe the "current and contemporary state of affairs," the intellectual concept of modernity can be described as the emergence of industrialization and thus the emergence of the public sphere. It was solidified with the rise of mass media, such as newspapers, radio, and the emergence of television. The process of modernization has created a public sphere enabling the free trade of opinion. In processes like industrialization and individualization, modern mass society was created with its potential for democracy, but also its susceptibility for political propaganda.

Keywords Community; Gutenberg Galaxy; Individualization; Industrialization; Media; Modernity; Peace of Westphalia; Pre-Modernity; Society; Thirty Years War

Day to Day Social Interaction: Modernity


Even though the term modern is generally used to describe the "current and contemporary state of affairs," the intellectual concept of modernity can be described as the emergence of industrialization and thus the emergence of the public sphere. The economic situation began to change with factories, mass production, and the invention and industrial application of the steam engine as a power source.

The rise of the nation and of republicanism as political forms are a result of both the discourse in this newly emerging public sphere and the decline of the role of religion as a corollary of Enlightenment philosophy and modern science, including the theories of evolution and new cosmic models, which mark the era of modernity. It was solidified with the rise of mass media, such as newspapers, radio, and the emergence of television.

Modernity began in Europe with the period of early modernity to the Thirty Years' War and the establishment of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Both the war itself and the conditions of the Peace dramatically changed the political and social landscape of Europe. It cost the lives of an estimated three to four million people; most died from epidemics that resulted as side-effects from the raging war. The original population at the time was estimated to be seventeen million.

The drain in resources was immense. The kingdoms and fiefdoms of that era had no resources to finance and sustain themselves for such a long period, which was not foreseeable at the beginning of the war. The end of this war necessitated completely new structures of warfare, financing, communication, etc. After the war, social and economic problems had to be dealt with in previously unknown ways.

The Peace of Westphalia built the political prerequisites of Europe until the French Revolution, and some claim that the system affected the shape of Europe until the Nazi-era or even up to the creation of the European Union. In essence, the Peace of Westphalia was the advent of the establishment of international lawmaking.

Origins of the Mass Society

A remarkable development was the invention of the printing press. The Chinese technology of printing was already known in Europe when Johannes Gutenberg made some remarkable changes to the technology, which allowed for the mass production of books. But the process of social acceptance of this technology and its effects took a century or two, which is often the case with any technology having an actual transforming effect on a culture. Several aspects of this transformation are crucial to notice. Among them are the standardization of languages and alphabets and also the standardization of books and authors. It is important to understand that in the Middle Ages the handwritten texts greatly differed, and only after the possibility to mass produce the same text over and over again was it possible to standardize these different versions. With standardization it became possible to think of a person as an author. We think of an author of a book as an authentic person and the book as authentic. But that was impossible before the printing press and the mass production of books. In turn, with the printing press and the author we have the invention of the audience. It is only with the possibility of reaching a large number of people with a written product that the audience of masses is actually created in the mind of a writer as an actual target for his written work. Before that writing had a narrower purpose.

However, this requires another important development. These masses have to learn to read. This skill was not as common as it is today, and the process certainly took its time and correlated with changes in economics, science, and industry.

The Age of Enlightenment

The eighteenth century saw the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment. It is a common misunderstanding to say that the Enlightenment was the emergence of the supremacy of science over religion or the process that unmasked religion as an ideology. Actually, most Enlightenment scholars were very religious and their work was written for an audience that was not a lay audience, but mostly other members of the clergy who made up the majority of the academics of those times. Even the greatest among the Enlightenment authors, Immanuel Kant, wrote about religion, God, and the immortal soul.

What these authors argued in regard to the sciences and the subject matter of the world was only that science should not have to follow religious doctrine; that religion had to respect the results of science when they contradicted the doctrine. In that regard, Kant stated that one "cannot know god with certainty, but only have faith in God." Religion is about faith and not about knowing. Therefore, the faculties of science and of theology must be viewed separately.

Following this rationale, Kant argued for a public use of reason. In what is perhaps the most famous and most widely read of all of his works, his little pamphlet, What is Enlightenment? was perhaps the very first document dealing with the need for communication in modernity and mass society.

Kant argued that enlightenment is not a solitary task, but can only be accomplished by a community of those who dare to use reason and communicate their ideas and insight and discuss them critically. The foundation of reason is its publicity. Publicity is a very modern idea, and it is a fundamental aspect of mass society.

According to Jurgen Habermas (1991), the public sphere actually emerged around the eighteenth century. It began in the salon culture with educated citizens (still in the minority) discussing openly and critically political and philosophical ideas. In this sphere, a space of discourse was created where every private citizen could participate and autonomously argue their opinion. Again, the private citizen was still a very restrictive concept, pertaining only to those who could afford to have an education.

However, the creation of this public sphere was highly important for the further progress of modern society and the prerequisites for mass society and its public discourse in media such as newspapers and later, radio and television.

It is also important to see the dependency of these developments to the process of urbanization. Higher education and science happened in cities, not in the country. Development and wealth was attracted to city life more than ever before. And with debate and ideas came industrial and economic innovation. Before long, industrialism and capitalism took their course and shaped the common picture of modernity as one of industrial labor, individualization, urbanization, and entrepreneurship.

Further Insights

Industrialization, modernization, individualization, urbanization, and capitalism are the classic topics of sociology. It can be argued that sociology is actually the scientific study of these processes, or emerged as a scientific discipline because of them. In the works of Ferdinand Toennies, Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber they represent the central problems these men addressed.

Sociological Voices on Modernity

Toennies, in his seminal Community and Society was concerned with the relationship between society and community and the effects of urbanization, commonly understood...

(The entire section is 3640 words.)