Social Movement Theory: Mass Society Theory Research Paper Starter

Social Movement Theory: Mass Society Theory

This article will focus on mass society theory. This article will provide an overview of mass society theory including discussion of the characteristics and history of the concept of a mass society. The connections between mass society theory and social movement theory will be documented. The major contributors to mass society theory, including Alexis de Tocqueville, Emile Durkheim, Emil Lederer, José Ortega y Gasset, Robert Nisbet, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Blumer, William Kornhauser, Ferdinand Tonnies, and Karl Mannheim, will be described. The main criticisms of mass society theory, namely the limited effects model, will be discussed.

Social Movements

Keywords Collective Identity; Demagogues; Frame; Industrial Era; Industrial Revolution; Limited Effects Model; Mass Media; Mass Society Theory; Social Movement Theory; Society; Sociology; Symbolic Interactionism

Social Movement Theory: Mass Society Theory


Mass society theory is an interdisciplinary critique of the collective identity that results from the mass commodification of culture and the mass media's manipulation of society. Mass society theory invokes a vision of society characterized by alienation, absence of individuality, amorality, lack of religion, weak relationships, and political apathy. Mass society theory developed at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century in response to the rise of the media industry and the socio-political changes created by industrialization, urbanization, and the fall of established political regimes. Major contributors to mass society theory include Alexis de Tocqueville, Emile Durkheim, Emil Lederer, José Ortega y Gasset, Robert Nisbet, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Blumer, William Kornhauser, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Karl Mannheim.

Early mass society theory asserted that the new urban masses, comprising uprooted and isolated individuals, were vulnerable to new forms of demagoguery and manipulation by the media (Hamilton, 2001). While popular media existed in the nineteenth century, mass media, as a discrete concept, did not develop until the early twentieth century with the advent of national circulation newspapers and national media networks like nationwide radio. To mass society theorists, the media represents and promotes the worst problems of modernity. Early proponents of the theory believed that mass society is characterized by a collective identity and low-brow cultural interests. Because of these characteristics, they believed that dictatorships and bureaucracies can easily and quickly manipulate mass societies, making them vulnerable to extremist politics and the rise of disenfranchised .

Mass society theory belongs to the larger body of interdisciplinary work called social movement theory. Social movement theory refers to the study of social mobilization, including its social, cultural, and political manifestations and consequences. Social movement scholarship is often motivated by a desire for social change and, consequently, integrates scholarship and activism. The field took shape during the late nineteenth century and has since come to comprise six main areas of study: mass society theory, relative deprivation theory, resource mobilization theory, structural-strain theory, value-added theory, and new social movement theory. At its score, social movement theory holds that social movements are, in many instances, created through the use and manipulation of frames, or cognitive structures which guide an individual's or group's perception of reality. Social movements influence and control their members through tactics such as mobilizing fear, engaging in frame appropriation, social constructionism, and counterframing. Sociologists analyze social movements in two distinct ways: social constructionist perspective and frame analysis (Benford & Snow 2000).

Mass society theory emerged as a discrete field of interest at the turn of the century, in part as a result of the changes that scholars saw occurring in society as effects of industrialization, urbanization, and political change (Mackie, 1978). During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the rise of industrialization and urbanization changed society. The industrial era in Europe and America, which approximately spanned from 1750 to 1900, was a time characterized by the replacement of manual labor with industrialized and mechanized labor, as well as by the adoption of the factory system of production. The industrial era included the period of the industrial revolution and the resulting rise of capitalism. The industrial revolution refers to the technical, cultural, and social changes that occurred in the Western world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The period saw a major increase in the mechanization of agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation (Ahmad, 1997). The industrial revolution—which brought with it new types and conceptions of employment, time, scale, landscape, property, and social relationships—caused great social change. The nineteenth century saw major transformations in gender and class hierarchies, family units, gender relations, immigrants' roles in society, and childhood. The industrial revolution, with its increased need for workers, created a new working, middle, and consumer classes. The family unit and gender roles changed, too, during the period, largely as because of the factory system which employed both men and women and removed the workplace from the home (Abelson, 1995).

Mass society theory suggests that all these social changes created politically and psychologically unmoored masses. According to the theory, demagogues, or political leaders who achieve power by preying on people's emotions or prejudices, could easily manipulate these emerging mass.

The rise of the media industry in the twentieth century provided a formal means of communication that was accessible to almost everyone in a society. Early theorists and the ruling classes quickly came to see it as being largely responsible for publicizing and disseminating the changes, unrest, and discontent which typified the period. They blamed the mass media (like the penny press newspapers that were popular during the 1830s) for giving credence to and perpetuating the industrial era's discontent, alienation, and decline in community (Hamilton, 2001). As a result, it came to be seen as a symbol of all that was wrong with society.

Mass society theory grew out of these concerns. It holds that the mass media has the power to change cultural norms and power relations, and can thus contribute to and change the social order. As such, it can work to shape people's perceptions of the world.

Mass society theory tends to emphasize the breakdown of the primary groups in society such as the family and neighborhood. The theory does not apply to all modern societies, but rather to the most fragmented and decentralized political economies. These societies are most vulnerable to becoming mass societies because they contain vacuums created by declining participation in religious organizations, unions, political parties, and voluntary associations. In the absence of such communal associations, the mass media, which provides both communication and entertainment, steps in to fill the void (Kreisler, 2002).

Mass society theory is less prevalent today than it was during the early to mid twentieth century. That said, mass society theorists continue to critique the relationship between society and the mass media, and have renewed their efforts by incorporating new media such as the Internet.

Further Insights

Contributors to Mass Society Theory

Mass society theory is characterized by psychological explanations of human behavior. Participants in mass society are thought to be alienated from society at large. Mass society theorists tend to argue for the importance of emotional and psychological understanding of mass society. The main contributors to mass society theory, including Alexis de Tocqueville, Emile Durkheim, Emil Lederer, José Ortega y Gasset, Robert Nisbet, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Blumer, William Kornhauser, Ferdinand Tonnies, and Karl Mannheim, are described below.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) was a political theorist who used the term mass society to refer to the power of the majority to challenge and topple the established power of aristocracy. Tocqueville's best-known works were Democracy in America (1835) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), which focused on political democracy and public administration in the United States and France. Tocqueville explored questions about politics, religion, and more in the first modern democratic republics. He worked to understand the collective identities of Americans under their emerging democratic system and of the French under their toppling aristocratic regime. He believed that the American ethic was characterized by equality and dignity for all, and the French ethic by continued elitism and classicism. Tocqueville's work laid the foundation for mass society theory's understanding the mass society's power to challenge and change a society's balance of power (Maletz,...

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