Mass society (20TH CENTURY)

Theory of modern society.

Old hierarchies have been replaced by a society in which everyone is an isolated individual. But because social order is unavoidable, it is created by herding people into organizations and movements led despotically from above.

Source:
David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)

Concept

Mass society as an ideology can be seen as dominated by a small number of interconnected elites who control the conditions of life of the many, often by means of persuasion and manipulation.[3] This indicates the politics of mass society theorists- they are advocates of various kinds of cultural elite who should be privileged and promoted over the masses, claiming for themselves both exemption from and leadership of the misguided masses.[4]

“As technological innovation allowed government to expand, the centralized state grew in size and importance.” “Since then, government has assumed responsibility for more and more areas of social life: schooling, regulating wages and working conditions, establishing standards for products of all sorts, and providing financial assistance to the elderly, the ill, and the unemployed.” “In a mass society, power resides in large bureaucracies, leaving people in local communities with little control over their lives. For example, state officials mandate that local schools must meet educational standards, local products must be government-certified, and every citizen must maintain extensive tax records. Although such regulations may protect and enhance social equality, they also force us to deal more and more with nameless officials in distant and often unresponsive bureaucracies, and they undermine the autonomy of families and local communities.”[5]

Mass society theory has been active in a wide range of media studies, where it tends to produce ideal visions of what the mass media such as television and cinema are doing to the masses. Therefore, the mass media are necessary instruments for achieving and maintaining mass societies. “The mass media give rise to national culture that washes over the traditional differences that used to set off one region from another.” “Mass-society theorists fear that the transformation of people of various backgrounds into a generic mass may end up dehumanizing everyone.”[6]

Sociologist C. Wright Mills made a distinction between a society of “masses” and “public”.

As he tells: “In a public, as we may understand the term,

  1. virtually as many people express opinions as receive them,
  2. Public communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public.
  3. Opinion formed by such discussion readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against – if necessary – the prevailing system of authority.
  4. And authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations.

In a mass,

  1. far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of public becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media.
  2. The communications that prevail are so organized that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect.
  3. The realization of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organize and control the channels of such action.
  4. The mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorized institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion”.

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