Mass society is any society of the modern era that possesses a mass culture and large-scale, impersonal, social institutions. A mass society is a society in which prosperity and bureaucracy have weakened traditional social ties." Descriptions of society as a "mass" took form in the 19th century, referring to the leveling tendencies in the period of the Industrial Revolution that undermined traditional and aristocratic values.
In the work of early 19th century political theorists such as Alexis de Tocqueville, the term was used in discussions of elite concerns about a shift in the body politic of the Western world pronounced since the French Revolution. Such elite concerns centered in large part on the "tyranny of the majority," or mob rule.
In the late 19th century, in the work of Émile Durkheim, the term was associated with society as a mass of undifferentiated, atomistic individuals. In 20th century neo-Marxist accounts, such as those of the Frankfurt School, mass society was linked to a society of alienated individuals held together by a culture industry that served the interests of capitalism.
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. 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.
"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."
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."
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,
- virtually as many people express opinions as receive them,
- Public communications are so organised that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public.
- Opinion formed by such discussion readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against – if necessary – the prevailing system of authority.
- And authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations.
In a mass,
- far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media.
- The communications that prevail are so organised that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect.
- The realisation of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organise and control the channels of such action.
- The mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorised institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion".
- (Macionis, J. p.496)
- McQuail, 2005, p. 449.
- Hartley, 1982
- (Macionis, J. p.498)
- (Macionis, J. p.498)
- C. Wright Mills, on Democracy in The Power Elite (1956)
- Biddiss, M. 1977, The Age of the Masses, Penguin, Harmondsworth.
- Hartley, J. 1982, Understanding News, Methuen, London.
- Macionis, John J. (2009). Culture, society: The basics. 10th edition (pp. 496 – 498). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Publishers.
- McQuail, D. 2005, McQuail's Mass Communication Theory (fifth edition), Sage, London.
- Mills, C.W. 1956, The Power Elite, Oxford University Press, New York.
- Swingewood, A. 1977, The Myth of Mass Culture, Macmillan, London.
- Kornhauser, William. "The Politics of Mass Society", (1959). New York: The Free Press.
- Ortega y Gasset, Jose. The Revolt of the Masses, anonymous translation (1932). The Spanish original: La Rebellion de las Masas (1930).
- Tuttle, Howard N. The Crowd is Untruth: The Existential Critique of Mass Society in the Thought of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Ortega y Gassett (1996). (American University Studies: Ser. 5, Philosophy; Vol. 176) New York: Peter Lang. ISBN 0-8204-2866-3