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Mass society is a description associated with society in the modern, industrial era. 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. More broadly, this term can be applied to any society that is said to possess a mass culture and large-scale, impersonal, social institutions.[1]

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. Conservative accounts in the 20th century critiqued mass society from a different perspective. José Ortega y Gasset, for instance, lamented the decline of high culture in mass society. One of the most interesting thing about the term "mass society" is that it at different periods of time has been use by both the radical right and the radical left as a tool for their political argumentation.



Mass society as an ideology can be accounted for by attending to the term most often used as the polar opposite of mass, namely elite. A form of society theoretically identified 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.[2] 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.[3]

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 society.

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 organised that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public. Opinion formed by such discussion (3) readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against – if necessary – the prevailing system of authority. And (4) 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 publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media. (2) The communications that prevail are so organised that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect. (3) The realisation of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organise and control the channels of such action. (4) 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". C. Wright Mills, on Democracy in The Power Elite (1956)

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ McQuail, 2005, p. 449.
  3. ^ Hartley, 1982


  • Biddiss, M. 1977, The Age of the Masses, Penguin, Harmondsworth.
  • Hartley, J. 1982, Understanding News, Methuen, London.
  • 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.

Further reading

  • 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


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