Industrial society

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Chicago and Northwestern railroad locomotive shop in the 19th century. Chicago and Northwestern railroad locomotive shop fsac.1a34676u.jpg
Chicago and Northwestern railroad locomotive shop in the 19th century.

In sociology, industrial society is a society driven by the use of technology to enable mass production, supporting a large population with a high capacity for division of labour. Such a structure developed in the Western world in the period of time following the Industrial Revolution, and replaced the agrarian societies of the pre-modern, pre-industrial age. Industrial societies are generally mass societies, and may be succeeded by an information society. They are often contrasted with traditional societies. [1]


Industrial societies use external energy sources, such as fossil fuels, to increase the rate and scale of production. [2] The production of food is shifted to large commercial farms where the products of industry, such as combine harvesters and fossil fuel-based fertilizers, are used to decrease required human labor while increasing production. No longer needed for the production of food, excess labor is moved into these factories where mechanization is utilized to further increase efficiency. As populations grow, and mechanization is further refined, often to the level of automation, many workers shift to expanding service industries.

Industrial society makes urbanization desirable, in part so that workers can be closer to centers of production, and the service industry can provide labor to workers and those that benefit financially from them, in exchange for a piece of production profits with which they can buy goods. This leads to the rise of very large cities and surrounding suburb areas with a high rate of economic activity.

These urban centers require the input of external energy sources in order to overcome the diminishing returns [3] of agricultural consolidation, due partially to the lack of nearby arable land, associated transportation and storage costs, and are otherwise unsustainable. [4] This makes the reliable availability of the needed energy resources high priority in industrial government policies.

Use in 20th century social science and politics

“Industrial society” took on a more specific meaning after World War II in the context of the Cold War, the internationalization of sociology through organizations like UNESCO, and the spread of American industrial relations to Europe. The cementation of the Soviet Union’s position as a world power inspired reflection on whether the sociological association of highly-developed industrial economies with capitalism required updating. The transformation of capitalist societies in Europe and the United States to state-managed, regulated welfare capitalism, often with significant sectors of nationalized industry, also contributed to the impression that they might be evolving beyond capitalism, or toward some sort of “convergence” common to all “types” of industrial societies, whether capitalist or communist. [5] State management, automation, bureaucracy, institutionalized collective bargaining, and the rise of the tertiary sector were taken as common markers of industrial society.

The “industrial society” paradigm of the 1950s and 1960s was strongly marked by the unprecedented economic growth in Europe and the United States after World War II, and drew heavily on the work of economists like Colin Clark, John Kenneth Galbraith, W.W. Rostow, and Jean Fourastié. [6] The fusion of sociology with development economics gave the industrial society paradigm strong resemblances to modernization theory, which achieved major influence in social science in the context of postwar decolonization and the development of post-colonial states. [7]

The French sociologist Raymond Aron, who gave the most developed definition to the concept of “industrial society” in the 1950s, used the term as a comparative method to identify common features of the Western capitalist and Soviet-style communist societies. [8] Other sociologists, including Daniel Bell, Reinhard Bendix, Ralf Dahrendorf, Georges Friedmann, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Alain Touraine, used similar ideas in their own work, though with sometimes very different definitions and emphases. The principal notions of industrial-society theory were also commonly expressed in the ideas of reformists in European social-democratic parties who advocated a turn away from Marxism and an end to revolutionary politics. [9]

Because of its association with non-Marxist modernization theory and American anticommunist organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom [10] , “industrial society” theory was often criticized by left-wing sociologists and Communists as a liberal ideology that aimed to justify the postwar status quo and undermine opposition to capitalism. [11] However, some left-wing thinkers like André Gorz, Serge Mallet, Herbert Marcuse, and the Frankfurt School used aspects of industrial society theory in their critiques of capitalism.

Selected bibliography of industrial society theory

See also

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