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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Critique of the concept of mass society Schofield, Josephine Muriel


Despite its wide currency, the term "mass society" is distinctly ambiguous. This ambiguity raises the question of the utility of the sociological concept of mass society for explaining political phenomena, specifically, the susceptibility of democratic systems to mass politics. Part 1 of the thesis attempts a precise definition of mass society using as a basis the various views of the theorists. A critical analysis of the concept is then undertaken in Part 2. Before the model is defined, however, the historical origins of the concept are examined briefly. Its roots can be traced back to the founders of Western culture. The concept of mass runs like a thread through the history of political thought reaching its zenith in the 1930's and the post-war period. Then, it was elaborated upon by such theorists as Arendt, Fromm, Kornhauser and Selznick. Since that time it has vied with class analysis as the main explanation of the rise of totalitarianism in the West. As the concept of the mass(es) was the antecedent of the theory of mass society, it is essential to define the former clearly. The masses are the atomized non-elites in society whose members are unattached, socially unstructured and undifferentiated, and distinguished by alienation and mediocrity. Complementing this notion of the mass(es) is the concept of the elite(s). They are minorities who hold positions of authority in the central institutions and control the central value systems which guide and legitimate these institutions. A model of mass society is next outlined and is contrasted with the following societal types: feudal and pluralistic. A mass society is characterized by accessible elites and available non-elites (or masses) with no group structure mediating between the two. It is this paucity of viable primary and secondary groups in mass society that distinguishes it from either a feudal or pluralistic society. The main factors contributing to the "decline of community" in mass society are rapid industrialization, rapid urbanization, bureaucratization and the development of mass culture. In Part 2, three main criticisms are levelled at the democratic (not the aristocratic) theorists of mass society. First, their analyses are a blend of empirical and normative ingredients and not, as they claim, descriptive only. Second, the concept is too imprecise and third, it is too selective to qualify for the label "scientific." More specifically, the critique takes the following form. The elitist bias of the theorists is exposed in their discussion of the elite-mass relationship. A critical examination of the notion of atomization so crucial to the theory of mass society is next undertaken. The pluralist bias of the theorists is, then, brought to light. It is argued that in their discussion of the "decline of community" in a mass society, an idealized model of pluralistic society is implicitly postulated as the norm. Their model is idealized because only positive features of such a society are incorporated into it and because it minimizes (or even ignores) such factors as the role of power, the nature of conflict, the unorganized, economic interests, the effects of strains and the consequences of cultural diversity. What emerges most clearly from this critique of the concept of mass society are the scientific pretensions of the democratic theorists. In other words, far from being an accurate, objective description of social and political reality, as they claim, the concept resembles more of an ideology riddled with their value judgments. The theory of mass society, then, is an ideological position and not a scientific concept.

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