Industrial Society: A Sociological Definition

What It Is, and How it Differs from Pre- and Post-Industrial Societies

A Chinese man works on a car production line. China is now an industrial society.
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An industrial society is one in which technologies of mass production are used to make vast amounts of goods in factories, and in which this is the dominant mode of production and organizer of social life. This means that a true industrial society not only features mass factory production but also has a particular social structure designed to support such operations. Such a society is typically organized hierarchically by class and features a rigid division of labor among workers and factory owners.

Extended Definition

Historically speaking, many societies in the West, including the United States, became industrial societies following the Industrial Revolution that sweep through Europe and then the U.S. from the late 1700s on. In fact, the transition from what were agrarian or trade-based pre-Industrial societies to industrial societies, and its many political, economic, and social implications, became the focus of early social science and motivated the research of the founding thinkers of sociology, including Karl Marx, Émiel Durkheim, and Max Weber, among others.

Marx was especially interested in understanding how a capitalist economy organized industrial production, and how the transition from early capitalism to industrial capitalism reshaped the social and political structure of society. Studying industrial societies of Europe and Britain, Marx found that they featured hierarchies of power that correlated with what role a person played in the process of production, or class status, (worker versus owner), and that political decisions were made by the ruling class to preserve their economic interests within this system.

Durkheim was interested in how people play different roles and fulfill different purposes in a complex, industrial society, which he and others referred to as a division of labor. Durkheim believed that such a society functioned much like an organism and that the various parts of it adapted to changes in others to maintain stability.

Among other things, Weber's theory and research focused on how the combination of technology and economic order that characterized industrial societies ultimately became the key organizers of society and social life, and that this limited free and creative thinking, and our choices and actions. He referred to this phenomenon as "the iron cage."

Taking all of these theories into account, sociologists believe that in industrial societies, all other aspects of society, like education, politics, media, and law, among others, work to support the production goals of that society. In a capitalist context, they also work to support profit goals of the industries of that society.

Today, the U.S. is no longer an industrial society. The globalization of the capitalist economy, that played out from the 1970s on, meant that most factory production that was previously located in the U.S. was moved overseas. Since that time, China has become a significant industrial society, now even referred to as "the world's factory," because so much of the global economy's industrial production takes place there.

The U.S. and many other western nations can now be considered post-industrial societies, where services, production of intangible goods, and consumption fuel the economy.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.