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Discuss the Strengths and Weaknesses of Daniel Bell’s Post-Industrial Society Thesis

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Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Daniel Bell’s post-industrial society thesis. To what extent is this thesis still relevant today?

Daniel Bell was one of the first to make the concept of “post-industrial society” and later “information society” recognizable. He attempted to characterize the changing structure of America society and other ‘industrial’ western society and hence predict the possible future of these societies which have experiencing substantial changes after World War II. In this essay, I will discuss the main features of Daniel Bell’s post-industrial society thesis, its strengths and weaknesses and evaluate to what extent Bell’s thesis is relevant to the contemporary society .

Bell stated that a society “can be divided into three sectors: the social structure, the polity and the culture”() His concept of post-industrial society focused mainly on social structure, that is, the transformation of the economy and occupational structure, and the changed relationship between “theory and empiricism” in science and technology. He believed all three sectors are linked by a common value system but change in one sector does not determine corresponding changes in the others, as he claimed “in our times there has been an increasing disjunction of the three”. (Bell P7) Hence he focus mainly on analyze changes in the social structure.

Bell pointed out the “industrial society” concept in the early nineteenth century, although not perfect, successfully provide a relatively accurate image of an emerging industrialized society which is different from the previous agricultural mode. He suggested just like the society moved from an agricultural economy to industrial economy, it now moved from producing goods to producing services, in other words, a service economy, and as a result, the major mode of commodity shift from products to information, technology and theoretical knowledge, and people with such knowledge and information are valued more than labor. He indicated that for a modern Western society “the axial principle of the social structure is economizing”, that is, the reallocation of resources to maximize profit and minimize cost. He suggested that social structure can be represented by “economy, technology and the occupational style”. Bell claimed that the America society was transforming into a post-industrial society and provide statistics which comply with his suggested characteristics of post-industrial society concept to valid his argument.

Bell’s post-industrial society concept fitted well with the social transformation lead by technological changes in the late 1970s, especially when information technologies such as computer were bringing into being. Hasan () stated that among the social scientists in the 1960s who emphasized on technology and expertise, Bell’s concept was the most systematic and intellectually boldest. () He pointed out “Bell is not an armchair theorist in the sense of being a constructor of unworldly models, on the contrary, Bell’s approach is as one intensely engaged with the real world, one who seeks to theorize – i.e. to produce generalisable statements – on the basis of close analysis of what is actually going on” (Hasan, P33). His concept engaged closely with the real world which allowed him to identify some of the most significant and distinguishing features of the contemporary society. However, he alone with other academic professionals also stated there are many weaknesses in Bell’s post-industrial concept.

Although the statistics complied with his argument at his time, many aspects in contemporary service sector which did not previously exist, such as the internet, were not taking into account in his thesis.

On top of that, Bell did not provide a definition of the term “service” in his work. Mackay (2001) criticized Bell to use the term “service” as a contrast to the term “goods” in the industrial society without giving a definition. He defined service to be intangible and consumed with their production simultaneously.


Other studies questioned the reliability of Bell’s cited statistics as they found there was a larger shift from agricultural works to the service works compare to the shift between industrial works to service works. (Mackay 2001 )

Bell argued there will be an information economy in a post-industrial society and information is the primary resources. ( ) Castells argued it was not the technology that transformed society rather, it was the society which advanced technology. He used internet as an example. The internet

In another words, it was a network society instead of an information society.

Bell suggested “the major source of structural change in society is the change in the character of knowledge:the exponential growth and branching of science, the rise of a new intellectual technology... and the codification of theoretical knowledge.” In other words technology improves productivity,  transforms the economy and hence lead to social change. However, Mackay (2001) argued that many important elements such as power, capital and class were not taking into consideration in his theory. Webster criticized Bell did not mention the negative side of a post-industrial society such as civil liberty infringements, for example, surveillance through databases, and monopoly, poverty and inequality. (Mackay 2001)

Bell’s post-industrial society thesis focused on social structure. He confirmed that there is a relationship between social structure, polity and culture and they may influence each other, but he emphasized that they are ‘radically disjunctive’ (Bell, p. 329). He suggested that just like economy is different from polity, we cannot assume that a change in social structure will create the same effect on the other two sectors(Bell 1976). Bell did not explain the reason why he separated society into these three sectors and the reason these three sectors are “radically disjunctive”. He acknowledged that the three sectors will influence each other, but did not take into consideration of the consequence of such influences on the society as a whole and focused only on the social structure sector. ( )He pointed out that an increased number of professionals will lead to significant consequences in politics but also claimed that social structure and occupation is disjunctive to the polity sector. Obviously his statements were contradictory. Steinfels pointed out: “Not only is it obvious that the three realms are inextricably intertwined, it is precisely their interrelationships that intensely concern Bell. For all his analytical division of the three realms, he cannot get away from the notion of society as a whole; it crops up again and again in his prose, it is implied when it is not made explicit, it is the very object of his disquietude....[This being so] Bell needs a theory of the relationship between realms as well as a theory of their divergences....It need not be a simple theory of determination by one realm ... but it does need to specify somewhat the extent and the directions and the modes of interaction.”(Steinfels, 1979, p. 169) Webster agreed with Steinfels. He stated that Bell’s three sectors was an unrepresentative social model without convincing explanations. He believed “the three realms are inextricably intertwined, it is precisely their interrelationships that intensely concern Bell’. ( )



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