My book in preparation, Man, Machines, and Modernity: Inventing ‘Industrial Society in French Social Science, 1934-1975, is the first historical account of the “industrial society” paradigm in twentieth-century social science. Drawing on dozens of archives across from France, Europe, and the United States, it is a transatlantic sociology of ideas that shows how geopolitics and economics shaped a process of social-scientific exchange that resulted in an ambitious rethinking of the bases of modern society—and established a durable political imaginary that persists to this day.
As a twentieth-century concept, industrial society was a transatlantic creation, forged in material and intellectual transmissions between Europe and the United States that intensified after 1945 in “productivity missions” from Europe to America and international associations and congresses organized under UNESCO. It drew on anxious questions initially posed between the world wars about the possible sources of consensus in societies disrupted by incessant technological change, the growing role of scientific organization in production and its effects on labor, the trend toward increased state management of the economy, and the new types of regimes appearing in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Such questions were all the more acute after 1945, when an older faith in “modernity” and “progress” lay in ruins, but the economic and technological forces that had once underpinned it seem destined to grow only more powerful.
Taking shape in the 1950s, the industrial society paradigm was a cautiously optimistic reboot, a new conception the planetary forces driving social development that charted a modern future in which the divisions and contradictions of nineteenth-century capitalism would be superseded by a type of society able to organize its production and manage its conflicts—in short, to control its own destiny. Unlike other forms of modernization thinking trained on the “Third World,” industrial society theories focused on the national and the domestic in the “First World”: the world and its interconnections often slipped from view, and even an imperial power like France could be reimagined as a backward, underdeveloped society making a fitful entry into the new modernity. Such a vision of social transformation was capacious enough to offer attractions even to figures who dissented from some of its core tenets, igniting a process of contestation that, by the early 1970s, put the industrial society vision on the defensive even as they transferred its modernist optimism into new theories of “postindustrial society” and its politics into a perspective that reconnected the development of the “West” with the rest of the world.