Industrialization Essay

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Industrialization is the process by which an economy shifts from an agricultural to a manufacturing base during a period of sustained change and growth, eventually creating a higher standard of living. Sociology’s founders sought to link the causes, correlates and consequences of industrialization to broader social changes producing modern society.

For much of the twentieth century, however, sociology deferred to narrow economistic accounts of a single path of industrialization. Sociologists compiled profiles of industrial society featuring miscellaneous traits (e.g., division of labor, rationalization, urbanization, increased life expectancy, and democracy). More recently, the rise of newly industrialized countries (NICs) has fanned interest in multiple paths that industrialization may take in different institutional contexts.

A key influence on discussions of industrialization was Adam Smith’s view that a specialized division of labor is more efficient and increases a nation’s wealth if the state adopted a laissez faire stance. Another was provided by French writers who spoke of an Industrial Revolution, citing parallels with the French Revolution. Placing industrialism within the development of capitalism, Marx argued that a detailed division of labor abetted mechanization that subordinated and replaced workers. Victorian reformers redefined the problem as rapid technological change. Most sociologists, eschewing radicalism, favored Durkheim’s argument that the division of labor temporarily made solidarity problematic or Weber’s culturalist account of the Protestant Ethic. They largely ignored Weber’s comprehensive analysis of how cultural, political, and economic factors interacted to produce rational capitalism as well as Marx’s dialectical treatment.

A reform inclination in the early twentieth century was evident in the Chicago School’s exploration of the industrial city’s social problems and in industrial sociology’s study of industrial relations and organizations. Although celebrations by economic historians of the Industrial Revolution’s technological achievements were muted by the 1930s, victory in World War II restored Anglo-American confidence that industrializing countries would converge around a common path. Many accepted Rostow’s modernization thesis that all developing societies would have to pass through five stages of development with industrialization as the take-off stage. Yet, a new wave in economic history in the 1960s argued that industrialization had been a gradual, not revolutionary, process. Moreover, neo-Marxians tied it to injustice and inequality. Labor process studies revealed social control agendas behind efforts to subdivide and deskill factory work while dependency and world systems theorists proposed that unequal relations among nations constrained development.

In the 1980s the rise of East Asian industry stimulated sociologists to challenge economistic accounts. Piore and Sabel’s comparison of mass and flexible production (1984) rekindled debate on paths of development. Some cite the role of developmental states in East Asia in helping entire segments move into higher-value sectors: such states devise national strategies, encourage the formation of business groups and guide capital into targeted sectors. Others explain varying paths of industrialization among NICs as resulting from the particular positions that their industries hold in global divisions of labor (e.g., commodity chains).


  1. Coleman, D. C. (1992) Myth, History and the Industrial Revolution. Hambledon Press, London.
  2. Gereffi, G. & Wyman, D. L. (eds.) (1990) Manufacturing Miracles: Paths of Industrialization in Latin America and East Asia. Princeton University Press.
  3. Piore, M. J. and Sabel, C. F. (1984) The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperity. Basic Books, New York.

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