Daniel Bell and the Post-Industrial Society: The Late Sociologist Was Best Known for Defining and Describing the New Era and Social Realities That Information Technologies Were Helping to Create in the Twentieth Century

By Cornish, Edward | The Futurist, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview
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Daniel Bell and the Post-Industrial Society: The Late Sociologist Was Best Known for Defining and Describing the New Era and Social Realities That Information Technologies Were Helping to Create in the Twentieth Century


Cornish, Edward, The Futurist


Daniel Bell, who died January 26, 2011, at the age of 91, left a lasting legacy of imposing books analyzing the economic and social trends that have shaped and now are reshaping American society.

Bell was born on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1919. His parents were Polish Jewish garment workers and, until the age of six, Bell spoke only Yiddish. By the time he was 13, however, he had no difficulty reading and speaking English.

Intensely interested in socialist ideals, Bell joined the Young People's Socialist League, but soon became critical of the ideological dogmas he found among them.

At the age of 19, he graduated from the City College of New York and began writing regularly for the liberal weekly The New Leader. Later, he became the labor editor of Fortune magazine after writing a memorandum on labor-management relations that impressed the editors. He went on to write a monthly column for Fortune but maintained his association with the academic community as a lecturer in sociology at Columbia University and, later, at the University of Chicago.

Bell's reputation as a social thinker grew with the publication, in 1960, of his book The End of Ideology, which argued that U.S. society had passed through its ideological phase, having outgrown the need for simple rubrics to describe and justify public conduct. Ideologies, Bell decided, offer attractive but often unworkable solutions for human problems.

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The End of Ideology won high praise from reviewers like political scientist Andrew Hacker, who said Bell "clearly ranks among the outstanding essayists of our generation." Hacker added:

  There is a sense of relief in being able to discuss Medicare or civil
  rights or the anti-trust laws without having to cope with the
  specter of Socialism, Wall Street, or Mongrelization. Not only have
  intellectuals and politicians thrown aside the prisms that once
  clouded their eyes, but the general public too is increasingly
  suspicious of catchalls and catchphrases.

In 1965, Bell became chairman of the Commission on the Year 2000, organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. The Commission brought together a stellar group of thinkers, including Daniel P. Moynihan, Karl Deutsch, James Q. Wilson, Erik Erikson, and Samuel P. Huntington, to think about the future of America and the world.

The work of the Commission was summarized in a volume edited by Bell, Toward the Year 2000: Work in Progress (Houghton-Mifflin, 1968).

Bell's masterwork The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (Basic Books, 1973) noted that, in the nineteenth century, America shifted from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy as workers abandoned farming for better-paying jobs in manufacturing. Then in the twentieth century, increasing efficiency in manufacturing led to such a sharp decline in industrial jobs that the United States could no longer be classed as an industrial society.

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