Mass society theory is heavily influenced by the work of the Frankfurt School, in particular Adorno and Horkheimer, and defends the merit of “high culture,” from what is perceived as the decaying effects of mass commoditization of culture. Mass society is characterized by a nexus of interlocking power elites which manipulate the masses in spite of democratic structuration. Culture is seen as part of the superstructure of ideas determined by society’s economic base.

Critiques of Mass Society Theory

  • The Frankfurt view of the audience is monolithic, giving little or no attention to the potential for audience diversity of readings or resistance to media text (Boyd-Barrett, 1995). They believed in a ‘magic bullet’ theory of media effects, which assume the direct impact of a media message.
  • The Frankfurt school deliberately avoids empirical research because of their view that positivistic science is a symptom of capitalist techno-rationality.
  • Attributes excessive power to media and underrates the importance of social contexts of media consumption.

Influence of Mass Society Theory in the Arts

  • Luis Bunuel, the Spanish film-maker (sometimes referred to as a surrealist) once referred to a “zombie-like” trance that audiences enter after entering a theater.
  • In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera uses the concept of kitsch to describe his take on mass society theory: “It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch. . .kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative sense of the world; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.


Boyd-Barrett, O (1995), ‘Early theories in media research’, in O Boyd-Barrett & C Newbold (eds.), Approaches to Media, Arnold, London.