Bell’s ‘post-industrial society’, criticisms of his analysis of the role of information and knowledge in relation to contemporary social change and the extent of these changes

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Bell’s ‘post-industrial society’, criticisms of his analysis of the role of information and knowledge in relation to contemporary social change and the extent of these changes. (2005)

In this essay, first, I will discuss the main features of Bell’s ‘post-industrial society’, second, the criticisms that have been made of Bell’s analysis of the role of information and knowledge in relation to contemporary social change and third, I will assess the extent of these changes. I shall do so by referring to primary and secondary empirical evidence and will conclude by summarising the main points.

Bell, an American sociologist is regarded as the key proponent of the theory of ‘post-industrial society’ (P-IS), which attempts to characterise the changing nature of contemporary society, particularly the USA and other advanced ‘industrial’ countries. This is expounded by Bell in his seminal book ‘The Coming of Post-Industrial Society’. (Webster 2002:30)

He asserts that

‘[t]he concept of the post-industrial society deals primarily with changes in the social structure, the way in which the economy is being transformed and the occupational system reworked, and with the new relations between theory and empiricism, particularly science and technology.’ (Bell 1974:13)

In developing his thesis, he rejects Marxist approaches that focus on the stratification system and capitalist exploitation to account for social change. Instead, Bell claims that Western economies have ‘deindustrialised’, (Mackay 2001:22) in this context an absolute and relative decline in manufacturing employment. (Massey 1988:53-54)

Bell’s methodology rejects holist notions of society1, (Webster 2002:35) ‘an orientation in which all aspects of society are contained within a single system, […] driven through time by a unitary dynamic logic’. Instead, he divides society into discrete realms: nature, technology and society and focuses on the latter. (Waters 1996:28,31)

In turn, he subdivides society into three discrete dimensions2 or realms: the ‘social structure’, ‘polity’3 and ‘culture’4, (Waters 1996:31,32) such that ‘an occurrence in one realm cannot be presumed to shape another’. (Webster 2002:35) These dimensions are only distinguished by their ‘axial principle’, the central, defining or ‘energizing’ principle that has the primary logic around which all other principles are organised. (Bell 1974:10)

Bell is primarily concerned with changes in the social structure, (Webster 2002:36) which is composed of technology, the economy and the occupational system. (Bell 1974:12) Its axial principle is ‘functional rationality’ which relates to cost limitation and optimisation of output, that is to say efficiency and productivity. (Waters 1996:32,33) This dimension is concerned with the ‘organization of production and the allocation of goods and services’. (Bell 1976:11)

Using this framework, Bell clarifies the idea of P-IS by tracing its antecedence from pre-industrial and industrial societies and compares the features of each. (Bell 1976:126)

A pre-industrial society is characterised by primary economic sector occupations and extractive industries such as agriculture, fishing and mining which dominate the economy. Raw material is the main source of technology. (Waters 1996:108)

An industrial society is based on the secondary sector which ‘centres on human-machine relationships’ and the application of energy to mass manufacturing and processing of tangible goods. The key occupations are the engineer and semi-skilled factory worker. (Waters 1996:109)

A P-IS is dominated by the service sectors and professional and technical occupations. It is marked by the centrality of human relationships and ‘intellectual technology’, based on information and information and computing technology (ICT), which ‘rises alongside of machine technology’. (Bell 1974:116,117)

Bell explains his theory by specifying five dimensions of PI-S.

‘Creation of a service economy’ is the first dimension. Bell asserts that a ‘post-industrial society is based on services’: there is a shift from an economy primarily based on goods production to one based on services. (Bell 1974:14,127) According to Waters this service economy emerged in the USA in the mid 1950s and now underpins the economies of ‘much of the Western world, Japan and some of the Asian dragons’. (Waters 1996:110)

Mackay asserts that ‘Bell does not really define what he means by a ‘service’, only contrasting it with the ‘goods’ of industrial society’. (Mackay 2001:26) The Economist defines services as ‘[p]roducts of economic activity that you can’t drop on your foot’. (Economist 2003:6) Roberts et al. refer to Hill and expand this definition and assert that services are ‘consumed simultaneously with their production’, they cannot be stored and are intangible. (Roberts et al. 2000:2)

Initially, services support industrial expansion through the development of transportation and public utilities. The mass consumption of goods by an increasing population is reflected by the growth of goods distribution, finance and real estate for example. As wealth increases through income generated in the other two sectors, new demands arise for ‘luxury’, personal services such as hotels, restaurants and entertainment. ‘[A] crucial feature of modern society’ is the expansion of health and education services, which leads to the growth of government to compensate for the inadequacy of market supply. (Bell 1974:127-128)

As well as a service economy, Bell asserts that P-IS has an ‘information economy’. 5 He assesses the scope of this by adding a fourth sector to his typology, the ‘information sector’ and through the work of Porat, assesses the value of information related (either directly or indirectly) activities in the economy, by analysis of national product, national income and workforce. (Bell 1980:518-521)

Bell predominantly focuses on the primary and secondary sectors of Porat’s six-sector model and asserts that the former, which includes banking, education and advertising is the ‘productive locus of an information-based economy’ (Bell 1980:519) and through quantitative analysis of all the information sectors concludes that information is a strategic resource of P-IS. (ibid. 1980:545) As such, he declares that the ‘post-industrial society is an information society’. (Bell 1974:467)

He argues that the ‘expansion of the service economy with its emphasis on office work, education, and government has naturally brought about a shift to white-collar occupations’, which leads to ‘[t]he pre-eminence of the professional and technical class’, the second dimension of P-IS. (Bell 1974:15,17)

‘[The] heart of post-industrial society’ is professional and technical employment, especially scientists and engineers, who through education and training have the necessary skills to maintain P-IS. (Bell 1974:17-18) This results in increased importance and volume of information in circulation and in turn leads to a qualitative change to society. An inclination towards planning means that there is a systematic ordering of the ‘anarchy of the free market’, directing the economy with strategies, plans and forecasts, bringing with it a level of control previously unthinkable. (Webster 2002:40) These professions are ‘people-oriented’ and so a ‘new consciousness’ emerges, resulting in a ‘caring society’. (Mackay 2001:28)

Underlying this mode of work is information and knowledge, and this leads to the third dimension of P-IS, ‘[t]he primacy of theoretical knowledge’, the axial principle of P-IS. (Bell 1974:18-20)

The distinguishing feature of P-IS is the ‘character of knowledge itself’. Theoretical knowledge is abstract, general and can illuminate ‘many different and varied areas of experience’, (Stehr 1994:66) counterpoint to the empiricism of the applied practical knowledge of the ‘talented tinkerers’ of industrialism. (Webster 2002:52,53)

Waters refers to Bell, who offers an operational definition of knowledge6, to measure its growth: ‘Knowledge is that which is objectively known, an intellectual property, attached to a name or group of names and certified by copyright or some other form of social recognition (e.g. publication)’. (Waters 1996:115) This knowledge can be ‘commodified’ as property, measured and communicated as it can be represented objectively, codified through language, writing, printing and data storage. (Stehr 1994:13-14,109)

Bell offers two major reasons why theoretical knowledge is the key strand to P-IS, which support his view that P-IS is a ‘knowledge society’. (Bell 1974:212)

First is the role of theoretical knowledge as a causal agent in bringing science and technology7 closer together to underpin research and development, the driver of innovation. (Bell 1974:212) Presumably, the effect of this causality underlies and allows the assertion that technology is ‘the basis of increased productivity, and productivity has been the transforming fact of economic life’. (ibid. 1974:191) In part, this explains the second reason: knowledge accounts for a larger share of employment and an increased proportion of gross national product. (ibid. 1974:212)

Advances in theoretical knowledge have enabled ‘technological forecasting’, or ‘[t]he planning of technology’, the fourth dimension of P-IS. (Waters 1996:111)

This is the ability to assess and plan technological expansion so that alternative technologies can be considered to reduce or eliminate undesirable consequences. (Bell 1974:26,27) That is to say that the introduction of new technology can be subject to forward assessment of cost, risks and advantages. This can be controlled and regulated by implementing policies. (Waters 1996:111)

This planning is underpinned by ‘[t]he rise of new intellectual technology’ , the fifth dimension of P-IS. (Bell 1974:27)

At the heart of ‘intellectual technology’ lies information and knowledge, coupled with computers and data transmission systems, which facilitate decision-making and ‘intuitive judgements’.8 (Bell 1980:503-505) Bell asserts that the computer is instrumental in defining rational action and identifying a strategy to achieve an optimal or ‘best’ solution. This is because the complexity and multiplicity of variables involved in arriving at such decisions is beyond human intuitive judgement. (Bell 1974:30-33)

The coalescence of the five dimensions outlined above, lead Bell to declare a P-IS and to recapitulate, this is a

‘changeover from a goods-producing society to an information or knowledge society; and in the modes of knowledge, a change […] from empiricism […] to theory and the codification of theoretical knowledge for directing innovation and the formulation of policy’. (Bell 1974:487)

The theme is of change and novelty, a decisive break from the past. (Webster 2002:124)

To many, this ‘transformative’ interpretation of social change is a fault. To Webster, this is one of many faults. Webster asserts that P-IS is ‘deeply flawed empirically, theoretically and methodologically’. (Webster 2002:33)

Underlying Bell’s oeuvre is technological determinism; technology is the basis of productivity and productivity transforms the economy, or more broadly, technology determines social change. This is transparent in his writing, which resonates with such thought. (Mackay 2001:29) Technological determinism is at the core of ‘functional rationality’, the ‘axial principle of social structure’, which when unfolded, equates with ‘technology determines productivity’. (Webster 2002:42,43) Other common social science themes such as power, capital and class are generally excluded. (Mackay 2001:29)

Bell’s utopian vision of a ‘caring society’ is, as Webster points out, ‘unconvincing’ and seems illusory. (Webster 2002:50) The notions of planning for environmental care and a ‘new consciousness’ seem to be ‘ideal types’. (Mackay 2001:28) The negative impacts of P-IS are largely omitted. Important issues include civil liberty infringements such as surveillance through databases, the ‘electronic means of potential totalitarian control’, analogous to Foucault’s ‘Panoptican’. (Lyon 1988:93,98) Also, information is identified as a key dimension of poverty and inequality and deskilling of occupations. (Mackay 2001:95,101-102) Furthermore, Bell rings with repetition, conceptual ‘looseness’ and inconsistency. (Waters 1996:144)

Webster criticises Bell’s anti-holistic disjunction of social structure, polity and culture as an untenable construct, as it appears unrepresentative of the society it models and he offers no evidence or explanation of it. He continues and argues that Bell uses this as a convenient device to sidestep questions ‘posed by events in one sphere for others’. (Webster 2002:35) He highlights Bell’s contradictions and refers to Steinfels who asserts that ‘the three realms are inextricably intertwined, it is precisely their interrelationships that intensely concern Bell’. In doing this he neutralises Bell’s argument from the outset. Indeed, paradoxically Bell does this himself, by raising issues throughout that challenge his model. (ibid. 2002:36)

Another fundamental criticism is linear development, the ‘march through the sectors’, from agricultural to industrial to service dominance of employment. Mackay refers to Gershuny and Miles and asserts that instead of a shift from manufacturing, a more plausible interpretation of the employment data is a shift from agriculture to services. (Mackay 2001:24) This is illustrated by the employment data for the USA between 1900 and 1970 as shown in Figure 1. (Lyon 1988:47)

Employment sector




















Figure 1: Percentage distribution of employment by sector in USA 1900-1970 (Adapted from Lyon 1988:47)

Reduced manufacturing employment can be accounted for by other factors such as recession, government policies and ‘feminisation of the workforce’, as experienced in the UK during the 1980s. (Webster 2002:45-46) Furthermore, ‘deindustrialisation’ can be viewed as ‘global’ relocation of workers instead of reduced manufacturing employment. (Lyon 1988:13) Bell’s focus on the USA isolates his analysis, which can be misleading in a broader context.

Gershuny casts doubt on Bell’s correlation of growth in service employment and demand for services, by proposing that the growth of the service sector is through ‘new demand for material production from manufacturing industry’. (Gershuny 1978:58-59) The ‘classification of ‘manufacturing’ and ‘services’ is often inconsistent, in that many ‘services’ are clearly linked with ‘manufacturing’. (Gershuny & Miles cited in Lyon 1988:47) This can be illustrated by a division of labour in manufacturing, through ‘producer services’ such as banking and insurance that support manufacture, but are in themselves services. This can ‘artificially’ boost the importance of service employment. (Webster 2002:47)

Gershuny even suggests that consumption of services has decreased. (Gershuny 1978:57) This is exemplified by the notion of a ‘self-service economy’, where new social arrangements and technology have led to services such as domestic work being replaced by machines. (ibid. 1978:57-58) In terms of occupation, Lyon questions the importance of professionals. He asserts that whilst many groups seek and are classified as ‘professional status’, this is not evidence for ‘a growing band of qualified personnel’. (Lyon 1988:47)

So, Bell’s identification of an increase in service employment and a growth of service demand can be seen as false. (Gershuny 1978:59) Gershuny’s empirical evidence of employment and consumption patterns in the UK over the last 25 years ‘reveals, not the gradual emergence of a ‘service economy’, but its precise opposite’. (ibid. 1978:8)

Although Webster agrees with Bell about increases in service sector employment, professional occupations and white-collar work, he differs and says this does not represent a new epoch. (Webster 2002:50) However, there is a general consensus that ‘information and information activities’ have played a greater role strategically in economic, social and political life. (ibid. 2002:51) This can be described as ‘informatisation’, the gradual increased prominence of information. (ibid. 2002:266) He refers to Giddens who asserts that ‘modern societies have been “information societies” since their beginnings’ and Webster reflects that ‘informational developments must be accounted for in terms of historical antecedents and continuities’. (ibid. 2002:202,266) Echoing this idea, Stehr implies that these developments are better accounted for in grounded economic discourse, as ‘phenomena best understandable in terms of long-established and familiar market-based criteria’, (Schiller cited in Stehr 1994:12) as a reconfiguration of capitalism, described by Schiller as ‘corporate capitalism’, dominated by a handful of oligopolistic corporate institutions with ‘global’ reach. (Webster 2002:128-129) Perhaps ‘technocapitalism’ is a more appropriate strain to capture the role of capital, labour and production, emphasising the role of knowledge and ‘high’ technology. (Kellner 1999:6)

Giddens refers to Marx and describes the essential features of capitalism: it is a ‘system of commodity production’ where commodities are exchanged, often in an international market. (Giddens 1971:46) There are two general stages to the organisation of production in the capitalist system: first, handicraft is replaced by manufacture, marked by efficiency through a division of labour and second, inadequacy of the market to supply growing demand necessitates machinery, the reason for the industrial revolution. (ibid. 1971:34) As shown by Gershuny, much service or information work is supporting manufacture in its production and in this sense there appears to be no fundamental transition since the industrial revolution.

Webster refers to Schiller who summarises this by stating that capitalism has generated information and ICTs, which ‘extends and consolidates its relations’. This is illustrated by the ‘commodification’ of information, as a saleable item, similar to a tangible good. (Webster 2002:128-129) Also, corporations with ‘global’ reach require a ‘sophisticated computer communications infrastructure’ to distribute the flow of information that coordinates and controls their daily operation. (ibid. 2002:30) This increased information flow is derivative of corporate needs and so information has been channelled in ‘these’ particular directions rather than ‘those’. This perspective is the antithesis of P-IS, as capitalism is shaping information and knowledge and simultaneously information and knowledge are sustaining capitalism. (ibid. 2002:129-130)

For Bell, P-IS breaks with the ‘elemental relations’, most importantly capital and labour, as knowledge supersedes them as the ‘decisive factor of production’. (Schiller b 1988:30-31) The foundation of Bell’s thesis centres on theoretical knowledge as a catalyst for technological development and in this sense, they are mutually constitutive in terms of increasing productivity. This coupling is embodied in and exemplified by ‘functional rationality’, which results in more output per input and as such, goods production generates more wealth. (Webster 2002:43) In turn, this leads to increased consumption of services and necessitates a transition in the occupational structure, which becomes dominated by the ‘professional and technical class’. This class plans technological development, empowered by technology itself, ‘intellectual technology’, which in turn leads to increased and improved theoretical knowledge, which was applied to generate this technology in the first case; a virtuous circle overlapping another. This is partly why theoretical knowledge has ‘axial principle’ status, the ‘energizing’ principle of P-IS.

Bell’s argument is presented convincingly, as each dimension is organically bound, each one apparently reciprocating development in the others. Ironically, this expresses a fundamental fault in dividing the realms of social structure, polity and culture, as they can be seen to behave in a similar way and this is one reason why Bell’s work has been described, in an Orwellian sense as ‘good bad’! (Webster 2002:32) Bell’s manipulation of empirical evidence to ‘fit’ and thereby ‘prove’ his theory, again is convincing although when manipulated in another way invalidates it. Nevertheless, many strands of his theory appear to mirror contemporary society and to some extent his ‘forecasting’ stands.

‘Continuist’ approaches as presented by Marxian thinkers, ‘Critical Theorists’ for example, offer another account of the role of information in contemporary social change. When contextualised in this way, technology and knowledge are deployed as an instrument to extend the existing capitalist system. Rooting change diachronically in the ‘ruck of history’, whilst ‘dealing with the realities of the here and now’, appears a superior starting point. (Webster 2002:156,273) It can be seen as sensible to view the ‘information society’ as an ‘internal modification’, a ‘gradual accumulation of change from within’, (Giddens 1971: 245) as a process of ‘informatisation’. (Webster 2002:266)

One proposition of a ‘best fit’ theory is one which encapsulates both continuities and discontinuities as proposed by Kellner. (Kellner 1999:4) To a considerable degree, depending upon philosophical standpoint, all of these approaches can coexist and be seen as ‘right’; as social constructions, in a sense it is largely a matter of opinion.

This is exemplified by a dialectical transformation, a quantitative change in a fundamental variable of an approach, which leads to a qualitative change in society. (Wikipedia 2004:2) In this case, this can be viewed as a parallax focused on the means of production: technology. (Castells b 2000:14-16) Here, the ‘continuist’ and ‘transformative’ approaches decisively split. Bell’s ‘theoretical knowledge’ and associated ICTs as the means of production is antithesis to capitalist thought that energy and ‘machine technology’ remain prominent, although their synthesis relates to the means of production. (Wikipedia 2004:2) So, Bell constructs and proves through his model that there is a qualitative change to society through a quantitative increase in the use of theoretical knowledge and ICTs. Pivotal to this is Bell’s disjunction of realms. Kumar observes that qualitative change occurs when society feels that there is a change, no matter how difficult this is to measure. He points out that theories such as ‘P-IS’ and ‘information society’ are ‘clearly part of a widespread feeling’. Perhaps this feeling is misplaced he argues, but in theorising society it must be considered. (Kumar 1995:153,154)


Bell, D. (1974) The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting, London: Heinemann

Bell, D. (1976) The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, London: Heinemann

Bell, D. (1980) ‘The Social Framework of the Information Society’ in T. Forester (ed.) The Microelectronics Revolution, Oxford: Blackwell

Castells, M. a (2000) ‘Materials for an Exploratory Theory of the Network Society’, British Journal of Sociology, 51:1:5-24 [online] Available from:

/Sources/Castells-Theory_of_Network_Society-2000.pdf [ 03/10/04]

Castells, M. b (2000) The Rise of the Network Society 2 nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Economist (2003) Economics A-Z, [online] Available from:

/alphabetic.cfm?LETTER=S [ 30/10/03]

Gershuny, J. (1971) After Industrial Society: The Emerging Self-service Economy, London: Macmillan

Giddens, A. (1971) Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Kellner, D. (1999) New Technologies, TechnoCities, and the Prospects for Democratization, [online] Available from: [ 03/10/04]

Kumar, K. (1995) From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society, Oxford: Blackwell

Lyon, D. (1988) The Information Society: Issues and Illusions, Cambridge: Polity

Mackay, H. (2001) Investigating the Information Society, London: Routledge

Roberts, J. et al. (2000) ‘Knowledge and Innovation in the New Service Economy’ in B. Andersen, et al. (eds) Knowledge and Innovation in the New Service Economy, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

Schiller b, D. (1988) ‘How to Think About Information’ in V.Mosco & J.Wasko (eds) The Political Economy of Information, London: University of Wisconsin Press

Stehr, N. (1994) Knowledge Societies, London: Sage

Waters, M. (1996) Daniel Bell, London: Routledge

Webster, F. (2002) Theories of the Information Society 2 nd edn. London: Routledge

Wikipedia (2004) Dialectic, [online] Available from: [ 03/10/04]

1 Waters refers to Bell who defines society as ‘a set of social arrangements, created by men, to regulate normatively the exchange of wants and satisfactions’. (Waters 1996:31) This implies that Bell views society as socially constructed and as a regulated, interactive network of evolving relationships. (Waters 1996:31)

2 These dimensions are ‘ideal-type’ constructions, that is, conceptual schemas or representations that embody specific attributes and allow simplification of a complex reality. (Bell 1974:9,116) That is to say that they are ‘structured only by logic rather than being constrained by substance’. (Waters 1996:32)

3 The polity relates to justice and regulation of social conflict through the application of power. This justice is informed by a framework of values embodied in society’s traditions or in its constitution, written or unwritten. (Waters 1996:33) The axial principle is legitimacy and ‘in a democratic polity it is the principle that power can be held and governance exercised only with the consent of the governed’. This emphasises equality through participation. (Bell 1976:11)

4 Culture refers to the ‘overall pattern or shape of life in a society’, (Waters 1996:34) which Bell restricts to ‘expressive symbolism’, such as religion and the arts, that addresses the universalities of existence. The axial principle of modern culture is self-expression and self -realisation: here, subjective value of this symbolism is primary. (Bell 1976:12)

5 He defines information as ‘the storage, retrieval, and processing of data’ and asserts that it is ‘central to all economic transactions’ and remarks that ‘even when it is sold, remains with the producer’. (Bell 1974:504,511,512)

He refers to Shannon, who asserts that information ‘can be treated very much like a physical quantity such as mass’ that can be measured absolutely. Bell rejects this idea and refuses to offer a quantifiable definition, although he does consider that information can be quantified as a statistical concept. (Bell 1980:508,509, 547) Bell asserts that information is a ‘pattern or design that rearranges data for instrumental purposes’. He acknowledges that this process of rearrangement is by the ‘knower’ or recipient and as such implies that information carries semantic meaning. (Bell 1980:509)

6 Bell also offers a more formal definition: ‘a set of organized statements of facts or ideas, presenting a reasoned judgement or an experimental result, which is transmitted to others through some communication medium in some systematic form’. (Bell 1974:175 emphasis removed)

7 7Waters refers to Bell who asserts that ‘[t]echnology is the instrumental ordering of human experience within a logic of efficient means, and the direction of nature to use its powers for material gain’. (Waters 1996:30) That is to say that technology is embodied in social relationships and is the systematic and repeatable application of knowledge to a task or to nature for (material) benefits. (Castells a 2000:8-9)

Bell cautiously asserts that the ‘pace of technological change has increased in recent decades’ (Bell 1974:195) and this may be partly derived from ‘the action of knowledge acting upon knowledge itself’, a virtuous circle where information processing improves the technology of knowledge generation. (Castells b 2000:17)

8 Waters emphasises that this technology ‘lies behind the machines’ in software and networks for example. (Waters 1996:153)


The Coming of Post-Industrial Society

In The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting, Bell outlined a new kind of society - the post-industrial society. He argued that post-industrialism would be information-led and service-oriented. Bell also argued that the post-industrial society would replace the industrial society as the dominant system. There are three components to a post-industrial society, according to Bell:

  • a shift from manufacturing to services

  • the centrality of the new science-based industries

  • the rise of new technical elites and the advent of a new principle of stratification.

Bell also conceptually differentiates between three aspects of the post-industrial society: data, or information describing the empirical world, information, or the organization of that data into meaningful systems and patterns such as statistical analysis, and knowledge, which Bell conceptualizes as the use of information to make judgments. Bell discussed the manuscript of The Coming of Post-Industrial Society with Talcott Parsons before its publication.
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