Following an innovative trajectory that involves the history of ideas and the evolution of political and social phenomena, the author depicts the origins of mass society beginning with the era when the very term "mass" gained currency in public opinion. Over the last two centuries the masses have often been set off against individuals, in that the former were believed to be irrational, primitive crowds. This dialectic tension is explored by analysing how social psychologists, criminologists, and political scientists have attempted to define the concepts of mass and crowd and how these theoretical endeavours relate to contemporary political and social events. On the one hand, in the political sphere, the masses have originated social protests and provided support for totalitarian regimes and affluent democracies alike; on the other, their contribution in the social sphere has also been crucial, as they comprise the swarms of consumers that populate shopping malls and engage in leisure activities. Both of these features have helped shape our way of life, but especially confer legitimacy to contemporary political systems. From this standpoint, appreciating the masses is the key to understanding our society.
Stefano Cavazza teaches Contemporary History in the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Bologna.