A key element in modernity, it is important to distinguish the descriptive from the analytical uses of this term. At a descriptive level, an industrial society is simply one displaying the characteristic features of industrialism, as listed under that heading. However, the term is also used in the abstract to denote the thesis that a definite type of society exists whose culture, institutions, and development are determined by its industrial production process. As such, theories of industrial society constitute a species of technological determinism, or scientific evolutionism. It is claimed that the logic of applied science, or of the technical processes based on scientific expertise and values, makes necessary certain fundamental and irreversible modifications to the traditional culture and institutions of a society. This view is expressed in the writings of Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon and by many 19th-century social theorists, including Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Émile Durkheim. But the most influential example in classical sociology is to be found in Max Weber's interpretation of the modernization of the Western world as progressive rationalization, and the disenchantment of the traditional magical and supernatural systems of beliefs and values which once gave meaning to human life. For Weber's critics, however, a profound metaphysical pathos—a deeply pessimistic but unsubstantiated moral philosophy—underlies his claim that bureaucracy is inescapable in modern industrial society and politics.
The industrial society thesis assumed a much more tangible shape in the writings of post-war, mostly American, functionalist sociologists and industrial-relations specialists. These writers claimed to be following Durkheim in arguing that the cohesion and similarity of industrial societies depended on a social consensus, in each case around the same set of organizing values and norms. But in talking about the contents of these norms they were influenced by Weber, and stressed the rationalistic, impersonal (or universalistic) aspects of these societies, the primacy they gave to rationalized production of material goods and services, and the emphasis they placed on deferred gratification. Such societies, it was claimed, would tend over time to base the allocation of people to positions on their achievements, especially their education and technical competence, rather than on traditional ascriptive characteristics such as family connections, race, or gender. Simultaneously, mechanization and technical development would raise living standards and render many unpleasant manual jobs unnecessary, resulting in the embourgeoisement of the manual working class. The combined effect of all these factors would be that the dichotomous class structure typical of early capitalist industrialism would be replaced by a more divergent and less polarized system of occupational stratification. Marked class conflict in the workplace and industry would, under mature industrialism, be replaced by institutionalized industrial conflict and collective bargaining. Political consequences would follow, for the complexity and diversity of industrial stratification implies a dispersal of power, referred to by these theorists as pluralism. Basically, this means the demise of authoritarian political systems, and their replacement by representative non-ideological mass parties. These predictions were synthesized in the work of a group of so-called convergence theorists who claimed that, because of the alleged logic of industrialism and its technology, capitalist and communist societies alike would develop into something resembling the ideal pattern of mature pluralist industrialism described above.