New Perspectives on Deindustrialization as Socio-Economic Disintegration
by Gabor Scheiring & Anne-Marie Jeannet
Industry is more than just a source of jobs and income: it is an institution. A collapse of institutions creates socio-economic disintegration. In this essay, building on classic social theory and recent empirical work, we argue for a novel approach to deindustrialization as a form of socio-economic disintegration.
Deindustrialization—the shift from an industrial to a service-based economy—is ubiquitous in advanced economies. It reshapes social cohesion and the division of labor both inside and outside of the family. It reconfigures identities and class relations. It also affects demographic processes through outmigration, changes in mortality, mobility, and family formation, which often lead to regional population decline. Deindustrialization also opens new possibilities to create more just and sustainable futures for old industrial areas, depending on how well politics and policies respond. Despite these pervasive and complex socio-political implications, most research has concentrated on the narrowest aspects of the phenomenon, such as job loss and income decline.
In this essay, building on classic social theory and recent empirical work, we argue for a novel approach to deindustrialization as a form of socio-economic disintegration.
Deindustrialization as socio-economic disintegration: a theoretical framework
Classical sociology emerged in response to the socio-economic disintegration of traditional societies and their transformation into modern capitalist ones. The founders of sociology—Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Tönnies—highlighted how industrialization destabilized traditional communities and brought deep suffering to the masses of impoverished workers.
Sociology in the 20th century responded by highlighting how industrialization gave rise to an institutional framework that was crucial for social integration and democracy. Industrialization engendered the formation of stable identities, strong working-class communities,1 and “industrial citizenship,”2 which generalized trust and stabilized democracy.3 Despite these path breaking sociological studies on industrialization, contemporary research rarely utilizes classical social theory, focusing instead on well-defined but narrower aspects of the subject.
Given the socio-political implications of deindustrialization, we need comprehensive accounts of its multifaceted, long-term ripple effects. In contrast to neoclassical economists, sociologists and proponents of the socio-economic perspective recognize that individuals in the labor process are more than wage earners and consumers. Class relations encompass economic production and social reproduction, which are two sides of the same coin, functioning as a “system of interdependent parts.”4 Deindustrialization’s effects can be seen in economic production, and these spill over into the domain of social reproduction, affecting politics, health, and population dynamics.
Building on such a classical sociological foundation allows us to conceptualize deindustrialization as a process of socio-economic disintegration. By using this framing, we can capture deindustrialization’s multidimensional social, demographic, and political implications beyond income or job loss.
In the tradition of Polanyi and Bourdieu, agency is embedded in institutions, which form the core of social fields, define rules, roles, and expectations, and stabilize patterns of behavior.5 Industry is more than just a source of jobs and income; it is an institution. Therefore, the collapse of industry as an institution is a disintegrative process, creating ruptures in economic production and social reproduction. Figure 1, below, presents a non-comprehensive sketch of some of the multidimensional mechanisms.
Figure 1. Deindustrialization as socio-economic disintegration: a theoretical framework6
Deindustrialization is a prime source of change in the field of economic production. Its impact includes: (1) labor market dislocation (job/income loss), (2) increased exploitation (workload, precarity), (3) increased social inequality (income, race/ethnicity), and (4) disruption of community services. The extant literature has thoroughly analyzed these aspects, so there is no need to elaborate on the details here.
Beyond this limited focus on deindustrialization’s effects on economic production, more research is needed on its impact on social reproduction. Below, we present some examples that briefly explore implications such as physical suffering, job strain, fatalism, increased domestic workload, anomie, community disintegration, and alienation, and their ramifications for democracy and population health. However, this list is not exhaustive; such a research agenda should be open to other questions exploring the long-term indirect effects of deindustrialization.
As deindustrialization transforms economic production, its effects also spill over to social reproduction.
First, labor market dislocations and the disruption of services cause (a) physical suffering. Researchers have robustly linked material deprivation to adverse outcomes such as ill health, food insecurity, difficulties paying the mortgage, rent, or utilities, poor housing conditions, political distrust, voting for anti-establishment parties, and outmigration from affected regions.
Second, increased exploitation leads to (b) job strain. As Marx noted, “If the unnatural extension of the working day, which capital necessarily strives for in its unmeasured drive for self-valorization, shortens the life of the individual worker, and therefore the duration of his labor-power, the forces used up have to be replaced more rapidly, and it will be more expensive to reproduce labor-power.”7 Exploitation through relative surplus value extraction increases job strain. Job strain, work stress, precarious employment, and work schedule instability correlate with several adverse outcomes, from ill health to lower fertility and political apathy. Increased exploitation and the spread of precarious jobs are important causes behind the disenchantment with liberal democracy and the rise of populism.
Third, labor market dislocations cause (c) fatalism. According to Durkheim, fatalism is a state of “futures pitilessly blocked, and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline,” a failure to live according to socially prescribed and internalized identities.8
Work identity is central to workers’ self-conception: they derive a positive sense of self from disciplined, hard industrial work.9 When individuals cannot fulfill the roles prescribed by their identity, it leads to fatalism, shame, and a sense of inferiority.
Fatalism is an essential factor behind the deaths of despair epidemic in the United States. Deindustrialization alters what “it means to be a man (or a white man) and what is expected,” leading to increased working-class suicides.10 This is especially critical in societies and sub-cultures built on the male breadwinner model. In communities with a more equal gender division of labor, men feel less stigmatized by job loss and might find it easier to accept a service sector job. Manufacturing companies also lend a special status to places of industry. The closure of manufacturing capacities can erode this local pride, leading to a sense of abandonment and feeling left behind—emotions that are prime material for populist mobilization.
Fourth, the disruption of public services also leads to (d) increased domestic workload. Non-commodified institutions are crucial to mitigating the inherent tension between economic production and social reproduction in families.11 Families (primarily women) produce “free” public goods that underpin wage labor and market-based production for social reproduction. Unpaid care responsibilities and declining access to public or private care services intensify domestic workload, leading to higher stress, lower fertility, and worse self-reported health.
Fifth, social inequalities and the disruption of services lead to (e) anomie. Sudden economic change (crisis or rapid growth) propels some to amass immense wealth while others fall behind. The erosion of public services previously tied to companies contributes to the spread of unregulated (or less regulated) markets. When this happens, individuals think that the distribution of hierarchy is unjust, and society’s moral order breaks down. Durkheim labeled this situation anomie. Under these circumstances, “men are more inclined to self-destruction,”12 leading to increased suicides or adverse health behavior such as alcohol or drug abuse. Empirical research has also established economic anger as among the most potent individual-level factors driving the support for populism.
Sixth, labor market dislocation, exploitation, and the disruption of communal services lead to (f) community disintegration.
Disintegration negatively affects workplace communities, neighborhood communities, friendships, and families.
According to Durkheim, individuals left on their own have more difficulty finding meaning in their lives and are more prone to hopelessness. “The bond that unites them with the common cause attaches them to life, and the lofty goal they envisage prevents their feeling personal troubles so deeply.”13 A vast literature on social capital has established community disintegration as a crucial determinant of adverse socio-political outcomes, such as political distrust, lower participation, increased support for anti-establishment populist parties, worse health outcomes, and lower fertility.
Seventh, as Marx described, commodification, exploitation, and the disruption of services generate (g) alienation. Alienation is a “pathological cognitive state” that “occurs in response to the inequitable interactions that take place within the dehumanizing constraints of the capitalist labor process.”14 Alienation elucidates the social background of the psychological literature on “learned helplessness,” i.e., the negative consequences of being unable to control suffering.15
Empirical research has shown that the commodification of the labor process and its accompanying alienation and powerlessness damage mental and physical health, leading to declining trust and a higher propensity to support populism.
As the figure above suggests, these changes in social reproduction have widespread implications for health, population dynamics, politics, and material conditions in affected regions. The following section focuses on two of these aspects, showing how this theoretical framework can help to analyze deindustrialization’s effects on politics and health.
In recent years, citizens have expressed their anger in response to deprivation and alienation through politics. The decline of the industrial sector has disrupted the social contract between ordinary citizens and political elites in democracies, with potentially adverse implications for satisfaction with democracy.
The entanglement of the dual processes of industrialization and democratization has meant that positive citizen assessments of democracy have become contingent upon improving living standards for production workers and the continued availability of industrial work. This established an underlying social contract whereby citizens expect a “good” democratic state to use policy instruments to foster an economy that provides “good” industrial production jobs. In this sense, notions of industrial production and work are socially entrenched in the expectations of the polity, which may gradually adapt but can be expected to lag behind a rapidly restructuring economy.
While researchers have thoroughly analyzed the role of industrialization in the consolidation of democracy, there is much less research on the empirical association between industrial decline and satisfaction with democracy. In a recent paper, Jeannet and Allegri address this gap by investigating whether declining industrial employment has been detrimental to citizen satisfaction with democracy.16
The study exploits the uneven exposure to deindustrialization across European regions over 25 years through a comparative sub-national analysis. They find that there is indeed a negative relationship between the economic restructuring that occurred in European regions and citizens’ satisfaction with democracy. In other words, a decline in industrial employment accurately predicts less satisfaction with democracy.
Deindustrialization’s political consequences are not only changing what citizens think about their government but also eroding their political engagement in the first place. In a recent related study, Jeannet investigates how deindustrialization contributed to unequal political participation amongst the working class in the United States.17 Using longitudinal panel data on political behavior across three biological generations in the United States (1965-1997), the study shows that respondents who grew up in working class families are less likely to vote as adults regardless of whether they themselves have working class occupations.
The transmission of unequal participation is partially mediated by the voting behavior of the parent who models this behavior for their children. The second generation of respondents transmits low political participation to their offspring in the third generation. This study implies that occupational structures of industrial America are still politically relevant and that inequalities in political participation remain a legacy among the biological descendants of American working-class families from the 1960s. Research in the future could also compare how deindustrialization affects political participation in working-class cultures that differ from the American experience.
The legacy of deindustrialization not only affects how people live but also how they die. Research by Anne Case, Angus Deaton, and others on the causes of the “deaths of despair epidemic” has highlighted deindustrialization’s negative health effect in the U.S.18 These deaths of despair involve rising mortality from substance use disorders and self-harm at the bottom of the class structure. There is a growing body of socio-economic scholarship on deaths of despair focusing on North America. Violent social dislocations wrought by rapid economic change such as plant closures, robotization, and attendant public policies are the prime upstream causes.
However, deindustrialization’s adverse health effects do not stop at the American border. Foreshadowing today’s epidemic of deaths of despair, an unprecedented mortality crisis hit Eastern Europe 30 years ago as ex-socialist countries transitioned to capitalism. As Case and Deaton highlight, “it is no exaggeration to compare the long-standing misery of these Eastern Europeans with the wave of despair that is driving suicides, alcohol, and drug abuse among less-educated white Americans.”19
Following up on Case and Deaton’s observation, in a recent paper in the Annual Review of Sociology, King, Scheiring, and Nosrati compare North America’s deaths of despair epidemic with the health crisis that ravaged Eastern Europe at the tail end of the previous century.20
In addition to synthesizing the extant knowledge on these two health crises, we also outline an agenda for comparative sociological research on deaths of despair.
While deindustrialization’s impact on the health of workers in the American Rust Belt has received a great deal of attention, researchers have thus far neglected its role in the postsocialist mortality crisis.21 In a recent study, Scheiring et al. show that, alongside rapid mass privatization, industrial decline may have been a crucial determinant of the postsocialist mortality crisis. The authors fit multilevel survival and two-way fixed effect panel models covering 52 towns and 42,800 people over the period 1989-1995 in Hungary, and 514 medium-sized towns in the part of Russia lying within the geographical borders of Europe, west of the Ural Mountains.
The results show that deindustrialization was significantly and directly associated with male mortality in both countries and indirectly mediated by adverse health behavior (alcohol abuse). Both countries experienced severe deindustrialization, but social policies have offset the negative health effect of Hungary’s more immense industrial employment loss. This shows that central, regional, and local governments have a huge role in mitigating the disintegrative effects of deindustrialization.
Finally, new research following the theoretical framework of deindustrialization as socio-economic disintegration could also utilize qualitative approaches. A recent study by Scheiring and King in Theory and Society22 presents one potential application, exploring the role of deindustrialization in adverse health outcomes by relying on qualitative life history interviews and a theoretical framework combining insights from Marx and Durkheim.
Such qualitative analyses allow an in-depth look into the lived experience of deindustrialization. Qualitative studies are particularly well-suited for theory development to elucidate the complexities of deindustrialization’s adverse effects, while multivariate regressions necessarily simplify these multi-causal mechanisms.
“The Day After”: SASE mini-conference on deindustrialization
The above examples highlight only a few of the potential avenues that the burgeoning scholarship on deindustrialization can explore. At this year’s SASE mini-conference, “The Day After: Coping with the Long-Term Consequences of Deindustrialization” (July 9-11, 2022, Amsterdam), we will discuss many other recent empirical examples.
More generally, the mini-conference aims to bring together scholars to debate and illuminate the long-term social consequences of deindustrialization.
Participants will address many facets of deindustrialization’s consequences, but we especially encouraged work that focuses on understudied or misunderstood aspects of the phenomenon. Several papers we received cover areas currently underrepresented in deindustrialization studies, such as the experience of women, ethnic minorities, and middle and low-income countries undergoing premature deindustrialization.
We organized the mini-conference around contributions exploring the following areas. 1) deindustrialization and the crisis for American politics and health; 2) confronting the legacy of deindustrialization in Central and Eastern Europe; 3) governance and industrial policies as responses to decline; 4) social transformations of social identity, civic participation, and health outcomes; 5) political consequences for party support and electoral change. Participants will engage with deindustrialization’s pressing social and political aspects in the 21st century across European, Asian, and North American contexts.
The emerging interdisciplinary scholarship on deindustrialization is a promising area that addresses some of the most pressing contemporary social problems. By utilizing comprehensive sociological frameworks and elucidating the ripple effects of deindustrialization as socio-economic disintegration, such new perspectives can push the boundaries of extant knowledge and improve the life chances of those impacted by the loss of industrial capacities.
1) Edward P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Pantheon Books, Random House, 1963).
2) Thomas Humphrey Marshall, Citizenship and Social Class and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950).
3) Charles Tilly, “Trust and Rule,” Theory and Society 33, no. 1, pp. 1-30, 2004.
4) Michael Burawoy, “Neoclassical Sociology: From the End of Communism to the End of Classes,” American Journal of Sociology 106, no. 4, pp. 1099-1120, 2001, p. 1107.
5) Karl Polanyi, “The Economy as Instituted Process,” in Trade and Market in the Early Empires, ed. Karl Polanyi, Conrad M. Arensberg, and Harry W. Pearson (Chicago: Gateway Edition, Henry Regnery Company, 1957; Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc JD Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1992).
6) Created by the authors, based on Gábor Scheiring and Lawrence King, “Deindustrialization, Social Disintegration, and Health: A Neoclassical Sociological Approach,” Theory and Society, Advance access, published on Mar 14.
7) Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I (London: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 377.Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I (London: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 377.
8) Émile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology (London & New York: Routledge Classics, 2002), p. 239. Émile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology (London & New York: Routledge Classics, 2002), p. 239.
9) Michèle Lamont, The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
10) Seth Abrutyn and Anna S. Mueller, “Toward a Cultural-Structural Theory of Suicide: Examining Excessive Regulation and Its Discontents,” Sociological Theory 36, no. 1, pp. 48-66, 2018, p. 60.
11) Tithi Bhattacharya, ed., Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (London: Pluto Press, 2017).
12) Durkheim, p. 206-207.
13) Durkheim, p. 168.
14) Gabriel A. Acevedo, “Turning Anomie on Its Head: Fatalism as Durkheim’s Concealed and Multidimensional Alienation Theory,” Sociological Theory 23, no. 1, pp. 75-85, 2005, p. 79.
15) Martin E.P. Seligman, Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death (London: W.H. Freeman & Co, 1975).
16) Anne-Marie Jeannet and Chiara Allegri, Has Regional Deindustrialization Decreased People’s Satisfaction with Democracy?, 2020, SASE Annual Conference, July 20, 2020, online.
17) Anne-Marie Jeannet, “America’s Rusted Families: Working Class Political Participation over Three Biological Generations (1965-1997),” West European Politics, Advance access, published on April 21, 2022.
18) Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).
19) Case and Deaton, p. 108.
20) Lawrence King, Gábor Scheiring, and Elias Nosrati, “Deaths of Despair in Comparative Perspective,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 48, Advance access, published on Apr 6, 2022.
21) Gábor Scheiring et al., Deindustrialization and the Postsocialist Mortality Crisis, 2021, Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), Working Paper Series, Number 541, April 2021, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
22) Gábor Scheiring and Lawrence King, “Deindustrialization, Social Disintegration, and Health: A Neoclassical Sociological Approach,” Theory and Society, Advance access, published on Mar 14.