Sociology Daniel Bell
Robert J. Holton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0120


Daniel Bell (b. 1919–d. 2011) was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan into a family of immigrant Jewish garment workers from eastern Europe. His father died when Daniel was eight months old, and the family lived in impoverished circumstances throughout his childhood. For Bell, politics and an intellectual life were closely intertwined even in his early years, with formative experiences in Jewish intellectual circles, membership in the Young Peoples Socialist League from the age of thirteen. He was later a part of the radical political milieu of City College, where he was close to radical Marxist networks, which also included Irving Kristol. He received a bachelor’s degree in social science from City College, New York, in 1938 and spent a year studying sociology at Columbia University in 1939. During the 1940s, Bell’s socialist inclinations became increasingly anticommunist, shifting away from Marxian criticism of capitalism to more pragmatic notions of a mixed economy combining private and public elements. He began academic teaching, first at the University of Chicago in the mid-1940s, and then at Columbia from 1952. Bell received his PhD from Columbia in 1960, and he worked there until 1969, when he moved to Harvard. From the mid-1950s until his death in 2011, Bell combined a very active profile in scholarly research with the role of public intellectual, pursued through lectures and more limited episodes of journalism, as well as involvement in public policy circles. The peak years of Bell’s academic publishing center on three major books, The End of Ideology (1960), The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976). This body of work represents a major contribution to the sociology of modernity, conducted through general analysis of social and cultural trends and incisive revisions of leading social theories. This work drew on Bell’s early rejection of Marxian schema of radical social transformation animated by class conflict. This was replaced by a greater Weberian emphasis on bureaucratization and the disenchantment of modern life with the exhaustion of dominant ideologies enshrined in socialist and liberal utopias. The rise of service industries based on knowledge rather than private capital, combined with the restless hedonistic culture of consumerism and self-actualization, ushered in a new world in which the relationships between economy, politics, and culture needed to be rethought, and political strategies revised. Bell, like Weber, was impressed by the multidimensional complexities of social change, but like Durkheim, he was haunted by the uncertain place of religion and the sacred in an increasingly profane world. Bell’s sociology and public intellectual life was directed and dedicated over sixty-five years to addressing these major challenges. His influence may have declined in the last quarter of the 20th century, but it has subsequently been revived in continuing debates over the dynamics and contradictions of modernity and postmodernism. At his death in 2011 he was working on a study of the “Rebirth of Utopia.” Bell remains a significant reference point and inspiration in the renewal and refocusing of macrosociological theory in response to social change.

General Overviews

Bell’s published works includes familiar items such as books, academic journal articles, book chapters, and lectures, but he produced also a mass of journalistic output spread across dozens of outlets. It is estimated that he wrote fourteen books and over two hundred scholarly articles, many of them in general intellectual journals like The Public Interest, Commentary, and Daedalus, rather than specifically sociological journals. Some of Bell’s prolific journal output is anthologized in his major works. The writing style is consistently engaging and accessible, with an enormous range of references across literature, philosophy, and public life as well as sociology and the social sciences. Bell 1991 is the best starting point for an appreciation of the breadth of Bell’s interests and intellectual reference points. Waters 1996 is the best general overview, while Waters 2003 is a much shorter contribution in the same vein.

  • Bell, Daniel. 1991. The winding passage: Sociological essays and journeys. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

    The book is arranged under five themes: “Techne and Themis,” dealing with technology and society; “Prophets of Utopia,” including Veblen, Fourier, and Marx; “Intellectuals and the New Class,” on theories of social class; “Directions of Social Change”; and “Culture and Beliefs.”

  • Waters, Malcolm. 1996. Daniel Bell. London: Routledge.

    The most comprehensive and insightful general study of Bell, written eleven years before his death. Waters covers Bell’s three major books as well as other work on labor and work, education, and technology, and includes succinct and balanced criticism and evaluation.

  • Waters, Malcolm. 2003. Daniel Bell. In Key contemporary social theorists. Edited by Larry Ray and Anthony Elliott, 52–57. Oxford: Blackwell.

    This is a good short introduction to Bell’s life and work, though more critical of his contribution to social theory than Waters 1996.

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