Means of Production in Sociology: Definition & Concept

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

This lesson describes the concept of means of production, taking a step back in time to the early development of industrialized society and seeing how the means of production continue in modern society. We explore how Karl Marx describes this topic and how critics respond.

Means of Production Defined

The means of production of a society include all of the physical elements, aside from human beings, that go into producing goods and services, including the natural resources, machines, tools, offices, computers, and means of distribution, such as stores and the internet. The means of production have changed over time, but the concept is an important element in discussions of how wealth is created and maintained.

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  • 0:02 Means of Production Defined
  • 0:27 Origins
  • 2:00 Social Stratification…
  • 4:35 Modes of Production
  • 5:48 Modern Day
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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If you lived during the 19th century, you would have watched a dramatic shift in the way society manufactured goods. Up until about the mid-1800s, most individuals weaved their own clothing and manufactured other materials on a very small scale using their own skills. Few means of production were required to produce such a small set of goods, and workers were in close relationship to their tools and resources, as well as anyone purchasing from them. These commodities (goods and services) served human needs and could be exchanged for other items of value or for currency.

As factories developed, larger operations that could produce many more commodities in a shorter period of time began to employ individuals who used to work in these smaller operations. These larger factories were able to create products that could be sold at a lower price and could make a profit for the owners of those larger means of production. As a worker in a factory, you would have been paid a very limited wage in exchange for your time. Since you would have needed the wage in order to survive, you may have felt compelled to participate in this new system.

Work become much more segmented than it had been at a smaller scale. For instance, if you used to be a blacksmith before industrialization, you might have done many different types of jobs as you performed your role. Once employed by a factory in the industrialized system, your skills as a blacksmith might not be needed or might only be needed for a very specific repetitive task. You also no longer owned your own means of production but were given a wage by those who owned the factory instead.

Social Stratification and Alienation

Even before the shift to an industrialized society, the main means of production have typically been under the control of few individuals. Throughout history, from societies where land has been owned by a relative few to our system today where the wealthiest of our citizens - a tiny minority - own the vast majority of the wealth, the most significant means of production tend to be concentrated among a small number of people. This gap in resources is known as social stratification.

The German economist Karl Marx argued that social stratification results directly from the relationship individuals have with the means of production. If you own the means of production, such as a factory, you are a member of the ruling, capitalist, wealthy class, also known as the bourgeoisie. As a worker, you are a member of a class known as the proletariat, selling your labor because it is the only way you can survive. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie typically thrive and profit in the industrialized world, whereas the proletariat struggle to get by day by day. Marx believed that the situation and working conditions would simply get worse over time and would become more stratified until a revolutionary change occurred to resolve this problem.

Through the process of industrialization, workers became more isolated from the type of work of the past in which an individual may have owned a small-scale means of producing commodities. Workers also became distanced from the process of their labor because they were required to do what they were told to do by the owners. They were no longer decision makers in how to go about their work. While a blacksmith might have had a say in the past about which job to do next or how to approach a task, his factory work would likely have demanded a more standardized approach, with less room for individual technique or process.

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