Change and Modernization: The Industrial Revolution (an anthropologists point of view)

The Industrial Revolution has had a tremendous impact on the whole world. But because of its British origin the people living on the island bore most of the hardships and went through the quickest and most radical change out off all the people affected by this movement.

The beginning of the movement can be traced to 1750 and continued through to about 1870. Although Britain was the epicenter of this change not many countries were unaffected by this. It may be argued that the reason the Industrial Revolution spanned a period of 120 years was due to it transforming a large-scale culture as opposed to a quicker change in a small-scale ‘Arembepe’ like culture.

Subsequent to the revolution, agricultural growth took a backseat to technological innovations and mass production. Society changed in a very short time from an agrarian and relatively self-sufficient society to an industrial and consumption driven one. As a result, this gave rise to Capitalism, as well as, Marxism because a revolution of this sort pitted the people with little access to resources against the wealthy factory managers and owners.

Associated with this progress is also religion, which played an integral part in the shaping of the revolution and its progress. The industrial revolution forever changed the face of the modern world. The modernization and change that was brought upon by this revolution improved lives and at the same time disregarded the basic principles of humane treatment. All of this was achieved with the blood and sweat of the British factory laborer in the 18th and 19th century.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution Britain experienced a boom from colonial entrepreneurship. Britain was at the forefront of colonial discovery helped by advances in marine architecture and navigation. Sociopolitical organization was stratified and Britain was still mostly an agrarian society. Ascribed statues determined who was noble and who was not and social roles were an integral part of the British society.

Institutions like the royal court and tribunals along with nobility, which was also entrusted with keeping the peace, represented basic the structure of the state. Farming was the engine that moved the British economy prior to the Industrial Revolution and wealth was relative to the amount of land one owned. In most regions, the ownership of agricultural land and the organization of production followed a common pattern.

“A large proportion of land was owed by medium to large landowners,” (More, 5) but a significant number of small land owners, whose numbers were declining in the late 18th century, also existed. Life in the country was hard because there was no specialization, thus large numbers of laborers were needed and wages were low.

Division of labor was evident but was not gender based due to a degree of specialization within each specific production type. Disgruntled youth who faced bleak prospects in agricultural life often chose to join the military or the clergy. These two institutions were viewed as appropriate alternatives to a future mired with difficulty and little or no prospect of advancement in status. Compared with an agricultural vocation the clergy and the military provided the opportunity of increase in status and power. Religion was also an integral feature of British society in the pre-Industrial age.

As mentioned above sociopolitical structure was stratified with a King who presided over all state matters. His/her rule was considered divine and the church played a key role in most state matters. It is evident that legitimacy was achieved through authority and that formal institutions were well in place generations prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Even during the first years of the Industrial Revolution Britain was considered to be one of the most advanced nations in the world and its “superiority was reflected in the higher living standards and more diverse patterns of consumption than elsewhere.” (Evans, 6) Even prior to the Industrial Revolution people living on the British Isle enjoyed a more prosperous life than their neighbors.

The English “consumed far greater amounts of meat than their French counterparts” (Evans, 6) and what is even more surprising is that this prosperity was also enjoyed by populations living well outside urban settlements. Stratification in British society was more than evident in this period and this is evident by unequal access to wealth, status, and power. Aristocracy was an integral part of the society and divine rule was still a universal belief held by most subjects of the British society.

Bureaucracy, at the time, was a well established institution which seemed to grow with the growth of the economy subsequent to the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution was the result of several factors that Britain had supremacy over. The British colonies were at its highest productivity and all the exports were shipped to England where they were sold or used as raw materials for production. It is argued that the cotton industry was the largest contributor to the technological advances of the period, more specifically, advances in weaving techniques.

Factories grew in urban areas of England, where labor was plentiful, and it was not long before even the cities were not big enough to supply the labor requirements of the factories. Rural settlements soon were emptied by the promise of prosperity and independence from communal living. Massive amounts of previously agricultural workers were migrating to the cities with no vision of what may be in store for them. What awaited them were long hours, a hazardous working environment and deplorable living conditions.

Innovation was at the core of the Industrial Revolution hence systems were developed to accommodate this but had themselves gone through numerous changes. The “Patent System” gave the inventor sole proprietorship of an invention and its distribution for fourteen years and many industrialists argued that this was monopolizing. (Bowden, 30) Therefore, they successfully lobbied for firmer regulations when the government awarded patents. The rigidity of the “patent system” manifested itself in the form of numerous approvals one had to seek to have his invention recognized. Unfortunately, it was mostly men who partook in inventions and technological advancement at this time. These inventions were immediately, upon government approval, implemented in the industrial infrastructure and as a result modernization and change is most obvious during this period.

“The Industrial Revolution ha[d] enormously increased living standards” and it cannot be disputed that the benefits of economic growth filtered down through society to produce higher per capita incomes and vastly increased consumer choices. (Evans, 157) These choices greatly impacted the resettlement of people to urban areas, thus, affecting the growth of cities in Britain in an unimaginable way. Cities grew by as much as 180 percent in a span of 25 years.

This resettlement affected agricultural production and combined with price increases of agricultural goods the average laborer in the city could barely support his/her family. Slowly through economic growth wages of laborers improved and gained “buoyancy” (Evans, 161)

While some professions continued unflustered, industrialization influenced the relationship most people had with work. Lawyers, doctors and shopkeepers and some artisans were mostly unaffected by the industrial revolution but skilled artisans that had to compete with the factories were driven out of business and had to settle for a job as a “semi skilled laborer” in a factory. (Strayer, 102)

This impacted the family dynamic greatly because the “putting out” system was extinguished almost overnight. (Bowden, 248) This system was unique in that it involved a household rather than a factory in the production of goods. This mode of production involved a family or a household which would receive raw materials and refine them and pass them on to a different household which would work on the good according to its trade.

This would sometimes occur numerous times until it was delivered to the merchant who sold it at the market and then paid the household for their work. With the rise of factories families were now obsolete, as far as production factors are concerned, and were forced to seek work outside the household. This divided the family unit with the husband, the wife, and even the child all working in a factory. A principle that was established even in agrarian society, not long before, was adopted in industrialization.

Families tended to have more children because children were seen as potential wage earners and, thus, were considered to be an asset capable of earning a wage and contributing to the family. Sense of community was also disturbed by the industrialization in Britain. Church bells symbolized communal notions but soon became obsolete with the advent of the pocket watch. A Pocket watch also symbolized individualism because it meant that people were measuring time for themselves due to increased demand for efficiency.

By 1899 Britain had the largest city in Europe. London had overtaken its continental counterparts and numerous other vastly populated cities could only be compared to certain cities in France and Italy. From the 1700 to 1800’s London’s population “doubled to 950,000” and the number of towns with a population over 20,000 changed from eight to about twenty in the period from 1750 to 1800. (More, 21) Trade between these towns was crucial to sustain the economy and it was done through a very complicated transportation network which included roads, canals, and royal highways.

Canals were crucial to the British economy because river travel was less costly and viewed to be safer. The dawn of complex transport infrastructure led to the introduction of the mail service in 1784. Roads and canals were maintained by the people living in the region and by wealthy landowners who saw that it was in their interest to maintain the infrastructure that was crucial to their prosperity. These entrepreneurs saw the potential in the income these roads can bring to them, thus, toll booth levying was evident throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Britain was fortunate in possessing waterways which accommodated trade and transportation and also in that major cities and industrial centers had ports that were easily accessible. The exchange of goods and materials was accommodated by a very sophisticated system that involved paper money, gold, silver and bronze coins. The economy was bolstered by the emerging banking system which was the precursor to the system that banks follow today.

The Industrial Revolution had influenced the life of an urban citizen in numerous ways. Market demand forced companies to specialize in selling and producing one good rather than various goods. The “Lipton Tea” company (More, 126) specialized in packaging and selling tea it had imported from the Indies and with this companies emerged to accommodate the tea industry. Butter companies and other companies merged to produce goods which would satisfy the tea drinking population of Britain. This shows the specialization that emerged as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

These are examples from the consumer goods sector but numerous companies emerged that produced capital goods and usually these companies produced just one good. Industrial companies were no exception to this new trend in production and they specialized on a much larger scale than ever before in history. Industry now became a new concept in the old world. The beginning of the 19th century saw the emergence of the iron and engineering industry that complimented each other. The engineering industry can be divided into two separate entities that both impacted the British society enormously.

The heavy engineering sector was growing due to iron production and also due to demands for mechanization, whose importance was realized in the 19th century. The steam engine (predecessor to the gas powered one) was invented by James Watt and had significantly improved the efficiency of some industries. Engineering also took on a form of light engineering as well. Light engineering accommodated the rise in demand for consumer products.

These products usually took the form of cutlery, pots, pans but also textiles. As more and more people moved to urban areas there was a higher demand for products that were used by the upper class.

Class differences were obvious and with the onset of migration to urban areas the rural population was witness to the life styles of the rich and, thus, there was and increased demand for the products the wealthy were using. The rise in wage also accommodated this rise in demand for consumer products. The textile industry which had seen mechanization impact its production was now less responsive to change. Change was more gradual and incremental instead of being rapid or sudden. Wool had overtaken the demand of cotton due to its higher quality and affordability which came about as a result of rising incomes, as mentioned before.

The industrial revolution was a phenomenon that transformed the face of Britain and the world the moment it presented itself. Its results are visible today by society’s high demand for mechanization and constant movement towards modernization. The face of Britain changed almost instantly and with it so did the lives of the people who represented the backbone of the British society. The Industrial Revolution is the largest single example of change and modernization in the modern age. Lives were tumultuously changed and behavior patterns forever altered for the sake of technological advancement.

Agricultural revolution took a back seat and emphasis moved from relative self-sufficiency to wage earning. The common laborer experienced tumultuous times ridden with economic and domestic hardships. The quality of life was deplorable at best in some places but eventually the situation improved with the rise in moralist ideologies. Change was achieved at the expense of early industrial laborers and the hardships they have endured. Whether modernization benefits the human species is an argument that will be debated until the final outcome is realized.

Until then the society around us is following a natural course of evolution that is sometimes damaging everything around us. This change that occurred and is still occurring, although less drastically now, is change that is endogenous to our society and that is why we must view it as being natural and occurring independent of outside influences. Modernization is a result of change and change is a natural occurring event and all we can do is watch and not let it rule us.