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Elizabeth Eisenstein


Elizabeth Eisenstein’s Printing Press

By Frank W. Elwell

An excerpt from Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change


While Gerhard Lenski and Jarred Diamond capture the grand sweep of the social evolutionary process, historian Elizabeth Eisenstein has focused upon a single technological innovation and traced its impact on the rest of the sociocultural system. In elaborate detail, she traces the beginnings of the communications revolution started by the invention of the printing press. She successfully demonstrates two principles of ecological-evolutionary theory:

  1. Technology is a potent force in sociocultural evolution that often has far reaching effects throughout the sociocultural system; and
  2. Communications technology, in particular, because it involves both the storage and dissemination of information and data, is an intensifier of the evolutionary process.

Modernity, Eisenstein claims, is too indefinite a concept for careful scholarship. Rather, she examines the effects of a “communications revolution” on a variety of social movement in sixteenth century Europe. While many look to the discovery of the New World, or class struggle and the triumph of capitalism, or the scientific revolution, or the schism of Christianity to explain the turmoil and innovation of that century, Eisenstein looks to the printing press as the primary agent of change.

Eisenstein claims that the impact of the new print technologies on medieval life beginning in the 1450s was profound.

By 1500 she writes that every major city in Europe had at least one printer’s workshop (43-44). The focus of her historical analysis is on the effects of these early print shops on the social structure and culture of Europe over the next 100 years.

Many of these print shops brought together scholars and craftsmen, and served as a bridge between universities and cities. These workshops were also capitalist enterprises and training new occupational groups, utilizin new technologies and developing new techniques; they were constantly seeking new markets to increase their profits and expanding their enterprises. Eisenstein characterizes the relationship as one of the shops serving a coordinating function for scholarly, religious, state, and scientific activities while producing commodities for profit. As such, these shops represent a new destabilizing force in Europe, both in their organization and in their products.

As capitalist enterprises with consequent increases in overhead, and debt the printer must constantly search for ways to expand his markets in order to increase his profit. In many of these shops job-printing accompanied book printing in which printers would produce commercial advertising, official documents, propaganda for the state and the church, seditious material for radicals (thin Communist Manifesto) , as well as the necessary documents for state and private bureaucracies.

There were a variety of motives behind the power of the press in 16th century Europe—profit, evangelical, individual fame, bureaucratic necessity, and extending the power of the state all among them. In this sense, Eisenstein states, the press is not a single technological innovation that changes everything, but rather an invention that could be used by the church and state, capitalists and scholars to further their interests. Early printers were in a unique position in regard to other commercial enterprises, Eisenstein asserts, because in seeking to expand their own product line they also “contributed to, and profited from, the expansion of other commercial enterprises” (60).

In a different culture, she asserts, the technology may have been used for very different ends, or perhaps entirely suppressed (702-703). Accordingly, institutional context is important when considering technological innovation. It also specifically points to the importance of the material interests of elites. Early printers were effective change agents, but only in combination with other institutional forces. This function of communications as a catalyst makes printing different from other innovations.

The major impact of the printing press is, of course, the marked increase in the number of books that were made available to reading publics. While scribal errors in writing, mathematics, charts, graphs, and inferior maps continued to be printed after the advent of the press, a process had begun to address these errors with more surety, and far greater confidence could eventually be placed in the accuracy of the record (686, 699). “The fact that identical images, maps and diagrams could be viewed simultaneously by scattered readers constituted a kind of communications revolution in itself” (53). Readers had more sources to draw from and thus a greater diversity of views, facts, contradictions, observations, theories, drawings, illustrations, and maps to heighten their “awareness of anomalies or discontent with inherited schemes” (686).

The long and uneven spread of literacy after the invention of printing occurs over the next several centuries (indeed, is still occurring). A knowledge explosion occurs in the 16th century, and although this explosion is often attributed to the discovery of the New World, the Reformation, or the rise of science, Eisenstein believes that access to a greater variety of books deserves at least equal attention. The increase in texts and literacy exposed ever greater numbers to classical literature as well as cross-cultural information, discoveries, religious beliefs, philosophies, fashion, and ways of thinking in societies geographically remote from Europe. Such a sudden abundance of literature—often contradictory or novel to established patterns and though in such traditional societies—created great intellectual ferment in 16th cen Europe.

Printed material, Eisenstein claims, also facilitates problem-solving and directly affects the life of the mind (689). Along with Marshal McLuhan, Eisenstein speculates that the format and presentation of books—from scanning lines of print from left to right, to chapter organization, presentation of argument, arrangements of facts—may well serve to affect the thought patterns of readers (88-89). Printing also helped to codify and standardize languages, thus giving aid to national identities as well as the centralization of the state. Finally, printing serves the function of “amplifying and reinforcing” norms, values, beliefs, and ideologies (126).

Printing also contributed to the fragmentation of Christianity. With the advent of print religious divisions become more permanent. Heresy, and its condemnation, she writes, becomes more fixed in the minds of followers; religious edits more “visible” and “irrevocable” (118-119). The study of scripture became more individualized and fragmented the religious beliefs and experiences of Christians, helping to start wars, heresy trials, and intolerance of other beliefs, a result very different form the effect of printing on science (701).

The advent of printing also contributed greatly to the spread of individualism in the West. Because of the dearth of written materials a scribal culture required communal gatherings to receive messages from government or church. With the advent of the mass duplication of printed materials these messages could be given directly to individual readers. This leads to a weakening of the social bond with local groups, but gives opportunity for allegiance and attachments to larger collectives (say the nation state or socialism).

“Printed materials encouraged silent adherence to causes whose advocates could not be found in any one parish and who addressed an invisible public from afar. New forms of group identity began to compete with an older, more localized nexus of loyalties” (132). Over time printers began to differentiate the markets for their printed materials to better target the reading tastes of males and females, newly created occupational groups (due to an increasing division of labor), as well as different age groups. The latter, combined with newly established schools for youth,  served to create distinctive youth cultures for children and, somewhat later, adolescence (133-134). In general, the marketing of printed materials to specific groups serves to further differentiate their social experience, beliefs, interests, ideologies, and values from one another. A process that has been “amplified and reinforced” as the communications revolution has continued (158-159).

While Eisenstein’s focus was on the communications revolution that occurred in sixteenth century Europe, the revolution has continued with the development of metal presses, the harnessing of steam and then electricity to the presses, the development of photography, telegraph, telephone, Linotype, radio, television, computers, and the Internet. “Since the advent of movable type, an enhanced capacity to store and retrieve, preserve and transmit has kept pace with an enhanced capacity to create and destroy, to innovate or outmode. The somewhat chaotic appearance of modern Western culture owes much, if not more, to the duplicative powers of print as it does to the harnessing of new powers in the past century” (704).

Macrosociology is steeped in evolutionism; there is much common ground among its practitioners regarding the material foundations of sociocultural systems: environment, population, technology, and the division of labor. Eisenstein’s exploration of the effects of technological innovation in communications technology on the rest of the sociocultural system stands as an excellent example of the power and scope of materialist theory.

For a more extensive discussion of Eisenstein’s Theory read from her books. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how her insights contribute to a fuller understanding of modern societies.


Eisenstein, Elizabeth. 1980. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Vols. 1 & 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elwell, Frank. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Canada: Athabasca University Press.


To reference Elizabeth Eisenstein's Printing Press you should use the following format:

Elwell, Frank W. 2013. "Elizabeth Eisenstein's Printing Press,” Retrieved August 31, 2013 [use actual date]


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