James Beniger

In Our Society More Effective Controls Mean More EconomicGrowth.

In sociological thermodynamics, James Ralph Beniger (1946-2010) was an American sociologist noted for his 1986 book The Control Revolution, in which he situates the view that “the one true test of al living systems is the persistence of [their] organization counter to entropy.” The basic message of the book is captured in the following excerpt: “A system can sustain work only if its internal energy is purposively organized in a heat gradient, as, for example, in the steam engine, which inspired early work on thermodynamics. Only living systems can maintain and even increase such organization—to work as if guided by some vitalist equivalent of Maxwell’s demon. This does not mean that life decreases entropy in the universe, however, but only within its own systems and only by increasing entropy in the matter it consumes. Hence all living systems, including human societies, must be seen as eddies in the entropic stream—as countercurrents resisting for a time the rush of the universe toward final heat death.” The thermodynamic content of the book, however, seems to be rather elementary. The second law, for example, is defined as follows: “the so-called principle of the degradation of energy [states that] a system’s energy cannot be converted from one form to another—including work—without decreasing it organization and hence ability to do further work.” This, certainly, is one of the more incorrect and mis-convoluted of the many statements of the second law, being what seems to be a haphazard mixture of the 1860s Kelvin verbal dissipation views and 1900 Planck system disorder views of the second law. He also defines the first law as the statement that matter and energy cannot be created nor destroyed. Matter, of course, is not a part of the statement of the second law. His basic message is that, because of the laws of thermodynamics, societies must be open systems. He cites Arthur Eddington, Leo Szilard, and Norbert Wiener as main references and spends a good amount of time talking about Maxwell’s demon.




Beniger completed his BA in history from Harvard University and an MS in statistics, and MA and PhD in sociology, all from the University of California, Berkeley. He presently is a professor of communications and sociology at the University of Sothern California, Los Angeles.




1. Clark, Robert P. (1997). The Global Imperative: an Interpretive History of the Spread of Humankind (keyword: Thermodynamics, pgs. 2-6). Westview Press. 2. James Beniger (overview) – MediaResearchHub.SSRC.org.


Further reading


‚óŹ Beniger, James R. (1986). The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (thermodynamics, pgs. 36-37, 45-47, 55). Harvard University Press.

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