Key Concepts in Media and Communications

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Paul Jones & David Holmes

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    Preface

    Our approach to and organization of this book have been strongly informed by a critical engagement with what might be thought of as the ‘founding texts’ for the key concepts format, the two editions of Raymond Williams’ Keywords (1976a, 1983b).

    For Williams, keywords were a rich public educational resource precisely because they could not be given a single, dictionary-like definition. They were ambiguous because they were still being actively debated. They provided a point of entry for the general reader into conflicts between intellectual traditions. Keywords were the faultlines between the continental plates of fully fledged theories, embedded traditions and popular conventions of usage. Williams was particularly drawn to words that had apparently conflicting academic and popular meanings, such as ‘tragedy’.

    To overstretch our geological metaphor, some keywords might suddenly erupt into prominence, so becoming a word on everyone's lips that appeared to be borne by subterranean forces of social change, somehow being ‘felt’ without having yet been fully recognized, analysed or publicly discussed. ‘Culture’ was the classic case for Williams. ‘Globalization’ might be the most recent example today. Other entries included in this book easily fit this profile – popular, tabloidization, for example – but many do not.

    Not all key concepts have the popular resonance of ‘globalization’. They may have been coined and circulated only within academia, often as attempts to provide rigorous clarification of contested keywords. We are also used to thinking of a concept as having a greater level of precision than a ‘word’. While this could still be argued to be the case, one of the major changes in academic life in the 30 years since Williams first published his Keywords is the rising level of uncertainty and scepticism in academic discussion. Even central concepts have not escaped this mounting wave of critical re-examination and reassessment. In short, today, despite the search for rigour, key concepts often have the levels of ambiguity and contestation comparable to Williams’ keywords.

    A major reason for this uncertaintly is the increasing interdisciplinarity in the social sciences and humanties. This is especially the case within the field of media and communications, perhaps the leading example of such interdisciplinarity in the last 30 years. Accordingly, we have sought to provide, where possible, accounts of the disciplinary sources of some taken-for-granted entries, such as influence.

    Our first principle of selection has been the centrality of the concepts to the field of media and communications studies. Here we felt one of our chief tasks was to strike a balance between ‘old’ and ‘new’ concepts, as well as ‘old’ and ‘new’ media.

    Not far behind for us, however, is our second selection criterion, which is that the concepts provide a useful entry point for discussion of central concerns because of their contested status. Such contestation might also arise when there is a choice between two related concepts. Should we speak, for example, of the media coverage of the discourse or ideology of neoliberalism? Alternatively, the contestation may arise because one concept is the site of differing usage claims – for example, medium, articulation.

    Intellectual traditions and media theories are mainly addressed by elaborations of their key concepts rather than looking at them in their own right. We do not have entries on structuralism or political economy, but we do for sign and capitalism. The exceptions to this tendency – for example, postmodernism and deconstruction – have been included because they have effectively become keywords in Williams’ sense. That is, they have managed to reach a much broader audience and are probably already familiar to many students and general readers.

    Of course, Williams not only provided us with a ‘key concepts’ template in Keywords, he also made major contributions to the fields of communications and media studies. In fact, these two dimensions are closely linked. Keywords’ historical semantic ‘method’ was critically engaged with the linguistic and cultural ‘turns’ that have featured prominently in all fields of humanities and social sciences scholarship, particularly media and communications. We were disappointed to see that a recent ‘updating’ of Keywords, despite being conducted in evident good faith, had itself curiously set aside this most crucial dimension of the project and so diminished the significance of Williams’ own theoretical achievements (Bennett et al., 2005; Jones, 2006). So, we tried to keep that perspective in play, not only in terms of how we have framed the presentation of the entries but also in our accounts of Williams’ contribution to concepts relevant to the linguistic and cultural turns, as seen, for example, with sign, culture or cultural form.

    We have discovered two forms of Williams’ influence on media and communications that are notable in this context. First, Keywords itself and related texts were often used by others as a source for relevant concepts – culture, popular or hegemony, for example. Second, in a pattern that echoed his broader reception, his early work, explicitly focused on media and communications, was respected, but his later work, explicitly communications-orientated or not, was underutilized.

    This was partly a product of Williams’ own way of addressing interdisciplinarity in his written output. As Nicholas Garnham (1990: 20) once remarked of one of Williams’ key late statements on means of communication, ‘[it] is hidden in a book of literary theory’. Thus, some of Williams’ most important insights for media and communications had to be critically teased out from his broader writings or relatively unknown texts that have not been republished. This need has also shaped some of our concept choices, such as cultural form.

    In the case of other media and communications concepts to which Williams contributed – for example, hegemony, popular – we were delighted to discover that this tendency towards critical rediscovery and recovery was also evident in the media and communications literature itself. It is recognized that key figures in the field, such as Stuart Hall, Marshall McLuhan, James Carey and Jürgen Habermas, all drew on Williams’ work. More recently, however, as some of the older debates in the field have settled, his work has been more explicitly employed. The 2009 International Communication Association Conference, for example, took ‘Keywords in Communication’ as its organizing theme. Similarly, current work on popular culture and tabloidization now makes use of some of his previously underutilized texts.

    We could say something similar of another major emphasis in this book – the work of the Frankfurt School and, more broadly, critical social theory. Here we join with David Hesmondhalgh and Jason Toynbee (2008) in arguing that media and communications would benefit strongly from greater interaction with social theoretical traditions.

    Williams acknowledged that Keywords did have a precursor: the 1956 Aspects of Sociology (Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, 1973). Indeed, of all the available models, he drew closest parallels with this book, in which its authors ‘combine analysis of key words or key terms with key concepts’ (Williams, 1976a: 22). We have already suggested that such a mixture is what is required today. Moreover, as it happens, Theodor Adorno and his colleagues presented this combination in a format not unlike that of the Sage Key Concepts series – that is, a set of long-form essays rather than multiple short entries. Like us, they found the need for an index of subcategories that may well have qualified as key concepts themselves. It is in their index that one finds ‘administrative research’, for example, rather than in the listed conceptual entries. We have followed a similar course. So, it is in our index, rather than the contents pages, that you will find affordance, genre, semiotic and so on.

    In terms of ‘content’, this emphasis does not manifest as a bias in concept selection, but shows how some of the relations between the words form what Williams called key clusters. For example, we were especially struck by how the Frankfurt understandings of ‘critique’ and ‘ideology’ have received little exegesis in media and communications, while one of the supreme applications of these understandings, Habermas’ ‘public sphere’, has become central to the field. While our contents listing and index are necessarily alphabetical, we have done our best to guide you to such clusters with the internal cross-referencing systems.

    Needless to say, Williams and the Frankfurt School are not our only foci. Rather, in this preface, we wanted to draw attention to the contribution of these intellectuals to the design of this book.

    Omissions, of course, are a necessary part of this process. We already have our own list of absences and oversights. So, again in the spirit of Williams’ texts, we welcome suggestions for putative later editions.

    How to Use This Book

    In keeping with the series’ format, this book is based on long-form essays. Thus, not every term you wish to explore will be listed in the contents pages, so it is very important that you check the index as this may be your best guide to finding what you need in particular cases.

    Each entry provides an account of the meaning(s), sources, role and influence of the term within the field of media and communications.

    The Related concepts text under each title provides a guide to other relevant concepts in this book. Cross-references to other concepts, often highlighted, are also given within the text of each entry.

    Finally, each entry contains a Further reading section that provides suggestions for following up aspects of the key concept, usually with readings beyond those already cited in the entry. All such references are detailed in the References section at the end of the book.

    Acknowledgements

    Our thanks to Chris Rojek for commissioning this book and also to his colleagues at Sage, Jai Seaman and Katie Forsythe. Special thanks to Diana Barnes for sterling and rigorous editorial support in meeting publication timelines, as well as indexing, and to Ben Manning for his research assistance on the final draft.

    Paul Jones: Many entries I drafted benefited from discussions with colleagues, most often of related materials and papers rather than the drafts themselves, sometimes over many years. None of course bear any liability for what follows. Thus, I'd like to thank Georgina Born (regulation); Michael Chesterman (freedom of communication); John Corner (cultural form, culture); Chas Critcher (moral panic); James Curran (regulation, public sphere); Andrew Goodwin (popular/populist; cultural form); Nicholas Garnham (capitalism; information society; public sphere); Pauline Johnson (public sphere, critique); Sonia Livingstone (influence); György Márkus (culture, ideology and critique); Stuart Rosewarne (capitalism); Michael Symonds (culture industry, modern, critique); Rod Tiffen (populism) and Judy Wajcman (technological determinism, mobile privatization). Student feedback over many years has been invaluable. This project also benefited from UNSW sabbaticals.

    My contribution wouldn't have been possible without the affection, care and support of my partner, Catherine Waldby.

    David Holmes: My contributions to this volume have been enriched by teaching communications and media at Monash University for the past eight years. Many of my entries were originally prepared for the lecture theatre and have been put through their paces in the Honours seminar. Of the colleagues who have provided feedback, I would like to thank Eduardo de la Fuente and Andrew Padgett for their constructive insights. Past discussions with colleagues from the US-based Media Ecology Association and the Australia and New Zealand Communication Association have been most beneficial in addressing some of the challenges of new media analysis. I am also grateful to the Faculty of Arts at Monash for providing sabbatical leave to write-up a great many of the concepts that were assigned to me.

    Lastly, I would like to thank my daughters Elena and Georgia, for their patience, and my partner Vasilka for her encouragement, love, and forbearance.

    Paul Jones and David Holmes, May 2011

    List of Abbreviations

    • ANT Actor Network Theory
    • AOL America Online
    • AT&T American Telephone and Telegrah
    • BBC British Broadcasting Corporation
    • CBS Columbia Broadcasting Service
    • CCCS Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Birmingham)
    • CDA critical discourse analysis
    • CMC computer-mediated communication
    • CNN Cable News Network
    • DVD digital video disc
    • FCC United States Federal Communication Commission
    • FTA Free Trade Agreement
    • GUI graphic user interface
    • G3 Europe, Japan and the USA
    • HBO Home Box Office
    • HTML hypertext markup language
    • ICQ I seek you
    • ICT information and communication technology
    • IMF International Monetary Fund
    • ISA Ideological State Apparatus (Louis Althusser)
    • ITN Independent Television News (UK)
    • ITV Independent Television (UK)
    • MIT Massachussets Institute of Technology
    • MNC multinational corporation
    • MNTS major new technology systems
    • NWICO a new world information (and communication) order
    • OSN online social networking
    • PC personal computer
    • PDA personal digital assistant
    • PSB public service broadcaster/broadcasting
    • r.a.t.s. rec.arts.tv.soaps
    • R&D research and development
    • SEC Signature, Event, Context (Jacques Derrida)
    • SMS short messaging service, text
    • STPS Jürgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962, 1991)
    • STS science and technology studies
    • TD technological determinism
    • TD2 technological determinism of the second order
    • UNESCO United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization
    • URL universal resource locator, Web address
    • WTO World Trade Organization
    • WWW World Wide Web
    • 9/11 September 11 2001
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