Understanding Media Cultures: Social Theory and Mass Communication


Nick Stevenson

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    Preface for the Second Edition

    The main aim of this new edition has been to revise and expand the text to take account of recent media theory and research, and the development of new media. Since the first publication of this book in 1995, there has been a great deal of fresh thinking in this respect. This has given rise to a considerable amount of debate as to whether society has now entered into an information age unlike any other. However we theorise this transition it has posed new and of course old questions within the sociology of the media. Not surprisingly those who are trying to think about the impact of new media have increasingly looked to developments in sociology and social theory to help them in this task. Hence the central aim of my book remains the same as it was in 1995. That is I attempt to demonstrate why a grounding in social theory remains key for the study of the media. This claim remains consistent whether we are talking of new or old media. Whether I successfully make this case remains for the reader to judge.

    There are a number of people I should like to thank for help in the preparation of the manuscript. Firstly, and above everyone else, I would like to praise my publisher Julia Hall. Without her vision and commitment this book would not have happened. Secondly, I would like to acknowledge my debt to a number of colleagues and friends whose conversations and insights have helped along the way. They are: Micheal Kenny, Anthony Elliott, Alex MacDonald, David Moore, Paul Ransome, Joke Hermes, Ann Gray, John Downey, Maurice Roche, John B. Thompson, Sharon MacDonald, Peter Jackson, Jagdish Patel, Gaye Flounders, Chris Docx, Chris Baber, Anthony Giddens, Andrew Gamble, Dave Hesmond-haugh, David Rose, Matthew Dickson, Robert Unwin, Jim McGuigan, Claire Annesley, and Kate Brooks. Finally, I would like to thank my partner Lucy James for putting up with my tastes in television, magazines, radio, newspapers, Internet, and cinema. While we remain divided on Radio One and Wim Wenders we have found solace in Ally McBeal. In addition, Lucy has devoted a considerable amount of time to reading through the chapters that are enclosed within. This book owes a great deal to her continual support. However, this new edition is dedicated with love to our daughter Eve Anna James.

    NickStevenson, Nottingham


    people within the narrowest horizons grow stupid at the point where their interest begins, and then vent their rancour on what they do not want to understand because they could understand it only too well, so the planetary stupidity which prevents the present world from perceiving the absurdity of its own order is a further product of the unsublimated, unsuperseded interest of the rulers.

    (Adorno, 1974:198)

    You either shut up or get cut up. It's only inches on the reel to reel. And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anaesthetise the way you feel. Radio is the sound salvation. Radio is cleaning up the nation. They say you better listen to the voice of reason. But they don't give you any choice ‘cause they think that it's treason. So you had better do as you are told. You better listen to the radio.

    (‘Radio, Radio’, Elvis Costello)
  • Glossary

    Please note glossary terms appear in bold in the text on first use.

    • Agency The ability to be able to act within a social and cultural context while making a difference to the flow of events. Agency should not be thought of as the opposite of structure, but dependent upon rules and resources generated by social structures. To have agency is defined by the ability to be able to actively intervene.
    • Audience The audience may exist in a number of senses. The first is in the imaginations of advertisers and programme makers who symbolically shape their message in order to reach a certain segment in the population. The audience in this respect is always allusive as broadcasting institutions can never be certain (despite advances in new technology) as to who is actually watching. The other way of thinking about the audience is more sociological. Here the audience is assumed to be able to make active sense of different symbolic forms (films, advertisements, etc.) often reading them against the grain. Further, sociologists have also sought to investigate the different sets of public and private relationships entered into in the consumption of the media.
    • Bias News reporting that is accused as being unbalanced, inaccurate and partial.
    • Civil society Usually refers to an intermediate zone between private life and the state, where relatively independent organisations are able to operate and circulate information relatively autonomously. This term is usually thought to offer a different understanding of the media to one which refers to control by the state or the market.
    • Commodification Refers to the extent to which media messages and symbolic goods have become products to be bought and sold on the market.
    • Cosmopolitanism Literally, a citizen of the world. Can also refer to a set of perspectives that have sought to jettison viewpoints that are solely determined by the nation, or their geographical standing within the world. A cosmopolitan viewpoint would need to carefully investigate whether or not it was reaffirming prejudice towards the West or Western nations.
    • Critical theory An approach to the study of mass media that seeks to link media institutions and the analysis of texts in order to reveal relations of domination or emancipation. A critical theory of the media will usually seek to offer a historically informed account of modern society and the cultural industries, and suggest how they might be democratically reformulated.
    • Cultural imperialism Demonstrates how the global domination of a few multinational organisations (usually from the USA) is dominating the consumption of the media in less powerful nations. The term is also linked to the idea that the world is increasingly becoming a monoculture whereby cultural diversity is being displaced by the homogeneity of consumer culture.
    • Culture There are many different definitions of this term. Has been used to indicate the spread of civilised ideas and beliefs. This usage is no longer acceptable. Here is used more neutrally to describe the symbols, meanings and practices that can be associated with living within a media-dominated society.
    • Cyborg The emergence of organisms either in reality or within the imagination that call into question the boundaries between humans, animals and technology.
    • Discourse Particular ways of talking, writing and thinking that can be organised into identifiable patterns of usage across time and space. Whether we are analysing a news broadcast or chat show we might be able to identify a number of different codes or ways of speaking that are more prevalent than others.
    • Feminism A political and social movement that aims to foster a society where men and women can live together equally while respecting their differences. Within media studies its main influence (so far) has been on developing more critical understandings of media audiences, and different textual readings of media products.
    • Globalisation Describes a process whereby the world's financial markets, political systems and cultural dimensions form increasingly intense relationships. There are a number of different consequences that may result from such processes. Some commentatators view globalisation mainly negatively as media markets are increasingly owned and control by a handful of large media conglomerates, resulting in the privatization of public space and the commodification of the public sphere. Others are less pessimistic seeing the possible emergence of a new politics that aims for a more responsible world society based upon communication rather than domination.
    • Hegemony Implies a view that domination in society depends upon winning the active consent of the people. The mass media in this view either conceals or marginalises critical voices in order to reaffirm the status quo. However, within most accounts hegemony is always in process and employs military metaphors such as ‘strategy’ or ‘war of position’, implying the possibility of challenge and change.
    • Hybridity Process whereby new cultural forms and identities come into being by combining different cultural elements. This term can be linked to globalisation (the increasing movement of peoples and cultures) and/or media technological implosion whereby different technological elements combine to produce new hardware.
    • Hyperreal Connecting to the increasing number of ‘real’ life stories, confessional forms and ‘real’ time cultural forms that are currently available on mainstream television. The hyperreal aims to demonstrate that what passes for ‘reality’ actually depends upon certain cultural conventions. This process tends to become exaggerated in a media culture whereby programme makers/advertisers have to compete with increasing levels of competition, and where a great deal of faith is still invested in ideas of the authentic.
    • Identity Not something which is either natural or fixed but evolves within a cultural context. Usually depends upon ideas of personal selfhood and other characteristics including class, sex and gender, race and nation.
    • Ideology Can be taken to mean a particular set of ideas or a belief system. Yet has also a long history in mass communication research as referring to symbolic processes that either leave unquestioned or reaffirm relations of dominance.
    • Implosion The eradication of barriers that define separate social spheres. This usually occurs through the impact of media technology. For example, the idea that in the modern world politics has become entertainment and entertainment has become politics. That is, it would be hard to argue that soap operas are not a political phenomenon, as advice is offered on the raising of children, masculinity is problematicised, personal ethics and relations are discussed, and of course they may be watched to avoid more troubling subjects. Further, that politics in the age of spin-doctors, image manipulation and media proliferation will all attempt to construct a certain image, as do products sold in supermarkets. To say they have imploded is to say they are becoming more alike.
    • Information society The argument that we have entered into a society different from that which came into being during the industrial revolution. Here information and knowledge become the key resources in determining economic success or failure. Further, such developments are also connected to the growth of the service sector and the enhanced role of culture in questions of social exclusion.
    • Internet The worldwide system of computer-based interactive networks that support the growth in web pages, e-mail, interactive forms of communication and economic activity.
    • Intertextuality Refers to the ability of media texts and readers to make connections to one another across different genres. This might include advertising's ability to associate itself with a well-known film, or the ability of fans to take on characteristics of their heroes.
    • Liberalism A political philosophy that emphasises the capacity of individuals to make autonomous and informed decisions. In terms of mass media, it was thought that a free media enabling individuals to maximise autonomy would be best delivered by the market rather than by state control.
    • Marxism A social theory which argues that the major ills of modern society can be attributed to its capitalist nature. In respect of the media, this means that large multinational companies are currently constructing the cultural horizons of most of the world's citizens in their interests. However, other Marxists have argued that the media's main significance is not in terms of ideological control, but in the commodification of everyday life. This ultimately means that most of the media-related material we consume would be done so for the profit of a few rather than the community as a whole.
    • Mass culture The idea that the increased bureaucratic and capitalist control over culture is producing a world of sameness, alienating technology, efficiency and commodification.
    • Mediums of communication The possibility that different mediums (radio, television, or the Internet) have a direct and differentiated impact on shaping human society.
    • Network A set of interconnected points within a circuit, which may involve actors (human, animals, technology) or organisations.
    • Objectivity The idea that you can gain accurate information about the world that is not tainted or informed by your social or cultural location.
    • Ominopolis The view that new media has not so much opened up a diversity of new realities, but has lead to a reduction in the field of vision. The media, in this respect, has imposed upon us a culture of speed and immediacy that has blunted the human senses.
    • Political economy A view of mass communications that emphasises it should be studied in terms of its institutional make up, in historical context, in ways which are also alive to different mixes between commercial and public forms of regulation. More broadly the term refers to the determining power of economics and politics.
    • Postmodernism The ideas that features that were associated with modern society have come to an end. Currently postmodern societies are witnessing the intermixing of the popular and educated forms of culture, the end of ideology/utopias (the death of socialism), and the idea that language mirrors rather than produces reality. Some versions of postmodernism believe this spells the end of critical politics, whereas others welcome a cultural context that is more ambivalent and less certain.
    • Public sphere The existence of a social space (whether real or mediated) where matters of public importance can be discussed to determine the public interest.
    • Reflexivity The ability to be able to revise your actions in the light of new information. The argument is often made that information societies are becoming reflexive societies. That is as the world becomes defined through information overload rather than information scarcity, it is argued, it also becomes increasingly reflexive. This means opening up questions on nature, gender, sexuality, etc. that were repressed in previous historical eras.
    • Simulation The idea that media age changes the relationship between fabrication and reality, and image and truth. The development of new technologies produce their own worlds and different reality effects that can no longer be contradicted by pointing to brute data.
    • Surveillance New media technologies are increasingly being used to make visible the activities of citizens within public and private contexts. These activities are usually connected to powerful agencies that attempt to normalise and thereby control the behaviour of ordinary people.
    • Time-space compression The idea that new technologies have made it possible to go travelling without leaving home. The arrival of real time media experiences mean that we are able to view an event irrespective of our geographical location and without any noticeable time delay. Within the economy this has introduced the possibility of ‘just in time’ forms of production, and within urban contexts the 24-hour city.
    • Virtual reality The development of new human experiences (involving all the senses) through the use of computer technology.



    1. For this see the excellent Denis McQuail (1992), Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction.

    Marxism and Mass Communication Research

    1. Leavis's influence on Williams's thought was at its most marked directly after the Second World War. Williams and Leavis were both tutors during this period at Cambridge University. Williams, however, increasingly developed a respectful scepticism about Leavis's aesthetic theory while remaining connected to this tradition. While Leavis remains important, Williams's theory of cultural materialism is strongly influenced by Althusser, Gramsci and Volosinov.

    2. Williams had previously discussed hegemony in ‘Base and superstructure in Marxist cultural theory’ (1973).

    3. This point retains a crucial criticism of anti-humanism (Foucault and Althusser) popular on the Left in the late 1970s.

    4. Webster argues that Jews as well as Arabs are often dehumanised by being represented as animals.

    5. Hobsbawm undoubtedly overstates the reactive nature of the new nationalism. For a more positive reading see Neil Ascherson, ‘In defence of new nationalism’ (1991).

    6. A similar approach is offered by David Morrison (1992).

    7. Hall has remained consistently critical of Althusser's specific formulations. See Stuart Hall, ‘Thatcherism amongst the theorists: toad in the garden’ (1988b).

    8. It is the lack of theoretical fit between the signifier and the signified that allows Laclau and Mouffe to argue that ideological discourse has no necessary belongingness.

    9. In particular, Hall's work found a wide Left audience through the pages of Marxism Today throughout the 1980s.

    Habermas, Mass Culture and the Public Sphere

    1. The work of John Fiske is discussed at length in Chapter 3.

    2. This point has been brought out well in the clash between Channel 4, the state and the Royal Ulster Constabulary over the TV series, Dispatches. For an outline of this conflict see David Cox, ‘Caught in the act’ (1992).

    3. This will become more clearly apparent in Chapters 4 and 5.

    Critical Perspectives within Audience Research

    1. This point was more extensively discussed in Chapter 1, pp. 48–56.

    2. A similar point is made by Peter Dews in conversation with Laclau. According to Dews, Laclau's version of the subject seems to be self-determining, and constructed through language. See Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (1990: 209–10).

    3. See Chapters 1 and 2 respectively.

    4. Here Fiske falls into precisely the same trap as Raymond Williams. As we saw in Chapter 1, he accuses Williams of assuming that a literary theorist would read the popular in the same way as the audience. Here I am suggesting that Fiske is assuming the audience would always read the popular as an enthusiastic fan might.

    5. I am particularly grateful to Charlotte Brunsdon (1997) for her perceptive criticisms of the first edition of this book. I have tried to rework my ideas in respect of audience theory, feminism and the public in light of her reflections.

    Marshall McLuhan and the Cultural Medium

    1. These intellectual connections could probably be accounted for by the fact that both Williams and McLuhan were strongly influenced by the literary critic F.R. Leavis. Meanwhile, the early Frankfurt school, as is now widely recognised, had a marked impact on a wide range of American postwar academic criticism.

    2. This probably explains Baudrillard's enthusiasm for McLuhan. Both writers share a desire to analyse the technological development of the mass media, media of communication, and notions of implosion.

    3. Here Giddens differs from the analysis previously offered by Habermas. Habermas argues that expert cultures are progressively being decoupled from a culturally impoverished life-world, whereas Giddens suggests that systems of expertise are routinely caught up in everyday practices. These views are not necessarily irreconcilable, and both characterise important features of modern experience. If we take an issue like AIDS, Giddens would point to the fact that most people are aware that sexual activity within modernity involves different degrees of risk. In making informed, or not so informed, choices we will make use of so-called expert advice that stems from the medical profession, the media, lesbian and gay activists, etc. A more Habermasian approach would point to the way in which community-wide discussion of AIDS has been distorted by the operation of money and power. For instance, some of the tabloid press ran sensationalistic stories that bracketed off wider forms of rational debate.

    4. Lefebvre explicitly criticises post-structuralist writers such as Derrida and Barthes whom he views as having reduced space to the metaphoric operation of language. This creates a theoretical dualism between physical space and social space. The conversion of space into a language that needs to be read abstracts from the ways in which space is constructed through social practices. This is why Lefebvre puts so much emphasis on the production of space.

    Baudrillard's Blizzards

    1. These works have not yet been completely translated. Here I am reliant on the selections in Baudrillard (1988a).

    2. The Durkheimian implications of this argument should be obvious. Mauss is not offering a nostalgic critique of the sort Baudrillard proposes. Instead, he argues that collective forms of solidarity could be promoted by the provision of unemployment insurance and other welfare measures.

    3. Baudrillard's remarks on death and dying have much in common with the recent work of Zygmunt Bauman (1992b).

    4. Although as Sadie Plant (1992) points out, the situationists were seeking to provide a critique of the spectacle which would lead to transformation of real social relations. In addition, the situationists fully expected their actions to be reincorporated into the system. It is not clear that the same could be said of Baudrillard.

    5. This essay was originally written in 1968.

    6. Jameson argues that each respective phase of capitalist production has a corresponding regime of space. See Jameson (1988b).

    7. I would like to thank Sean Homer for helping me come to a more informed appreciation of Jameson's writing. The influence of his thinking is particularly marked in the preceding section.

    New Media and the Information Society

    1. Whether Castells should be connected to the tradition of critical theory is a complex issue. Please see Frank Webster's (1995) first rate discussion of Castells and his intellectual context.

    2. I continue to be grateful to Nina Wakeford for her conversations on the subject of cyberfeminism. That she is now a leading thinking within this particular field is not a surprise to me.


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