Saturday 7 December 2013

Theories of the Media

The “mass media” has been defined in different ways to fit various bodies of theory. Bennett overviews four traditions of media theory and contextualizes them among each other. His purpose is to show how a definition of the “mass media” influences expectations, presuppositions, and questions asked about the media within a particular theory. I’m personally not so interested in that question but Bennett’s literature review is a must-read for people wanting to systematize their knowledge of communication and cultural theory.

Bennett begins with the mass society tradition: a loose grouping of mid-19th Century thinkers whose work is unified by general themes and a common outlook, rather than by any concrete thesis. These thinkers viewed the mass media pessimistically, as a destruction of the traditional model of society that had hitherto worked so well for the elites. The mass society theorists were concerned by the notion of the stupid masses entering political conversations, disrupting moral consensus, and destabilizing a sociopolitical “centre of authority.” They feared that a society in which each class pursued its own interests would lead to disorder. In short, the general outlook shared by mass society theorists was that the “tyranny of the majority,” as the utilitarian John Stuart Mill put it, was going to spoil everything. Some mass society theorists like Hannah Arendt and Carl Friedrich thought mass democracy actually increased the vulnerability of the masses to totalitarian regimes. By making people isolated, alienated, and lonely, people would become perfect fodder, apparently, for mass movements. Historically, we might write these theorists off as cultural elites wanting to maintain their privileged positions in society.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, the debate on mass communications took a turn. In this time, American sociologists tested the theses of mass society theory. It was discovered that audiences did not interpret media content as a homogenous mass, but rather that their views, values, and perceptions varied depending on their churches, families, business communities, and other groups. Subcultures were found to act as filters against hypodermic needle persuasion. The word “mass media” was thus transformed from a pejorative to a positive term. This was the beginning of the liberal-pluralist tradition. In this school of thought, the mass media were seen as an important part of the democratic process, as a way to circulate opinions other than those of the government, creating a healthy democratic debate. The mass media were understood to militate against the possibility of a disproportionate amount of power centralizing among an elite few within liberal democracies. Further, the many small factions and points of view that developed checked and countered each other, resulting in no one group dominating over the others. The liberal-pluralist tradition is thus consistent with audience reception studies that examine the ways divergent interpretations of texts are formed. But they de-emphasize the fact that mass media production is oligopolized and the variation of opinion reflected in the mainstream is quite narrow. Historically, we might think of the liberal-pluralist tradition as na├»ve and idealist, or at least, in need of some nuance.

In 1923, the Institute for Social Research, also known as “The Frankfurt School,” was formed. Its leading theorists (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin) attempted to incorporate the mass society critique into a Marxist framework. They didn’t see media influence as consisting of the transmission of messages, of changing mass opinion from one view to another. The Frankfurt theorists saw the mass media as framing an individual’s entire worldview and way of making sense of reality. This is about when the term “ideology” began connoting the notions of bias and distortion. The Marxist aspect of their theory is that they perceived the mass media as passing down society's dominant ideology to the lower classes. The mass society element appears in the Frankfurt School’s examination of the culture industry. The then recent increasing homogenization and standardization of cultural goods was accused of eroding the bourgeois values of High Culture. Artistic production, which had once been subversive and oppositional, had become lobotomic and empty. Thus the mass media had made serious culture more accessible but at the cost of stripping it of all its substance. The Frankfurt School’s approach was generally criticized as not having any practical value to back up its theory. Karl Popper condemned Adorno for having nothing to say.

More recently, theorists have tried to incorporate Marxist ideas of class domination into a theory of ideology. These theorists were concerned with the process whereby existing relations of class domination are reproduced and perpetuated or challenged and overthrown. This has typically involved references to Louis Althusser and, more recently, Antonio Gramsci’s theories of ideology. In these theories, ideology is importantly active – it stresses the social agent’s molded, individual subjective consciousness. The attempt here is to unify the Marxist concern with top-down influence with a concept of the active, fragmented audience.

Although I think this fourth theory is on the right track, it’s too closely associated with Dark Side epistemology for my taste. The paradigm could do much better if restated and restructured with new terminology and with a basis in probabilistic epistemology and reductionism.

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