Roger Silverstone. The Sage Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Craig Calhoun, Chris Rojek, Bryan Turner. Sage Publication. 2005.
Sociology has had a consistently paradoxical relationship with what we now call media and communication. While it is quite possible to see its early development, in the writings of Marx, Weber and Durkheim, as having been at least in part concerned with issues of communication and culture—ideology in Marx, collective representation in Durkheim, rationality and legitimation in Weber—it was not until the work of the American pragmatists and symbolic interactionists that communication, centring on interpersonal communication, came to be seen as a, if not the, central dimension of social life (McQuail, 1984).
In this early twentieth-century work communication was, essentially, a social psychological, possibly also a philosophical, term. It was seen to begin and end with a concern for the individual, and with the individual’s place in relation to his or her capacity to connect with others. It was theorized and analysed as a crucial component of social life (Dewey, 1958), the formation of self (Mead, 1964 ) and the enabling of community (Park, 1972). Communication of all affairs … the most wonderful’ (Dewey, 1958: 166), requires assuming the attitude of the other individual as well as calling it out in the other and in turn assumes and requires reciprocity (Mead, 1964 : 254). It is the medium through which the social becomes both possible and manifest; natural language is its paradigm.
If communication was something that takes place principally between individuals, then mass communication tended to be seen as a distortion of that. It emerged as both product and precondition of mass society—the bête noire of modernity (Giner, 1976). This preoccupation explains one of the drivers of media and cultural analysis throughout the twentieth century, fed by the anxieties that such a distortion created in the otherwise idealized symmetrical position of communication between sender and receiver, especially in the supposed symmetries of the face to face. These anxieties cut both ways, of course. There were those who were concerned with the state’s, or especially big business’s, capacity to appropriate the mass media for their own propagandist or commercial ends. And there were those who were concerned about the crowd and fearful of the new power that the mass media might give to its radical edge (Rosenberg and White, 1957).
This initial, and orienting, perception of society as communicated and indeed communicable, however, rarely left the symbolic (Burke, 1955; Duncan, 1962). It also rarely left both the ideal and the idealized. Little was said in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about the role of the media in enabling perceptions of a different world, or about media technology’s ineffable relationship with modernity, or indeed about the rise of the modern press as a key component of nation-building and the formation of national identity. The fear of the popular, or a more general nostalgia for disappearing cultures and connectivities, may have prompted much in the way of the social psychology of the crowd, but it did not lead to a developed analysis of what lay behind cultural change, nor of the institutional transformations that were sustaining mediated communications across an increasingly globalizing world. It enquired into neither cause nor consequence of this progressive, or indeed possibly regressive, mediation of everyday life.
This focus on mediation therefore, different from, but complementary to, communication has been a relatively recent and, it has been argued, a rather belated phenomenon (Barbero, 1993; Thompson, 1995). Mediation is a fundamentally dialectical notion which requires us to address the processes of communication as both institutionally and technologically driven and embedded. Mediation, as a result, requires us to understand how processes of communication change the social and cultural environments that support them as well as the relationships that participants, both individual and institutional, have to that environment and to each other. At the same time it requires a consideration of the social as in turn a mediator: institutions and technologies as well as the meanings that are delivered by them are mediated in the social processes of reception and consumption.
To a significant degree taking for granted the symbolic infrastructure of the social, the study of mediation has become increasingly and properly focused on the technologies and the texts of mass, broadcast and, increasingly now, interactive communication. In the twentieth century there was a necessary preoccupation with the mass, with influence and persuasion and with more general but none the less still invasive effects of first film, then radio and television. Social researchers in the United States and elsewhere, often prompted once again both by the moral panics that have erupted with every new media shift and a complementary desire to increase political control over this emerging deus ex machina (cf. Debray, 2000), developed elaborate methodologies to investigate the increasingly insistent broadcast media and their capacity both to define cultures and to direct individual values, beliefs and actions.
John Durham Peters (1999) has distinguished between dialogue and dissemination as two distinct modes or ideals of communication (notions of communication are rarely less than normative, one way or the other). Whereas the dialogical has provided throughout the twentieth century, and before, the dominantly valued mode, not least in the work of Jürgen Habermas, Peters argues for the respectability and importance of the dissemi-native, finding in the model of the gospel a perfectly satisfactory alternative to the conversation as a framework for communicating ideas, values and information. This analysis poses two kinds of communication in counterpoint. But it also creates an awareness of communicative difference and it enables a consideration of their relative and uneven dominance historically and sociologically, especially in circumstances of electronic mediation, and as technologies and cultures change.
As we move into the twenty-first century this concern with mediation becomes even more central and more demanding with the interactivity and networking capacities promised by the latest generation of media technology and by their global reach (Castells, 1996). The political and moral significance of the media are pressing hard on the sociological agenda, and concerns raised by media scholars are being echoed (as well as stimulated) by contemporary social theorists.
In this chapter I intend to identify and discuss some of the dominant preoccupations in sociology’s engagement with the media and mediation. While the focus is undoubtedly on the first term of the media and communication couplet, the second term will not be far away; and indeed as the possibilities for a re-appropriation of media technologies by the individual become more of a reality, we will need to return to the issue of interpersonal communication, and the constant irritation and challenge of the face to face. In the meantime the argument presumes that mediation is a component of social communication, but an increasingly central one: it also presumes the ‘real reality of the mass media as the communications which go on within and through them’(Luhmann, 2000:3).
The chapter begins with a framing of mediation in terms of power. Mediated communication must be understood as both producer and product of hierarchy, and as such fundamentally implicated in the exercise of, and resistance to, power in modern societies. This makes all mediated communication, in one sense or another, political: seeking to persuade, seeking to define one reality as opposed to another, including and excluding while at the same time informing or entertaining. This starting point leads to a consideration of the two dominant modes of conceptualizing mediation, that of influence and effects on the one hand, and that of ritual and reflexivity on the other. There follow sections on key dimensions of the social role of media: on the nature of news; on the media’s capacity to articulate the global and the local in the experience of the everyday; and on the media’s role in defining the relationship between public and private spheres and spaces. The final sections of the chapter address technology and media change and questions of morality and ethics.
It is possible to suggest that what has driven and continues to drive sociological concern with the media is their power: power in a number of different senses, and along a number of different, contrary and contradictory dimensions. The media are believed to be able to set cultural agendas and to destroy them, to influence the political process as well as being influenced by it; to inform as well as to deceive. They are believed to be at the mercy of state and market as well as to be resistible by informed or active audiences, citizens or consumers. Their presumed power has led to preoccupation with ownership and control, with their direct influence on the minds and actions of those who receive their messages as well as with their capacity to paper over the cracks of the contradictions of global capitalism in the drip feed of ideological framing and naturalization.
The media are believed to reflect reality and also to construct it: they can be seen as window, mirror, or even hologram (Baudrillard, 1983). They create anxiety as well as providing constant reassurance. They enable and disable rights of public speech and access to public spheres, both granting and withdrawing legitimacy and legitimation. They provide frameworks both for remembering and forgetting the past, and for representing and misrepresenting the other. The media are seen to be increasingly central as defining the terms in which the global citizen goes about his or her everyday life as well as increasingly central to the political culture within which that everyday life is in turn conducted.
Whereas once media might have been thought of as an appendage to the political process, a hand maiden for governments and parties, as well as an irritant or a watch-dog, the Fourth Estate, there are many who now suggest that the media have to be understood as fundamentally inscribed into the political process itself (Virilio, 1986; Wark, 1994). Politics, like experience, can no longer even be thought outside a media frame. Whereas once the media were believed to be a guarantor of liberty and democracy, it may now be suggested that the very freedoms demanded by, and granted to, the media and which have served modern society so well in the past, are on the verge of being destroyed by those very same media in their florid, cannibalistic, maturity (Lloyd, 2004).
Media power is power exercised at the conjunction of the economic, the political and the symbolic (Thompson, 1995). But it is not exercised in isolation of other sources of that power. There are dangers, of course, of a kind of media-centrism in such arguments, a perception of the media as being the be-all and end-all of the social which cannot, of course, be sustained. Yet it is precisely media’s intrusive ubiquity in the political process at global, national and local levels, both as message and as massage (McLuhan and Fiore, 1967), that continually demands sociological investigation.
Models for the analysis of media inevitably reflect the models that are available for the analysis of the exercise of power in society more generally. McQuail (1994), summarizing and simplifying a wide literature, distinguishes between dominance and pluralist models. The former depends on a perception of society as being dominated by a ruling class or elite, within which the media fall under concentrated ownership, producing standardized and routinized, ideologically informed content to a dependent and passive audience with basically conservative consequences for the social order. The latter, pluralism, sees society as comprising competing political, social and cultural interests and groups, with a range of independent media, who are creative, free and responsive in their production of content to audience demand—that audience itself being fragmented, selective and active. The consequences of such mediation are inevitably numerous and without consistency, predictability of effect, or outcome (1994: 70).
This is perhaps more useful descriptively than analytically. Indeed, McQuail himself acknowledges the obvious limitations of such a dichotomy. As Thompson (1990) points out, it makes more sense to think of power in this context as the differential capacity to mobilize meaning. As such the capacity or incapacity of different groups to exert their power can be ‘resolved only by studying how … symbolic forms operate in particular social-historic circumstances, how they are used and understood by the subjects who produce and receive them in the socially structured contexts of everyday life’ (1990: 67). This formulation is itself, of course, vulnerable to criticism, unless the institutionalization and transmission, that is, the reproduction, of media power is properly considered (Couldry, 2000; Debray, 2000). As Raymond Williams (1974) notes, ‘we should look not for the components of a product but for the conditions of a practice.’
The consequences of such an approach mean that one cannot, despite political economy’s privileging the concentration of media power through the ownership and control of production and distribution networks (Golding and Murdock, 2000), simply presume linearity in media effects or media influence. Mediation is not all one way, neither at the global nor at the everyday level of communication. Indeed mediation, and Barbero (1993) uses the term in this sense, extends into a concern with how culture is negotiated in the tactics of everyday life.
What are the empirical implications of this? The first is a recognition of the impossibility of reading from one level of the process of mediation to another: ownership does not determine content; content does not determine reception. The second is the need to recognize flux and fluidity in the production and consumption of media texts and also to recognize that mediated meanings are not exhausted at the point of consumption. The third is to recognize that media power exists as a generalized resource of symbolic definition but at the same time one in which all participants, both producers and audiences, albeit always differentially, are involved (Couldry, 2000) and indeed where alternative sites for its exercise emerge (Downing, 2000; Rodriguez, 2001). And the fourth is to insist on the need both for a general social theory in which an understanding of mediation can be located (Luhmann, 2000) as well as a sense of media’s historical specificity. Benedict Anderson’s (1983) influential account of the press’s nineteenth-century role as creating an ‘imagined community’ for the emerging nation-states in Europe may possibly be of value in analysing the effects of broadcasting (Scannell, 1988), but only in certain societies, and only too in relation to particular technologies and forms of mediation as well as to some but never all minorities or other social groups.
Influences and Effects
It is customary to consider the history of media research in the twentieth century as one that has been marked by quite dramatic swings between models of strong and weak effects. The media have been seen as strongly influential at times of media innovation and when societies themselves might be seen to be vulnerable to propaganda or influence (both political and commercial) for specific historical or social reasons. New media—radio, film, television, video and the home computer in turn—have all spurred exaggerated fears about both direct and permanent influence. Moral panics have focused on personal sexual morality or propensity to violence (the Payne Fund studies of the 1930s (Blumer, 1933); the Surgeon-General’s research in the 1960s (Comstock et al., 1978); vulnerability to propaganda (Hovland et al, 1965); or threats to social or psychological health (the home computer as socially isolating), or even to physical health (concerns over the carcinogenic mobile phone). Theories of weaker effects have tended to emerge at periods of social and media stability: in the postwar period of social reconstruction (Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1955; Lasswell, 1948) and in the 1970s and 1990s when broadcasting was well established and Western commodity culture achieved its particular hegemony.
This impotence-omnipotence pendulum (Katz, 1980) was explored and driven by empirical work that moved from laboratory to field; from the psychological to the sociological; from quantitative to qualitative research; from stress on the isolated to that on the socially embedded individual; and from the passive to the active receiver of media’s increasingly multiple communications. And back again. These shifts created surprising and unholy intellectual alliances, above all bringing together in the strong effects camp empirical social psychologists, psychoanalytically informed cultural analysts and elitist critical theorists, all of whom saw in the media the capacity to direct and deliver a malleable audience, vulnerable either to direct and specific influence or to long-term ideological management, or both.
Those who opposed this view did so on primary sociological grounds. They argued, of course correctly, that communication was a social matter, and that mediation too had to be seen as both socially produced and consumed. Despite acknowledging the differential power of participants to define, negotiate or resist the meanings available for mediation, they recognized both that the media were only one component in a complex social reality, both enabling and constraining the production of texts and discourses, and that meanings themselves and their salience for different individuals, groups and institutions were the product of a more subtle process of social construction than those stressing effects and influence would normally grant (Morley, 1992).
Katz and Lazarsfeld’s (1955) seminal study of personal influence offered an analysis of what they called the ‘two-step’ flow of mediated communication, in which the social location of the individual was part of a dynamic social environment crucially providing an ‘inter-mediation,’ a breaking of the linearity and directness of media influence. Conceptually speaking, two steps are better than one, but they are still, arguably, too linear and too individual. Indeed this approach, and that described as ‘uses and gratifications’ in which members of the media audience are seen as selecting and working with media content on the basis of their own psychological predispositions (Blumler and Katz, 1974), has, arguably, failed fully to engage both with the substantively contextualized active audience on the one hand and, paradoxically, with the longue durée of media influence and its intended as well as its unintended consequences on the other.
The latter has been to a degree the focus of a more recent attempt to provide an account of media influence, particularly for those heavy mainstream consumers whose world-view might plausibly be dictated by the consistency of both television content and their viewing behaviour over time. A positive correlation of this kind has been reported by George Gerbner and his colleagues over a number of years (Gerbner et al, 1980, 1986; Shanahan and Morgan, 1999), and although it has been pointed out that correlation does not equal causation, that television content is not as consistent as assumed or analysed by Gerbner and his team, that world-views do not necessarily translate into action, that there is difference between denotational and connotational meanings, and that a considerable degree of the variance could be explained by third factors unrelated to media use (Livingstone, 1990), nevertheless this research is perhaps as close as it gets to making some impression on the workings of ideology as the media create it. It is indeed unlikely that a limited diet of (more or less) consistent television or other media consumption cannot but have some impact on the mind-sets of those so consuming it.
More recent research, on television (Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) and on the Internet (Kraut et al., 1998), both based predominantly on survey methodologies and quantitative analysis of findings, has provided some evidence that the media have affects on those that use them, though in both these cases the data suggest a kind of soporific and antisocial response.
It makes no sense to dismiss this work out of hand, though questions of meaning, of indeterminacy, non-rationality, self-referentiality and unpredictability as part of the viewing experience, and the process of mediation more generally, as well as the immeasurable presence of long-term and unacknowledged (because entirely taken for granted) ideological formations in the structure of everyday life, make it certain that there is a need for a more dialectical theory of media effects and differently focused empirical work. It is possible to suggest that this need is still the same, even where research focuses on the active audience, reversing the polarities of effects research, and analysing the capacity of both adults (Liebes and Katz, 1990) and children to appropriate mass-produced meanings to their own agendas and to the experienced realities of their own culturally specific everyday lives (Hodge and Tripp, 1986).
To a degree this has come from qualitative audience research much influenced by British and British-influenced cultural studies, which has examined the active role that readers or audiences are supposed to have in their relationship to mass-mediated texts. Here media are seen to be part of a more widely and deeply embedded culture, and as such they become an essential component of the symbolic space that marks the distinctiveness of life in late modern society, a symbolic space that is in turn regarded as the product of the engaged activity of individuals and groups variously positioned in relation to dominant forms of expression and albeit contradictory ideologies.
In work that in various ways deals with audiences as empowered (Fiske, 1987, 1990), specific dimensions of their social status—class, gender, ethnicity—have been brought to bear to extract from the mediation process a sense of sociologically determined discrimination in the work that can, and is being, done in front of the screen and crucially in the discourses of everyday life that in turn mediate the particularities of the viewing experience. Contemporary media audiences are neither cultural dopes nor dupes (Ang, 1986; Buckingham, 1987, 2000; Morley, 1992). Some of this work is still quite linear in its approach to questions of influence; some of it, equally, is entirely unclear about lines of influence or determination, preferring a model of social inertia to compensate for individuals’ otherwise creative engagement. But despite such reservations such work offers a much more sensitive, as well as a more radical, approach to mediation as socially produced and politically effective. It begins to challenge the model of communication that is resolutely one of transmission or transportation, and to shift it perceptibly towards one that has been described as that of ritual (Carey, 1989; Rothenbuhler, 1998).
Ritual and Reflexivity
James Carey (1989) has noted that two ways of thinking about communication have been present in American social thought, and also within the more operational categorizations of media theory and research. The first, and this has just been discussed, can be described as the transmission model. It presumes directness and intent, command and influence. The second he calls the ritual view of communication, Durkheimian in origin, in which
communication is linked to terms such as ‘sharing,’ ‘participation,’ ‘association,’ ‘fellowship’ and ‘the possession of a common faith.’ This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the terms ‘commonness,’ ‘communion,’ ‘community,’ and ‘communication.’ … [It] is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs. (Carey, 1989: 18)
If influences and affects models tend to focus the mind on media as disturbances of the social order and on the manifest exercise of symbolic power, then ritual models tend to focus the mind on the media’s role in creating and sustaining that social order. Once again, even though the dichotomization is both misleading and too clinical, it is vital to acknowledge this double edge and to ensure that both are held in tension, a tension that has to be historically and sociologically investigated in its specific manifestations if it is to be properly understood.
As Moore and Myerhoff (1977: 3) note, ‘Social life proceeds somewhere between the imaginary extremes of absolute order, and absolute chaotic conflict and anarchic improvisation. Neither the one nor the other takes over completely.’ The media have been seen to be key institutions in this project of time, space and life management. To suggest that they have such a ritual function, particularly in their broadcast mode—that predominant throughout the twentieth century—is to open an agenda that leads directly to core sociological concerns both at the macro and micro social levels. For social rituals are as much a part of the large-scale social structuring of nations and regions as they are of the small-scale interactions that constitute the fabric of everyday life. In both dimensions the media provide a framework for the ordering of time and space, both through the direct address of their programming and messaging, but also through the secondary discourses (Fiske, 1987) that emerge around them: through the conversations and dreams, realities and imaginaries, that individuals in their everyday lives produce as ways of engaging with the other and with the disturbing specificities of life events.
In this sense the media create bulwarks against anxiety (as well as for its management), and they also provide frameworks for orientation and mobilization within both national and global cultures. Media events—the deaths of great figures, the celebration of sporting occasions, the reporting of global catastrophes (Dayan and Katz, 1992; Zelizer and Allan, 2002)—are key moments, highly ritualized in their reporting and representation that indeed provide those momentary spaces and times when the profane and ordinary world is put to one side and where the power of the albeit dispersed collective is mobilized in a project of mutuality and togetherness. In this context Victor Turner’s (1969) notion of ‘communitas’ would not be out of place.
However, the ritual function of the media extends beyond the exceptional. Studies of national press and broadcasting cultures, for the most part phenomenologically inspired (Scannell, 1996), have quite properly addressed the media’s role in creating and sustaining the ordinariness and normality of everyday life. Just as nations were increasingly ritualized through their representation in the media throughout the twentieth century, so too, in soap operas and situation comedies, in game and talk shows, and in the nightly reflections on the disturbances of the world in the news, the mundane world is offered for reflection and reassurance. The media have become part of the grain of everyday life. In both modes traditions are held, and the world remains, to a degree, but to a still significant degree, enchanted.
This re-enchantment has been noted and criticized, most notably by the first generation of scholars in the Frankfurt School and their heirs and protégés (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1972; Lodziak, 1986; Mander, 1978; Postman, 1986). It provides, for better or worse, of course, a link with premodern cultures where the sacred and the power that may or may not be exercisable through the sacred, held more obvious and more untrammelled sway.
Perhaps the particularly modern twist to this continuing presence of the ritualized and ritualizing in culture comes with the acknowledgement that with modernity came reflexivity. Anthony Giddens argues that this reflexivity is different from that which constitutes the reflexive monitoring of action intrinsic to all human activity. It refers to ‘the susceptibility of most aspects of social activity, and material relations with nature, to chronic revision in the light of new information or knowledge’ (Giddens, 1991: 20). As he notes, such information is not incidental to modern institutions but constitutive of them. Ulrich Beck (1992) by and large shares this view in his analysis of risk society, although neither of them sees the media as being a central component of this ironically still modern, rather than postmodern, project. Giddens’s (1991: 23-27) own discussion of the mediation of experience fails to connect the two processes.
Yet it is obviously the case that the mass media, and increasingly the latest interactional media, have become not just the sites where such reflexivity takes place, but actually provide the terms under which it becomes possible at all. Information and narration, news and stories, communication on a global as well as a local scale, and eternally intertwined, are in their mass mediation the key processes at the core of modern societies. The media are crucial institutions for any understanding of the reflexive capabilities and incapabilities of modernity.
One final dimension of this particular sociology of the media addresses the role of the audience in the process of mediation. As such it brings a postmodern flavour to a discussion that has already blurred the distinction between modernity and its precursor. If audiences are no longer to be seen as passive recipients of the messages they receive; if they are to be understood as actively engaged in the complex interactions of everyday life and the cultures and subcultures that constitute it; if they are also no longer to be seen as singular subjects, but as fragmented in their identities as the communities in which they no longer consistently live, then how are they to be perceived?
Recent work (Abercrombie and Longhurst, 1998; Seiter, 1999) provides both through empirical evidence and theory, as well as via a methodological injunction both to do ethnography and/or to think ethnographically, a reformulation of the relationship between technologies, texts and receivers. Such work involves an engagement with the popular, with the dynamics of consumption, and with the creative possibilities that emerge at the interface between media and daily life. Indeed, to a degree, what informs this analysis is the refusal of this distinction, not in some sense to reify a Baudrillardian world of simulacra, but to pose the audience as a verb rather than a noun, and as an activity, a performance, in which the boundaries between audiences and texts or performances are blurred.
Drawing on the analysis of fan culture, and albeit recognizing its extremes, Abercrombie and Longhurst make a plausible case for what they call the diffused audience, a product of a society of media saturation, of both wide-ranging performance and increasing narcissism (Lasch, 1980; Sennett, 1977) as well as one in which the media are themselves constitutive of the social (Abercrombie and Longhurst, 1998: 175ff.). A diffused audience is an eternal audience, and its acts of audiencing are continuous, but it is also an audience which, in its acts of creative consumption, in displays of style and person, constitutes itself as a performer.
The limits of this analysis are obvious enough, just as they are in the effects model, but so are its possibilities. Juxtaposing the two approaches provides the two arms of the dialectic around the question of media power and our capacity to control or resist it, but it does not as yet provide an adequate synthesis. However, framing it in this way also brings to the foreground a range of other dimensions of media and communication which have been the focus of recent and less recent attention. It is to three of these that I now turn.
News, Memory, and Forgetting
News is a significant strand of mass communication. The increasingly rapid demand for, and provision of, information, of commercial, military and broadly social significance, drove the nineteenth-century press (Chalaby, 1999) as well as providing a staple for broadcasting in the twentieth century. Much of the early sociology of the media found itself investigating news from a number of different perspectives. What united them, and still does in many respects, was the concern with accuracy, truth and trustworthiness.
Yet news quickly became not something that reflected a reality so much as something which constructed it. Work in the newsroom on gate-keeping (Gieber, 1964; White, 1950), on the textuality of news through the analysis of its most significant characteristics (Galtung and Ruge, 1969), on the relationship between news and both the structure of its ownership (Bagdikian, 1997) as well as the organization of its production (Schlesinger, 1978; Tuchman, 1978) together still rarely leave this initial framing. As Michael Schudson points out (2000:194), these approaches rarely depart significantly from an often unstated normative view that the news’ primary function is to ‘serve society by informing the general population in ways that arm them for vigilant citizenship.’ In other words, we still expect the news to act as the Fourth Estate.
More cultural analysis of news addressed its relationship to the wider symbolic spaces, both professional and nationally specific which, once again, imply an ideological tarnish (Glasgow Media Group, 1976; Hall, 1977). Even in those attempts to generalize the ‘cultural air we breathe,’ the implication is that news remains a distinct product of mediated modernity and is powerful in its significance for defining a reality, a newsworthy reality, for the societies that both produce and consume the daily press and the nightly news bulletin. If they were not powerful then why study them?
Schudson’s own view is that the effectivity of news is mostly confined to elites, but that in any event what is missing from the sociology of news is a clear sense of its audiences and its publics. This is not entirely fair, for a number of studies have worked in some detail on how audiences decode or work with news content (Lewis, 1991; Liebes, 1997; Philo, 1990) and there is also work which includes news in the wider category of informational media (Buckingham, 2000; Corner, 1995).
Much of this research and writing, however, takes the transmission approach to the communicational infrastructure of news, and self-evidently also, a communicational rather than a mediational approach to news as a dynamic component of social and cultural life. It also presumes, for the most part, a referential model of discourse and reality, such that some measures of distortion, bias, or construction, will always not be too far away.
In a deliberately provocative introduction to a set of illuminating observations on news as a social phenomenon, Niklas Luhmann (2000) challenges news’ elision of information, illumination and truth as well as noting the paradox of its regularity (as a New Yorker cartoon once asked: ‘How come they call it the news if it’s always the same?,’ now Luhmann is asking: ‘How come it’s the news if it happens everyday?’). Both questions are important both anthropologically and sociologically. Both lead to a concern with the wider significance of news as a cultural category and its relationship to social and media processes.
Such a concern might even lead to a concern with functions. Indeed, functionalist analysis of the media (as discussed by McQuail, 1994: 78-82) focuses on the media’s role in general, and news’ in particular, as social glue. Integration, cooperation, order, adaptation to change, mobilization, management of tension and continuity of culture and values are each involved in this broadly functionalist approach. Yet it is clear that the significance of each of these elements can be turned on its head once a parallel but differently valued critique of the exercise of power in society as a whole is advocated.
So it is possible to confront news from quite another perspective. As Bird and Dardenne (1988) have noted, we should take the characterization of news as a story rather more forcefully. Doing so opens up a range of counterintuitive ways of thinking about this so-taken-for-granted aspect of mediation in everyday life. Treading the often thin ice of cultural theorizing, a number of commentators have focused on news as myth and narrative and as such have raised perhaps more challenging questions about news’ paradoxical role in the massaging and managing of collective anxiety, and as a central component of a mass culture that privileges forgetting over remembering and dissemblance over resemblance.
News, both because of its dailiness and its epistemological claims to be reporting on the world, has become a key to understanding how the media can be seen to be a prop sustaining the individual’s sense of ontological security in perhaps an increasingly unsettling world (Giddens, 1990). Its particular, and remarkably globally homogeneous, structures of storytelling, accounts of heroism and disaster, narrative closure, construction of the newsreader as the nightly teller of tales, and its fixed position in the radio and television schedules together define the genre as crucial in this respect. News becomes then a contradictory component of everyday culture. It provides, through the eternal recurrence of its narrative structures, an essential component of a reassuring mythology for contemporary society. But, at the same time in its decontextualized commitments to telling it how it is, often in real-time or in the as-if of real time, it decontextualizes events from the geography and the history which might give them their meaning and which, some have argued, guarantee the news as a tool both for forgetting, and for morally disengaging from, the world (Baudrillard, 1995; Boltanski, 1999; Silverstone, 1999, in press). Research has suggested how little is remembered from a single viewing of a news bulletin (Gunter, 1987), but the kind of forgetting implied by these arguments is in significant degrees more profound. I will return to the moral issues in the last section of this chapter.
Community: The Global and the Local
Marshall McLuhan’s prescient but misleading notion of the global village brings together, however, two important dimensions and consequences of mediation (McLuhan and Fiore, 1968). McLuhan’s vision was of their convergence: a presumption that the extension of communicative reach would bring with it an intensification of mostly benevolent social relationships. ‘Ours is a brand new world of allatonceness,’ he wrote. ‘“Time” has ceased, “space” has vanished. We now live in a global village … a simultaneous happening … Electronic circuitry profoundly involves men with one another’ (McLuhan and Fiore, 1967: 63). Such media involvement in the reconfiguring of space and time is difficult to gainsay, despite his own particular kind of hyperbole (Meyrowitz, 1985). But it needs to be unpacked and treated with caution, for he presumes, as have so many others, both a technological determinism and an unproblematic account of the social.
The core questions are those involving ideas and realities of community, and the question of how media, particularly the electronic media, have or have not succeeded in enabling different forms of sociality. Indeed many historians of media and communication technologies, painting the broad analytic brush strokes of massive social, economic and political change, have taken their cue, if their not their methodologies, from McLuhan and convincingly argued for profound and indelible changes in society as a result of certain key technological innovations. If writing, and especially writing on paper and papyrus, led to empire (Goody, 1977; Innis, 1972, 1973), and print (and later broadcasting) led to nations (Anderson, 1983; Eisenstein, 1978), then the latest digital media can be seen to be enabling the conditions for another sea change: a global world of intense connectivity and mutuality. At issue is not just the organization of political life, and the central role of media in providing the channels and networks for interpersonal or interorganizational communication, but these networks’ capacity to create a symbolic space where identities can be formed and relationships sustained on a global stage (Thussu, 2000; Tomlinson, 1999). These are questions both of scale and of difference. At issue too are the ways in which the media provide a mesh for the interweaving of global and local frames of reference and spheres of activity.
Mediation involves a shift in the location of interaction from the face-to-face, liberating communication from the constraints of the immediate and the local. If nineteenth-century sociologists, albeit with a focus on other dimensions of modernity, bewailed the decline of community, there are those who have argued since that media provide a compensatory framework, albeit in imagined or indeed virtual space, for the loss. There are symbolic and material dimensions to this argument. Benedict Anderson (1983) takes the symbolic route, arguing for individual participation in the shared ritual of reading the morning paper as a crucial component of the imagined community of the emerging capitalist nation-state. Manuel Castells (1996) sees in the network society a new intensity in the free flowing of information which creates a new materiality for action and connection. He is not alone (Giddens, 1990; Held et al., 1999) in realizing that such changes in the global infrastructure will have profound effects on, and arguably in turn be affected by, local activity. The two are fundamentally intertwined, and it is the media that provide the links in which global forces are (or are not) both appropriated and reflected upon at the local level.
The media can then be seen to be doing community in at least three different ways: expression, refraction and compensation (Silverstone, 1999). Anderson’s imagined communities are an example of the first, in which media and media practices enable the creation of community as a symbolic space, mostly but not exclusively for the construction of nationhood. Public service broadcasting in Europe, most particularly in the UK, was seen, even by those building the systems (Scannell, 1988; Scannell and Cardiff, 1991), to be key institutions of modernity in this regard. Contemporary struggles for its survival in the context of an increasingly fragmenting national culture and the availability of multiple communication channels are testament, too, of the significance of this aspect of the media as community-building and community-reflecting institutions.
Refraction is a more complex notion. There is a case for arguing, as Anthony Cohen (1985) indeed argues, that community is claimed through moments of symbolic reversal as much as through moments and activities in which values, ideas and beliefs are represented as being unproblematically shared. Symbolic, often ironic, reversal involves people in not only marking a boundary between their community and others, but also reversing or inverting ‘the norms of behaviour and values which “normally” mark their boundaries. In these rituals of reversal, people behave quite differently and collectively in ways which they supposedly abhor or which are usually proscribed’ (Cohen, 1985: 58). The media provide multiple opportunities for such displays of reversal, and although these are inevitably contradictory (inflected as they are by judgements of taste and differences of class) they are a core component of, still mostly national, community. From the tabloid and the yellow press to the confessional talk show, the media are constantly involved in the refractory delineation of difference and similarity (Silverstone, 2000).
These refractions may well not survive the globalization of media, for they depend on local connections and associations for their significance. Yet such mediated globalization can be seen to encourage community in other ways. Arjun Appadurai (1996) argues for a characterization of globalization through a sequence of scapes which he identifies as distinct dimensions of global cultural flow. The media in the form of the media-scape is one such dimension, and from the point view of critical and alternative sites for community, the ethno-scape is another. The appropriation of media and the capacity to define their own media space both in production and consumption by the increasingly significant number of global diasporic populations has produced a dimension of media culture which is just beginning to be explored (Dayan, 1999; Gillespie, 1995; Naficy, 1993; Silverstone, 2001). The question of how both old and new media enable the creation of alternative and arguably compensatory forms of community expression is one which will become increasingly important in the new century. It will have profound significance for how both cultural politics and political cultures form and reform within and beyond the boundaries of the nation-state.
Public and Private Mediation
In a recent review of the complex and increasingly frustrating relationship between democratic and media theory James Curran (2000) proposes a set of criteria for the reinvention of a democratic media system as follows:
It should empower people by enabling them to explore where their interest lies; it should foster sectional solidarities and assist the functioning of organisations necessary for the effective representation of collective interests; it should sustain vigilant scrutiny of government and centres of [both economic and political] power; it should provide a source of protection and redress for weak and unorganised interests; and it should create the conditions for real societal agreement or compromise based on an open working through of difference rather than a contrived consensus based on elite dominance. (2000: 148)
This may seem, and arguably is, a utopian rather than a realistic programme for reform, yet it needs to be understood against the relative failures of media theory in this area (see also Garnham, 2000) and especially the increasing irrelevance of both classic liberal theory’s hypostatization of a market-driven and hence state-independent media, as well as Jürgen Habermas’s both initial and reformulated accounts of the public sphere (1989, 1992). It also needs to be understood, of course, in relation to the actually emergent properties of media systems in the developed world at least, which have been shown increasingly—and paradoxically—to be both subject to manipulative intent by political classes and transnational corporations, and at the same time to be less than obviously potent in delivering changes in opinion and behaviour. In this context too transmission and ritual models of the processes of mediation contest the terrain.
Critics are concerned not just about the media’s vulnerability to influence, but their general contribution to political apathy, and their distortion of the relationship between public and private lives and spaces (Eliasoph, 1998; Putnam, 2000; Thompson, 2000).
The media’s thorny relationship between the public and the private can be, and has thus been, understood in a number of different ways and different levels. The root concern is as it has just been defined: the role of the media in enabling citizenship and democracy in an increasingly fragmented, and of course in an increasingly global, society. Such concerns encompass questions of the invasion of privacy, rights of free speech and rights of media access, and surveillance. The assumed rights of intrusion into the private lives of public figures—often spuriously defended in the name of the public interest—as well as the dragging or seducing of private citizens into the public limelight—equally often defended on similar grounds—is threatening to destroy both the media’s own freedom and its legitimacy. So too, it can be argued, is the blurring of the boundary between real and mediated lives, and between information and entertainment. Apathy and anomie in the social order rise as trust in dominant institutions falls, though some media analysts have found in this situation the emergence of a possibly different kind of civic culture (Dahlgren, 2000).
Given that the public sphere, however we define or criticize it, is essentially a mediated public sphere, the question arises not only as to how to make sense of its functioning but also how to generate normative criteria for its improvement and regulation. In this area perhaps more than any other in media research, the debates shade into questions of ethics, policy and political action.
As Jürgen Habermas (1992) himself notes in reviewing his earlier position on the effects of the mass mediation on the conduct of political life and the quality of democracy, the position is both complex and contradictory. On the one hand, drawing on the example of television’s role in the dismantling of communism in the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia and Romania, he points to how these should be ‘properly considered not merely as a historical process that happened to be shown on television but one whose very mode of occurrence was televisual’ (1992: 456). On the other hand, he suggests that the kind of media determinism offered by Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) misses the point of this complexity by ignoring the range of changes in society which accompany the palpable loss of place in modernity: ‘There is considerable evidence attesting to the ambivalent nature of the democratic potential of a public sphere whose infrastructure is marked by the growing constraints imposed by electronic mass communication’ (1992: 456-7).
The mass media provide an infrastructure for public participation and debate, or at least they have done so in societies where public service systems dedicated to universal access have emerged and where most households have their own television set. They have provided, historically, in their programming, their schedules and their communicative ethos, a cultural framework for collective identification (Scannell, 1996, 2000), even though this seems now threatened in an increasingly digital age of multiple channels and fragmenting tastes. At the same time the mass media have created an intensely mediated political culture, both carnival and cannibal, which is systematically undermining the legitimacy of established political institutions, and in which politics becomes increasingly a matter of representation (images in place of …) rather than representation (action on behalf of …). New technologies, especially the Internet, are being seen by many as having, in their capacity to enable interactivity, the potential to create new forms of political dialogue and participation, though once again opinions vary as to whether this will lead to a strengthening of existing democratic institutions or their replacement by new forms of political action. Early experiments and studies have proved to be still quite inconclusive, and there are significant ongoing debates as to the various merits of direct, deliberative and representative democracy and as to how the new media can be mobilized to enhance them (Hacker and van Dijk, 2000).
Technology and Media Change
Technology is the defining characteristic of mediation, though by technology is meant more than the machine. Technologies involve networks, skills and knowledge. Technology is techne (Heidegger, 1977): an endless matter of unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, switching about and regulating knowledges and practices. Technology is also magic: enchantment. It is the focus of a global culture’s dreams and fears: both perceived threat and anticipated saviour. Media technologies are both the focus of these dreams and fears as well as instruments of their perpetration. In a digital world media technologies are being redefined and reclassified, as either (or both) information and communication technologies, signalling a shift in content and function, as well as a recognition that changes of quite a fundamental kind are under way in their role at the centre of social life. Such rewiring and rewriting raise the question of what indeed is new about new media.
Pursuing such a question involves a deliberation on different approaches to technological innovation as well as on the theories of the relationship between technology and social change. Raymond Williams’s (1974) account of the development of radio as a broadcast medium stresses that it emerged initially as a result of generalized social needs, those of commerce, trade and empire; but that it was subsequently shaped for increasingly dispersing and suburbanizing urban populations. Its first appearance, in the late nineteenth century, was as a two-way communication device replicating, but also advancing, telegraphy and in some senses at least, telephony. Its second incarnation, after the First World War, was configured as a one-to-many device mobilized by the state and capital as an instrument of solidarity and selling. Such a shifting and a settling of the communicative infrastructure of the modern state was decisive in defining a century’s national cultures, and told the lie to any crude theory of technological determinism both here and elsewhere in media history.
The radio story has been one of invented needs and significant appropriations, and when it comes to technological innovation in media and communications it still is. Whereas television followed radio’s suit, a more or less seamless shift from one broadcast instrument to another, the consequences of its total cultural dominance in the last fifty years of the century could not entirely be predicted, nor was it the case that populations did not have to learn how to use it, or how to incorporate it into their everyday lives (Spigel, 1992). Media technologies are doubly articulated into the social: both as technologies whose symbolic and functional characteristics claim a place in both institutional and individual practice, but also as media, conveying through the whole range of their communication the values, rules and rhetorics of their centrality for the conduct of the quotidian. We learn through the media why the media are important. We learn through the media how to become consumers of media, and indeed of much else besides. In such can be seen to lie society’s total dependence on these increasingly intrusive and ubiquitous machines.
As Carolyn Marvin (1988: 8) has noted in her study of a previous moment in the history of media innovation, ‘Media are not fixed natural objects; they have no natural edges. They are constructed as complexes of habits, beliefs and procedures embedded in elaborate cultural codes of communication. The history of media is never more or less than the history of their uses, which always lead us away from them to the social practices and conflicts they illuminate.’ Such history, and, one might add also such present and future, ‘is less the evolution of technical efficiencies in communication than a series of arenas for negotiating issues crucial to the conduct of social life; among them, who is inside and outside, who may speak, who may not, and who has authority and who may be believed’ (1988: 4).
Whereas, then, the story of twentieth-century media culture has for the most part been that of broadcasting, and in the particular terms in which I have discussed the idea, a century of mediation, the twenty-first century might involve—it is certainly being claimed to involve—the return of communication. In John Durham Peters’s (1999) terms the pendulum might be seen now to be swinging from gospel to conversation. Only this time the conversation is mediated, on a global scale, in text and in image, by the Internet.
Interactivity arguably offers a new hybridity. But at the same time, from the perspective of communication theory, and indeed from a perspective that takes as its starting point the social and social-psychological theories in which the field was grounded, and this chapter begun, there is not so much, arguably, that is new. The supposedly distinct characteristics of new media—digital convergence, many-to-many communication, interactivity, globalization, virtuality—are perhaps not quite as novel as they are often believed to be. Face-to-face communication is simultaneous and interactive and does not need a mouse. Globalization is prefigured in both cinematic and televisual culture. Those excluded from full participation in media culture are mostly still excluded. And any entry into electronic space has always presupposed and required a physical and a bodily space as both its beginning and end point. Quantity (especially immediacy and speed), certainly, turns into quality in the matter of communication. Yet this would be the case not just for the Internet but for all media networks. Media change is simultaneously therefore both incremental and radical. Evolutions and revolutions will always shade one into the other.
So if the history and sociology of media technology are a history and a sociology of its uses, there is much to do to understand the particular social consequences of the potential inscribed in the latest digital devices and systems. Whereas much recent work has investigated such key sociological concepts as identity and community and has also found in cyberspace new expressions of, and practices in, economic activity, there is still very little that confronts the relationship between off-line and on-line worlds, and which seeks to make sense of the socio-logics of media innovation in this, the core activity of the human race (but see Miller and Slater, 2000).
Mediation and the Moral Self
Bewailing the failure of sociology to address a moral agenda in a technologically pockmarked world of wants and obstacles to their immediate gratification, Zygmunt Bauman points to the disappearance of the moral self both in life and in literature (1993: 198). Others, however, are beginning to examine the moral dimensions of mediation (Boltanski, 1999; Silverstone, in press; Stevenson, 1999; Tester, 2001). At issue are the consequences of the media’s capacity to bring people together while simultaneously keeping them apart. At issue too is the capacity of those who receive communications from a world otherwise out of reach to find and act on a moral response to what they see and hear.
Distance is at the heart of the matter, and creating what has been called proximity (Bauman, 1993; Levinas, 1969), or proper distance (Silverstone, 2003) has been seen as being a crucial component of what it is to be moral, to have the capacity to act ethically, in a world of intense and eternal mediation. Levinas’s notion of proximity preserves the link between, but crucially also the separation of, self and other, a separation which ensures the possibility of both respect and responsibility for the other. The concept of proper distance is intended to sensitize us to the ambiguities in our relationships to the other, ambiguities that are significantly overdetermined both in broadcast and cyber space.
The media have always fulfilled the function of creating some sense of proper distance, or at least they have tried, or claimed to be able, to do so. The reporting of world events, the production of news, the fictional representation of the past, the critical interrogation of the private lives of public figures, the exploration of the ordinariness of everyday life, all involve in one way or another a negotiation between the familiar and the strange, as the media try, forlornly, to resolve the essential ambiguities of contemporary life.
One of their crucial tasks, as has already been suggested, is to create some kind of comfort and pleasure for those on the receiving end of such mediations, some comfort and pleasure in the appearance of the strange as not too strange and the familiar as not too familiar. However, such mediations also tend to produce, in practice, a kind of polarization in the determinations of such distance—that the unfamiliar is either pushed to a point beyond strangeness, beyond reach and beyond humanity on the one hand (the Iraqi leadership during both the Gulf war and the invasion of Iraq); or drawn so close as to be indistinguishable from ourselves on the other (the many representations of the everyday lives of citizens in other countries, as if the latter were in every respect just like us; or in the incorporation of the primitive’ and the ‘exotic’ into Western advertising (Silverstone, 1999). Indifference and guilt vie with each other as consequences of such mediation.
As both Baudrillard (1995) and Luhmann (2000) suggest, in a world in which information is seen to replace knowledge, and reporting substitutes for understanding, it becomes impossible for the receivers of communication to think and act in a meaningful and morally sustainable way. The mediated other makes no demands on us, because we have the power to switch it off, and to withdraw. But for us as moral beings this is something we cannot do. We should not be able to switch it off. ‘Responsibility is silenced once proximity is eroded; it may eventually be replaced with resentment once the fellow human subject is transformed into an [o]ther’ (Bauman, 1989: 184).
It is suggested, of course, that the new media, especially the Internet, shift the nature of the problem precisely in so far as they enable direct one-to-oneness, or many-to-manyness, through e-mails and chat-rooms and various kinds of groupware. The Internet’s claim for interactivity is central and essential (Downes and McMillan, 2000). But the notion of interactivity begs a number of questions, above all about its capacity to connect interlocutors in new and significant ways. It also raises the question of the moral status of those who communicate with each other, and of the ethical status of the kind of communications that are generated on-line. But whereas the latter has been much discussed in addressing practices of gender disguise and similar on-line activities (O’Brien, 1999), the former, the pursuit of the moral self, has been much less the focus of attention. It is of course much more difficult.
Conclusion: The Sociology of Mediation
The increasing centrality of media for the exercise of power as well as for the conduct of everyday life in modern society, both for system and for life-world, as well as, crucially, their inter-relationship (Rasmussen, 1996), has drawn the study of mediation to the centre of the sociological agenda. The analysis of mediation, as I have suggested, requires us to understand how the processes of mediated communication shape both society and culture, as well as the relationships that participants, both individual and institutional, have to their environment and to each other. At the same time such analysis requires a consideration of how social and cultural activity in turn mediates the mediations, as institutions and technologies as well as the meanings that are delivered by them are appropriated through reception and consumption.
Mediation, in this double sense, is both literal and metaphorical. The boundaries around media technologies may be visible when we look at the machine or gaze at the screen, but they have become entirely blurred in practice, in use and in fantasy, and as they become incorporated into, or unsettle, the rituals of everyday life. As the borders between real and imagined worlds, between self and other, and between the analysis of, and participation in, media culture become increasingly problematic, both the substantive and methodological challenges posed by the presence of media and communication technologies and systems in contemporary society quickly outrun an otherwise containing and comforting agenda. This is not quite the reductive assumption it appears, however. For the media have to be explained as social just as they are required to be a part of the explanation of the social. What seems now, however, absolutely clear, is that they cannot be ignored.