Being Sociological

Being Sociological
Chapter 20
The word ‘media’ often refers to media content or
product. The content of news stories informs much
of what we know about the world beyond our
immediate experiences. Technologies such as
television affect and shape how we experience
media itself and through it the social world. When
we speak of ‘going Rambo’ or being a ‘couch
potato’, implicit in both are sociological theories
about how media affects us individually and
One of the primary tasks of sociology is to learn how
to see the strange in the familiar (Berger, 1963). The
sociological study of the media therefore includes the
following questions:
•Who produces media, and for what reasons;
•What ‘messages’ are present in media;
•How audiences make sense of and ‘use’ media;
•What are the political, economic, and social effects
of media within societies.
What is Media?
The word media (the plural of medium) stems
from the Latin adjective medius, -a, -um, meaning
‘middle.’ In this regard, media can be thought of
most generally as the processes, forms and
content of communication between a sender and
a receiver or audience.
Media is conceptualized by sociologists in various
• The study of media industries and products.
• The study of mediums or technologies and their
social effects.
• Finally, media is sometimes conceptualized more
broadly along the lines of its larger ability to
transform the world and our knowledge of it; not
simply as product or medium, but rather as a
means though which material and subjective
realities are fundamentally altered and
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)
• McLuhan defined media as ‘any technology
whatever that creates extensions of the human body
and senses, from clothing to the computer’
(McLuhan and Zingrone, 1997, p. 239). By
‘extensions,’ McLuhan meant the idea that mediums
and technologies serve to extend bodily capacities
or senses. His definition included technologies such
as the light bulb, the automobile, and language
itself, along with more familiar mediums such as
print and television.
‘The medium is the message’
• Central to McLuhan’s work was the idea that the primary
‘message’ of mediums was not their content as much as
their social effects:
‘The personal and social consequences of any medium
– that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the
new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each
extension of ourselves, or by any new technology’
(McLuhan, 1994, p. 7)
• Looking historically at the transitions from one medium to
another, McLuhan (1994, p. 8) recognized that ‘the ‘content’
of any medium is always another medium. The content of
writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of
print, and print is the content of the telegraph.’
Extensions and amputations
McLuhan argued that the technological power of
certain mediums had resulted in historically greater
‘extensions’ as well as ‘amputations’. The
automobile, while expanding the speed of the foot,
also amputated pedestrian ways of life in favor of
suburban communities. The television, while
extending our sense of vision, has amputated
earlier mediums such as oral communication and
How Sociologists Study Media
Harold Lasswell (1948) set forth his definition of
the study of mass communication as: Who
(says) What (to) Whom (in) What Channel (with)
What Effect?’ This provides a blueprint for how
most sociologists study media even today.
Domains of Analysis
Sinha and Newcomb (2000) use this term to describe
three areas:
• Media production;
• Media products;
• Media reception.
An equally important part of sociology is the
formulation of theories that seek to explain why
things happen the way they do within these
The Production of Media
A fundamental aspect of mass media is the fact that its
production involves a small number of people relative
to those who receive it. In this regard, questions of who
produces mass media, how it is produced, and its
effects also involve questions of power and resources
insofar as a small number of people have the ability
and means to produce and widely disseminate their
message to larger audiences.
Pluralist/Functionalist Theories
This sociological tradition is steeped in a view of the
social world that argues that competing interest
groups within political, economic and social spheres
each seek their own interests, but that the overall
effect within democratic societies is a type of long
term balance of powers within the ebb and flow of
periods where specific interest groups may have
more or less influence.
• Two main functionalist theorists are Emile Durkheim
and Talcott Parsons.
• The media serves several social functions that are
necessary for complex societies to be able to adapt to
changing external pressures, while also maintaining
enough stability to ensure social cohesion. Politically,
the media may be thought of as a ‘Fourth Estate,’ an
unofficial body of power that serves to keep other –
official – bodies of power in check.
• Economically, the production of media provides jobs
and revenue, a means for advertisers to promote
products, and information for consumers to make
informed decisions about the quality and value of
these products.
• Culturally, the media can be seen as a means by
which to maintain group solidarity and social
cohesion through art, film, television, sports, and
other areas that bring people together through
shared interests as well as shared rituals.
• However, the media can be seen also as an
important means by which more marginalized social
groups are able to promote their messages and
advocate for social change.
• Functionalism argues that when one group controls
power or resources disproportionately, the result may
be threatening to the whole social order.
• In this regard, the role of the media is studied with an
eye towards the question of how its production in turn
affects other social structures – families, politics, the
economy, education, and so on – and how these
effects in turn contribute to or threaten social stability.
Conflict theory
• This is another theoretical tradition within the study
of media: it links the ownership and control of media
to the interests of political and economic elites.
• Two of its earliest proponents were Karl Marx and
Friedrich Engels.
The German Ideology (1845)
‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the
ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material
force of society is at the same time its ruling
intellectual force. The class which has the means of
material production at its disposal has control at the
same time over the means of mental production, so
that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those
who lack the means of mental production are
subject to it’ (2004, p. 64).
Marx and Engels linked control over the forces and
relations of production to control over the production
and dissemination of ideas. Their work set forth a
means to understand how and why smaller groups
throughout history have been able to subordinate
larger groups to their economic interests.
• Social conflict theories argue that social order can be
better understood as the result of oppression, where
smaller groups seek to exploit and suppress the
interests and resources of larger ones.
• Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) argued that the media
constituted part of a larger system of control through
which elites frequently did not have to use force to
maintain oppressive social systems. Rather, the
interests of the ruling classes were made to appear
natural, as common sense. Gramsci called this
hegemony or the winning of rule by consent.
‘Ideology is a term developed in the Marxist tradition to talk
about how cultures are structured in ways that enable the
group holding power to have the maximum control with the
minimum of conflict…Briefly, this legitimization [of the
current order] is managed through the widespread teaching
(the social adoption) of ideas about the way things are, how
the world ‘really’ works and should work. These ideas
(often embedded in symbols and cultural practices) orient
people's thinking in such a way that they accept the current
way of doing things, the current sense of what is ‘natural’,
and the current understanding of their roles in society. This
socialization process…is called, by Gramsci, ‘hegemony;’
[and] it is carried out…by the churches, the schools, the
family, and through cultural forms’ (John Lyre, 1997).
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer
• In The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) they sought to
explain why societies such as the United States had
been able to maintain gross inequalities of wealth
without resorting to the use of totalitarian forms of
• Part of their explanation came in the form of the
growing media power. They argued that industries
such as film, radio and advertising had not only grown
in scope and size over the 20th century, but had come
to play a dominant role in the legitimization of
capitalism itself. They called these the ‘culture
industries.’ Like Gramsci, they saw such industries as
part of the ideological force of elites.
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman
• Chomsky and Herman have argued that news
media in particular are driven by a ‘propaganda
• They explicate a discursive yet cohesive set of
‘filters’ through which economic and political elites
are able to ‘manufacture consent’ from the public
in support of elite interests and ideologies.
‘The same underlying power sources that own
the media and fund them as advertisers, that
serve as primary definers of the news, and that
produce flak and proper-thinking experts, also
play a key role in fixing basic principles and
dominant ideologies’ (Herman and Chomsky,
2002, p. xi).
Analysing the Production of Media
This can encompass a number of areas:
• The economics of media industries;
• The influence of politics on the production of
• The relationship between media production and
• The study of media organizations;
• The study of media occupations.
Media Consolidation
This area of study examines countries where the
ownership of media has become concentrated in a
small number of global corporations. In the United
States, the largest single media market in the
world, the number of corporations that controlled a
majority of media industries dwindled from about
fifty to six between 1983 and 2003 (Bagdikian,
Why does consolidated corporate
ownership of media matter?
Horizontal Integration: Some media companies
borrow or leverage huge sums of money to acquire
competitors. Faced with debt and pressure from
shareholders they seek to increase profitability by any
means necessary. This has led to:
Corporations applying political pressure for further
An increased dependence on advertising revenue;
A decrease in programming such as critical journalism
that is not as profitable as other programmes;
Avoidance of programming that may upset corporate
advertisers, policy-makers, or others in a position to
affect the bottom line.
Vertical integration – the process by which one
company seeks to acquire increasing control over
the entire supply chain of a product – also
suggests problems. Vertical integration is
appealing to media companies as it offers greater
profitability. By controlling different parts of the
supply chain, companies can reduce costs and
streamline the production and delivery of
products. While this reduces costs, it also affords
companies increasing control over media content.
Croteau and Hoynes (2006)
‘More than 40% of news journalists and executives
surveyed admitted they had engaged in selfcensorship for purposes of avoiding newsworthy
stories or softening the tone of stories’ (Croteau
and Hoynes, 2006, p. 179).
Media Products
• Sociologists think about the ways in which media
products represent the social world.
• The study of media products involves virtually
anything produced by mass media industries.
• This includes:
• Mediums and technologies;
• Media content;
• Media representations.
Media Technologies
Mediums and technologies fundamentally displace
older ways of being in the social world. McLuhan and
Quentin Fiore’s (1967, p.44) example of the advent of
the modern printing press provides an example, where
‘[t]he phonetic alphabet forced the magic world of the
ear to yield to the neutral world of the eye. Man was
given an eye for an ear.’ The fundamental aspects of
culture and communication that were contained and
transmitted though the mouth and the ear gave way to
the act of solitary reading of texts that were often
produced in faraway places.
Gutenberg’s Printing Press
• Johannes Gutenberg’s development of the
moveable type printing press around 1450 opened
up the ability of Europeans to cheaply produce
and disseminate written messages.
• Due to this technology, the Church’s authority on
religious, political and scientific matters waned as
people were increasingly able to read and
interpret texts for themselves.
• It was not the mere content of these writings that
precipitated such changes, but their form as well.
McLuhan (1962, p. 158) called print ‘the
technology of individualism.’ Knowledge in written
form could be saved, broken down and analysed,
and reconfigured by individuals on a level never
seen before.
• This allowed individuals to compare, contrast and
analyse texts produced by publishers not
controlled by the Church or political authorities.
• The emergence of several technologies at the turn of the
last century – the photograph, the telegraph and
telephone, the radio, the phonograph and television – in
turn radically subverted the dominance of the printed
• The rise of these technologies and corresponding forms
of communication are often referred to as ‘mass media,’
but this is a problematic term. We often think of mass
media as related to the growth of mass production and
consumption in the late 19th and 20th centuries, but the
mass dissemination of media had been occurring on
relative levels for centuries prior to the Industrial
Revolution. For this reason, media scholars often use
the term ‘mass communications’ to reflect more acute
historical changes in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
• Denis McQuail (1969) notes that mass forms of
• Require formal complex organizations;
• Are public to the degree that their content is open
to all in a relatively unstructured and informal
• Reach heterogeneous audiences;
• Are able to establish simultaneous contact with
large numbers of people in different locations;
• Are typified by relationships between the
communicator and audience where the former
are known only in their public roles.
While the internet has been widely touted as a
democratizing force in the availability of different
news sources, research suggests that a small
number of global companies such as the
Associated Press and Reuters have quickly
dominated internet news content and
Media Content Analysis
• By content media scholars mean both specific
information that is present in media messages and
the means by which specific mediums shape the
delivery and reception of such information.
• Content matters for sociologists because it tells us
something about the frequency of messages sent by
producers within a particular type of media product.
• The study of content asks how the meaning of media
content may be imbued within messages or products.
• The study of content also involves the question of
how particular mediums or technology may shape
• Content analysis is the study of the frequency of specific
messages within a given scope or range of media products
• In content analysis, sociologists may want to study word or
phrase frequencies within defined parameters (e.g. nightly
news), as well as the length or duration of specific
• Content analysis uses methodologies that allow words,
phrases, concepts, and other variables such as time or
duration to be ‘coded’ into quantifiable data.
• Analysis usually begins with a hypothesis. A hypothesis
defines assumed relationships between variables and allows
sociologists to set a research scope or parameter from
which they will draw their data.
• Sociologists then categorize this data into basic groups
according to their research question.
• After they have categorized data, researchers
then classify it.
• Researchers then seek to compare these groups
to other texts or data in ways that allow them to
make claims about the frequency of the messages
they are studying.
• After data has been compared, researchers
usually seek to explain their findings, drawing
upon both similar studies (when available) as well
as sociological theories.
• Other forms of media analysis seek to explain how media
messages may be structured in ways that make them meaningful
for people. Such approaches rely on the use of qualitative
methods focused on deducing meaning from textual
• Semiotics (the study of signs) originated from the work of the
linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. He focused on developing a
means by which people could understand and analyze the
linguistic and cultural meanings of sign-systems.
• A sign is a combination of the signifier (a sound, a word) and
the signified (the concept). There is ‘no logical connection
between a word and a concept’ (Berger, 2012, p. 9). Rather, the
association is arbitrary insofar as there may be any number of
ways to signify concepts, evidenced for example in words used in
different languages for similar (but not the exact same) concepts.
Thus, Saussure argued, all signs must be learned within the
context in which they are signified, and they acquire meaning
• The way in which we learn the meaning of signs
was for Saussure less arbitrary.
• Saussure argued that a primary way that the
meaning of signs is structured is through
difference and opposition. ‘What characterizes
each [sign] most exactly is being whatever the
others are not’ (Saussure, 1983, p. 115).
Black/white and good/bad constitute ‘binary’
oppositions through which the relative meaning of
signs can be further developed within a signsystem.
Semiotic analysis can function either synchronically
or diachronically:
• A synchronic analysis takes a fixed point in time
and analyzes the binaries within the text.
•A diachronic analysis is concerned with how a text
moves over time. This involves analysing the
narrative structure of a text, and identifying basic
themes and oppositions as they define characters
and other symbols though the movement of the
Saussure’s work provides a means to elucidate
how representations acquire subjective and
collective meaning. In particular, semiotics allows
us to ask how the meanings of signs are
constructed within a given sign-system, and
importantly, which binaries are privileged.
The question of how certain oppositions are
structured within sign-systems, for example the
privileging of rich over poor, white over black,
straight over gay, allows researchers a means by
which to delineate the structuring of messages
within the text itself and to ask why and how such
privileged signs resonate within larger social
Media Representations
Sociologists recognize that no media product or
message is ever objective. This does not mean that
every message is intentionally biased. While
propaganda and advertising may reflect more acute
ideologies, sociologists are also interested in how media
presents particular views or images of the social world
in less instrumental ways. The concept of representation
recognises that media images invariably present us with
a narrative or ‘frame’ of the social world that
simultaneously emanates reality while often masking the
fact that it is socially constructed.
An Example
Following the arrest of the American football star O.J.
Simpson for the murder of his wife and her friend,
Time Magazine and Newsweek ran the same arrest
photo on their magazine covers – only the
reproductions were not the same. The Newsweek
photo showed O.J. in a manner more similar to other
standard arrest photos. Time, on the other hand, had
darkened the photo in a way that made O.J. appear
more menacing and threatening – and for many
critics, more ‘Black’. The illustrator responsible for
altering the photo at Time argued that he had only
‘wanted to make it more artful, more compelling,’ but
perhaps most compelling was the public and critical
• All photographs are modified representations of the
material world. From the earliest daguerreotypes to
the use of digital cameras, photographers and
editors have utilized technologies of visual
representation that complicate the line between our
perceptions of the real and the socially constructed.
• All representations construct a social reality that in
turn makes them real.
• Ray Surette (1992, p. 1) noted that ‘people use
knowledge they obtain from the media to construct a
picture of the world, an image of reality on which
they base their actions.’
• Scholars who study media representation seek to
explain how dominant ideologies are produced in
ways that legitimize oppression and social
stratification as normal aspects of daily life.
• The work of bell hooks has traced the
epistemology of what is often referred to as ‘The
Other’ – the historical and contemporary
representation of groups presented in opposition
to ‘normal society’.
bell hooks
hooks observed that race and ethnicity become
alluring ‘primitive’ commodities to be consumed,
but always within the context of a subordinate
relationship to the hegemonic norm.
Media Reception
The rise of media consumer culture in the early
20th century was accompanied by a growing
recognition, and fear, that these new
technologies could easily influence the beliefs
and behaviours of mass populations.
The ‘hypodermic needle’ effect
• This suggests that media content can be directly
injected into the minds of audiences.
• Paul Lazarsfeld questioned this theory in empirical
research conducted amongst voters in the 1940s.
• He concluded that there was at most a ‘minimal’
media influence on voting preferences (Lazarsfeld
et al., 1944).
Stuart Hall (1973)
Hall set forth a theory of mass communication that
challenged the assumptions of both the
hypodermic needle theory, as well as the mass
society theory of Adorno and Horkheimer.
The key assumptions of Hall’s theory are:
• Meaning is not simply fixed or determined by the
• The message is never transparent;
• The audience is not a passive recipient of
(James Procter, 2004, p.59).
While Hall agreed with those such as Gramsci in
arguing that the media tend to reproduce or ‘encode’
dominant ideological representations, he argued that
such ‘dominant’ readings or ‘decoding’ were most
likely only when the reader shared similar worldviews,
experiences, and material circumstances (such as
social class) as those intended by the sender. In other
cases, where there was less symmetry between the
intent of the sender and reception by the receiver,
messages were often ‘negotiated,’ or partially accepted
but modified or altered in some way. Finally, in cases
where there was little symmetry, messages could be
decoded in ways ‘oppositional’ to the intended
Audience Reception
Research on audience reception has found that cultural
groups may decode television shows in markedly different
ways. Tamar Liebes and Elihu Katz’s (1990) study of the
television show Dallas found that while the show was
popular in many countries, it was compelling for different
audiences for different reasons. Different groups
‘negotiated’ the show to reflect particular cultural and
social values. For example, in Israel the authors found at
least four distinct readings of the show between Arabs,
Moroccan Jews, Russian Jews, and kibbutz members.
Violence and media influence
Debates continue over the influence of violent media,
particularly film, television and video games. Several
laboratory studies have found that when exposed to
violent programming, young men in particular reveal
heightened states of aggression. On the other hand,
comparative studies of violent programming across
different countries have cast doubt on the idea that there
is any simple direct effect between media violence and
violent behaviour.
Does the media have an influence?
• The evidence suggests that media does have an
influence on both individuals and groups, just not
necessarily a simple or linear one.
• There is evidence that some types of media distort
people’s perceptions of violence and crime.
• Gerbner et al. (1986) have called this the ‘cultivation
effect,’ where media is seen as less influential on
specific behaviours than on attitudes and beliefs.
Agenda Setting
To paraphrase Bernard Cohen (1963), the media may
not be able to tell people what to think, but it is very
effective in telling people what to think about. This is
referred to as the ‘agenda setting’ influence of media,
and as Croteau and Hoynes (2004, pp. 242-3) note,
numerous studies have demonstrated that ‘the media’s
coverage of issues [affect] public opinion more than the
issues’ objective prominence in the ‘real’ world.’
Through statistical analysis, researchers are able
to effectively measure the degree of media
influence on determining what the public thinks
about (at least as measured in public opinion
polls) within a given time frame. Sociologists call
this ‘salience transfer,’ or the degree to which the
media stories are seen as interesting and
important to the public.
• One of the most disturbing aspects of agenda
setting is the question of what is ‘left off’ the
• In determining what is newsworthy, the media act
in part as ‘gatekeepers’. In this sense, one of the
most powerful ‘effects’ of media today is not only its
ability to shape what we think about, but also what
we never think of at all.
Discussion Point 1: Who Counts?
• What sorts of events are particularly
• What media do you consult on a regular basis
and why?
• Do the media represent different ethnicities,
genders and social classes equally and fairly?
Discussion Point 2: The Rise of New
Social Media
• Are new social media empowering?
• Who controls social media?
• What are the negative aspects of social media?