Being Sociological Chapter 20 Communicating 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 collectively. 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 ways: • 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 transformed. 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 reading. 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 domains. 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. Functionalism • 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 (1947) • 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 power. • 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 (2002) • Chomsky and Herman have argued that news media in particular are driven by a ‘propaganda model.’ • 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 media; • The relationship between media production and advertising; • 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, 2004). 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 deregulation; 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 word. • 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 communication: • Require formal complex organizations; • Are public to the degree that their content is open to all in a relatively unstructured and informal fashion; • 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 readership. 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. • 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 messages. • 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. Semiotics • 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 relationships. • 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. Synchronic/Diachronic 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 narrative. 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 settings. 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 response. • 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 sender; • The message is never transparent; • The audience is not a passive recipient of meaning. (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 meaning. 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 agenda. • 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 newsworthy? • 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?