Mass Communication Talk

Approaches to Theorizing International Communication

Theories have their own history and reflect the concerns of the time in which they were developed. This chapter examines some that offer ways of approaching the subject of international communication and assesses how useful their explanations are in terms of an understanding of the processes involved. This is by no means a comprehensive account of theories of communication (see McQuail, 1994; Mattelart and Mattelart, 1998), nor does it set out an all-embracing theorization of the subject, but looks at the key theories and their proponents, which together with the preceding chapter on the history of international communication, should help to contextualize the analysis of contemporary global communication systems in subsequent chapters.
It is not surprising that theories of communication began to emerge in parallel with the rapid social and economic changes of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, reflecting the significance of the role of communications in the growth of capitalism and empire, and drawing also on advances in science and the understanding of the natural world. One of the first concepts of communication, developed by the French philosopher Claude Henri de Saint Simon (1760-1825), used the analogy of the living organism, proposing that the development of a system of communication routes (roads, canals and railways) and a credit system (banks) was vital for an industrializing society and that the circulation of money, for example, was equivalent to that of blood for the human heart (Mattelart and Mattelart, 1998).
The metaphor of the organism was also fundamental for British philosopher Herbert Spenser (1820-1903), who argued that industrial society was the embodiment of an ‘organic society’, an increasingly coherent, integrated system, in which functions became more and more specified and parts more interdependent. Communication was seen as a basic component in a system of distribution and regulation. Like the vascular system, the physical network of roads, canals and railways ensured the distribution of nutrition, while the channels of information (the press, telegraph and postal service) functioned as the equivalent of the nervous system, making it possible for the centre to ‘propagate its influence’ to its outermost parts. ‘Dispatches are compared to nervous discharges that communicate movement from an inhabitant of one city to that of another’ (Mattelart and Mattelart, 1998: 9). At the same time, contemporary commentators were anxious about the social and cultural impact of the speed and reach of the new means of communication and the rise of a mass society fuelled and sustained by them.
In the twentieth century, theories of international communication evolved into a discrete discipline within the new social sciences and in each era have reflected contemporary concerns about political, economic and technological changes and their impact on society and culture. In the early twentieth century, during and after the First World War, a debate arose about the role of communication in propagating the competitive economic and military objectives of the imperial powers, exemplified in the work of Walter Lippmann on ‘public opinion’ (1922) and Harold Lasswell on wartime propaganda (1927). Lippmann’s concerns were mainly about the manipulation of public opinion by powerful state institutions, while Lasswell, a political scientist, did pioneering work on the systematic analysis of propaganda activities.
After the Second World War, theories of communication multiplied in response to new developments in technology and media, first radio and, then television, and the increasingly integrated international economic and political system. Two broad though often interrelated approaches to theorizing communication can be discerned: the political-economy approach concerned with the underlying structures of economic and political power relations, and the perspectives of cultural studies, focusing mainly on the role of communication and media in the process of the creation and maintaining of shared values and meanings (Golding and Murdoch, 1997; During, 1999).
The political-economy approach has its roots in the critique of capitalism produced by the German philosopher, Karl Marx (1818-83), but it has evolved over the years to incorporate a wide range of critical thinkers. Central to a Marxian interpretation of international communication is the question of power, which ultimately is seen as an instrument of control by the ruling classes. In his seminal text, German Ideology, Marx described the relationship between economic, political and cultural power thus:
The class which has the means of material production 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… Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they … among other things … regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.
(cited in Murdoch and Golding, 1977: 12-13)
Much of the critical research on international communication has been an examination of the pattern of ownership and production in the media and communication industries, analysing these within the overall context of social and economic power relations, based on national and transnational class interests. Researchers working within the Marxist tradition were concerned, for example, with the commodification of communication hardware and software and its impact on inequalities of access to media technologies.
The influence on international communication of the growing literature of cultural studies, increasingly transnational in intent, if not yet in perspectives, grew significantly in the late twentieth century. Social-science analyses of mass communication have been enriched by concepts from the study of literature and the humanities. Cultural Studies, which started in Britain with the study of popular and mass culture and their role in the reproduction of social hegemony and inequality, is now more generally concerned with how media texts work to create meaning (on the basis of analysis of the texts themselves), and how culturally situated individuals work to gather meaning from texts (increasingly based on observation of media consumers). Cultural Studies’ discovery of polysemic texts (the potential for readers to generate their own meanings) fitted well with a politically conservative era and the reinvigoration of liberal capitalism which accompanied it.

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