Cultural Studies Perspectives on International Communication

Cultural Studies Perspectives on International Communication

While much of the debate on international communication post-1945 and during the Cold War emphasized a structural analysis of its role in political and economic power relationships, there has been a discernible shift in research emphasis in the 1990s in parallel with the ‘depoliciticization’ of politics towards the cultural dimensions of communication and media. The cultural analysis of communication also has a well established theoretical tradition to draw upon, from Gramsci’s theory of hegemony to the works of the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School.
One group of scholars who adapted Gramsci’s notions of hegemony were based at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in Britain. Led by the Caribbean-born scholar Stuart Hall, ‘the Birmingham School’, as it came to be known in the 1970s did pioneering work on exploring the textual analysis of media, especially television, and ethnographic research. Particularly influential was Hall’s model of ‘encodingdecoding media discourse’ which theorized about how media texts are given ‘preferred readings’ by producers and how they may be interpreted in different ways – from accepting the dominant meaning; negotiating with the encoded message, or taking an oppositional view (Hall, 1980).
The model was widely adopted by scholars interested in the study of the ideological role of the mass media. However, the research focus of the Birmingham School was largely British, and more often than not, its perceptions of the ‘global’ were based on the ethnographic studies of migrant populations – their television viewing habits, consumption of music and other leisure activities. The undue emphasis on ethnic and racial identity and ‘multiculturalism’, tended to limit their research perspectives, exposing them to the danger, for example, of confusing ‘British Asian cultural identity’ with the diverse cultures and subcultures of the South Asian region, with its multiplicity of languages, ancient religions and ethnicities.
The dominant Western view of the global South is profoundly influenced by Eurocentricism, defined by the Egyptian theorist Samir Amin as constituting ‘one dimension of the culture and ideology of the modern capitalist world’ (Amin, 1988: vii). Many other scholars from the developing world have argued that contemporary representations of the global South are affected by the way the Orient has been historically constructed in Western thinking, for example, through travel writing (Kabbani, 1986), literature (Said, 1978; 1993) and films (Shohat and Stam, 1994), contributing to a continuity of subordination of non-European peoples in Western imagination. The US-based Palestinian scholar Edward Said has explored how dominant culture participated in the expansion and consolidation of nineteenth-century imperialism. Taking the Gramscian view of culture, Said writes:
“Western cultural forms can be taken out of the autonomous enclosures in which they have been protected, and placed instead in the dynamic global environment created by imperialism, itself revised as an ongoing contest between North and South, metropolis and periphery, white and native.” (1993:59)
Though the cultural studies approach professes to give voice to such issues – race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality remain its key concerns – it has generally rendered less importance to class-based analysis, despite the fact that championing the ‘popular’ has been a major achievement of this tradition. The cultural studies approach to communication has become increasingly important, especially in the USA and Australia and with its new-found interest in ‘global popular’, the trend is towards the internationalization of cultural studies.

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The Public Sphere – International Communication

A natural heir to the critical theorists, the German sociologist Jiirgen Habermas (born 1929) also lamented the standardization, massification and atomization of the public. Habermas developed the concept of the public sphere in one of his earliest books, though it was 27 years before it appeared in English translation as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere:
“An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, in 1989. He defined the public sphere as an arena, independent of government (even if in receipt of state funds) and also enjoying autonomy from partisan economic forces, which is dedicated to rational debate (i.e. to debate and discussion which is not ‘interests’, ‘disguised’ or ‘manipulated’) and which is both accessible to entry and open to inspection by the citizenry. It is here, in this public sphere, that public opinion is formed.” (quoted in Holub, 1991: 2-8)
Habermas argued that the ‘bourgeois public sphere’ emerged in an expanding capitalist society exemplified by eighteenth-century Britain, where entrepreneurs were becoming powerful enough to achieve autonomy from state and church and increasingly demanding wider and more effective political representation to facilitate expansion of their businesses. In his formulation of a public sphere, Habermas gave prominence to the role of information, as, at this time, a greater freedom of the press was fought for and achieved with parliamentary reform. The wider availability of printing facilities and the resultant reduction in production costs of newspapers stimulated debate contributing to what Habermas calls ‘rational-acceptable policies’, which led by the mid-nineteenth century to the creation of a ‘bourgeois public sphere’.
This idealized version of a public space was characterized by greater accessibility of information, a more open debate within the bourgeoisie, a space independent of both business interests and state apparatus. However, as capitalism expanded and attained dominance, the call for reform of the state was replaced by an effort to take it over to further business interests. As commercial interests became prominent in politics and started exerting their influence – for example, by lobbying parliament, funding political parties and cultural institutions – the autonomy of the public sphere was severely reduced.
In the twentieth century, the growing power of information management and manipulation through public relations and lobbying firms has contributed to making contemporary debates a ‘faked version’ of a genuine public sphere (Habermas, 1989: 195). In this ‘refeudalization’ of the public sphere, public affairs have become occasions for ‘displays’ of power in the style of medieval feudal courts rather than a space for debate on socioeconomic issues.
Habermas also detects refeudalization in the changes within the mass media systems, which have become monopoly capitalist organizations, promoting capitalist interests, and thus affecting their role as disseminators of information for the public sphere. In a market-driven environment, the overriding concern for media corporations is to produce an artefact which will appeal to the widest possible variety of audiences and thus generate maximum advertising revenue. It is essential, therefore, that the product is diluted in content to meet the lowest common denominator – sex, scandal, celebrity lifestyles, action adventure and sensationalism. Despite their negligible informational quality such media products reinforce the audience’s acceptance of ‘the soft compulsion of constant consumption training’ (Habermas, 1989: 192).
Though the idealized version of the public sphere has been criticized for its very male, Eurocentric and bourgeois limitations, the public sphere provides a useful concept in understanding democratic potential for communication processes (Calhoun, 1992; Dahlgren, 1995). In recent years, with the globalization of the media and communication, there has been talk about the evolution of a ‘global public sphere’ where issues of international significance – environment, human rights, gender and ethnic equality – can be articulated through the mass media, though the validity of such a concept is also contested (Sparks, 1998).

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Critical Theory – International Communication

Among the substantial body of research undertaken by the Frankfurt School theorists, the concept of the ‘culture industry’, first used by Adorno and Horkheimer in a book entitled Dialectic of Enlightenment written in 1944 and published in 1947, has received the widest international attention. Identified with the staff of the Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923 and affiliated with the University of Frankfurt, its key members included Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Theodor Adorno (1903-69) and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979).
Analysing the industrial production of cultural goods – films, radio programmes, music and magazines, etc. – as a global movement, they argued that in capitalist societies the trend was towards producing culture as a commodity (Adorno, 1991). Adorno and Horkheimer believed that cultural products manifested the same kind of management practices, technological rationality and organizational schemes as the mass-produced industrial goods such as cars. This ‘assembly-line character’, they argued, could be observed in ‘the synthetic, planned method of turning out its products (factory-like not only in the studio but, more or less, in the compilation of cheap biographies, pseudo-documentary novels, and hit songs)’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979 [1947]: 163).
Such industrial production led to standardization, resulting in a mass culture made up of a series of objects bearing the stamp of the culture industry. This industrially produced and commodified culture, it was argued, led to a deterioration of the philosophical role of culture. Instead, this mediated culture contributed to the incorporation of the working classes into the structures of advanced capitalism and in limiting their horizons to political and economic goals that could be realized within the capitalist system without challenging it. The critical theorists argued that the development of the ‘culture industry’ and its ability to ideologically inoculate the masses against socialist ideas benefited the ruling classes.
Marrying the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud with Marxian economic analysis, the critical theorists borrowed the notion of commodification from Marx, who had argued that objects are commodified by acquiring an exchange value instead of their intrinsic value. In their analysis of cultural products, they argued that in a capitalist economy cultural products are produced and sold in media markets as commodities and the consumers buy them not just because of their intrinsic worth but in exchange for entertainment or to fulfil their psychological needs.
The concentration of ownership of cultural production in a few producers resulted in a standardized commercial commodity, contributing to what they called a ‘mass culture’ – influenced by the mass media and one which thrived on the market rules of supply and demand. In their view, such a process undermined the critical engagement of masses with important socio-political issues and ensured a politically passive social behaviour and the subordination of the working classes to the ruling elite.
Marcuse, who migrated to the USA where he had a huge influence on the labour movement, argued that technological rationality or instrumental reason had reduced speech and thought to a single dimension, establishing what he called a ‘one-dimensional society’ which had abolished the distance required for critical thought. One of the most incisive chapters of Marcuse’s book One Dimensional Man (1964), discusses ‘one-dimensional language’ and frequently refers to media discourse.
In an international context the idea of ‘mass culture’ and media and cultural industries has influenced debates about the flow of information between countries. The issue of the commodification of culture is present in many analyses of the operation of book publishing, film and popular music industries. One indication of this was the 1982 UNESCO report which argued that cultural industries in the world were greatly influenced by the major media and communication companies and were being continually corporatized. The expansion of mainly Western-based cultural products globally had resulted, it argued, in the gradual ‘marginalisation of cultural messages that do not take the form of goods, primarily of values as marketable commodities’ (UNESCO, 1982: 10).
This emphasis on ownership and control of the means of cultural production and the argument that it directly shapes the activities of artists has been contested by several writers, arguing that creativity and cultural consumption can be independent of production cycles and that the production process itself is not as organised or rigidly standardized as stated by the Frankfurt School theorists.

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Hegemony – International Communication

By arguing that the propaganda model succeeds because there is no significant overt coercion from the state, Herman and Chomsky, in some ways, were following the European analyses of the role of ideology and state power in a capitalist society, articulated by, among others, the French Marxist Louis Althusser who called the media ‘ideological state apparatus’ (1971).
Another major influence on critical theorists as well as on cultural critics in the study of ideology is the writings of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). The impact of the ideas of Gramsci, who died in prison under the Fascist regime, has been widespread in critical studies of international communication. However, it was not until the translation into English of his most famous work, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, in 1971, that Gramsci’s ideas became a major influence in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Gramsci’s conception of hegemony is rooted in the notion that the dominant social group in a society has the capacity to exercise intellectual and moral direction over society at large and to build a new system of social alliances to support its aims. Gramsci argued that military force was not necessarily the best instrument to retain power for the ruling classes, but that a more effective way of wielding power was to build a consent by ideological control of cultural production and distribution.
According to Gramsci, such a system exists when a dominant social class exerts moral and intellectual leadership – through its control of such institutions as schools, religious bodies and the mass media – over both allied and subordinate classes. Social and intellectual authority is exercised by the government ‘with the consent of the governed – but with this consent organised, and not generic and vague’ in such a fashion that its right to govern is rarely challenged seriously. The ‘state does have and request consent but it also “educates” this consent’ (Gramsci, 1971).
One of the most important functions of the state, Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks, ‘is to raise the great mass of the population to a particular cultural and moral level, a level (or type) which corresponds to the needs of the productive forces for development, and hence to the interests of the ruling classes’. Schools, courts and a multitude of ‘initiatives and activities … form the apparatus of the political and cultural hegemony of the ruling classes’ (Gramsci, 1971: 258-9).
This, he argued, was in contrast with a situation in which the dominant class merely rules, that is, coercively imposes its will on subordinate classes. This consent thus manufactured, however, cannot simply be assumed or guaranteed and has to be renewed, indicating that hegemony is more of a process – which is to be continually reproduced, secured and lost – rather than an achieved state of affairs.
In international communication, the notion of hegemony is widely used to conceptualize political functions of the mass media, as a key player in propagating and maintaining the dominant ideology and also to explain the process of media and communication production, with dominant ideology shaping production of news and entertainment (Hallin, 1994). Thus, though the media are notionally free from direct government control, yet they act as agents of legitimization of the dominant ideology.

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Structural Imperialism

Galtung argues that the world consists of developed ‘centre’ states and underdeveloped ‘periphery’ states. In turn, each centre and periphery state possesses a ‘core’ – a highly developed area – and a less developed ‘periphery’. He defines structural imperialism as a ‘sophisticated type of dominance relation which cuts across nations basing itself on a bridgehead which the centre of the centre nation establishes in the centre of the periphery nation for the joint benefit of both’. For Galtung, there is a harmony of interest between the core of the centre nation and the centre in the periphery nation; less harmony of interest within the periphery nation than within the centre nation and a disharmony of interest between the periphery of the centre nation and the periphery of the periphery nation (Galtung, 1971: 83).
In other words, there exists in the countries of the South a dominant elite whose interests coincide with the interests of the elite in the developed world. This ‘core’ thus not only provides a bridgehead by which the centre nation can maintain its economic and political domination over the periphery nation, but is also supported by the centre in maintaining its dominance over its own periphery. In terms of values and attitudes, the elite group is closer to other elites in the developed world than with groups in their own country.
Galtung defines five types of imperialism that depend upon the type of exchange between centre and periphery nations: economic, political, military, communication and cultural. The five types form a syndrome of imperialism, and interact, albeit through different channels, to reinforce the dominance relationship of centre over periphery. Communication imperialism is intimately related to cultural imperialism and news is a combination of cultural and communication exchange (Galtung, 1971: 93).
Periphery-centre relationships are maintained and reinforced by information flows and through the reproduction of economic activities. These create institutional links that serve the interests of the dominant groups, both in the centre and within the periphery. Institutions in the centre of the periphery often mirror those of the developed world and thus recreate and promote the latter’s value systems.
According to Galtung, the basic mechanism of structural imperialism revolves around two forms of interaction, ‘vertical’ and ‘feudal’. The ‘vertical’ interaction principle maintains that relationships are asymmetrical; that the flow of power is from the more developed state to the less developed state, while the benefits of the system flow upwards from the less developed states to the centre states. The ‘feudal’ interaction principle states that there ‘is interaction along the spokes, from the periphery to the centre hub; but not along the rim, from one periphery nation to another’ (Galtung, 1971: 89).
The feudal interaction structure reinforces the inequalities produced by the vertical interaction structures. Communication and information flow from the centre to the periphery and back again: for example, Southern states receive information about the North but little information about fellow developing countries.
Galtung’s theory maintains that communication imperialism is based on the feudal interaction structure in which the periphery states are tied to the centre in particular ways. Information flows from different core states in different proportions, determined by capital and trade flows, as well as historical, colonial ties.
According to Galtung, the pattern of news flow exhibits these vertical and feudal patterns:
news flows from the core to the periphery via the transnational news agencies, while journalists gather information in Southern countries that is eventually retransmitted via the agencies. The effect of this feudal structure is that Southern nations know virtually nothing about events in neighbouring countries that has not been filtered through the lenses of the developed media systems. The theory argues that if the core actors are defining news according to the criteria and demand for news in the developed world market, then the demand for and criteria of news will be similar in the centre of the peripheral nation. This has been called the ‘agenda-setting function’ of the international media. Information is transferred to the Southern elite in such a way that primary importance is attached to the same issues the developed world sees as important. The identity of interests between the centre of the centre and the centre of the periphery greatly influences the acceptance of an international agenda and thus Galtung’s theory is particularly relevant in understanding global news flow.
A striking similarity can be found in Galtung’s theory of structural imperialism with Schiller’s definition of cultural imperialism. Both maintain that the structure of political and economic domination exercised by the centre over the periphery results in the re-creation of certain aspects of the centre’s value system in the periphery.
There is also evidence of a dependency relationship in the field of media and communication research in Southern countries. As British media analyst James Halloran notes:
Wherever we look in international communication research – exports and imports of textbooks, articles and journals; citations, references and footnotes; employment of experts (even in international agencies); and the funding, planning and execution of research – we are essentially looking at a dependency situation. This is a situation which is characterised by a one-way flow of values, ideas, models, methods and resources from North to South. It may even be more specifically as a flow from the Anglo-Saxon language fraternity to the rest of the world. (1997:39)
Dependency theory has enjoyed widespread influence and equally widespread criticism. It was criticized for concentrating on the impact of transnational business and the role of other external forces on social and economic development to the neglect of internal class, gender, ethnic and power relations. Theorists such as Galtung responded by examining the roles of the often unrepresentative elites in the South in maintaining and indeed benefiting from the dependency syndrome. While the globalization of new information and communication technologies and the resultant wiring up of the globe, and the emphasis on cultural hybridization rather than cultural imperialism, have made dependency theories less fashionable, the structural inequalities in international communication continue to render them relevant.

Another concern for scholars working within the political economy approach has been to analyse the close relationship between media and foreign policy. The role of the mass media as an instrument of propaganda for corporate and state power has been an important area of inquiry among critical scholars (Herman and Chomsky, 1988/1994). In their ‘propaganda model’ US economist, Edward Herman, and the renowned linguist, Noam Chomsky, examine through a range of detailed case studies, how news in mainstream US media system passes through several ‘filters’, including the size, concentrated ownership and profit orientation of media firms; their heavy reliance on advertising and dependence on business and governmental sources for information; and the overall dominant ideology within which they operate. These elements, write Herman and Chomsky, ‘interact with and reinforce one another and set the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the definition of what is newsworthy’ (1994: 2).
For Herman and Chomsky, a propaganda approach to media coverage suggests:
a systematic and highly political dichotomisation in news coverage based on serviceability to important domestic power interests. This should be observable in dichotomised choices of story and in the volume and quality of coverage … such dichotomisation in the mass media is massive and systematic: not only are choices for publicity and suppression comprehensible in terms of system advantage, but the modes of handling favoured and inconvenient materials (placement, tone, context, fullness of treatment) differ in ways that serve political interests’. (ibid.: 35)
Despite meticulously researched case studies – ranging from the US media’s coverage of the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, to its treatment of US involvement in subversive activities in Central America during the 1980s – the propaganda model has received more than its share of criticism, especially in the West. Internationally, however, Manufacturing Consent, a title borrowed from a phrase used by Lippmann in a 1922 publication, had a profound influence. Though criticized for its ‘polemical’ style, the book remains one of the few systematic and detailed studies of the politics of mass media.

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Dependency Theory

Dependency theory emerged in Latin America in the late 1960s and 1970s, partly as a consequence of the political situation in the continent, with increasing US support for right-wing authoritarian governments, and partly with the realization among the educated elite that the developmentalist approach to international communication had failed to deliver. The establishment, in 1976, in Mexico City of the Instituto Latinamericano de Estudios (ILET), whose principal research interest was the study of transnational media business, gave an impetus to a critique of the ‘modernization’ thesis, documenting its negative consequences in the continent. The impact of ILET was also evident in international policy debates about NWICO, particularly through the work of Juan Somavia, a member of the MacBride Commission.
Though grounded in the neo-Marxist political-economy approach (Baran, 1957; Gunder Frank, 1969; Amin 1976), dependency theorists aimed to provide an alternative framework to analyse international communication. Central to dependency theory was the view that transnational corporations (TNCs), most based in the North, exercise control, with the support of their respective governments, over the developing countries by setting the terms for global trade – dominating markets, resources, production, and labour. Development for these countries was shaped in a way to strengthen the dominance of the developed nations and to maintain the ‘peripheral’ nations in a position of dependence – in other words, to make conditions suitable for ‘dependent development’. In its most extreme form the outcome of such relationship was ‘the development of underdevelopment’ (Gunder Frank, 1969).
This neo-colonial relationship in which the TNCs controlled both the terms of exchange and the structure of global markets, it was argued, had contributed to the widening and deepening of inequality in the South while the TNCs had strengthened their control over the world’s natural and human resources (Baran, 1957; Mattelart, 1979).
The cultural aspects of dependency theory, examined by scholars interested in the production, distribution and consumption of media and cultural products, were particularly relevant to the study of international communication. The dependency theorists aimed to show the links between discourses of ‘modernization’ and the policies of transnational media and communication corporations and their backers among Western governments.
Dependency theorists both benefited from, and contributed to, research on cultural aspects of imperialism being undertaken at the time in the USA. The idea of cultural imperialism is most clearly identified with the work of Herbert Schiller, who was based at the University of California (1969/92).Working within the neo-Marxist critical tradition, Schiller analysed the global power structures in the international communication industries and the links between transnational business and the dominant states.
At the heart of Schiller’s argument was the analysis of how, in pursuit of commercial interests, huge US-based transnational corporations, often in league with Western (predominantly US) military and political interests, were undermining the cultural autonomy of the countries of the South and creating a dependency on both the hardware and software of communication and media in the developing countries. Schiller defined cultural imperialism as:
the sum of the processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even to promote, the values and structures of the dominant centre of the system. (Schiller, 1976: 9)
Schiller argued that the declining European colonial empires – mainly British, French and Dutch – were being replaced by a new emergent American empire, based on US economic, military and informational power.
According to Schiller, the US-based TNCs have continued to grow and dominate the global economy. This economic growth has been underpinned with communications know-how, enabling US business and military organizations to take leading roles in the development and control of new electronically- based global communication systems.
Such domination had both military and cultural implications. Schiller’s seminal work, Mass Communications and American Empire (1969/1992), examined the role of the US government, a major user of communication services, in developing global electronic media systems, initially for military purposes to counter the perceived, and often exaggerated, Soviet security threat. By controlling global satellite communications, the USA had the most effective surveillance system in operation – a crucial element in the Cold War years. Such communication hardware could also be used to propagate the US model of commercial broadcasting, dominated by large networks and funded primarily by advertising revenue. Nothing less than the viability of the American industrial economy itself is involved in the movement toward international commercialisation of broadcasting. The private yet managed economy depends on advertising. Remove the excitation and the manipulation of consumer demand and industrial slowdown threatens. (Schiller, 1969: 95)
According to Schiller, dependence on US communications technology and investment, coupled with the new demand for media products, necessitated large-scale imports of US media products, notably television programmes. Since media exports are ultimately dependent on sponsors for advertising, they endeavour not only to advertise Western goods and services, but also promote, albeit indirectly, a capitalist ‘American way of life’, through mediated consumer lifestyles. The result was an ‘electronic invasion’, especially in the global South, which threatened to undermine traditional cultures and emphasize consumerism at the expense of community values.
US dominance of global communication increased during the 1990s with the end of the Cold War and the failure of the UNESCO-supported demands for NWICO, Schiller argued in the 1992 revised edition of the book. The economic basis of US dominance, however, had changed, with TNCs acquiring an increasingly important role in international relations, transforming US cultural imperialism into ‘transnational corporate cultural domination’ (Schiller, 1992: 39).
In a recent review of the US role in international communication during the past half-century, Schiller saw the US state still playing a decisive role in promoting the ever-expanding communication sector, a central pillar of the US economy. In US support for the promotion of electronic-based media and communication hardware and software in the new information age of the twenty-first century, Schiller found ‘historical continuities in its quest for systemic power and control,’ of global communication (1998: 23).
Other prominent works employing what has come to be known as ‘the cultural imperialism thesis’ have examined such diverse aspects of US cultural and media dominance as Hollywood’s relationship with the European movie market (Guback, 1969); US television exports and influences in Latin America (Wells, 1972); the contribution of Disney comics in promoting capitalist values (Dorfman and Mattelart, 1975) and the role of the advertising industry as an ideological instrument (Ewen, 1976; Mattelart, 1991). Internationally, some of the most significant work has been the UNESCOsupported research on international flow in television programmes (Nordenstreng and Varis, 1974; Varis, 1985).
One prominent aspect of dependency in international communication was identified in the 1970s by Oliver Boyd-Barrett as ‘media imperialism’, examining information and media inequalities between nations and how these reflect broader issues of dependency, and analysing the hegemonic power of mainly US-dominated international media – notably news agencies, magazines, films, radio and television. Boyd-Barrett defined media imperialism as:
The process whereby the ownership, structure, distribution or content of the media in any one country are singly or together subject to substantial external pressures from the media interests of any other country or countries, without proportionate reciprocation of influence by the country so affected. (1977:117)
For its critics, dependency literature was ‘notable for an absence of clear definitions of fundamental terms like imperialism and an almost total lack of empirical evidence to support the arguments’ (Stevenson, 1988: 38). Others argued that it ignored the question of media form and content as well as the role of the audience. Those involved in a cultural studies approach to the analysis of international communication argued that, like other cultural artefacts, media ‘texts’ could be polysemic and were amenable to different interpretations by audiences who were not merely passive consumers but ‘active’ participants in the process of negotiating meaning (Fiske, 1987). It was also pointed out that the ‘totalistic’ cultural imperialism thesis did not adequately take on board such issues as how global media texts worked in national contexts, ignoring local patterns of media consumption.
Quantifying the volume of US cultural products distributed around the world was not a sufficient explanation, it was also important to examine its effects. There was also a view that cultural imperialism thesis assumed a ‘hypodermic-needle model’ of media effects and ignored the complexities of ‘Third World’ cultures (Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1991; 1997). It was argued that the Western scholars had a less than deep understanding of Third World cultures, seeing them as homogeneous and not being adequately aware of the regional and intra-national diversities of race, ethnicity, language, gender and class. However, there have yet been few systematic studies of the cultural and ideological effects of Western media products on audiences in the South, especially from Southern scholars.
Despite its share of criticism (Tomlinson, 1991; Thompson, 1995), the cultural imperialism thesis was very influential in international communication research in the 1970s and 1980s. It was particularly important during the heated NWICO debates in UNESCO and other international fora in the 1970s. However, even a critic such as John Thompson, while rejecting the main thesis, has conceded that such research is ‘probably the only systematic and moderately plausible attempt to think about the globalisation of communications and its impact on the modern world’ (Thompson, 1995: 173).
Defenders of the thesis found the 1990s’ debates criticizing cultural imperialism ‘lacking even the most elementary epistemological precaution and sometimes actually bordering on intellectual dishonesty’, arguing that the critics of this theory have often ‘taken the notion out of context, abstracting it from the concrete historical conditions that produced it: the political struggles and commitments of the 1960s and 1970s’ (Mattelart and Mattelart, 1998: 137-8).
With changes in debates on international communication reflecting the rhetoric of privatization and liberalization in the 1990s, theories of media and cultural dependency have become less prominent. However, Boyd- Barrett has argued that while media imperialism theory, in its original formulation, did not take into account intra-national media relations, gender and ethnic issues, it is still a useful analytical tool to make sense of what he terms as the ‘colonisation of communications space’ (Boyd- Barrett, 1998: 157).
One of the limits of the cultural and media imperialism approach is that it did not fully take into account the role of the national elites, especially in the developing world. However, though its influence has dwindled, the theory of structural imperialism developed by the Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, also offers an explanation of the role of international communication in maintaining structures of economic and political power.

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Modernization Theory

Complementary to the doctrine of ‘free flow of information‘ in the post-war years was the view that international communication was the key to the process of modernization and development for the so-called ‘Third World’. Modernization theory arose from the notion that international mass communication could be used to spread the message of modernity and transfer the economic and political models of the West to the newly independent countries of the South. Communications research on what came to be known as ‘modernization’ or ‘development theory’ was based on the belief that the mass media would help transform traditional societies. This promedia bias was very influential and received support from international organizations such as UNESCO and by the governments in developing countries.
One of the earliest exponents of this theory was Daniel Lerner, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose classic work in the field, The Passing of Traditional Society (1958) – the product of research conducted in the early 1950s in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iran – examined the degree to which people in the Middle East were exposed to national and international media, especially radio. In this first major comparative survey, Lerner proposed that contact with the media helped the process of transition from a ‘traditional’ to a ‘modernized’ state, characterizing the mass media as a ‘mobility multiplier’, which enables individuals to experience events in far-off places, forcing them to reassess their traditional way of life. Exposure to the media, Lerner argued, made traditional societies less bound by traditions and made them aspire to a new and modern way of life.
The Western path of ‘development’ was presented as the most effective way to shake off traditional ‘backwardness’: according to Lerner:
[The] Western model of modernisation, exhibits certain components and sequences whose relevance is global. Everywhere for example increasing urbanisation has tended to raise literacy; rising literacy has tended to increase media exposure; increasing media exposure has ‘gone with’ wider economic participation (per capita income) and political participation. (Lerner, 1958: 46)
Western society, Lerner argued, provided ‘the most developed model of societal attributes (power, wealth, skill, rationality)’, and ‘from the West came the stimuli which undermined traditional society that will operate efficiently in the world today, the West is still a useful model’ (ibid.: 47).
Another key modernization theorist Wilbur Schramm, whose influential book, Mass Media and National Development, was published in 1964 in conjunction with UNESCO, saw the mass media as a ‘bridge to a wider world’, as the vehicle for transferring new ideas and models from the North to the South and, within the South, from urban to rural areas. Schramm, at the time Director of the Institute for Communication Research at Stanford University, California, noted:
the task of the mass media of information and the ‘new media’ of education is to speed and ease the long, slow social transformation required for economic development, and, in particular, to speed and smooth the task of modernising human resources behind the national effort. (Schramm, 1964: 27)
Schramm endorsed Lerner’s view that mass media can raise the aspirations of the peoples in developing countries. The mass media in the South, he wrote, ‘face the need to rouse their people from fatalism and a fear of change. They need to encourage both personal and national aspirations. Individuals must come to desire a better life than they have and to be willing to work for it’ (ibid. 1964: 130).
The timing of Schramm’s book was significant. The UN had proclaimed the 1960s as ‘the Decade of Development’ and UN agencies and Western governments, led by the USA, were generously funding research, often in conjunction with private companies, through universities and development bureaucracy, notably the newly established United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States Information Agency (USIA), and the Peace Corps, to harness the power of the mass media to ‘modernize’ the newly independent countries of the South.
In the 1970s, modernization theorists started to use the level of media development as an indicator of general societal development. Leading theorists of the ‘development as modernization’ school, such as Everett Rogers, saw a key role for the mass media in international communication and development (Rogers, 1962; Pye, 1963). Such research benefited from the surveys undertaken by various US-government-funded agencies and educational foundations, especially in Asia and Latin America for what Rogers (1962) called ‘disseminating innovations’.
This top-down approach to communications, a one-way flow of information from government or international development agencies via the mass media to Southern peasantry at the bottom, was generally seen as a panacea for the development of the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa. But it was predicated on a definition of development that followed the model of Western industrialization and ‘modernization’, measured primarily by the rate of economic growth of output or Gross National Product (GNP). It failed to recognize that the creation of wealth on its own was insufficient: the improvement of life for the majority of the populations depended on the equitable distribution of that wealth and its use for the public good. It also failed to ask questions like development for whom and who would gain or lose, ignoring any discussion of the political, social, or cultural dimensions of development In many Southern countries, income disparities in fact increased over the succeeding thirty years – despite a growth in GNP.
Moreover, the mass media were assumed to be a neutral force in the process of development, ignoring how the media are themselves products of social, political, economic and cultural conditions. In many developing countries economic and political power was and remains restricted to a tiny, often unrepresentative, elite, and the mass media play a key role in legitimizing the political establishment. Since the media had, and continue to have, close proximity to the ruling elites, they tend to reflect this view of development in the news.
The international communication research inspired by the modernization thesis was very influential, shaping university communication programmes and research centres globally. Though such research provided huge amount of data on the behaviour, attitudes and values of the people in the South, it tended to work within the positivist tradition of what sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld (1941) had long identified as ‘administrative’ research, often failing to analyse the political and cultural context of international communication.
However, the outcomes of this type of research in international communication can be useful in analysing the relationship of media growth to economic development, measured in terms of such indicators as sales of communication hardware and gross national product. They are also useful in international promotion of advertising and marketing.
It is important to understand the Cold War context in which modernization theory emerged, a time when it was politically expedient for the West to use the notion of modernization to bring the newly independent nations of Asia, the Middle East and Africa into the sphere of capitalism. As Vincent Mosco comments: ‘The theory of modernisation meant a reconstruction of the international division of labour amalgamating the non-Western world into the emerging international structural hierarchy’ (1996: 121). It is now being accepted that some of modernization research was politically motivated. It has been pointed out that Lerner’s seminal study was a spin-off from a large and clandestine government-funded audience research project, conducted for the Voice of America by the Bureau of Applied Social Research (Samarajiva, 1985).
Despite its enormous influence in the field of international communication, Lerner’s research had more to do with the East-West ideological contest of those days of Cold War, when in the Middle East radical voices were demanding decolonization – Iran had nationalized its oil industry in 1951, leading to the CIA-backed coup, two years later, which removed the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Musaddiq. Given the prominence of radio propaganda during the 1950s, this research could also be seen as an investigation of radio listening behaviour in a region bordering the Soviet Union. In this context it is interesting to note that Lerner had worked for the Psychological Warfare Division of the US Army during the Second World War.
One major shortcoming of the early modernization theorists was their assumption that the modern and the traditional lifestyles were mutually exclusive, and their dismissive view of the culture of the ‘indigent natives’ led them to believe in the desirability and inevitability of a shift from the traditional to the modern. The dominant cultural and religious force in the region – Islam – and a sense of collective pan-Islamic identity were seen as ‘sentimental sorties into the symbolism of a majestic past’. The elites in the region had to choose between ‘Mecca or mechanisation’. The crux of the matter, Lerner argued, was ‘not whether, but how one should move from traditional ways toward modern life-styles. The symbols of race and ritual fade into irrelevance when they impede living desires for bread and enlightenment’ (Lerner, 1958: 405).
What modernizers such as Lerner failed to comprehend was that the dichotomy of modern versus traditional was not inevitable. Despite all the West’s efforts at media modernization, Islamic traditions continue to define the Muslim world, and indeed have become stronger in parts of the Middle East. In addition, these cultures can also use modern communication methods to put their case across. In the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, for example, radical groups produced printed material and audiocassettes and distributed them through informal networks to promote an anti-Western ideology based on a particular Islamic view of the world (Mohammadi and Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1994).
In Latin America most communication research, often funded by the US government, was led by proponents of the modernization thesis. However, since the gap between the rich and poor was growing, as elsewhere in the developing world, critics started to question the validity of the developmentalist project and raised questions about what it left out – the relationship between communication, power and knowledge and the ideological role of international organizational and institutional structures. This led to a critique of modernization in Latin America, most notably from Brazil’s Paulo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) had a major influence on international development discourse, though how far his views were adopted in devising international communication strategies remains an open question.
Southern scholars, especially those from Latin America, argued that the chief beneficiaries of modernization programmes were not the ‘traditional’ rural poor in the South but Western media and communication companies, which had expanded into the Third World, ostensibly in the name of modernization and development, but in fact in search of new consumers for their products. They argued that modernization programmes were exacerbating the already deep social and economic inequalities in the developing countries and making them dependent on Western models of communication development.
Partly as a result of the work of Latin American scholars, the proponents of modernization in the West acknowledged that the theory needed reformulation. Despite decades of ‘modernization’, the vast majority of the people in the South continued to live in poverty, and by the mid-1970s the talk was of the ‘passing of the dominant paradigm’ (Rogers, 1976). In a revised version of modernization theory, a shift has been detectable from support for the mass media to an almost blind faith in the potential of the new information and communication technologies – in what has been called ‘a neo-developmentalist view’ (Mosco, 1996: 130).
Also noticeable is the acceptance of a greater role for local elites in the modernization process. However, the importance of Western technology remains crucial in the revised version too. According to this view, modernization requires advanced telecommunication and computer infrastructure, preferably through the ‘efficient’ private corporations, thus integrating the South into a globalized information economy.

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