In this chapter, we will trace the emergence of theories directly addressing questions about the way media might produce profound changes in social life through their subtle influence on the myriad of social practices that form the foundation of everyday life. These new perspectives argued that media might have the power to intrude into and alter how we make sense of ourselves and our social world. Media could alter how we view ourselves, our relationship to others, even the image that we have of our body.

Culture The learned behavior of members of a given social group


Media have become a primary means by which most of us experience or learn about many aspects of the world around us. Even when we don’t learn about these things directly from media, we learn about them from other people who get their ideas of the world from media. Mass society theory greeted similar types of social change with alarm. It viewed mediated culture as inferior to elite culture.

Cultural studies Focus on use of media to create forms of culture that structure everyday life


The various cultural theories of media can be identified in several ways. We use a dichotomy widely employed by cultural theorists to differentiate their scholarship (Garnham, 1995): Microscopic interpretive theories focus on how individuals and social groups use media to create and foster forms of culture that structure everyday life. These theories are usually referred to as cultural studies theory. Macroscopic structural theories focus on how media institutions are structured within capitalist economies. These theories focus attention on the way social elites operate media to earn profits and exercise influence in society. They argue that elites sometimes use media to propagate hegemonic culture as a means of maintaining their dominant position in the social order.

Hegemonic culture Culture imposed from above or outside that serves the interests of those in dominant social positions

Political economy theories Focus on social elites’ use of economic power to exploit media institutions


Cultural studies theories are less concerned with the long-term consequences of media for the social order and more concerned with looking at how media affect our individual lives. These theories, as we’ve seen throughout this book, are micro-level, or microscopic, because they deemphasize larger issues about the social order in favor of questions involving the everyday life of average people. Political economy theories, by contrast, are macroscopic cultural theories. They are less concerned with developing detailed explanations of how individuals are influenced by media and more interested with how the social order as a whole is affected.

Microscopic cultural studies researchers prefer to interpret what is going on in the world immediately around them. Many of them find the social world an endlessly fascinating place. They are intrigued by the mundane, the seemingly trivial, the routine. They view our experience of everyday life and of reality itself as an artificial social construction that we somehow maintain with only occasional minor breakdowns. They want to know what happens when mass media are incorporated into the routines of daily life and play an essential role in shaping our experience of the social world.



Theories openly espousing certain values and using these values to evaluate and criticize the status quo, providing alternate ways of interpreting the social role of mass media.

Critical theory often analyzes specific social institutions, probing the extent to which valued objectives are sought and achieved. Mass media and the mass culture they promote have become a focus for critical theory. Critical researchers link mass media and mass culture to a variety of social problems.

Strengths Weaknesses
1. Is politically based, action-oriented

2. Uses theory and research to plan change in the real world

3. Asks big, important questions about media control and ownership

1. Is too political; call to action is too subjective

2. Typically lacks scientific verification; based on subjective observation

3. When subjected to scientific verification, often employs innovative but controversial research methods


Cultural studies and political economy theorists employ a broad range of research methods and theory-generation strategies, including some that are unsystematic and selective. As a result, critics believe that personal biases and interests inevitably motivate culture researchers and affect the outcome of their work. But, argue cultural theory’s defenders, this is acceptable as long as researchers openly acknowledge those biases or interests.

Qualitative methods Research methods that highlight essential differences (distinctive qualities) in phenomena


In Europe, the development of grand social theory remained a central concern in the social sciences and humanities after World War II. Mass society theory gave way to a succession of alternate schools of thought. Some were limited to specific nations or specific academic disciplines or even certain universities. Others achieved widespread interest and acceptance. Most were not theories of media—they were theories of society offering observations about media and their place in society or the lives of individuals. Some of the most widely accepted were based on the writings of Karl Marx. Marxist theory influenced even the theories created in reaction against it. Marx’s ideas formed a foundation or touchstone for much post–World War II European social theory.

Grand social theories Highly ambitious, macroscopic, speculative theories that attempt to understand and predict important trends in culture and society

Marxist theory Theory arguing that the hierarchical class system is at the root of all social problems and must be ended by a revolution of the proletariat

Base (or substructure) of society In Marxist theory, the means of production superstructure In Marxist theory, a society’s culture

Ideology In Marxist theory, ideas present in a culture that mislead average people and encourage them to act against their own interests

Cultural Studies Theory

Strengths Weaknesses
1. Provides focus on how individuals develop their understanding of the social world

2. Asks big, important questions about the role of media

3. Respects content consumption abilities of audience members

1. Has little explanatory power at the macroscopic level

2. Focuses too narrowly on individual compared with societal effects

3. Typically lacks scientific verification; is based on subjective observation

4. When subjected to scientific verification, often employs nontraditional (controversial) research methods

High culture Set of cultural artifacts including music, art, literature, and poetry that humanists judge to have the highest value

Culture industries Mass media that turn high culture and folk culture into commodities sold for profit


Political economy theorists study elite control of economic institutions, such as banks and stock markets, and then try to show how this control affects many other social institutions, including the mass media (Murdock, 1989a). In certain respects, political economists accept the classic Marxist assumption that the base dominates the superstructure. They investigate the means of production by looking at economic institutions, expecting to find that these institutions shape media to suit their interests and purposes. Political economists have examined how economic constraints limit or bias the forms of mass culture produced and distributed through the media. Political economists have examined how economic constraints limit or bias the forms of mass culture produced and distributed through the media.

During the past four decades, compared to cultural studies theorists, political economy theorists have worked in relative obscurity.


Transmissional perspective View of mass communication as merely the process of transmitting messages from a distance for the purpose of control

Ritual Perspective View of mass communication as the representation of shared belief where reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed

Multiple points of access Idea that some people make interpretations at one level of meaning, whereas others make their interpretations at others


McLuhan drew on critical cultural theories such as political economy theory to develop his perspective, his work was rejected by political economists because it failed to provide a basis on which to produce positive social change. McLuhan had no links to any political or social movements. He seemed ready to accept whatever changes were dictated by and inherent in communications technology. Because he argued that technology inevitably causes specific changes in how people think, in how society is structured, and in the forms of culture that are created, McLuhan was a technological determinist.


Innis was one of the first scholars to systematically speculate at length about the possible linkages between communication media and the various forms of social structure found at certain points in history. In Empire and Communication (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), he argued that the early empires of Egypt, Greece, and Rome were based on elite control of the written word. He contrasted these empires with earlier social orders dependent on the spoken word. Innis maintained that before elite discovery of the written word, dialogue was the dominant mode of public discourse and political authority was much more diffuse.

Bias of communication Innis’s idea that communication technology makes centralization of power inevitable


The medium is the message McLuhan’s idea that new forms of media transform our experience of ourselves and our society, and this influence is ultimately more important than the content of specific messages

Global village McLuhan’s conception of a new form of social organization emerging as instantaneous electronic media tie the entire world into one great social, political, and cultural system




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