This article is part of a series explained more fully in the first post here.
This series isn’t going to be an explication of the philosophy of science I have since learned as I would like to write about that in full detail, either in another series or a book. For this series, I would like to give a taste of what it is sociology, as one of the most denigrated sciences online, is actually like. Hopefully this will also inspire younger generations of students to study sociology and shows them how interesting and broad yet widely applicable this subject is. Contrary to the ignorant rhetoric popular online, it will hopefully show that sociology is not some easy option compared to the natural sciences, but we are held to similarly high standards- standards which all academics and intellectuals hold themselves to, even if we often use different methodologies in our research programmes.
The plan for this series so far is that the first 3 posts will be reflections of the last few seminars of a final year BSc Sociology (Hons) module covering “media, state and society”. The structure of this assignment, which I am reproducing here mostly unedited, was quite unusual compared to most work undertaken for this subject- essays and some fieldwork- but I think illustrates the variety of ways final year study is done. The first section is a short description of the seminar content, followed by my own critical reflections of the seminar, with discussion implementing my own interests in sociology and giving reference to the literature. Note: parts of the discussion are severely limited by the word count.
Theories of media imperialism have interested sociologists since the 1940s and have always centred on how analyses of the media can reveal relationships of power and domination (Tomlinson, 2002). Media imperialism is the process by which modern communications are used to maintain empire dominance and mass dependence (Demont-Heinrich, 2011). In this seminar, we discussed how more up to date theories of media imperialism must take into account the complexity of cultural transmission (Boyd-Barrett, 2015), how audiences actively interpret media according to their own cultural understandings and how new evidence conflicts or supports the media imperialism thesis.
FROM IMPERIAL HEGEMONY TO COMPETING MEDIA INTERESTS
Past theories of media imperialism have been based on prior Marxist analyses of cultural consumption and production, building on Lenin’s ideas about imperialism which have been from a materialist approach and therefore necessarily deterministic (Fuchs, 2010). Another issue with these methods is that they have tended to be based on methodological nationalism and newer theories have had to take into account globalisation (Sparks, 2012). Deterministic models may still be useful but need to be updated to take into account globalisation.
Globalisation means that building up comparisons of cultural production and consumption between and within countries is no longer suitable for the majority of cultural products and considering the homogeneity of culture across countries, especially between consumer culture liberal democracies in the West. A pluralistic model of competing media empires may still be suitable because corporations which grow thanks to communication technology can only grow hierarchically, as the technology is fundamentally one-to-many.
The rudimentary one-to-many nature of many technologies of mass communications used to transmit culture, along with McLuhan’s assertion that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan & Lapham, 1994) allows us to consider that these kinds of technology are imperialistic by nature. If we consider that the medium being one-to-many implies eventual hierarchy and domination, perhaps the implicit message we recognise when using these mass communications technologies is that hierarchy is inevitable. One of the founders of public relations, thinking on McLuhan’s work and his own ended up denouncing the technologies as inherently totalitarian for these reasons (Mander, 1978).
AGENCY AND HYBRIDISATION
Like other sociological theories as I have argued elsewhere, the question of media imperialism rests on the outcome of the structure versus agency debate. Some theorists have pointed out that this dialectic would help us know how to frame future research programmes as investigating either imperialism, from a structural perspective, or cultural hybridisation, considering mostly agency (Demont-Heinrich, 2011). However, the most adequate and comprehensive theories of human practice such as Giddens’ structuration theory and Bourdieu’s theory of practice, allow us to account for both structure and agency, the former posited as influencing the latter. Furthermore, I think that Bourdieu’s ideas about habitus and cultural capital will be important in group cultural habits without making ideas like cultural hybridisation completely defunct (Thatcher, et al., 2016).
FACEBOOK IMPERIALISM: FREE BASICS
In February 2016, India’s telecoms regulator blocked the app Free Basics for allegedly breaking net neutrality (BBC, 2016). Net neutrality is a principle of the free open internet which means that internet service providers, should allow users access to all content and applications on the internet, without favouring or blocking certain sources (except illegal content). Free Basics was a service which seemingly allowed, usually poor rural based, Indians to access websites which Facebook and its partners had chosen, meaning they could arbitrarily decide what content users had access to, yet giving users the impression that they have access to the free unrestricted internet Western users have become accustomed to and take for granted.
The case of Free Basics is not only support for renewing the thesis to be based on a pluralistic notion of imperialism with competing corporate interests, as it was an attempt to control the cultural consumption of a population by a group of transnational corporations rather than nation-states.
Moreover, this case shows that cultural/media imperialism theories are important for sociologists to investigate as clearly corporations are attempting to influence cultural consumption and production for some reason- most likely profit. There is reason for concern, especially considering the way the companies tried to obfuscate their intentions by clothing their attempts at control with emancipatory language, such as telling the world that they were giving their products for free while neglecting to mention the conditions of their gift. Similarly, in the West, internet users are increasingly having the content they see filtered with the excuse being that our search results etc. are tailored to improve our browsing experience (Pariser, 2011).
BBC, 2016. India blocks Zuckerberg’s free net app. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-35522899
[Accessed 25 May 2016].
Boyd-Barrett, O., 2015. Media Imperialism. London: Sage.
Demont-Heinrich, C., 2011. Cultural Imperialism versis Globalization of Culture: Riding the structure-agency dialectic in global communication and media studies. Sociology Compass, 5(8), pp. 666-678.
Fuchs, C., 2010. New Imperialism. Information and media imperialism?. Global media and communication, 6(1), pp. 33-60.
Mander, J., 1978. Four arguments for the elimination of television. New York: Quill.
McLuhan, M. & Lapham, L. H., 1994. Understanding media: the extensions of man. 2nd ed. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Pariser, E., 2011. The filter bubble: what the internet is hiding from you. London: Penguin.
Sparks, C., 2012. Media and cultural imperialism reconsidered. Chinese journal of communication, 5(3), pp. 281-299.
Thatcher, J., Ingram, N., Burke, C. & Abrahams, J., 2016. Bourdieu: the next generation. The development of bourdieu’s intellectual heritage in contemporary UK sociology. New York: Routledge.
Tomlinson, J., 2002. The discourse of cultural imperialism. In: D. McQuail, ed. McQuail’s reader in mass communication theory. London: Sage, pp. 222-230.