Home >> Basic Concepts >> Sociology Of Media

Sociology Of Media

We can understand the social impact of the development of new networks of communication and information flow only if we put aside the intuitively plausible idea that communication media serve to transmit information and symbolic content to individuals whose relations to others remain fundamentally unchanged. We must see instead that the use of communication media involves the creation of new forms of action and interaction in the social world, new kinds of social relationships and new ways of relating to others and to oneself. When individuals use communication media they enter into forms of interaction which differ in certain aspects from the type of face to face interaction which characterizes most encounters of daily life. They are able to act for others who are physically absent or act in response to others who are situated in distant locales. In a fundamental way the use of communication media transforms the spatial and temporal organization of social life creating new forms of action and interaction and new modes of exercising power, which are no longer linked to the sharing of a common locale.

The development of communication media has not only rendered power visible in new ways, it has also rendered it visible on an unprecedented scale. Today mediated visibility is effectively global in scope. This circumstance is the outcome of a complex process of globalization whose origins can be traced back at least as far as mid- 19 century.

Cultural theory

Three traditions of thought are relevant. One is the tradition of critical social theory stemming from the work of Frankfurt school. The early writings of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse their critique of what they called 'the culture industry' were too negative and was rooted in a questionable conception of modern societies and their developmental trends. But Habermas's early accounts of the emergence and transformation of the public sphere is a work that still merits careful consideration.

The great strength of Habermas's early work is that it treats the development of media as an integral part of the formation of the modern societies. He argued that the articulation of critical public opinion through the media was a vital feature of modern democratic life. The vision which lies behind Habermas account is one that continues with some justification to command our respect. The second tradition stemmed from the work of so-called media theorists. The most well-known of these theorists was Marshall McLuhan but the most original and insightful was probably McLuhan's compatriot and mentor Harold Innis.

Innis was one of the first to expose systematically the relations between media and communication on the one hand and spatial and temporal organization of power on the other. His theory of the bias of communication simply put that different media favored different ways of organizing political power whether centralized or decentralized extended in time or space and so on was no doubt too crude to account for the complexities of the historical relations between communication and power. But Innis rightly emphasis the fact that communication media as such are important for the organization of power, irrespective of the content of the messages they convey. This approach has been taken up and dev eloped by others by McLuhan but also by more recent theorists like Joshua Meyrowitz who insightfully combines an analysis of electronic media inspired by McLuhan with an account of social interaction derived from Goffman.This tradition is less helpful however when it comes to thinking about the social organization of the media industries ,about the ways in which the media are interwoven with the unequal distribution of power and resources and about how individuals make sense of media products and incorporate them into their lives.


It is a tradition concerned with the contextualized interpretation of symbolic forms. Among the recent contributions the works of Gadamer, Ricoeur but also the more ethnographically oriented writings of Clifford Greetz.It highlight the fact that the reception of symbolic forms including media products always involves a contextualized and creative process of interpretation in which individuals draw on the resources available to them in order to make sense of the message they receive. It also calls for our attention to the fact that the activity of appropriation is part of an extended process of self formation through which individuals develop a sense of themselves and others of their history their place in the world and the social groups to which they belong. By emphasizing the creative, constructive and socially embedded character of interpretation. Hermeneutics converges with some of the recent ethnographic work on the reception of media products while at the same time enriching this work by bringing to bear on it the resources of a tradition concerned with the link between interpretation and self formation
Current Affairs Magazine