Archive for June, 2015
Continuing the sociology of the media theme that began with moral and amoral panics, this series of posts looks at the idea of media representations from a range of different perspectives.
For traditional Marxism, economic power is a key variable; those who own the means of physical production are always the most powerful class and economic power brings with it the ownership of mental production – control over how different social groups are represented.
Cultural institutions such as the media are part of the ideological superstructure and their role is to support the status quo through the creation and maintenance of a worldview that favours the political, ideological and, above all, economic interests of a ruling class. How different social groups are represented within this worldview is a crucial aspect of ruling class domination and control – with the focus of explanation being the various ways a ruling class use their economic dominance to represent less powerful groups in ways that enhance and justify their power. While media representations are not in themselves a means of controlling behaviour, they are a means to an end. By representing different groups in particular ways the media allows a ruling class to act against such groups if and whenever they threaten their political, ideological or economic power.
This approach addresses the theoretical weaknesses of traditional Marxism by explaining media representations in terms of ruling class cohesion. The role of the media is not necessarily to divide or scapegoat the lower classes as a way of controlling their behaviour; rather, media representations are a way of creating and maintaining an elite’s sense of its own self-cohesion as a class.
Where traditional Marxism explains class cohesion in terms of common cultural backgrounds, neo-Marxism uses the concept of hegemony to suggest cohesion is maintained through representations of “the Other”; by defining those who are not “part of the ruling class” the media functions to define for the disparate members of the ruling class the thing they have in common that unites them – an opposition to other social classes. This explanation of the role of the media doesn’t rely on a ruling class being a cohesive entity prior to using its economic power to manipulate public opinion. Rather, how and why the media represent different social groups becomes the cohesive factor in ruling class consciousness; by defining itself in terms of what it is not, it comes to see itself in terms of what it is.
Inclusion – Exclusion
Hegemonic control operates in the context of inclusion and exclusion:
Inclusiveness defines the things a society “has in common”; from a sense of nationality, through shared religious beliefs and practices, to a common territorial origin, political and economic values and so forth. The mass media defines and propagates these inclusive characteristics and while their particular properties may shift and change, the basic principle holds; there are some fundamental characteristics that “define Us” (a ruling class) as opposed to “Them” (subject classes).
Exclusiveness, on the other hand, defines “Them” or “The Other” – people who for whatever reason exclude themselves or have to be excluded – in opposition to a ruling class.
While the focus for all kinds of feminism is on how and why media representations contribute to female inequality, different approaches produce different forms of explanation.
Liberal feminism generally focuses on how the mass media can be purged of sexist assumptions and representations, such that women in particular are neither stereotyped into a narrow range of roles nor represented in ways that disadvantage them in relation to men. Here, a combination of legal and social changes are the key to changing female representations; strong legal barriers to sexist representations coupled with moral changes in how we view male-female relationships and statuses are the means to ensuring the media represents gender in more-equitable and balanced ways.
Marxist feminism, drawing on its connections to Marxist economic analysis, focuses on the commodification of women under capitalism; the idea female bodies are represented as objects of desire; Gill (2003), for example, argues women are exploited by displays of naked female flesh because it represents them as consumer objects to be bought and sold by men. Commodification is also expressed in terms of how sexist stereotypes are used to sell a variety of consumer goods, from cars to newspapers.
Pluralist explanations recognise a variety of different media representations of categories such as gender. They also emphasise the importance of the role of the audience in interpreting such representations – ideas that relate to two dominant themes in pluralist explanations – diversity and choice.
In terms of diversity, contemporary media and audiences are characterised more by their differences than their similarities; wide differences within categories like class, age, gender and ethnicity makes the Marxist approach of reading audience responses from media representations increasingly problematic. Diverse audiences make diverse choices about what, when and how they consume different media – which puts the audience in control, rather than being controlled by that media. These ideas are brought into even sharper focus through contemporary forms of new media that increase the range and diversity of choices available to individual consumers.
For pluralists, the media follow the market; audiences are given the types of representation they want. For example, the kind of overtly racist, sexist and homophobic representations once found in British sitcoms reflected a society largely tolerant of such things; contemporary audiences are less tolerant and this type of television programme no longer exists because it would be commercial suicide. Media diversity is encouraged by changing audience tastes and higher levels of economic competition for audience share.
While Marxist and Feminist perspectives generally discuss media representations in terms of how and why they misrepresent particular groups, Baudrillard (1995) argues representations shouldn’t be considered in terms of whether something is fairly or unfairly represented; this follows because, he argues, how something is represented is its reality.
In this respect conventional approaches to understanding media representations suggest the media re-presents something like ‘news’ in a way that’s somehow different to the original event; ‘something happens’ that is then described (re-presented) to an audience. Conventionally, therefore, sociologists contrast ‘the real’ – the ‘thing’ that ‘happened’ – with its representation and examine the media to see if they can disentangle the real from the not real.
Baudrillard however argues “reality” is experienced differently depending on who you are, where you are and your source of information. Every audience, therefore, constructs its own version of reality and everything represented in the media is experienced as multiple realities, all of which – and none of which – are real; everything is simply a representation of something seen from different viewpoints. Thus, the ‘reality of anything’ can’t be found in any single definitive account or experience; that which we can “real”, therefore, has no definitive or essential features that distinguish it from how it is represented.
This – and two subsequent posts – looks critically at the concept of moral panic as both a component of deviance amplification and as how they are conceptualised by two different sociological perspectives.
This post (Part 1) introduces deviancy amplification and looks at interpretivist concepts of moral panic. Subsequent posts outline neo-Marxist perspectives (Part 2) and the critical concept of Amoral Panics through the work of Stuart Waiton (Part 3)
Deviancy amplification, according to Wilkins (1964), involves a positive feedback loop; initial or primary deviance is identified and condemned, in or by the media, and leads to the deviant group becoming socially isolated and resentful. This behaviour leads, through a general labelling process, to an increased social reaction by the media, politicians and formal control agencies (there is less toleration of deviant behaviour, for example) and this develops into secondary deviation involving an increased level of deviance. As a consequence the reaction from ‘the authorities’ increases, leading to new laws (the criminalisation of deviants) or increased police resources to deal with ‘the problem’. In this way each group – deviant and control – feeds off the actions of the other to create a ‘spiral of deviance’ – and moral panics are a crucial component of this spiral.
Cohen’s (1972) study of mods and rockers clarified the concept of a moral panic as a situation in which “A condition, episode, person or groups of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”. Interpretivist and neo-Marxist approaches, however, conceptualise this idea differently and this leads to different interpretations of the role of the media in the creation and development of such panics – a difference compounded by differences in how each approach understands media effects.
While Part 1 introduced deviancy amplification and looked at interpretivist concepts of moral panic, this post outlines an alternative, neo-Marxist, perspective on the latter. As such, it offers a corrective perspective on interpretivist approaches by focusing on the structural / hegemonic aspects of moral panics.
Neo-Marxist approaches examine moral panics across two dimensions; firstly, how and why they are created by powerful groups and, secondly, how they contribute to the maintenance of elite hegemony. As we’ve suggested, elites in contemporary capitalist societies maintain their power through hegemonic control; the ability to co-opt the support and cooperation of other social classes in defence or both the moral order and, by extension, elite claims to moral leadership and authority.
Moral panics, in this respect, are understood as political phenomena; the defence of a certain type of moral order – one defined by a ruling class but shared, to varying extents, throughout society. From this viewpoint they are an important mechanism through which elites engineer consent for control by focusing the full force of moral condemnation on some form of moral threat. While moral panics are, in some senses, manufactured, this doesn’t mean they are necessarily deliberately created by elites. At various times capitalist societies offer up opportunities for moral panics and the idea of manufacturing consent refers to how elites take advantage of these opportunities to crackdown on those who threaten the moral order.
For Hall et al (1978) opportunities for moral panics occur at times of economic, political and ideological crises in capitalist society; their function is to distract public attention from the real causes of such crises by generating panics around groups and behaviours that create easily identifiable scapegoats (folk devils like “black muggers”) who, being relatively powerless, can be subjected to physical control on a tide of “public moral indignation”.
In basic terms it’s a massive (100-odd page) compendium of teaching ideas and activities aimed at A-level Psychology and loosely arranged around categories like:
- Lesson Notes
- Starters and Plenaries
- Introductions and Simulations
- Studies and Theories
- Strategies (self-and peer assessment etc.).
The vast majority of the activities are simple and straightforward to grasp and put into practice (a typical activity is effectively explained in a short paragraph) and the range of the collective contributions from numerous teachers is truly impressive.
While the Toolkit is aimed at Psychology teachers (the clue is in the title) and some of the activities are aimed specifically at teaching and learning explicitly psychological theories, concepts and studies, there’s still a great deal here that Sociology teachers can take from the Toolkit (albeit with the need for a bit of tinkering to orientate activities towards sociological interests and concerns).
While the two previous posts looked at moral panics from two different perspectives (“from below” in the case of interpretivist approaches and “from above” in the case of hegemonic neo-Marxist positions) a different way of looking at the concept, developed by Waiton (2008), is to consider contemporary forms of panic in the context of a changing moral order; one where the “moral certainties” of modern society is replaced by the “moral uncertainties” of late/postmodern society.
Waiton argues, in this respect, that late/postmodern societies are characterised by amoral panics. Moral panics are increasingly rare because there is no-longer a clear and coherent sense of moral order to protect – something he attributes to “a collapse in the ‘faiths’ of the right and left, that cohered society in the past”. If there is no clear sense of a moral order, just a number of competing moral interpretations, there can be no sense of moral panics being engineered.
This doesn’t mean panics no-longer occur, merely that their quality is amoral “a form of moralising without any wider system of meaning”. In other words, while panics have a moral dimension – they involve ideas about what is good or bad for society – they are not specifically related to any sense of an overriding moral order. (more…)