Applying Cultural Effects theories to race and crime

Some background reading (and an example article):

From this (neo-Marxist) perspective we’re looking at the media as an agency of social control and, in this particular respect, how the control of ideas – the way people think about the world – can be used to influence behaviour. However, as Newbold suggests, we are not thinking here about direct control, in the sense of forcing people (consciously or unconsciously) to behave in certain ways; rather, the media acts at the institutional (large group) level of culture, not at the level of individual beliefs.

In other words, the media exercises social control through its actions as a socialising agency, advising and guiding audiences and, by so doing, exercising a hegemonic role. We can, for example, see this idea in terms of George Gerbner’s ideas (‘Communications Technology and Social Policy’, 1973) concerning Cultivation Theory, which argues television cultivates distinctive attitudes in its audience, rather than directly influencing their behaviour. As Daniel Chandler (‘Cultivation Theory’, 1995) puts it: ‘Heavy watching of television is seen as “cultivating” attitudes which are more consistent with the world of television programmes than with the everyday world. Watching television may induce a general mindset about violence in the world, quite apart from any effects it might have in inducing violent behaviour’.

The key idea here, therefore, is ‘induce a general mindset’; the hegemonic role of the media creates a situation in which some beliefs are subtly encouraged and others discouraged and, as it establishes this role, its effects are:

  • Slow: Attitudes and behaviour don’t change overnight. Rather, media effects have to be measured in terms of a slow ‘drip’ of change; in other words, small, gradual and long-term effects that are:
  • Cumulative, in the sense the media establishes and builds on the general ideas being propagated. It uses a number of standard techniques to achieve a cumulative effect – the consistent promotion of some ideas and not others, the marginalisation of dissenting views and voices, the repetition of certain ideas until they assume a ‘common sense’ or taken-for-granted status.
  • Directional, in the sense of being limited to particular influences. Only very rarely can the media directly change people’s beliefs or behaviour; rather, it operates on the level of leading people in certain directions or ways of thinking.


In this respect Gerbner et al (‘Living with Television’, 1986) draw a parallel between television and religion in terms of its basic cultural functions: ‘the continual repetition of patterns (myths, ideologies, ‘facts’, relationships, etc.) which serve to define the world and legitimize the social order’.

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