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.
The specific ability of the media to perform their ideological role is explained in terms of the interlocking cultural backgrounds and relationships between journalists, editors, owners and wider capitalist elites. Kendall (2011), for example, notes “the complex relationship between privileged people and the paid journalists who work on the political, business and philanthropy beats that cover elite activities” – for journalists to gain privileged access to elite inner circles “they must be careful about what and how they write about the wealthy and powerful members of their communities”. More specifically, representations take two main forms: those designed to divide potential opposition to capitalism and those that scapegoat social groups as a diversion from problems experienced under capitalism.
In terms of explaining different types of representation, the focus tends to be on class, mainly because this relates directly to economic interests. Representations here reflect a range of themes, from those that directly support and enhance capitalism, in terms of things like consumer benefits and living standards, to those identifying potentially dangerous and threatening trends in lower class life, both individual, such as crime, and collective, such as Trade Union organisation. The media is used to highlight and exaggerate “threats” and this becomes the excuse for political action against the working class. As Kendall (2011) argues, the media not only “glorify the upper classes, even when they are accused of wrongdoing” but also frame stories in ways that “maintain and justify larger class-based inequalities”.
- Gender representations are explained on the basis that where men generally have higher levels of economic power than women, representations reflect the aims and interests of the dominant gender.
- Age representations reflect different perceptions of the young and the elderly; the former frequently represented as a threat (deviant youth subcultures, for example) that needs to be controlled, while the latter represent a scapegoat for economic problems; blame can be deflected away from a ruling class through representations of the elderly taking more than their “fair share” in terms of “gold plated” pensions, free social care and the like.
- Ethnic representations generally combine notions of division and scapegoating; ethnic minorities, for example, are constructed in various ways, from the collective threat of terrorism and challenges to the “British way of life” to the more-targeted threats of specific minorities such as “black youth gangs”.
Traditional Marxist explanations lean towards a manipulative, frequently conspiratorial, approach to understanding how and why the media represents groups in different ways – an approach that rests on what Miliband (1969) argues are the common cultural backgrounds of economic elites. Neo-Marxists, as we will see, have a rather different take on this relationship.
A related criticism is that the general ideological thrust of traditional Marxism leads to evidence being cherry-picked; forms of representation that fit the general model are highlighted, while evidence of representations that don’t fit are ignored. It’s difficult to see, for example, how or why negative representations of women necessarily “benefit capitalism”.