Media Representations: Part 2 – Neo-Marxism

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.

Explaining media representation in these terms – as a way of defining inclusion and exclusion that contributes, ultimately, to a sense of ruling class cohesion – means we can explain the differing shape and form of class, age, gender and ethnic representations in a way that doesn’t rely on the media being directly controlled and manipulated by a ruling class. If media professionals see their role in hegemonic terms – as definers and protectors of a cultural cohesion that ultimately benefits the most wealthy and powerful – they can be relied upon to perform this role without the need for explicit manipulation. Representations, therefore, reflect a sliding scale of inclusiveness and exclusiveness, the former defined in terms of complete consensus with prevailing ruling class norms and values and the latter in terms of complete conflict.

Class representations, for example, frame inclusion and consensus in terms of groups, such as business leaders, represented by positive virtues (“wealth creators”) in tune with inclusive values. Exclusion and conflict is represented by groups, such as Trade Unions, and individuals (criminals, welfare spongers, single-parents…) whose behaviours conflict with such values. This explanation of class representations also allows neo-Marxists to explain “upper class deviance” as being behaviour in need of criticism and control when it threatens elite cohesion.

Gender and age representations similarly reflect notions of inclusion and exclusion. Feminism, for example, is generally represented in ways that stress conflict and exclusion (“political correctness”) while various age groups are represented in different ways depending on the contexts of their behaviours; youth subcultures are generally represented negatively precisely because they appear to threaten the media-defined consensus.

Ethnic representations. on the other hand, focus on explicit concepts of “the Other”, with some minority groups represented in terms of various forms of “threat”; to culture and “our way of life” or to society as a whole, in terms of things like terrorism.

Evaluation

One advantage of neo-Marxist approaches is their ability to explain continuities and changes in media representations of different social groups by reference to wider social changes in attitudes and behaviours.

Like their traditional counterparts, however, this approach has been criticised for underplaying the role of audiences in understanding representations. Connor (2001), for example, argues representation has two important dimensions; firstly, how the world is presented and secondly how people “engage with media texts” by interpreting media representations – the criticism being that neo-Marxism focuses exclusively on the former. In addition, the rapid development of new media operating on a global scale suggests the fragmentation of the mass media makes it much more difficult to see how hegemonic control successfully operates in this way in contemporary societies.

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