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British Politics and Constructivism

There are a range of concepts and theories which can loosely be grouped together under this heading and which have developed out of ideas of culture and ideas of postmodernism.

Whereas effects approaches see media messages as transmitted from media people and organisations to individuals on whom they may have an impact, a body of theory has been developed which see the relationship between the media, the messages, and the people receiving them as more complicated and related to a much broader pattern of culture in society.

The first step in this is the study of language, known as semiotics, developed by Ferdinand de Saussure. Although we experiences things through our senses, once we use language we are not experiencing an object directly but a representation of it which Saussure called a sign.

The word ‘church’ is a representation of a physical object and replaces it in our mind and carries meanings of religious observance, family events and so on.

Semiotics has categorized not just words but clothes, music, pictures, facial expressions and handshakes as signs so that a handshake, for example, conveys the meaning of friendship.

Roland Barthes in Mythologies argues that the use of signs can go further than just representation and create a wider meaning that he calls a ‘myth’.

His book sets out a set of these myths but two examples are:-

That red wine in France symbolises equality as the universal drink and purity as the colour of blood in the Communion.

A Paris Match front page of a young black soldier saluting creates a myth of the multicultural and wide ranging French colonial Empire.

The Importance for Media Theory

The importance of all this for media theory is that media messages consist entirely of representations. Television is not what an eye witness would see and the newspapers are not verbatim accounts of what people have said.

So media portrayals of David Cameron or Theresa May are never actually David Cameron or Theresa May but representations of them and the way these representations are constructed by the media, as well as representations that denote the meaning of the position of the Prime Minister, influence people’s understanding of politics. Attaching meaning to words or symbols is used all the time in politics and the presentation of news.

Some examples:

  • A Chancellor talking on the television news about the latest economic data conveys the meaning that the Governments economic policies are working
  • A local newspaper report that people have helped each other out in a flooded village conveys the meaning that community spirit is alive and well in this area
  • A picture of Nigel Farage with a pint of beer conveys the meaning that he is an ordinary person who knows what the man in the pub thinks is important
  • The famous handshake between the Reverend Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, in 2007, went well beyond the normal meaning of a polite greeting to convey meanings about the Unionist/Republican peace process moving forward