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British Politics and the Media – Structuralism and Critical Theory

There is no clear division between constructivist and structuralist writers and, for example, Stuart Hall would easily fit into the latter even though his ideas have been used in Constructivist Theory.

However, whereas Constructivism sees a pattern of culture developing involving both the media and its audiences in a varied or even unpredictable way, Structuralism, as the name implies, argues that there are deep seated structures in society that determine, or at least strongly influence, the way in which media messages are created and received.

These structures are related to patterns of power in society which maintain the position of the dominant groups. Critical theory concentrates on Class and economic power while Feminist theory on the concept of Patriarchy and gender relationships.

About Critical Theory

Critical theory has drawn strongly from Marxist ideas but has come to incorporate ideas of culture from constructivist theory and also concepts of democracy and popular struggle.

Marx developed the idea of society consisting of an economic base which was organised on capitalist lines in order to make profit for the owners of capital and a superstructure, including other areas such as government and the media, permeated by an ideology which reflected the ideas of the dominant capitalist class.

Although critical theory has not taken such a deterministic view of economic relations and the media, nevertheless it has concentrated on two areas:-

The media is producing a commodity like any other product and so has to make a profit. It actually does more than this because advertising helps other capitalist enterprises to make a profit. It is therefore important to study how the media industry is organised from an economic point of view.

The interests of the media industry and the attitudes of its owners will influence what appears in the media. Even that portion of the media controlled by government will not be neutral but support the status quo and government media policy will be strongly influenced by what media owners want.

The First Contribution

The first contribution to critical theory was made by what has been the Frankfurt School of Marxist theorists, writing in Germany in the 1930s and, forced to become refugees after the rise of Nazism, in the United States.

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) argue that a culture industry had developed and replaced traditional art with a standardized commodity so that people become passive recipients rather than using their imagination to understand art.

Rather than reflecting mass tastes, the culture industry creates mass tastes and takes up leisure time so that people are diverted from any radical understanding of the inequalities in society. Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, 1967, develops a similar theme. He sees the mass media as creating a continuous spectacle and manufacturing images of leaders and celebrities who are the only people with money, power and choice but whose lives divert people from the reality of their own situation.

(The book edited by David Berry, Revisiting the Frankfurt School: Essays on Culture, Media and Theory, 2012, has chapters on the key Frankfurt School writers)

Critical Studies – Britain

A British tradition of critical studies was developed at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Studies, founded by Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart. The writers made use of the concept developed by the Italian Marxist Gramsci of Hegemony which held that the ruling class maintained control through its control of cultural ideas as well as through economic relationships.

The British Cultural Studies, from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, analysed popular culture as reflecting support for consumer society and political ‘projects’ such as Thatcherism, but also saw the media as incorporating sexist and racist ideas in the way it portrayed women and black people.

Unlike the Frankfurt School it raised the possibility of groups to resist hegemonic ideas if they developed separate identities and the Group studied how these ‘subcultures’ worked. The Glasgow University Media Group, formed in 1974 and still in existence, more specifically studied news and political speeches and how these portray a particular view. Their latest output Bad News for Refugees argues that the media stigmatizes refugees and asylum seekers while the impact of western nations through the arms trade, free market policies or global warming helps to create a refugee problem.

The Political Economy Approach

A final strand of critical theory is the political economy approach which has developed to analyse the changes in the media industry since the liberalisation of media markets in the 1980s and the impact that this has had.

Peter Golding and Graham Murdock argued for the need to relate the economic power of media organisations to developments in the rest of society so that the media was a commodity on which people expended much time and money while the media also provided most of the information about society and politics (the two volumes that they have edited The Political Economy of the Media, 1997, contains chapters by many of the key writers).

Nicholas Garnham saw the need to analyse the industrial economics of the media industry and the impact of privatisation and how this influences ideas in society. Using concepts from Schumpeter, rather than Marx, he sees the media as constantly having to innovate and manufacture demand for new products as markets become saturated (Capitalism and Communication, 1990). James Curran sees the state as not neutral but a forum through which the media interests can pursue their objectives (Media and Democracy, 2011, develops broader themes about the media and political debate).

(John Street’s article compares political science media research with Constructivist and Structuralist views and criticises the former for being still stuck in a direct effects view of the effect of the media, Political Studies Review, Volume 3, No 1, 2005)