M. Madhava Prasad
At the core of what we know as popular culture studies today is the work of scholars associated with or influenced by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Popular culture itself and intellectual interest in its risks and possibilities, however, long predate this moment. Earlier in the 20th century, members of the Frankfurt School took an active interest in what was then referred to as “mass culture” or the culture industry. Semiotics, emerging in the latter half of the 20th century as an exciting new methodology of cultural analysis, turned to popular culture for many of its objects as it redefined textuality, reading, and meaning. The works of Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco are exemplary in this regard. The work of the Birmingham school, also known as British cultural studies, drew from both of these intellectual traditions but went on to forge its own unique methods drawing on Marxist and poststructuralist theoretical legacies. Quickly spreading across the Anglophone world, Cultural Studies is now widely recognized, if not as a discipline proper, as a distinctive branch of the humanities. Other methodologies contemporaneous with this trend are also now clubbed together as part of this generalized practice of cultural studies. Important among these are feminist approaches to popular culture exemplified by work on Hollywood cinema and women’s melodrama in particular, the study of images and representations through a mass communications approach, and ethnographic studies of readers of popular romances and television audiences. A minor, theoretically weak tradition of popular culture studies initiated by Ray Browne parallelly in the Unites States may also be mentioned. More recently, Slavoj Zizek has introduced startlingly new ways of drawing popular cultural texts into philosophical debates. If all of these can be taken together as constituting what is generally referred to as popular culture studies today, it is still limited to the 20th century. Apart from the Frankfurt School and semiotics, British cultural studies also counts among the precursors it had to settle scores with, the tradition of cultural criticism in Britain that Matthew Arnold and in his wake F. R. Leavis undertook as they sought to insulate “the best of what was thought and said” from the debasing influence of the commercial press and mass culture in general. But the history of popular culture as an object of investigation and social concern goes further back still to the 18th and 19th centuries, the period of the rise and spread of mass literature, boosted by the rise of a working-class readership.
Jürgen Habermas is a primary figure in the Frankfurt School of critical theory that emerged in Germany after World War II. He wrote several important works addressing a variety of fields, including legal hermeneutics, to liberal political philosophy, to systems theory, and language analysis. Throughout his research, he has lauded intersubjective “communicative action” as a key paradigm for politics, law, and ethics.
Habermas’s theory of communicative action frames human beings as rational arguers. In his view, communication involves discussants disputing “validity claims” to gain mutual understanding and reach consensus. When he applies this communicative action perspective to culture and society, Habermas diagnoses the pathologies that occur when people coordinate their actions strategically through artificial systems rather than cooperatively through dialogue. When he applies it to ethical theory, he draws out the assumptions interlocutors must make when they argue—they are obliged to attempt to justify claims so that they could be universally accepted by those involved in the discourse.
In addition to theorizing communication, Habermas throughout his work analyzes the structures and systems that enable public communication in civil society. From this perspective, democratic society relies on spaces and institutions that allow for the public to debate matters of common concern, particularly when they involve the state. In his historical account, Habermas argues that the “public sphere” transformed during the Enlightenment to give communicative outlets to an emerging bourgeois class. From a legal and philosophical perspective, he outlines conditions for political and communicative agency in a modern constitutional state.
Communication scholars have had a mixed reaction to Habermas. He offers a vision of critical theory that allows for practical reason, but some assert that his theories are too idealistic and counterfactual to apply to real-life discourse. However, other scholars have nuanced his theory by putting him in dialogue with the rhetorical tradition. Publics and counterpublics especially have become common parlance and have helped explain protest, advocacy, and the constitution of communities in democratic culture.
Mary E. Triece
The term ideology originated in 1796 and has been taken up in a variety of ways by scholars in disciplines including communication, sociology, anthropology, and economics. Generally understood as an organized set or system of belief, the term over the past 200 years has been variously situated vis à vis material relations and processes of production; has been assigned negative, positive, and neutral connotations; has been rejected as outmoded and replaced by the more sweeping term discourse; and has been revived as once again being relevant by contemporary scholars.
Ideology is closely associated with the economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who first used the concept in The German Ideology, published in 1845–1846. Marx and Engels discussed ideology specifically in terms of the economic means and relations of production and framed it largely in negative terms, as the ideas of the ruling class intended to distort or mystify processes of capitalist exploitation. Early 20th-century Marxist followers like Vladimir Lenin, Georg Lukács, and Antonio Gramsci expanded the understanding of the word to include the belief systems of either dominant or resistant groups.
Throughout the 20th century, the structuralist theories of Louis Althusser lent the word ideology a deterministic quality. Althusser and others explored how Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), such as schools, churches, and media, constitute subject positions for individuals, leaving them little room for agency or struggle against oppressive thought systems. Structuralism’s emphasis on the primacy and force of ideology reached its apex in poststructuralist, postmodernist, and post-Marxist theories that discursified the material—that is, it made no distinction between belief systems and the real world of relations, processes, systems, etc. These theories invigorated discussions surrounding epistemology, ontology, and the role of communication in forming identities and shaping social struggles.
Critics of poststructuralist, postmodernist, and post-Marxist theories have attempted to resituate ideology within its original theoretical context of Marxist dialectical materialism. These efforts attempt to show the importance, for theory and for democratic struggle, of distinguishing between ideas and real-world experience.
As a nascent form of screen culture, video games provide a challenging new lens to think about emerging media. Because video games do not abide by traditional narrative structure and because many different kinds of media objects fall under the purview of video games, they provide particular complications for researchers. In turn, within video game studies, which has been a growing field since the early 2000s, researchers often focus on a specific approach to understanding video games: studying the industry, studying audiences, or studying games as texts. Additionally, many researchers have found it useful to consider “assemblage”-type approaches that look holistically at several aspects of a video game object in order to understand the game from a broader context.
E. Ann Kaplan and Sally Chivers
Age discrimination, long habitual internationally, is now developing into age panic as longevity becomes the norm. People are increasingly living through their 80s and 90s, threatening social systems—not just health care, but also education, transportation, and economics. A by-product of longevity is Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or dementia more broadly, and this the focus of our essay. Five million people in the United States (the greater part women) currently have Alzheimer’s or dementia, and the figure is projected to grow exponentially as the baby boom generation ages. Fear, and other powerful affects, are generated in the aging Eurocentric public through overwhelmingly negative images of dementia. Prominent circulating AD images portray white, middle-class women and men; they are typically cared for by heroic family members, with the occasional, backgrounded appearances of racialized care workers. Such discourses betray a noticeable ageism, together with gendering, racialization, and medicalization of the illness. The reification of neuroscience studies of AD perpetuates understanding of AD subjects as having lost their subjectivity and as a burden to health-care systems. As the politics of care becomes ever more fraught with the increase in numbers of diagnosed elderly people, media discourses take on particular significance. Largely negative, images have obvious implications for long-term care in discourse and in practice. Since improving care depends on how the AD subject is visualized and conceptualized, critical analyses of works dealing with age panic, and especially how it arises in relation to cultural understandings of dementia, are essential. Critiques by humanists and psychologists may contribute to improving care of AD subjects, both in long-term facilities and “in place.” Improved care can contribute to transforming the popular understanding of a dementia crisis, thus addressing the central impetus of age panic. Meanwhile, new films, fiction, memoirs, and graphic arts projects are powerful complements to psychological studies aimed at developing new ways of seeing AD subjects.
Hans J. Ladegaard
Although there is no exact definition of globalization, and relatively little empirical evidence on how it affects people’s lives, most scholars argue that it reflects an increasingly mobile and interconnected world. People travel for pleasure or work, or they migrate to other parts of the world. They also communicate with linguistic and cultural others, either face-to-face or via modern communication technologies, which requires them to use a global lingua franca (English). This leads to greater interdependence and a sense of sharedness, but also to more intergroup conflicts. Thus, the world has become more interconnected, but also more fragmented, and social and economic inequality both within and across nation-states has become more visible.
The importance of culture as an analytical concept in (intercultural) communication research is another pertinent topic in the literature. Some scholars have argued that culture has lost its potency as a meaningful analytical concept and therefore should no longer take center stage in communication research. Others claim that culture will always be salient and influence behavior. How and to what extent globalization changes culture has also been discussed extensively in recent years. Some scholars argue that globalization leads to sameness and uniformity, and ultimately to the end of the nation-state. Others disagree and posit that globalization leads to a strengthening of the nation-state and of the cultural values we associate with it.
A meaningful way to test theoretical assumptions about globalization and culture is to analyze communication and work practices in global organizations. Research from these contexts suggests that globalization has not led to cultural assimilation and uniformity. Employees in the global workplace and student sojourners use national stereotypes as a frame of reference when they communicate with cultural others, and they demonstrate high awareness of cultural differences and how they impact their communication, study, and work practices.
Recent research on cultural change and globalization has included a critical dimension that questions a world order where the increase in power and cultural and economic wealth in developed countries happens at the expense of poor people with no voice and little visibility living in developing countries. Critical (intercultural) communication research considers these imbalances and also provides a critique of Anglocentric research paradigms, which do not include the cultural and linguistic experiences of non-Western cultural others.
Yannis Stavrakakis and Antonis Galanopoulos
Arguably one of the most important political theorists of our time, Ernesto Laclau has produced an extremely influential theoretical corpus involving a multitude of methodological and political implications. His contribution is mainly focused on three fields; discourse, hegemony, and populism, all of them highly connected with communication and mediation processes.
In particular, Ernesto Laclau has introduced, throughout his career, a complex conceptual apparatus (comprising concepts like articulation, the nodal point, dislocation, the empty signifier, etc.) as a result of the radicalization and re-elaboration of the Gramscian conceptualization of hegemony. According to this framework, elaborated for the first time in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, co-authored with Chantal Mouffe (first published in 1985), discourse is a social practice that performatively shapes the social world. Human reality is thus articulated through discourse and obtains its meaning precisely through this discursive mediation. All social practices are therefore understood as discursive ones. To the extent, however, that processes of articulation are never taking place in a vacuum and are bound to involve different or antagonistic political orientations, the field of discursivity comes to be seen as a field marked throughout by the primacy of the political. As a result, any hegemony will be contingent, partial, and temporary.
In addition, Laclau is one of the most well known analysts of populism, to which he has (partly) devoted two of his books, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1977) and On Populist Reason (2005). Populism, for Laclau, is designated, as expected, as discourse, as a specific way to articulate and communicate social demands as well as to form popular identities, to construct “the people.” His elaborations of populism are surely critical for the analysis of a pervasive political phenomenon of our era. All in all, the thought of Ernesto Laclau remains influential in the sphere of theory and political practice, and his theoretical arsenal will be an extremely helpful tool for academics and researchers of discourse theory and political communication.
Central to many definitions of the term “cultural imperialism” is the idea of the culture of one powerful civilization, country, or institution having great unreciprocated influence on that of another, less powerful, entity to a degree that one may speak of a measure of cultural “domination.” Cultural imperialism has sometimes been described as a theory, especially where scholars build a case that the cultural influence of the stronger entity has had a pervasive, pernicious impact on the weaker.
The term evolved from 1960s neo-Marxist discourses within cultural, media, and postcolonial studies that contextualized the post–World War II “independence” wave of new nations emerging from colonial servitude. It was propelled by the writings of nationalist revolutionaries, revolutionary theorists, and their sympathizers of the 1950s and 1960s, but it has sweeping relevance across human history. The foremost western theorist of cultural imperialism in the West was Herbert Schiller. The concept was adopted and endorsed in the 1970s by both UNESCO and the Non-Aligned Movement.
Following Oliver Boyd-Barrett, the concept may denote a field of study embracing all relationships between phenomena defined as “cultural” and as “imperialism.” These encompass cultural changes that are (1) enforced on a weaker entity and (2) occur within both stronger and weaker entities through contact, contest, and resistance, including (3) assimilation of social practices encountered by the stronger in the weaker entity, and (4) original hybrids manifesting cultural traces of both stronger and weaker entities.
The concepts of cultural and media imperialism were much critiqued during the 1980s and 1990s, and many scholars preferred alternative concepts such as globalization and cultural globalization to analyze issues of intercultural contact, whether asymmetrical or otherwise. John Tomlinson critiqued the concept, identified four different discourses of cultural imperialism, and argued in favor of its substitution with the term “globalization.” Mirrlees has placed Tomlinson’s work in context by describing the dialectical—parallel but mutually aware—development of both a cultural imperialism and a cultural globalization paradigm. Both are influential in the 21st century.
“Imperialism” commonly references relations of conquest, dominance, and hegemony between civilizations, nations, and communities. “Cultural imperialism” relates primarily to the cultural manifestations of such relations. Culture and empire relate in many different ways, fueling different theories that often play on dichotomous discourses, including territorial/non-territorial, totalistic/partial, benign/malign, ephemeral/perpetual, superficial/essential, voluntary/involuntary, intended/unintended, welcome/unwelcome, forceful/peaceful, noticed/unnoticed, linear/interactive, homogeneous/heterogeneous, and acceded/resisted.
The concept has affinities with hegemony, the idea that stability in conditions of social inequality is achieved not mainly by force but by securing the consent of the masses (starting with co-option of their indigenous leaders)—through persuasion and propaganda—to the elite’s view of the world. This process is commensurate with forms of democracy that provide the appearance but not the reality of choice and control. Fissures within the ranks of the elites and within the masses create spaces for resistance and change.
Culture encompasses the totality of social practices of a given community. Social practices are manifest within social institutions such as family, education, healthcare, worship, labor, recreation, language, communication, and decision-making, as well as their corresponding domains. Any of these can undergo change following a society’s encounter with exogenous influences—most dramatically so when stronger powers impose changes through top-down strategies of command and influence.
Analysis of cultural imperialism often incorporates notions of media imperialism with reference to (1) print, electronic, and digital media—their industrialization, production, distribution, content, and capital accumulation; (2) cultural meanings that media evoke among receivers and audience cultures; (3) audience and media interactions in representations of topics, people, and ideas; and (4) relationships between media corporations and other centers of power in the reproduction and shaping of social systems.
Media are logically subsumed as important components of cultural imperialism. Yet the significance of media can be understated. The concept of mediatization denotes that “knowledge” of social practices draws heavily on media representations. Social practices that are experienced as direct may themselves be formed through exposure to media representations or performed for media.
Discourses of cultural imperialism speak to major current controversies, including: cultural suppression and genocide; ideas of “globalization”; influential economic models of “capitalism” and “neoliberalism”; ideologies that are embedded in the global spread of concepts such as “modern,” “progressive,” “growth,” “development,” “consumerism,” “free market,” “freedom,” “democracy,” “social Darwinism” and “soft power”; cultural specificity of criteria and procedures for establishing “truth”; instrumentalization for the purposes of cultural conquest of academic disciplines such as psychoanalysis, economics, social anthropology, or marketing, or environmental crises, especially as linked to western ideologies that underwrite humanity’s “right” to dominate nature.
John D. H. Downing
Social movements are the matrix of many forms and formats (technologies, genres) of media that contest dominant power. Such media are in many ways the lifeblood of such movements. Media activism denotes collective communication practices that challenge the status quo, including established media. Frequently, such media are underfunded or unfunded and have a much shorter life cycle than capitalist, state, or religiously funded media. They are a “tribe” within a much larger continent of nanomedia (also called alternative media and citizens’ media). Their functions may spill over at times within the operation of established media, especially in times of social turbulence and crisis.
The “dominant power” in question may be quite variously perceived. Extreme-right populist movements, as in several European countries, may define the political establishment as having betrayed the supposed racial purity of the nation, or in the case of India’s Islamophobic Hindutva movement, as having traduced the nation’s religious purity. Labor movements may attack capital, feminist movements, or patriarchal and sexist structures. Sometimes these movements may be local, or regional; other times, they are transnational.
The impact of these media is still a matter of considerable debate. Often, the debate begins from a false premise—namely, the frequently small size and/or duration of many social movement media projects. Yet women’s right to vote and the abolition of slavery in the Americas were not won overnight, and neither was the dismantling of South Africa’s racist apartheid system. The Hindutva movement goes back over a century. We should not hold social movement media to a higher standard of impact, any more than we should ascribe instantaneous power to established media.
Social movements wax and wane, and so do their media projects. But the persistence of some such media activism between the peaks of movement activism is generally essential to the regeneration of social movements.
Claudia Lagos Lira
Jesús Martín Barbero is a philosopher specializing in communication and culture, particularly focusing on Latin America as his major geographical research environment and emphasizing the social meanings and practices of cultural consumption. Although he was born in Spain and his formal academic training was developed in Belgium and France, his entire career has been conducted in Latin America and, specifically, in Colombia, where he has lived since the 1960s, with a brief interruption due to his graduate studies in the 1970s.
Along with others, Martín Barbero is considered to be one of the main theorists of the Latin American school of communication. He represents the cultural studies trend within it, and he is one of the few Latin American authors in communication and cultural studies who has been translated or published in English.
Some of Martín Barbero’s main contributions have been to resituate communication studies within the broader field of culture, emphasizing a nonmedia-centered approach, proposing a radically historical perspective, arguing that the concepts of popular and mass culture are not actually opposite, but tightly embedded within each other, and recognizing that popular and mass culture practices are indeed worthy of study. This perspective has often been dismissed or neglected by previous research in communication and cultural studies in Latin America, and the recent focus on telenovelas research is one such example.
De los medios a las mediaciones: Comunicación, Cultura y Hegemonía (1987), Martín Barbero’s most cited book, has several editions in Spanish and has been translated to Portuguese (Dos meios ‘as mediacoes, 1992) and French (Des médias aux mediations, 2002). The translation to English in 1993 includes a little twist on its title: Communication, Culture, and Hegemony: From Media to Mediations.
Although Martín Barbero’s work has been included in edited volumes or special issues in English, it has been overwhelmingly published in Spanish. Drawing on his corpus of work—his books, articles, conferences, and interviews—this article offers an overview of Jesús Martín Barbero’s main concepts, his intellectual trajectory, his major intellectual influences, and how and why he became an influential thinker in the Latin American field of communication and cultural studies. It also highlights some limitations in Martín Barbero’s work.