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date: 22 August 2017

Hegemony

Summary and Keywords

Hegemony generally refers to the mechanisms and dynamics describing how a determinate group comes to organize its ruling at multiple levels, such as the political economic, social, cultural, and linguistic. In communication studies, the term is almost automatically associated with the particular conceptualization of Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, who provides a way to describe and explore the critical link between “power,” culture, and communicative practices. However, different readings of Gramscian hegemony, mediated by different traditions inside the discipline, have produced competing and evolving definitions. The common trait of all these approaches is an interpretation that tends to privilege “consent” over “coercion,” “leadership” over “domination,” and “civil society” over the “state.” Finally, a narrative is provided regarding how the concept gradually moved out of its Marxist origin to become a more sociologically abstract account of organized asymmetric power relations.

Keywords: Antonio Gramsci, domination, leadership, ideology, discourse, Lenin, Althusser, Williams, Stuart Hall

Definition, Origin, and Evolution

In the field of communication during the last decades, hegemony has become one of those concepts inevitably present in the critical analysis of social, political, economic, and cultural processes. Partially because of such a literary fortune, which boasts a considerably diverse range of applications, and partially because of how the term has been historically conceptualized, the task of defining hegemony presents its difficulties.

The term generally refers to mechanisms and dynamics associated with how a determinate group comes to socially organize its ruling. However, depending on the literature, interpretative tradition, and application, hegemony may account for a variety of phenomena: a configuration of dominance that, while never complete, pervades most aspects of the social whole; a particular disposition of power originating in and emerging from the combination of consensual leadership and coercive domination; a synonym of dominant ideology or the dynamic describing the unresolved tension between the dominant and subaltern ideologies, dominant and subaltern classes; finally, hegemony can be understood as a product of the dynamic of structuration of power or alternatively describing the very process of structuration.

The word is derived from the classic Greek term Hēgemonia as leadership, the political and territorial sovereignty of a city-state over another region, which originates from the substantive hēgemōn (leader) and from the predicate hēgeisthai (to lead).

Hegemon, used in the classic understanding (found in the works of Diodorus Siculus, Herodotus, Xenophon, Isocrates, and Aristotle), reflects a relationship of dominance that is political and military in nature. A historic example of such a use would be the role ancient Athens played as the hegemon in relation to the other Greek poleis that joined forces in an alliance against the Persian Empire.

Wickersham (1994), examining the antique use of the term, documents how, for Herodotus, in the war against Xerxes, hegemonia is understood as being essentially synonymous with “international command,” an authority built on honor and dignity that aspires to arkhe, the power needed to command. Moreover, in Thucydides, Wickersham finds a slightly different definition of hegemonia as leadership in a symmachy, that is, “fighting together or in an alliance with an ally or fighting jointly against a common enemy” (p. 31). Ultimately, Wickersham suggests, in its origin, hegemony was synonymous with military command aimed at the domination of a region and built on alliances against a common enemy. Thus, even though the author does not link the ancient meaning of hegemony with the way the term has been re-appropriated in the 20th century, one can evince a substantial difference between the emphasis on military domination of its original use and the more recent focus on the consensual and ideological aspects.

While Wickersham implicitly casts light on a profound change in the meaning of the term, Fontana (2000) claims that there is an important continuum between Greek Sophist philosophy and 20th century literature in the way scholars have utilized hegemony. Fontana emphasizes how hegemony should be understood as a sophisticated kind of leadership that synthesizes political power (kratos) and rhetorical power (logos), rather than sheer domination. However, despite its descriptive power, the term was not widely utilized until the 20th century, probably due to the preference of Latin-based technical language developed in medieval political philosophy and political science.

In the 20th century, the term was re-introduced by Russian revolutionary discourse, as a political and pragmatic category rather than an analytical one. For example, in the reflections on the strategy of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, Lenin (1971) employed hegemony to describe the successful outcome of the negotiation process that aimed at forming class alliance between the proletariat and peasantry. According to this dynamic, the proletariat aimed to establish a dictatorship that, at the same time, would end the dialectical antagonism between bourgeois and proletariat as well as realize the much-awaited agrarian reform to emancipate the peasantry.

According to Anderson (1976), the praxis-oriented meaning of hegemony developed by Lenin informed Antonio Gramsci, arguably the most important contributor to the contemporary conceptualization of the concept. Gramsci provided the basis to expand the theorization of hegemony beyond a particular historically determined case, such as the Italian context of fascism, to describe a sophisticated form of ruling of a social group, which at the same time subjugates and emancipates the rest of society. He advanced a complex historical materialist framework in which hegemony functioned as the social historical force and process that could unite a given territory into a nation-state, under the disputed and negotiable intellectual and moral leadership of one class (Gramsci, 1971). Hegemony, in its capability to form a historic bloc between civil society—as the site of consent—and the political society—as the site of coercion—was used by Gramsci to explain why capitalist countries could resist political incursions of adversary forces or the telluric shocks of a crisis such as the 1929 Great Depression.

In his consideration on how a determinate social group comes to synthetize the interests and needs of an entire social formation, Gramsci re-elaborated Marx and Engels’ (1968) reflection about the universalizing capability of ideology:

For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.

(Marx & Engels, 1968, p.61)

Such a process for Gramsci was not abstract, but concretely carried out through moral and intellectual leadership of a determinate group simultaneously performed at multiple societal planes. In this sense, Gramsci stressed the role of class-bound “organic” intellectuals who give cohesion and awareness to the emerging dominant group. Equally key in the struggle for hegemony are cultural institutions such as media, schools, and clubs that contribute powerful resources to the processes of socializing and universalizing a class-based ideology and sets of practices.

Posteriorly, the French Marxist philosopher Althusser (1971), aiming at analyzing the social unrests late 1960s Europe, provided another important contribution to the exploration of hegemonic scenarios. He theorizes hegemony as the combination of ideological and repressive state apparati. While, for Althusser, repressive state apparatus operates by means of violence, consisting of the army, the police, the judiciary, and the prison system; ideological state apparatus operates through a level of consent. These apparati include media, school, religion, family, law, politics, economics, communication, and culture, and they function as powerful instruments of socialization to ideas, beliefs, and practices shaped by the dominant class.

However, while Althusser defines ideology as an imaginary relationship to real existing conditions, Larrain (1979) points out that the ideological component of Gramscian hegemony does not treat ideology as concealment or distortion, but more neutrally, as a vision of the world. At the same time, Althusser’s contributions explore an important theoretical knot associated with hegemony: the issue of reproduction of conditions of production, of social relations that make production possible, and of productive forces and existing relations of production. This is a question that, according to Althusser, implies examining the reproduction of social knowledge and the relative autonomy of superstructures, but in the last instance is determined by the economic base.

When Gramsci’s main contribution—recollected and translated in his 1971 Selections from the Prison Notebooks Of Antonio Gramsci—reached the anglophone world, the term was appropriated and revived by British Marxist intellectuals such as Raymond Williams (1973, 1977) and Stuart Hall (1986), who tried to translate the historically determined conceptualization of Gramsci (i.e., 1930’s Fascist Italy) to their contemporary contexts. The so called British Cultural Studies also put Gramscian understanding of hegemony into conversation with several other authors, such as Althusser, Foucault, and Barthes.

More recently, the theoretical discussion on hegemony was re-energized by Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) post-structuralist approach to the concept. Their approach provides a post-Marxist and post-classist reading that defines hegemony as an articulation of different social functions into a fairly stable social organization. They deny any determinism as far as the political protagonist for the struggle for hegemony and the outcomes of such a struggle are concerned. Thus, for Laclau and Mouffe, hegemony represents an open field in which a variety of subjects involved in a variety of practices and political projects meet each other.

While both Lenin and Gramsci utilized the term hegemony in the context of a specific political project that regarded the proletariat as the revolutionary subject par excellence, whose goal was to establish Socialism, this original sense has been lost, due to the mediation of post-Marxist politics, and replaced by a reformist, pluralist logic that positions itself in conservative defensive terms rather than in constructive terms of building new hegemony. Furthermore, it has prepared the way for a post-hegemonic argument, which maintains that current social historical circumstances do not allow a direct application of the theoretical framework that sustains hegemony (Hardt & Negri, 2001; Lash, 2007; Thoburn, 2007). However, while the post-hegemony argument has gained certain traction, many authors still claim that hegemony remains an effective framework for understanding contemporary politics, as late capitalism still conserves the same basic reproductive logic and society still generates class antagonism (Cloud, 1997; Johnson, 2007; Sassoon, 2000).

Literary Fortune in Communication Studies

The remarkable quantity of communication studies publications that concern and/or apply hegemony speaks to the powerful influence of the concept, especially mediated by the spectacular development of critical cultural studies in the context of contemporary communication scholarship (Ono, 2011). Hegemony is often operationalized in communication and media studies by understanding how discourse and representations in media reify dominant ideology through their repetition of identity-based tropes (race, gender, class, sexual orientation) founded on and productive of “common sense” notions of the normal (Artwick, 2014; Gentry & Harrison, 2010; Hardin, Dodd, Chance, & Walsdorf, 2004; Jones, 2013; Mean & Kassing, 2008; Mihelich & Storrs, 2003; Venn, 2007).

Scholars also often use hegemony frameworks to de-construct “common sense” as the main outcome of the process of universalization of symbols, images and aesthetics (Giannone, 2014; Kumar, 2014; McElroy, 2014; Murea & Josan, 2014; Nauright, 2014). For example, Nauright (2014) writes about discourse and the political and economic state, and civil and private industry formations in the global sporting industry, deconstructing “. . . the public relations machine whereby public discourses reify the wonders of capitalist accumulation and growth as the only legitimate path to development and measure of success” (p. 283). Giannone (2014) has analyzed how journalism industry metrics, such as the Freedom of Press Index, reinforce the dominant hegemony of media conglomerates and reinforce consent to dominant forms of “free speech” reporting. Owen (2014) has critiqued health campaigns and minority government’s consent to the World Trade Organization’s system of medicine and pharmaceutical drugs that favor patent rights for a multinational pharmaceutical industry over mass distribution and access to life-saving medicine.

Another common way in which communication and media scholars are currently employing hegemony in research is through the analysis of “counter-hegemonic discourse,” of alternative media, which consist of communicative practices that either resist or actively present themselves as alternatives to the hegemonic apparatus. Counter hegemony as a node of analysis materializes in anything from individual journalists engaging with alternative media in affective and personal ways that speak to experiences outside of what is normalized in mainstream media (Larsson, 2014) to an organized effort by alternative media organizations to create alternative public spheres (such as diasporic radio), where people marginalized from mainstream media can engage in direct democratic debate and discourse, potentially opposing the dominant government party or parties (Ndlovu, 2014).

Finally, the vast number of studies published in academic journals during the last few decades illustrates the increasing and multilayered interest of communication scholarship in developing the term hegemony. In fact, the interdisciplinary nature of communication and media studies naturally suits the holistic and relational nature of the concept. Publications such as Critical Studies in Media Communication, Communication, Culture and Critique, Triple C, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies Journal, the Journal of Communication Inquiry, Feminist Media Studies, and the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication constitute a particularly prolific ground for essays on hegemony.

Competing Definitions of Hegemony

Gramsci, in Prison Notebooks, describes hegemony as “the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 12).

According to Anderson (1976), Gramsci’s conceptualization of hegemony presents considerable internal inconsistencies, which leads to an inherent ambiguity of the concept. Anderson’s thesis seems to be confirmed by the breadth of the debate when it comes to defining hegemony. For example, Bobbio (1966) maintains that the main ground of operation of Gramscian hegemony is clearly to be found in civil society. Conversely, Buci-Glucksmann (1978) claims that, to understand the theoretical and political position of Gramsci from the perspective of hegemony, one has to look closely at his conceptualization of the state.

In communication studies, the coexistence of different interpretations of hegemony mainly depends on how different traditions have approached it. In this article, we consider some of the most significant ones: rhetoric, post-structuralist, media, and British cultural studies.

Rhetorical Definition

While rhetorical studies have historically focused on the persuasive capabilities of communication, only the emergence of critical rhetoric in the last decades has cast light on the power of rhetoric in shaping the social order by producing the social and cultural basis for a common field of meanings (Williams, 1977), therefore contributing to the establishment of a hegemonic regime. Cloud (1996), for instance, studies how discursive practices can build or challenge hegemony by raising or sinking consciousness or by disciplinizing social groups via the enforcement of a dominant grammar (Ives, 2004; Lo Piparo, 1979).

In almost all cases, the reference is mostly directly drawing upon Gramsci’s account of hegemony. Indeed, Gramsci connects the problem of establishing cultural hegemony and an accepted language in the practical operations of power:

Every time that the question of language surfaces, in one way or another, it means that a series of other problems are coming to the fore: the formation and enlargement of the governing class, the need to establish more intimate and secure relationships between the governing groups and the national-popular mass, in other words to recognize the cultural hegemony.

(Gramsci, 1985, p. 180)

In the specific domain of critical rhetoric, there are two aspects that seem to frequently characterize the way hegemony has been understood and applied: hegemony as a discursively articulated dynamic of power (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985), and hegemony as a tool for ideological critique (Gunn & Treat, 2005). Many critical rhetoricians (Biesecker 1989; McKerrow, 1989) sought to re-contextualize the relationship between rhetoric as a strategic intervention and rhetoricality as the understanding of a more general social process, through the idea of language creating an articulated net of significations that allows a given hegemonic social order to function and reproduce. Such a tendency implies that, rather than originating from an overt imposition of ideas, hegemony is considered to be emerging from the linguistic interaction between social groups (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985).

On the other hand, such a conceptualization of hegemony, expressing how ideological dynamics are embedded in the signification process, has another important implication. While the reflections of scholars such as Cloud (1996), on the mutually constitutive relation of discourse and materiality, would have led the discussion of hegemony to move beyond an idealistic and purely semiotic understanding of power, most applications relegate the concept to an expansive tool of ideology critique for cultural artifacts (e.g., Artz & Kamalipour, 2003; Bodroghkozy, 1991; Byungju & Namkung, 2008; Engstromand Valenzano, 2010). Thus, hegemony is mainly operationalized as a way to demystify dynamics of power phenomena, and this makes the concept hardly distinguishable from dominant ideology (Zompetti, 1997); it also tends to reduce the conversation in our field to a debate on coercive and consensual sides of such power (Martínez Guillem & Briziarelli, 2012).

Dana Cloud (1994, 1996) and Celeste Condit (1994, 1996) present the most articulate example of engagement with the notion of hegemony for the purposes of rhetorical analysis. Condit emphasizes the need for a kind of ideology criticism that attends to its contemporary historical context. For her, this inevitably calls for a reconceptualization of hegemony that can account for a particular reality, and more specifically what she calls “social concord” (Condit, 1994). Cloud, on the other hand, (1996, 1997) has forcefully argued against this reframing of hegemony in harmonious terms. She emphasizes the need to pay attention to “the limits of compromises within the available conditions” (1996, p. 118), thus putting a strong emphasis on the ways in which rhetoric, backed up by the state’s force, serves the interests of those in power by guaranteeing that “voluntary” consent will take place.

A (Post-) Structuralist Definition

The power and the literary fortune of hegemony becomes particularly evident in the fact that the concept has been used on several occasions as cardinal point to regenerate or go beyond existing communication oriented paradigms. That was the case of Laclau and Mouffe (1985) in their Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, which supposedly finalized the transition in critical approaches to communication from the remanences of orthodox Marxism to the advancements of a post-Marxist progressivism.

The authors move hegemony from class politics to articulation, by which they mean “any practice establishing a relation of elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice.” (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985, p. 105). Laclau and Mouffe deconstruct the concept of hegemony by de-essentializing the central tenets of the Gramscian approach: class essentialism, dialectics, the essential political economic nature, and the general determinist nature of Marxism and the rejection of the “privilege point of rupture and the acceptance of the plurality and indeterminacy of the social” (p. 152).

Ten years later, Laclau and Mouffe’s definition of hegemony had become hegemonic. In this sense, Yúdice (1995) provides an account of the historic context in which the very term hegemony reaches its limits, like Marxism, for Laclau and Mouffe:

The shift to post-Fordism and other changes in the mode of production [. . .] correspond to a weakening of the articulation of national discourse and state apparatuses, particularly the disciplinary, "educational" ones. [. . .] Flexible accumulation, consumer culture, and the "new world information order" are produced or distributed (made to flow) globally, to occupy the space of the nation, but are no longer "motivated" by any essential connections to a state, as embodied, for example, in a "national-popular" formation. Their motivations are both infra- and supranational. We might say that, from the purview of the national proscenium, a post-hegemonic situation holds. That is, the "compromise solution" that culture provided for Gramsci is not now one that pertains to the national level but to the local and transnational. Instead, the "culture-ideology of consumerism" serves to naturalize global capitalism everywhere.

(Yúdice, 1995, p. 4)

Finally, for Butler, Laclau, and Žižek (2000), hegemony does not have to be rejected in its explicatory value, but rather highly re-qualified to describe contemporary circumstances. Accordingly, hegemony ceases to be synonym of a social totality and is universally and uniformly valid.

Media Definition of Hegemony

Gramsci argued that the press was the most dynamic ideological tool for creating and sustaining hegemony. Works such as Artz and Kamalipour (2003) acknowledge such a consideration but also extend it as a heuristic principle to critique the ideological function of other media, as well. Media hegemony concern, with how mediated texts may reflect the shifting and unstable alliance of different social classes as the earlier notion of a dominant ideology, is replaced by the idea of a field of dominant discourses, unstable and temporary. From this perspective, the media are seen as the public arena in which competing social forces confront each other.

The general assumption of mediated hegemony maintains that there are, on the one hand, dominant social groups who seek to contain and incorporate a vision of the world into a text shaped by the terms and limits they both proactively and accidentally set in agreement with their interests. On the other hand, there are the dominated or subaltern groups who attempt to maintain and to further the validity and effectiveness of their own definitions of reality and how these realities come to be expressed in the text. Therefore, a media text constitutes a battlefield, in which different visions of the world mediating different interests in turn, collide.

Thus, the media hegemony thesis confirms the general vision of cultural phenomena, not as reflections of a dominant configuration of society but rather as products of strenuous struggle. However, while in the original Gramscian depiction of such a struggle also included a level of force and coercion, many communication scholars would agree that mediated hegemony refers more to everyday cultural practices of production and signification of texts (Trujillo, 1991), which do not necessitate force.

British Cultural Studies

The motivations to import and examine hegemony by British Cultural Studies scholars were mainly moved by political desires rather than theoretical speculations. Simon During (2007, p. 23) argues that Nairn and Anderson, arguably among the earliest British readers of Gramsci, hoped to find in the Italian thinker ideas to rescue British Socialism’s first New Left. Similarly, for Williams, Thompson, and Hoggart, the first Cultural Studies generation of scholars, the interest in hegemony expressed the aspiration to bring social change. The interest for hegemony mirrored a desire to be politically organic, to respond to a concrete crisis of socialism in the context of Keynesian liberal democracy, in which the welfare state effectively defuses social tensions.

In Marxism and Literature, Williams (1977) firmly argues that hegemony, as lived social practices, can never really, completely saturate consciousness, but is a way of seeing:

the relations of domination and subordination, in their forms as practical consciousness, as in effect a saturation of the whole process of living . . . of the whole substance of lived identities and relationships, to such a depth that the pressures and limits of what can ultimately be seen as a specific economic, political, and cultural system seem to most of us the pressures and limits of simple experience and common sense (Williams, 1977, pp. 109–110).

The connection in Williams between praxis and normative critique exemplifies precisely his take on hegemony as a concept for strategic analysis of “what is to be done” rather than “what is to be studied.”

Clearly, Williams read hegemony through a humanist standpoint, which implies linking power to historically situated cultural practices understood as fundamental both for reproducing materially (not only symbolically) structures of power and for creating counterhegemonic forces. Hill (2007) further developed this perspective by exploring the relations between adult education and hegemony.

Compared to Williams`s humanist take, Hall’s conceptualization of power through hegemony seems much more abstract, linguistic in character, and ultimately idealist. Hegemony is understood by Hall (1986) as:

a way of analyzing how a particular set of ideas comes to dominate the social thinking of a historical bloc, in Gramsci’s sense; and, thus, helps to unite such a bloc from the inside, and maintain its dominance and leadership over society as a whole.

(Hall, 1986, p. 26)

According to Gunster (2004), Hall’s take on hegemony quickly moved from the position of Williams and Thompson, which still retained a strong sense of determination between social practice and social position, to the (post) structuralist paradigm, essentially Althusserian (1971), in which the real is considered irremediably mediated by ideology and there is no necessary correspondence between the parts and the social whole.

Hall (1986) argues, citing Gramsci’s observation of a wide and universalizing shift in hegemonic strategies in developed societies in Europe from “war of maneuver” to “war of position,” for:

the multi-dimensional, multi-arena character of hegemony. It cannot be constructed or sustained on one front of struggle alone (for example, the economic). It represents a degree of mastery over a whole series of different “positions” at once . . . which makes possible the “propagation,” for a time, of an intellectual, moral, political and economic collective will throughout society.

(Hall, 1986, p. 424)

The author takes on a more post-structuralist understanding of power, as exercised on multiple fronts, whose base and/or superstructures, “structure and determine only in the sense that they define the terrain on which historical forces move—they define the horizon of possibilities” (Hall, 1986, p. 422). Hall calls for a conceptualization of hegemony in which:

the voluntary associations, relations, and institutions of civil society—schooling, the family, churches and religious life, cultural organizations, so-called private relations, gender, sexual, and ethnic identities, etc.—become, in effect, “for the art of politics . . . the ‘trenches’ and the permanent fortifications of the front in the war of position . . . .” (citing Prison Notebooks in Hall, 1986, p. 428).

Conceptually, Williams and Hall embrace hegemony for different theoretical reasons. While Williams goes beyond French structuralism of Althusser using Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, Hall, Lumley, and McLennan (1978) believe that Althusser, structuralist Marxism, and Gramscian hegemony need to be combined in the same framework. Especially for Hall (1986) hegemony is particularly suited to explore the intersection between political economic power and race and gender. Hall (1986) defends a Gramscian conception of hegemony against simplistic critiques based in economism or economic reductionism, while synthesizing said defense with an Althusserian overlay of many crosscutting social formations (based in ideology, or discursive distortions of social material reality), such as race and gender.

In this sense, Harris (1992) claims that later Cultural Studies advanced a liberal and reformist interpretation of Gramscian hegemony, which has been utilized to move this tradition out of Marxism, away from its grand narrative and class essentialism, and towards heterogeneity and difference. Later Cultural Studies appropriated some of the key perspectives of Foucault to expand what was the traditional class antagonism into questions of race, gender, and sexual orientation. While Gramscian hegemony tended to create an unstable unity of difference, Laclau and Mouffe (1985) seek to reactivate the concept of hegemony beyond its historical materialist origin and, especially the latter, treat it as an articulating concept for difference. Also exemplary is the way Martin Barbero (1983) uses the concept of hegemony in media studies as a question of resistance to ideological mechanism rather than conducting class politics.

Review of the Literature

While according to Fontana (2000), the nexus between logos (speech) and kratos (power) in classical Sophist philosophy documents the important relationship between communication and hegemony, communication as a relatively recent established discipline has prevalently utilized the 20th century re-appropriation of the concept. In the 19th century, the concept added to the political-military dominance and cultural dominance, from which the political dominance is derived. An example could be the cultural hegemony of post-1799 French ideals and their contribution to consolidate the Napoleonic Empire, subduing the insurrections of early 1800s.

Looking at 20th century literature, scholars have privileged a Gramscian understanding especially in the context of post-World War II Euro-Communism. Gramsci’s hegemony was successively received and criticized by Althusser for being Hegelian in nature, favoring the humanist side and downplaying the scientific aspect of Marxism. Posteriorly, Hall provided the basis for a post-structuralist reading of the concept, then developed by Laclau and Mouffe’s interpretation.

Longitudinally, the term has experienced a considerable evolution in the way it has been theorized and applied in Communication studies. While the early applications by scholars such as Williams were intended to intervene in Marxist debate informed by or concerned with the communication perspective, the most recent applications, heavily influenced by Laclau and Mouffe’s work, have more or less gradually detached from both the Marxist tradition and its debates. Originally, hegemony was associated with Gramscian themes such as “socialist revolution,” “war of position,” and “national popular”; thus, it was linked to explicit ways in which communication could support or resist established forms of power. However, looking at how the concept has been predominantly received in the field of Communication, one could argue that hegemony has tended to be characterized as leaning towards “consent,” “civil society,” “symbolic,” and “hegemony as a process.”

First of all, studies in communication applying hegemony have prioritized the consensual and resistance capabilities of subaltern groups (e.g., Condit, 1996; Cox, 1983; Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Martin-Barbero, 1983; Zompetti, 1997, 2008), according to which hegemony becomes a sophisticated account of what has been frequently defined as “soft power,” achieved without the use of direct violence. This tendency has lead to the privileging of a symbolic ideological side of hegemony. Consequently, hegemony has been frequently treated as a “dominant ideology” (Zompetti, 1997), understood as a process mostly functioning through the exchange of ideas, beliefs, images, and less linked to material practice of production.

In fact, particular dominant approaches in communication—mostly characterized by a liberal democratic ideology and a structural functionalist sociological paradigm that tends to logics of social equilibrium rather than social conflict—have heavily shaped the way hegemony is consistently understood and applied. That is to say that a considerable portion of the existing scholarship inclines to overlook the original revolutionary project behind Gramscian hegemony. As a consequence, in communication studies, little scholarly attention has been paid to the relation between hegemony and the questions of coercion, Jacobinism, and even revolutionary violence in favor of a dialogic, discursive, socially pacifying way of understanding society.

Furthermore, very much consistent with this trend is the tendency detectable in the prevailing literature to mainly explore hegemony as a phenomenon taking place in the sphere of civil society as opposed to the state, which may explain why the clearly coercive aspects of power linked to the state, such as the police, military, or the enforcing of law, rarely become the topic of a study carried out from a communicative perspective.

Primary Sources

For an account of classic Greek understanding of hegemony, the reader can see Thucidides’ Peloponnesian War (2012). The Greek historian distinguishes between hegemonia and arkhe, both translatable as hegemony in English. While the former referred to the historically noticeable gesture of a powerful man or state, the latter was more tied to political and military control. Compared to the modern usage posterior to Lenin and Gramsci, the ancient use exemplifies the combination between the coercive aspect of military domination and the consensual aspect that transforms subjugation into loyalty.

As for the re-activation of the term in the 20th century, the reader can first of all read Lenin’s political treatises to understand the hegemonic relationship between a political party and the social class that the party aims to represent. Second, Lenin provides an understanding of how such a party can synthetize the needs and the aspiration of all of the subaltern groups. For example, in Between Two Revolutions (1971), Lenin considers hegemony as the advanced guard of a class (such as the proletariat) capable of synthetizing needs and interests of other social strata. For Lenin, hegemony is not the result of a theoretical reflection but rather a pragmatic and realist option to win the struggle.

For an understanding of Gramscian hegemony, the reader can consult The Prison Notebooks in its integral English version, translated by Buttigieg (in Gramsci 1992), and its selections by Hoare & Nowell Smith (Gramsci 1971). Prison Notebooks offers an unsystematic, complex, and always evolving treatment of the term, which can prove potentially confusing but also instructive of Gramsci’s trends of thought. Finally, for an account of the evolution of the term in more recent times, Laclau and Mouffe’s essay (1985) constitutes an ideal source for grasping how hegemony has been understood by the post-structuralist tradition. Furthermore, Laclau and Mouffe, before advancing their argument provide an informative genealogy of the concept as it was used in the 20th century.

Further Readings

Anderson, Perry (1976). Considerations on Western Marxism. London: NLB.Find this resource:

Butler, J., Laclau, E., & Slavoy, Ž. (2000). Contingency, hegemony, and universality: Contemporary dialogues on the left. London: Verso.Find this resource:

Callinicos, A. (1983). Marxism and philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University PressFind this resource:

Ives, P. (2004). Language and hegemony in Gramsci. London: Pluto Press.Find this resource:

Johnson, R. (2007). Post-hegemony? I don’t think so. Theory Culture & Society, 24, 95–110.Find this resource:

Larrain, J. (1979). The concept of ideology. London: Hutchinson.Find this resource:

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1968). German ideology: The illusion of the epoch. New York: Progress.Find this resource:

Thoburn, N. (2007). Patterns of production: Cultural studies after hegemony. Theory, Culture, and Society, 24, 79–94.Find this resource:

Thomas, P. (2010). The Gramscian moment: Philosophy, hegemony, and Marxism. London: Haymarket.Find this resource:

Zompetti, J. (1997). Toward a Gramscian Critical Rhetoric. Western Journal of Communication, 61(1), 66–86.Find this resource:

Williams, R. (1973). Base and superstructure. New Left Review, 82, 16–35Find this resource:

Non-Textual Material

International Gramsci Society.

Peter D. Thomas. (2010). Gramsci & Hegemony talk on the Counterforum, at Counterfire.org.

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