Qualitative Studies Division
Critical Theories and Cultural Studies in Mass Communication
School of Communication
University of Houston
Houston, Texas 77022
Department of English
University of Houston
Houston, Texas 77022
School of Communication
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77024
Paper submitted to the Qualitation Studies Division,
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
for consideration for the annual convention,
New Orleans, LA, August 4-7, 1999
Critical Theories and Cultural Studies in Mass Communication
School of Communication
University of Houston
Houston, Texas 77022
Department of English
University of Houston
Houston, Texas 77022
School of Communication
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77024
This paper examines the role of critical theories and cultural studies in
journalism and mass communication by (1) synthesizing two paradigms in
contemporary cultural analysis that seek to explain the meaning of phenomena
that make a culture, (2) explores some of the issues that are critical for
teaching and research in mass communication, and (3) explores ways in which
critical literature can be integrated into the teaching and research mission.
Switzer and Ryan are professors in the UH School of Communication and
McNamara is a professor in the UH Department of English.
Critical Theories and Cultural Studies in Mass Communication
By Les Switzer, John McNamara, and Michael Ryan
Critical scholars in cultural studies raise serious questions about
the assumptions, conditions, contexts, and texts of traditional academic
disciplines such as journalism and mass communication, and they argue that many
disciplines are in the midst of paradigmatic crises in their linguistic and
analytical protocols, theories, methods, and parameters of study (e.g., Skinner,
Some mass communication scholars argue that journalism and mass communication
research and teaching must be sufficiently broad to accommodate the critical
literature (e.g., Carey, 1975; Winter, 1986; Dervin, Grossberg, O'Keefe, and
Wartella, 1989; Goldman, 1990; Kellner, 1995; Parisi, 1992), but it is a
literature to which many in mass communication are not exposed. Indeed, Goldman
(1990) and Carey (1975) have argued that many mass communication scholars and
students are antagonistic toward critical studies.
We hope this synthesis and accompanying suggestions will help students,
researchers, and teachers approach this vast and frequently obsure literature in
a way that will produce useful insights and increase understanding. First, we
outline two paradigms in contemporary cultural analysis that seek to explain the
meaning of phenomena that make a culture; second, we explore some of the
issues that are crucial for communication teaching and research; and third, we
discuss ways in which critical literature can be integrated into the teaching
and research mission.
Paradigm I: Culture as a material system
Paradigm I adherents assume (1) that a culture is primarily a material system
that embraces economic, social, and political conditions that are expressed in a
variety of cultural forms, and (2) that the system shapes the ways in which
individuals experience these conditions and represent them to themselves and
others. Material conditions have realities of their own, and communicative acts
in some sense are conditioned by the material world. Since these relations
usually involve unequal distributions of resources and power, analyses of
material conditions tend to focus on the ways in which a dominant culture
represents these relations and how such representations often differ markedly
from those produced by subordinate or marginal groups within the same culture.
The materialist paradigm has been represented most consistently by scholars who
focus on class, capitalism, and the state in Western culture, where power is
depicted as a hierarchical, controlling, all-pervasive force. The greatest power
is exercised through a dominating social class, but in contemporary analyses the
term "class" is usually mitigated by gender, sexual orientation, color, age, or
other physical characteristics, or by ethnic origin, occupation, income,
language, religion, or geographical region.
In classical Marxism, power was anchored in capitalism as the fundamental
organizing principle in modern society. Capitalism was characterized as a mode
of production that produced a hierarchy of classes and led inevitably to
conflict among classes. This characterization led to analyses of the values
generated by capitalism as a mode of production. Marx (1977), for example,
argued that commodities in a capitalist system embody and signify the values
placed on the workers who produce and exchange these commodities. Capitalism
depends for survival on the creation of inequalities in human value and the
exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few.
Other theorists (e.g., Miliband, 1969; Poulantzas, 1973; Braman, 1995)
established the conditions for an autonomous, democratic state within the
Marxist tradition, and they reconstructed modes-of-production analyses for
premodern, pre-capitalist, and modern, industrial cultures; revitalized critical
perspectives about capitalism's development; reconceptualized questions of
segmented and centralized states before the modern era; and provided insights
about how and why certain premodern and modern cultural practices intersect in
postmodern cultures. These insights have had some impact on media studies (e.g.,
Melkote, 1991; Mohammadi, 1997).
The parameters of Paradigm I were explored by 19th and early 20th century
theorists, when the study of modern culture was centered in and on Western
Europe, and the margins of modernity radiated to Eurocentric peripheries like
North America. The paradigm has been enriched immensely in 20th Century debates
by scholars representing various positions in the critical tradition-non-Marxist
and Marxist-who have sought to revise, reformulate, and even reorder the
theoretical building blocks of material culture.
Paradigm I researchers in media studies have been influenced by two seminal
interpretations of the materialist condition. First, the Italian
theorist-activist Antonio Gramsci (see Hoare & Smith, 1971, and Forgacs, 1988)
and his disciples sought to explain how hegemony functions in modern, industrial
democracies. Second, French and British cultural theorists (e.g., Althusser &
Balibar, 1970; Williams, 1980; Thompson, 1984; and Hall, 1989) attempted to
establish the conditions for a semi-autonomous ideology within the framework of
Williams' (1980) "cultural materialism."
Analyses of hegemonic cultures were used initially to explain how the capitalist
class in a modern, democratic state was forced to rely on consensus more than
coercion to contain dissent. Gramsci concluded that the state was comprised of
more than political, administrative, legislative, and judicial institutions. It
also embraced public and private cultural institutions-the real arbiters of a
hegemonic consensus that consigned power to the dominant class. These
institutions included the family, schools, labor unions, and the mass media.
They represented the agencies of persuasion, and they could be contrasted with
the agencies of coercion controlled by the state-the administrative bureaucracy;
military, police, judiciary, and penal authorities; and the tax system.
The hegemonic state is a unifying force, mediating conflict while actively and
positively seeking support from the citizenry. Modern capitalist states are
hegemonic, but hegemony demands constant attention as it can be won and lost.
Cultural institutions must legitimize the hegemonic order in the consciousness
and in the actions of dominant and subordinate social classes, even though these
hegemonic discourses often conflict with the personal experiences of those who
are in subordinate positions. Hegemonic cultures can range from closed systems,
in which dissenters lack even the language necessary to organize resistance, to
open systems, in which "the capability for resistance flourishes and may lead to
the creation of counterhegemonic alternatives" (Lears, 1985, p. 574).
Hegemony is achieved when what is represented as social reality-with its
boundaries of belief and behavior-is framed by elite groups who seek the support
of other groups. The triumph of an industrial, capitalist culture organized by
and on behalf of the bourgeoisie is the textbook example of successful hegemony.
Since cultures are constructed partially from their rhetorics, it is crucial to
study the role of language in a hegemonic system. If citizens are conditioned
mainly by the symbolic systems of those who govern, then a hegemonic order is
maintained in part through the communication of a coherent ideology that
reflects these interests and needs.
The mechanisms that ultimately confirm or deny a hegemonic order, then, are
symbolic and material even in a materialist paradigm of modern culture. In
essence, culture is expressed as ideological discourse (e.g., Larraine, 1979;
Thompson, 1984; Eagleton, 1991). The configurations of power and resistance are
found in the interrelationships among material forces and their ideological
forms. Ideologies are inscribed in the language of personal and public
discourse. Many ideologies are present in a hegemonic culture, and discourses
compete with, and borrow from, each other in the struggle to confer meaning on
French philosopher Louis Althusser (e.g., 1971) was among the first of the
critical, Marxist scholars to establish conditions for a semi-autonomous
ideology, and the analysis of ideology by Hall, an interpreter and critic of the
Althusserian position, has substantially influenced the application of the
materialist paradigm in communication research:
By ideology I mean the mental frameworks-the languages, the concepts,
categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation-which
different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, define,
figure out and render intelligible the way society works. [But ideology also
involves] the processes by which new forms of consciousness, new conceptions of
the world, arise, which move the masses of the people into historical action
against the prevailing system (Hall, 1983, p. 59).
Dominant ideologies seek to secure hegemony, but they cannot guarantee
ideological consensus: "The notion of the dominant ideology and the
subordinated ideology is an inadequate way of representing the complex interplay
of different ideological discourses" (Hall, 1985, p. 104).
Hall rejects the classical Marxist position that material conditions have
preordained realities of their own-that, for instance, each social class has a
distinct ideology, or that the position of a social class in a capitalist
society somehow shapes, sets boundaries for, or gives expression to its own
ideology. But he stops short of Paradigm II positions that assume there is no
way to live apart from the conditions that we experience through cultural norms.
The conditions of material life exist as an objective reality independent of
mind, but they can be conceptualized only in the mind, as an ideological
representation (Hall, 1985). Language is an arena of struggle, the "war of
position" outlined by Gramsci, between ideological referents that may affirm or
deny a cultural order (Hall, 1983). In the process, individuals consume and
interpolate elements of numerous ideologies in the ongoing process of making
sense of the world.
Ideological discourses condition our perceptions of reality from early
childhood, but the relationship between ideology and status is not
predetermined. Even so, the power to assign alternative meanings to our
experiences is realized only through ideological struggle. There are preferred
meanings in ideological discourse, but no ideological meaning is immutable.
Despite differences among theorists, Paradigm I theories of ideology all share
the premise that ideology stems from material relations and seeks to give them
legitimacy as "the way of the world."
Paradigm II: Culture as a symbolic system
Paradigm II advocates assume that a culture is primarily a symbolic system.
The conditions of existence are meaningful only in the ways in which individuals
interpret and represent these conditions to themselves and to others. Scholars
do not deny the importance of material conditions, but they focus on the
cultural codes that comprise the symbolic system-codes whose meanings (in art,
religion, architecture, law, media, sports, farming, manufacturing, or any other
social activity) may not be available to, or provide the same power to, all
members of society. The symbolic system itself is a crucial site in which power
may be exercised, contested, negotiated, or resisted.
The primary focus in Paradigm I is on a collective category (e.g., a nation
state, an institution, or a social class, gender, or religious group), while the
focus in Paradigm II is on the "collective subject." Whereas Paradigm I
theorists examine culture as the object of inquiry, Paradigm II adherents
analyze culture as a subjectivity whose "text" is the culture itself and,
therefore, is inseparable from it. A culture's communicative texts are found in
clothes, music, dance, youth gangs, and the mass media. They also embrace the
persuasive institutions of civil society and the coercive institutions of the
state. Whereas power in Paradigm I usually is constructed hierarchically (as in
the capitalist class or the patriarchal discourse) and is perceived as a
singular signifying and social practice (as in the dominant ideology), Paradigm
II scholars assume that the media through which power is exercised-beginning
with language-is unstable and subject to critique and confrontation.
The symbolic system is omnipresent, and individuals cannot transcend their
cultures because the codes embedded in symbolic systems determine the ways they
think, feel, experience, and act. One cannot achieve the "objective" perspective
idealized by scholars reared in the Enlightenment tradition. Paradigm II
researchers must develop strategies that examine their own positions within
power relationships, since they cannot position themselves entirely outside the
systems they are studying. Their strategies must take the form, at least in
part, of self-critiques.
Some Paradigm II theorists tend to see the symbolic system as a unified,
internally consistent, organic whole. Thus there is an implicit premise even in
Paradigm II that power can be characterized in terms of hegemony. Other Paradigm
II theorists emphasize locally differentiated, often fragmented, symbolic
systems in which we express and experience culture. Power may take forms that
are localized, autonomous, ambiguous, and even contradictory. When power is
contested, the theater of struggle is a specific stage with specific actors and
a specific script.
Paradigm II, then, has undergone a crisis in the tension between its modernist
and postmodernist versions. The modernist version-whose cultural dominance
extended at least through the mid-20th Century-formed a critique of many
rationalist and idealist tendencies of the 18th and 19th centuries, but it
retained the Enlightenment focus on the centered subject as an article of faith
in Western thought. Postmodernism, with its theme of the decentered subject, was
emerging by the 1960s and early 1970s as a powerful competitor that threatened
to "deconstruct" Western thought.
Modernist (also structuralist and constructionist) positions envision a subject
who discovers or creates-or seeks to discover or create-meaning in a condition
of anxiety. Received or traditional meanings may seem to have lost their claim
to certainty, but there is yet a centered self who can discover or create
meaning-or at least orchestrate differences in meaning. Modern culture consists
of such centers of meaning, despite persistent anxiety that meaning is
undiscoverable in any ultimate sense. A desire for a universal system of meaning
persists in the midst of modernity in all its non-authoritarian and
authoritarian forms. This version of Paradigm II shares with Paradigm I the
premise of the self as a center of meaning, though the conditions of possibility
for the self in Paradigm I would be determined by forces apart from the self.
Postmodern (and poststructuralist) scholars assert that the subject has been
displaced as the center of meaning in postmodern culture and is no longer
conceived as a private space to be protected from "outside" intrusions. The
individual has been largely colonized by a mass culture that has no center. The
self does not speak its "own" language but has become a medium through whom
different languages and voices circulate. All metanarratives, or grand
constructions of meaning, are deeply suspect. "Meaning" is a game with endless
moves. Alternatively, any hope for meaning must abandon universality and seek
only some local, limited, contingent, and forever partial meaning.
Despite these differences, Paradigm II suggests that the texts of modern or
postmodern culture are represented in the signifying (languages, rhetorics,
discourses, signs) and social practices (habits, routines, etiquettes,
protocols, rituals) of everyday life. Scholars have examined the relationship
between language and our experience of the world-in theories about grammar,
about speech, about what we mean when we speak and write. Paradigm II has been
influenced by linguistic studies, in which language (or any language-like
activity) is the primary site of meaning. Language, including the ways in which
we study language, is the point of entry into the study of culture.
Most strategies employing this paradigm have been influenced by literary
theorists, who challenge the notion of fixed meanings in language. Culture is
essentially "text," and a cultural text is conditioned by signifying and social
practices specific to that text. Modernists may argue for "formal"
readings-where the reader presumes a certain stability of language-but even
these scholars assume there are no fixed readings of text. In deconstructionist
theory, formalism leads in the opposite direction-toward a kind of
anti-formalism (e.g., Derrida,1976; Kamuf, 1991). Here the reading of a text
presumes that (1) language properties (e.g., grammar rules, speech acts) are
arbitrary; (2) the boundaries of a formal, self-enclosed, symbolic system will
deteriorate; and (3) the meaning of a text is constantly deconstructed despite
efforts to construct meaning in and through it.
Postmodernists argue against "formal" readings, because such stability is a
consequence of remaining within specified frames of reference. Adapting ideas
from Freud, theorists (e.g., L vi-Strauss, 1973, 1975; Jameson, 1991; and
Geertz, 1973, 1983) argue for "symptomatic" or "diagnostic" readings that look
for the underlying, perhaps unconscious, meanings or messages in the narratives
and rituals of a culture. It is just as important-perhaps even more important-to
decode meanings that are obscured, distorted, repressed, or concealed as it is
to recognize meanings that are manifest in cultural expression and
representation. Even where there is no intention to deceive or mislead, a
"symptomatic" reading may reveal much about the implicit, unconscious functions
of cultural coding and their implications for cultural power.
Paradigm II debates appropriated by mass communication scholars and students
have tended to focus on specific issues raised by theorists in a tradition that
extends to the Victorian Era (Taylor, 1986). Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1977),
for example, seeks to categorize the languages of cultural capital (see also
Harker, Mahar & Wilkes, 1990, and Johnson, 1993). Historian Henri Lefebvre
(1971) analyzes the power, generally unrecognized, of the languages of the
everyday (see also Burke, 1990). Cultural theorists Jean Francois Lyotard (1984,
1993), Jean Baudrillard (1981), Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1977), and C.
V. Boundas (1993) try to account for the effacing, or at least the
fragmentation, of the postmodern subject. African-American scholars Henry Louis
Gates and Cornel West (e.g., 1996); social critic Ruth Frankenberg (1993); and
social historian Noel Ignatiev (1995) seek to define the mechanisms by which
"race" has been socially constructed in America to distribute power unevenly
along racial lines.
Paradigm II scholars of the postmodern persuasion are wary of all overarching,
totalizing narratives, and they find difficulty in determining with finality the
meaning of any cultural text. They may endlessly defer a decision about what
something means because they see no stable point of reference for such a
decision. The language "deconstructs" the very structures we try to construct.
This does not mean there are no possibilities for meaning, but that there are
many possibilities. This logic, however, is applicable only within the
artificially encapsulated world of language. It is not terribly convincing when
language is viewed as a set of social practices.
Critical literature and the mass communicator
Scholars, students, and teachers in journalism and mass communication can
usefully employ dialectically the insights of both paradigms in developing
procedures for examining the media. It is not realistic or useful to rely on
only one paradigm, for neither alone can adequately address the ways in which
language, text, and community shape and reshape the conditions under which, for
example, news issues are discussed, or even whether they are discussable. Nor
does the "truth" lie somewhere along the divide between a culture's material and
symbolic realities. What one paradigm reveals, the other tends to obscure.
Material systems assume symbolic forms, and symbolic systems are integral to
material practices. However, one can identify ways in which the paradigms can be
applied to stimulate thought and debate, and, perhaps, to answer some questions
about mass communication. Just a few of the areas in which the paradigms are
useful are discussed here.
Language and power. Communicative acts are governed by language, and our sense
of self-of who we are and what is real-is determined in the first instance by
language, which is composed of many voices. The structuralist view of language,
epitomized by Ferdinand de Saussure (1983), has prevailed for much of the 20th
Century. De Saussure argued that all social relations are defined primarily by
language and that words mean what they do only because individuals, as members
of a language community, agree to assign certain meanings to them.
De Saussure viewed language in part as binary signs, in which words, for
example, are assigned values in terms of their opposition to other words. De
Saussure's many interpreters (e.g., Harris, 1987; Thibault, 1997) often have
taken this insight beyond de Saussure, asserting that the principles that
structure language systems often structure other symbolic systems that generate
meaning. The power of news texts, for example, lies in the power to confer
meaning on persons, events, or issues that are appropriated for public
consumption. Mass media news-in newspapers, magazines, radio, television-is
primarily a dichotomous discourse that presumes a stable language. News
production, by definition, seeks to secure fixed readings of the text, and
audience surveys serve mainly to determine whether these preferred readings are
understood and accepted. 
News texts are grounded in a world of binary signs-of life and death, subject
and object, male and female, white and black, pure and impure, legitimate and
illegitimate, sane and insane, sacred and profane, capitalist and communist,
metropole and periphery. The dichotomies are endless, and Eagleton (e.g., 1991)
argues that such oppositions, along with the apparent need to see the world in
terms of oppositions, provide the social-psychological basis for ideology.
The poststructuralist view of language-epitomized by postmodernists like Derrida
(e.g., 1976) and the deconstructionists-criticized de Saussure and the
structuralists for fostering a false sense of stability and unity in language
systems. Poststructuralists assume language is arbitrary, and any imposition of
an "authorized" or "official" reading of a text is an exercise of power. Meaning
is conveyed not by the language but by the power to persuade or compel an
individual or community to accept a meaning as true (or preferred). All language
(from mathematics to religion to journalism) eludes efforts to make it stand
still. Thus, media content is unstable and subject to criticism.
Some mass communication scholars have also tried to apply the ideas of Russian
literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who, like many poststructuralists, assumes that
words never provide the fixed, unalterable meanings we ascribe to them. Bakhtin
(1981) employed the terms "monologic" and "dialogic" to express the tension
between ideological conformity and diversity in texts (see also Holquist, 1990).
The monologic voice is the hierarchical, authoritarian voice, the privileged
language or discourse (anything from a privileged dialect to a privileged social
class), the univocal, ideological perspective communicated in the text. At its
most extreme, as in a totalitarian society, the monologic voice is the voice of
all, and all speak with one voice. Dialogic voicing consists of a plurality of
discourses, of ideologies-the multiple voices characteristic of democratic
For Bakhtin, this theory of discourse is ultimately a grand conception of
history, one in which the dialogic struggles to exceed the power of the
monologic and to usher in a new democratic order. All texts exhibit tension
between the monologic and the dialogic. They operate in a dialectical
relationship fraught with struggle. News texts, to paraphrase Bakhtin, should be
viewed in light of this struggle.
Mass communication scholars and students may pose, on the basis of these
analyses of language, several useful questions or propositions. One question
centers on the impact of an unstable language on communication effectiveness. If
meanings shift, how can one know when he or she is using langage that has shared
meaning? Other questions center on who determines what words mean and how the
arbiter uses the power to assign meaning (e.g., to perpetuate a political,
social, or cultural status quo, or to effect change). Scholars and students
should look for messages within news texts that appear to privilege certain
cultural practices and denigrate, silence, or diminish other cultural practices.
And they should consider alternative and preferred readings of texts. A
preferred reading may represent primarily hegemonic discourses, but the
researcher still needs to identify the strategies that are employed to make the
social order appear normal and the norms and conditions that are necessary for a
preferred reading to be either accepting or critical of that order.
Text and power. Mass communication is an enormously powerful symbolic force, and
this power stems in large part from the narrative power of these texts. While
there is a considerable literature about the narrative form, we are concerned
mainly with what some fiction writers and journalists refer to critically as the
"realistic" narrative (e.g., Eason, 1990; Mumby, 1993; Berger, 1996). This is a
genre of story telling associated with the making of various kinds of cultural
texts, where information and ideas about people, events, or situations, past and
present, are categorized, prioritized, and condensed into linear, chronological
accounts that claim authority and public currency, impute cause and agency, and
assert their own truths.
Realistic narratives assume there is a "true," or at least a distinct, social
reality waiting to be discovered, and communicator and audience share a
consensus about how this reality should be comprehended, packaged, and
presented. Realistic writers explain their subject matter-no matter how alien or
bizarre it might seem-in terms that can be communicated to a shared culture.
Realistic narratives tend to naturalize differing views of reality within
conventions that are in harmony with the shared view. The diversity and
relativity of modern culture do not pose problems, because these disparate
images mask underlying codes that unify and indemnify the social order.
Realistic narratives, however, employ codes not only for what is represented,
but also for the process of representation itself. Events, for example, do not
constitute a narrative, and it is not self-evident that they must be understood
or represented only in a narrative form. But if we choose to narrate events, we
also choose, knowingly or unknowingly, to endow these events with meaning. We
shape events into plots, and we find meaning in the plots. Narratives follow
plots that foreground some persons, issues, or events, while shifting others to
the background-or off the page. This process, together with the stated or
implied direction of the narrative, represents an exercise of power that makes
the generation of meaning in any narrative inescapable. Consequently, it is
naive to assume that realistic narratives simply describe "what is there"
without acknowledging that they are constructed for certain purposes, fulfill
certain conditions, and appeal to certain norms so that audiences will accept
the representations as real.
In applying these ideas to mass communication, one might conclude that news is
first and foremost about personalities, events, and issues of primary interest
to the brokers of power in American society. News represents the dominant
culture, and the production process itself is a powerful force in legitimizing
this news. Even in the era of globalization, for example, domestic news is
valued over foreign news; foreign news with an American presence is valued over
foreign news without an American presence; and foreign news that is in harmony
with U.S. domestic agendas is valued over foreign news that deviates from these
Community and power. Communication usually takes place within a community whose
norms govern both the nature and effectiveness of the communicative act. A
community (linguistic, geographical, ethnic, professional, political, religious)
will shape the conditions-both enabling and limiting, stated and unstated,
signifying and social-that affect the ways in which persons communicate-or don't
communicate. The material and symbolic conditions within a community give rise
to communal narratives that can be applied to the study of communication. While
narratives vary from one context to another, they apply whether the speaker is a
preacher in church, a singer at a folk festival, an alcoholic at an AA meeting,
a child on a playground-or a journalist writing a story.
Habermas (1989), who advocated an approach to studying the relationship between
community and power that has influenced media studies, examined the roots in
Western culture of what he called the "public sphere"-a term that refers to that
place in social life where public opinion is formed (see also Seidman, 1989).
Habermas studied the public languages, gestures, mannerisms, etiquettes,
educations, fashions, and other socially bound activities that were employed to
gain access to bourgeois life in Western Europe between the 17th and 19th
The public sphere, a space distinct from civil society and the state, was
organized by and for the bourgeoisie. Habermas argued that the bourgeoisie
fostered a distinction between "private" and "public" spheres in their social
practices and negotiated a public sphere for themselves. The public sphere
constituted the nation's middle-class, and, from the beginning, among the most
important components in the creation of a "bourgeois public sphere" was the
newspaper, which played a crucial role in developing the language of public
debate about what constituted public issues: "The press remained an institution
of the public itself, operating to provide and intensify public discussion, no
longer a mere organ for the conveyance of information, but not yet a medium of
consumer culture" (Seidman, 1989, pp. 233-234).
The bourgeois public sphere became the mode for communicating knowledge. It
presumed a world of individuals-unified, centered subjects-who were almost
always male and of the privileged social class, and whose public language
reflected education, social position, and entitlements to which only a few had
access. Members of this community employed in their speech and writing
sociolinguistic features that emphasized clarity, coherence, organization,
evenness, willingness to compromise, and a "middling" style of expression
appropriate to the emerging middle classes. After the standards of linguistic
correctness-especially grammatical correctness-were agreed upon, the ways in
which one could recognize and certify who was (or was not) a member of the
community were known. Now there was an objective measure to verify one was a
"person of position and quality."
The bourgeois public sphere in Western culture steadily weakened during the 20th
Century. The social networks that had been the preserve of the middle classes
(e.g., in education, speech, manners, recreation, business) were gradually
undermined by the forces of modernity-spearheaded by the mass media-that had
made possible the establishment of a bourgeois public sphere in the first place.
The weakening of the bourgeois public sphere has had fundamental implications
for media studies.
Foucault (e.g., 1977, 1978, 1980) developed another approach to the study of
community and power that also has influenced media studies. Foucault, who
examined the discourses of power and the steady erosion of the private sphere,
rejected the concept of power as an external, hierarchical, imposed force and
supported the view that such social categories as class, gender, ethnic origin,
or religious persuasion were essentially arbitrary. He favored a concept of
power that was polymorphous and internalized in the theater of the human body.
History, for example, is not a set of imposed facts and ideas or simply a series
of "real" events. It contains numerous discourses that are read and reread by
successive generations consumed by the task of reinventing their own lives.
Foucault's insights into the meaning of power and empowerment in the private
sphere-in an individual's thoughts and actions-have had a profound impact on our
understanding of the individual-in-community. His analyses of life in Western
Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries (prisons, poor houses, medical
practices, state bureaucracies) suggest that information gathering-the keeping
of records-became the principal means by which the modern state learned to
maintain control through surveillance of its citizens.
Foucault's arguments support some enduring themes in the creation of a hegemonic
order within a community: Individuals are controlled by the symbolic systems of
those who rule, and it is difficult to resist these systems. The state ensures
compliance by relying not on overt repression but on powerful institutions that
establish routines of social control to which we are enculturated. Foucault
documented many kinds of regimentation-a largely invisible form of
surveillance-in which we are observed, and we behave like we are being observed
even when we are not.
There can be no transforming revolutions for Foucault. Resistance is a matter of
daily practice, and the human body is the field on which the struggle for
discursive power is waged. In this sense, Foucault has fundamentally altered our
sense of resistance. The ultimate objective is control over the body-a control
that is mediated primarily through the discourse(s) we employ to live in
community. These mediations, which Foucault calls regimes of power, seek to
monitor the discourses that live within us and that regulate daily life. The
first step toward resisting such control is to analyze and deconstruct the
socially constructed concepts that have been naturalized in everyday life.
Communicators need to pay more attention to how news supports the hegemonic
order-on how news is managed by official (usually government) news sources and
is pre-packaged in syndicated features, opinion pieces, and advice columns, and
in wire service news reports. Even local news generated by reporters covering
the police, courts, city council, and other community "beats" often is obtained
in a pre-packaged format (e.g., official reports, statements, minutes of
meetings, records). Journalists rely increasingly on other sources of managed
material disguised as news and derived mainly from powerful, but non-official,
special-interest lobby groups (e.g., political action committees) that typically
represent the dominant elites.
The quest for a reformist "public journalism" that ostensibly seeks to
reestablish dialogue between journalists and their missing publics (i.e.,
vanishing audiences) may, in fact, lead to nothing more than increased hegemony
by society's dominant elites. Hanno Hardt, for example, critiqued the movement
toward public journalism in a review essay:
Discussions of public or civic journalism . . . . appear as a rhetoric of
change that claims neither theoretical depth nor historical consciousness. . . .
Missing is a critical examination of the underlying assumptions of journalism,
professionalism, and freedom of expression, particularly in light of historical,
social, political, and economic developments that continue to deconstruct
traditional views of journalism and are leading to a different understanding of
the role of journalism in American society (Hardt, 1997, pp. 103-104).
It is also useful to focus on how readers interpret and use news. Do they
recognize culturally preferred readings of the news as reflecting a dominant
discourse? Do they respond positively or negatively to deviant readings?
Audience analysis should attempt to identify the existence of alternative,
community-based news sources and determine the extent to which readers have
access to and make use of these sources.
Corporate culture. News is constructed within a corporate culture that is not
unlike the cultures of non-media corporations. It is selected with reference to
a matrix of values, and it is packaged and distributed as a commodity. The
production process is characterized by a hierarchical system with clear lines of
authority and procedures for rewarding and punishing employees. As cultural
workers, journalists are guided by professional practices, customs, and codes of
conduct to produce stories that will be read and viewed by consumers. News
produced as a commodity is essentially ritualized news: News sources, news
stories, and news events are predictable, repeatable, and in continuous
production. Ritualized reporting and writing codes reduce reality to discrete,
dichotomous "facts" that are compartmentalized and endlessly replicated.
Ritualized news has become increasingly personalized as "celebrity" news about
persons, places, and events.
Media critics, journalists, and audiences typically assume that the rituals
commit journalists to searches for unmediated, objective realities. Journalists
are presumed to avoid propaganda and bias, which are perceived as deviations
from some objective truth. Professional codes demand that facts be separated
from opinion and news reports be written in an objective or unbiased (read
balanced, fair) manner. Some argue that the so-called cult of objectivity has
greatly enhanced the power of news to misrepresent, stereotype, trivialize, and
sensationalize the news agenda. Some journalists, for example, assume that most
news issues can be reduced to two opposing sides. If both sides are presented,
the news story is unbiased. But what if the story has three or four sides, and
what if one of the sides that is reported is misleading?
The quest for objectivity must not be abandoned, because it would be impossible
for society to make informed decisions if everyone gave up the search for fair,
balanced, accurate information. That objectivity is valued is evidenced by the
vigorous response against postmodernist attacks on objective scientific inquiry
(e.g., Sokal and Bricmont, 1998; Koertge, 1998; and Gross, Levitt, and Lewis,
1996) and the furor over the inaccuracies in Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta
Menchu's (1984) memoir describing horrific violence against Guatemalan Indians.
"Objectivity" is complex, however, and discussions of its meaning must be
anchored in historically specific, cultural environments.
The media are closely linked to and dependent on other powerful corporate
institutions (at local, state, national, and international levels), but these
relationships are generally represented by the media as necessary and beneficial
to the public. Mutual dependency is justified by the claim that institutions
need each other: Mass media receive information supplied by various official
(public sector) and unofficial (private sector) sources, assign value to this
information, and transmit some of these messages to audiences. Journalists often
claim they occupy independent positions in the production process. Defining
themselves as members of the Fourth Estate, most journalists claim rights of
free speech and the public's right to know under the First Amendment, and are
wary of attempts to infringe on these rights. Journalists argue that they
themselves are the best guarantee that news accounts will be honest,
responsible, and impartial-and in the public interest.
The critical literature suggests that it would be useful for scholars and
teachers to focus on a medium's relative position in the corporate body (for
example, it may be the flagship in a chain of newspapers and television
stations); on the values and priorities of those who control the medium's news
and business operations; on social and professional news practices that
influence news production; and on the news workers as a subset of the
journalistic community (including the administrative status, social background,
news values, and priorities of the journalists; their perceptions of the news
selection process; and the constraints they face inside the newsroom).
Privileged news. Media scholars who embrace a materialist paradigm of media
and culture (Paradigm I) seek above all to demonstrate that the media
communicate "structures of meaning" that over time promote and perpetuate the
ideas and activities of a hegemonic social order (e.g., Turner, 1990). The media
serve primarily a hegemonic class, even though conceptualizing this class (using
value-laden variables linked to perceptions of belief and behavior and to
demographic variables like socio-economic status, age, sexual orientation, or
color), defining the boundaries of this class, and determining how it operates
is not as easy as it was before the 20th Century, when culture was in a
mercantile, or early industrial, phase and the printed word was the dominant
For Paradigm I researchers, then, mass communicators typically frame reality in
ways that are in harmony with the interests and needs of those who wield power
in this designated middle-class order, and they produce "privileged news."
Hegemonic, ideological perspectives dominate news, and are embedded in the
language of private and commercial media, and non-commercial and
government-owned media. In a materialist paradigm, mass media have the power to
represent reality in harmony with the hegemonic order: "[A] given symbolic
universe, if it becomes hegemonic, can serve the interests of some groups better
than others. Subordinate groups may participate in maintaining a symbolic
universe, even if it serves to legitimate their domination. In other words, they
can share a kind of half-conscious complicity in their own victimization"
(Lears, 1985, p. 573).
While some news reflects hegemonic values more powerfully than other news,
enculturation ensures that hegemonic values will play a major role in
structuring journalists' understanding of the meaning of news texts. News that
deviates from or conflicts with hegemonic messages (i.e., privileged news) is
present in the media, but these counter-hegemonic messages are conditioned by,
if not controlled by, the dominant culture. In effect, alternative discourses
are necessarily structured in the context of the hegemonic discourse. The
experiences of subordinate communities are given a public force by
intermediaries situated within these dominant institutions.
Paradigm I researchers seek to demonstrate (1) how a dominant discourse is
forged in the training and employment of journalists, and in the news production
process; and (2) how communicators and consumers have come to share the same
understanding about news, which helps to create and sustain a hegemonic
Paradigm I representations of news texts, however, are incomplete and perhaps
flawed for at least two reasons. First, the assumption that counter-hegemonic
messages can have meaning only in relation to hegemonic messages poses problems
for the researcher seeking autonomy for these dissident voices. "The notion of
hegemony," as Hall says, "is not the old notion of determinism in a new
disguise, for it refuses to ascribe the positions of power, whether in discourse
or across the whole social formation, permanently to anybody" (Hall, 1989, pp.
Second, researchers employing the materialist paradigm often accept a reading of
news that is (1) essentially unambiguous in reflecting and representing the
dominant discourse, (2) understood in the same way by communicators and
consumers, and/or (3) received by individuals who have no access to or are not
utilizing alternative news agencies/sources in making inferences and judgments
about the meanings of news. In essence, Paradigm I researchers target a specific
audience in the text itself, which poses problems for the researcher who seeks a
hermeneutic interpretation of the text. The media (or the sources on which
they rely) may establish an agenda for debate, but they may not dictate what
their audiences think about the agenda.
Scholars who embrace a symbolic paradigm of media and culture (Paradigm II) are
more sensitive to these problems. The media alone do not set communal norms for
the acceptability, credibility, or authority of the news. Nor are these norms
set only by powerful political and economic institutions, which would determine
what the media produce or the public consumes. In its top-down view of news as
manipulation, Paradigm I recognizes the exercise of power over and through the
news media, but it rarely recognizes that news institutions themselves operate
within a much larger network of linguistic, textual, and communal norms.
The communal norms for the effectiveness of news derive from a complex
interplay of many cultural forces, both official and unofficial, which shape
what counts as news in a culture. Journalistic texts-the discourses ritualized
in the news production process and communicated by media workers-must be
examined in relation to other cultural texts that service the media (in music,
art, religion, education, business, government), along with the organizational
cultures that produce these texts. Journalists, for example, may be trained and
employed as professionals to privilege consensus news, but it doesn't
necessarily follow that they always perform this task.
Privileged news (i.e., typical news) is legitimized in part by contrast with
news that is perceived to deviate from the social order. Deviant news (i.e.,
atypical news) highlights stories that transgress dominant values/norms
enshrined in law, custom, and convention. Atypical stories are contrasted with
typical stories, as in illegal drug use versus legal drug use, single-parent
families headed by women versus two-parent families headed by men, multicultural
issues versus monocultural issues.
Deviant news. Scholars who conceive of culture as a symbolic system assume that
news represents numerous monologic and dialogic voices. They seek to demonstrate
how texts constitute crucial but ambiguous sites of linguistic struggle. Various
strategies are employed to interrogate the omissions, multiple meanings,
alternative sources, and subjects of inquiry in news, and they are used to
negotiate, challenge, contradict, or even confront dominant discourses. Such
strategies may illuminate not only the power of hegemonic groups but also the
relative autonomy of subordinated political, ethnic, religious, cultural, or
socio-economic groups-as revealed in their own texts and in their readings of
dominant news texts.
Paradigm II researchers also emphasize the audience's susceptibility to news
texts, but these scholars often assume that all culture is "textual"-consumers
are studied as functionaries within a text-producing, text-circulating,
text-interpreting system. Such textual analysis often leads to brilliant
insights, but social relations are effectively reduced to textual relations. It
needs to be combined with strategies-ethnography, social science, oral network
analyses-that can decode audience responses to news in the context of communal
narratives that make such messages effective.
Mass communication scholars and students should examine sources of news that
deviate from consensual texts generated by the media. The levels of alienation,
particularly in subaltern communities, are often difficult to assess, but this
may be crucial in audience analysis. Deviant messages may be present in
personal, everyday activities; in interpersonal networks hidden from public
scrutiny; in community structures that are not controlled by the dominant
culture. The objective is to determine (1) the nature of alternative news
narratives (if any) originating from within the subculture, and (2) the role
that subcultural oral, written, or visual texts may play in determining the
credibility of news and opinion. The point of the exercise is to show not only
how news can be deconstructed and reconstructed as dominant and deviant
discourses but also to place these narratives in localized, communal contexts
that do not necessarily service the dominant culture.
Deviant news, which is essentially negative, is most likely to be
misrepresented, stereotyped, trivialized, and sensationalized. The more remote
news is from the experiences of local news consumers, the more deviant, negative
news tends to distort the news agenda-as in the stereotypical representations of
most non-western cultures (e.g., Hawk, 1992). Deviant news is also demonized
news that increasingly is exploited to trigger moral panics (e.g., drug use,
child abuse, illegal immigration, sexual harassment, juvenile crime).
Integrating critical literature and approaches
We do not argue that journalism and mass communication scholars and teachers
should abandon all other approaches as they integrate critical literature into
their curricula and research. We do argue that the antagonism cited by Carey
(1975) and Goldman (1990) toward critical literature harms the academic
enterprise and must be abandoned, and that the best of the critical literature
must be incorporated into journalism and mass communication research and
The overarching value of critical literature is that it can be used to help
scholars and teachers decide what mass communication education and research
should be in the 21st Century. New approaches and methods have been debated for
years, and while one sees evidence of change in the breadth of scholarship
published and presented, there has been no wholesale transformation of the
curriculum (Rakow, 1993). Faculties continue to find themselves mired in
conceptual poverty, unsure about what the discipline is or should be.
Finding its identity has always been problematic for communication, according
to Swanson (1993), but the problem is more accute today, given the scarcity of
resources and the continuing pressures to restructure the academy.
Communication faculties now face ". . .an urgent need to articulate the
scholarly focus of our discipline to others within the university, rather than
allowing them to think that we exist merely to create effective communicators"
(Shoemaker, 1993, p. 147). The traditionally dominant approach has been to train
communicators for business and industry jobs, but programs must insure that
these interests are not served above all others. "A university should serve the
interests of the public, first and foremost, rather than those parts of society
with the most money and influence" (Rakow, 1993, p. 155).
Critical literature-which is not tied to conventional, occupational
classifications-provides an overview of mass communication that stimulates new
thinking and that can help faculties produce more holistic programs-programs
that break down barriers among sequences, for example, and that help them become
integrated. Mass communication research and education in the next century must
focus on the total communication context, not only on isolated industries, or
even segments of industries, as in the present and past. Appropriate,
constructive criticism based on critical literature (and on other literatures)
must be an important part of communication research and education, and efforts
must be made to bring students and faculty together to discuss questions (e.g.,
the instability of language) that have important implications for print and
broadcast journalists, for public relations practitioners, for advertisers, for
organizational communicators, for everyone in communication. They should discuss
the ways in which meaning is determined by powerful forces, and what the
implications are for practitioners in all areas. This approach should be made
part of the thrust, part of the goals, of communication education and research
in the next century.
More specifically, we believe critical literature should be integrated
horizontally, rather than vertically. Indeed, it cannot be successfully
integrated vertically because it would remain off to itself, talking to itself,
and have little impact on the rest of the curriculum or on the research mission.
Critical literature must be included in required media history, media and
society, and law and ethics courses. Discussion of the kinds of issues critical
theorists have raised would enrich these courses and help them become part of a
larger debate. Richard Jensen for example, teaches a class that links law and
ethics to the distribution of power in society, and that addresses fundamental
questions of justice (Allen & Jensen, 1995).
We also advocate critical approaches in the teaching of communication theory and
research. Like Goldman (1990), who has developed an undergraduate theory course
that exposes students to alternative frames of critical thinking and that
analyzes scholarship from a humanist/critical perspective, we would supplement,
rather than discard, old approaches of proven value.
Critical literature can also enrich reporting, and editing classes. At the
University of Houston, for example, we expose students to a critique of
objectivity and to some of the counter arguments, and we have students employ
critical perspectives as they examine media content. Students often see for
themselves that a report appears to be objective but in fact is not because
important voices have not been heard. Or they discover for themselves how media
help preserve the hegemonic order.
A Center for Critical Cultural Studies was created at the University of Houston
in part to address the problem of integrating critical literature into research
and teaching. A joint project of the School of Communication and the Department
of English, the center sponsored university-wide seminars and workshops for
faculty and students in a quest to address some of these issues. Communication
became a component in an ever-expanding agenda that encompassed a variety of
disciplines in the humanities, social and natural sciences, law, and, on
occasion, business and engineering. The topics included postmodernism and
sexuality, race and identity, the culture of late capitalism, the new
historicism, critical literary studies, and methodology in cultural studies.
There were seminars on encounters between the humanities and sciences-on chaos
theory, on the impact of critical theory on the natural sciences, on technology
and art in early modern Europe, on paradigmatic changes in "modern" physics and
the arts, and on issues relating to photography, film studies, and the
These discussions had an impact not only on research but also on teaching. The
School of Communication created seven undergraduate and graduate courses that
employ critical literature to explore (1) the frameworks (linguistic, literary,
historical, political, economic) that help condition the roles played by
communication agents and agencies in society, and (2) the daily social and
ethical challenges that must be addressed in preparing for careers in today's
The offerings include two critical theory courses-one at the undergraduate
level, media, power, and society, and one at the graduate level, critical theory
in media and culture. Both courses explore the processes involved in
constructing, representing, resisting, and deconstructing culture. The
undergraduate course is organized around the relationship between communication,
representations of reality, and relations of power in contemporary culture. The
graduate course offers an analysis and critique of premodern, modern, and
postmodern paradigms of culture, and generates procedures for analyzing media
texts in contemporary metropolitan environments.
The urgency of developing a more effective nexus between critical theory and
practice-especially in required core courses and in the relationship between
undergraduate and graduate-level work-is becoming apparent as the conceptual
frameworks and technological tools we have traditionally used to define,
describe, interpret, and evaluate various forms of mediated activity are rapidly
changing. These conversations are desperately needed if we are to prepare our
students for the many challenges they will face as mass media communicators and
consumers in the new century.
1. The most sustained critique of the two paradigms is found in the work of
feminist scholars and
activists. While we do not have the space even to summarize this literature,
students should be aware of feminist perspectives that have had a considerable
impact on the teaching of media and cultural studies (e.g., Zoonen, 1994). The
constructed opposition of male/female is rooted in cultural history. Indeed, the
all-pervasive discourse of sexuality, structured as it is on gendered
oppositions, is the site where we experience both the body and identity itself.
2. Some scholars fail to grasp the racist implications in the term race, which
has meaning only as a social construction: One's racial identity is determined
by one's community or culture. The human genetic structure accords little
statistical significance to physical appearance. Distinctions between population
groups based on skin color, height, hair texture, facial structure, or cranial
capacity have been replaced by distinctions based on genes, gene pools, and
4. Critical literature about the U.S. news media has expanded dramatically, and
it is far too large and diverse even to summarize here. Nevertheless, the
critique of news has become a minorcultural industry in itself, and students and
researchers should be seriously discussing this literature. Some studies are
concerned with the meaning of news in the past (e.g., Schiller, 1981; Nord,
1990; Leonard, 1995) and the present (e.g., Cohen & Young, 1973; Cirino, 1974;
Tuchman, 1978; Gans, 1979; Fishman, 1980; Altschull, 1984; Rachlin, 1988; Carey,
1988; Koch, 1990; Schudson, 1995; Bennett, 1996; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). They
focus on news in cities, like Kaniss' remarkable studies in Philadelphia (1991,
1995); on deviant political news, like Gitlin's pioneering work on the media's
role in destroying the New Left (1980); and even on influential academic news
texts, like the critique of the Four Theories of the Press by Nerone (1995).
They examine news as a civic discourse that has lost contact with its publics
(e.g., Anderson, Dardenne, & Killenberg, 1994; Blumler & Gurevitch, 1996). They
frame news and news institutions within a specific critical theory, as in recent
applications of Habermas' concept of the public sphere to journalism (e.g.,
4. Hermeneutic scholars assume that the world and the objects of the world we
study require interpretation to convey meaning. Readers approach a text as
subjects filled with meaning-with facts, ideas, associations, assumptions,
conditions, expectations, memories-and they find the text is also filled with
meaning. The text can reinforce and enhance, or confront and contradict, our
"horizons of meaning." Ideally, the meanings we bring to the text interact
successfully with meanings already in the text that, in turn, are embodied in
the community producing the text. For a useful summary of this position, see
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 Following Thomas Kuhn's celebrated concept of paradigms and paradigmatic
shifts in the natural sciences, a paradigm for the human sciences might be
defined as follows: a set of socially constructed presuppositions shared by most
if not all members of a given community concerning appropriate theories,
contexts and texts of study and appropriate models and methods of research. For
recent surveys of paradigm debates in communication, see Dervin, Grossberg,
O'Keefe & Wartella (Vol. 1, 1989); Journal of Communication (Vol. 43, 3-4,
1993), esp. 43 (4), 89-124 ("Rethinking the critical tradition"); Kellner (1995,
Part I); Schiller (1996).
 Some scholars still fail to grasp the racist implications in the term
"race," which has meaning only as a social construction: one's racial identity
is determined by one's community or culture. The human genetic structure accords
little statistical significance to physical appearance. Distinctions between
population groups based on skin color, height, hair texture, facial structure or
alleged cranial capacity have been replaced by distinctions based on genes, gene
pools, breeding populations and the geographical distribution of specific
 Critical literature about the U.S. news media has expanded dramatically in
the past 25 years or so, and it is far too large and diverse even to summarize
in this article. Nevertheless, the critique of news has become a minor cultural
industry in itself, and students and researchers should be seriously discussing
this literature. Some studies are concerned with the meaning of news in the
past (e.g., Schiller, 1981; Nord, 1990; Leonard, 1995) and the present (e.g.,
Cohen & Young, 1973; Cirino, 1974; Tuchman, 1978; Gans, 1979; Fishman, 1980;
Altschull, 1984; Rachlin, 1988; Carey, 1988; Koch, 1990; Schudson, 1995;
Bennett, 1996; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). They focus on news in cities, like
Kaniss' remarkable studies in Philadelphia (1991, 1995); on deviant political
news, like Gitlin's pioneering work on the media's role in destroying the New
Left (1980); and even on influential academic news texts, like the critique of
the "Four Theories of the Press" by Nerone (1995). They examine news as a civic
discourse that has lost contact with its publics (e.g., Anderson, Dardenne, &
Killenberg, 1994; Blumler & Gurevitch, 1996). They frame news and news
institutions within a specific critical theory, as in recent applications of
Habermas' concept of the public sphere to journalism (e.g., Hallin, 1994).
 Hermeneutic scholars assume that the world and the objects of the world we
study require interpretation to convey meaning. Readers approach a text as
subjects filled with meaning-with "facts," ideas, associations, assumptions,
conditions, expectations, memories-and they find the text is also filled with
meaning. The text can reinforce and enhance, or confront and contradict, our
existing "horizons of meaning." Ideally, the meanings we bring to the text
interact successfully with meanings already in the text that, in turn, are
embodied in the community producing the text. For a useful summary of this
position, see Outhwaite (1985).