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Communication and social context (Thompson 1995)

March 30, 2010

This is the first chapter of Thompson, John, B. (1995) The media and modernity: A social theory of the media. Cambridge: Polity, where Thompson lays the theoretical foundations of the study

10 Modern media have irreversibly transformed symbolic production and exchange

10 Approach here is cultural in 2 senses: (1) symbolic forms are meaningful, (2) symbolic forms are socially contextualised.

11 Technological aspects shouldn’t blind us to fact that modern communication media rework in deep ways ‘the symbolic character of social life’

11 To paraphrase Geertz, ‘communication media are spinning wheels in the modern world, and, in using these media, human beings are fabricating webs of significance for themselves’ [but see critiques of Geertz’s symbolic anthro, JP]

11 You cannot divorce mediated communication from contexts of everyday life

Action, power and communication

12 Social phenomena are ‘purposive actions carried out in structured social contexts’ or ‘fields of interaction’ (Bourdieu); 13 these fields shaped by institutions. Individuals’ position in field closely linked to their power.

16-7 Various forms of power in modern socs: economic, political, coercive, symbolic. The latter originates in ‘the activity of producing, transmitting and receiving meaningful symbolic forms’ and is held by cultural institutions such as the Church, schools, universities, the media industries. Individuals draw from ‘means of information and communication’ to exercise such power. 17 Symbolic power is the ability to influence the course of events, others’ actions and even to create events via symbolic forms.

The uses of communication media

18-21 People use a technical medium to produce and transmit symbolic forms. 19 Technical media have a number of characteristics:

1) fixation of the symbolic form; this will vary from one specific medium to another: stone, paper, tape… So technical media can store info or symbolic content, they are ‘information storage mechanisms’, e.g. earliest writing in Sumeria used to record economic transactions and ownership.

2) reproduction, i.e. ‘the production of multiple copies of a symbolic form’. This is turn enabled commodification of symbolic forms and led to emergence of copyright law to protect not authors but media industries.

3) space-time distanciation, i.e. symbolic form can be separated from production context. Face-to-face communication entails little space-time distanciation.

Some characteristics of ‘Mass Communication’

24 Trouble with term ‘mass’: conjures up huge, passive audience. 25 ‘Communication’ tricky as well: whilst face-to-face communication is dialogical, mass comm largely monological. Plus we are moving towards ever more interactive, flexible digital media.

26 So ‘mass communication’ defined here as ‘the institutionalized production and generalized diffusion of symbolic goods via the fixation and transmission of information or symbolic content’.

27-31 Mass comm main attributes:

1) institutional and technical means of production and diffusion; media industries

2) commodified symbolic forms; symbolic forms can be valorised in two main ways: economically and symbolically.

3) production and reception of symbolic forms separated by a ‘structured break’; recipients limited in how much they can shape flow of messsages; there is indeterminacy at the site of production as there is no immediate feedback

4) symbolic forms made available across extended space-time

5) symbolic forms circulate publically; they are ‘open’, ‘available to the public’

The reordering of space and time

32 Telecommunication wrought the ‘uncoupling of space and time’; no need to physically transport symbolic forms, e.g. telegraph. This paved way for another key transformation: ‘despatialized simultaneity’. In olden days same place = same time, with modern telecomm not anymore. Sense of ‘now’ no longer tied to a given locale. This created huge problems of space-time coord, 33 eventually [partially] solved globally via GMT (first in Britain) and time-zones (first in US). From then on, local times and networks of comm and transport could be coordinated worldwide.

33 One consequence of global time standardisation was art and literary time experimentation: Proust, Joyce, Baudelaire, cubism, futurism, surrealism..

34 Oral trad now supplemented with mediated forms, ‘mediated historicity’ in how modern people came to construct sense of self, history, belonging. 35 The communities we feel we belong to are now partly constituted via the media [e.g. see Castells’ 2009 on media and nation-building in Catalonia post-Franco].

36 industrial order disciplined time; sacrifices in present traded-off for future rewards; notion of progress. 37 But today this could be changing; we are no longer beholden to idea of progress as future fails to deliver.

Communication, appropriation and everyday life

39 media reception is active, situated, everyday process, it ‘unfixes’ media content ‘and frees it up to the ravages of time’. 40 It is also a ‘skilled accomplishment’ and a ‘hermeneutic process’ 41 in which media consumers bring assumptions and expectations to bear on message (Gadamer).

42 Individuals use media contents as part of processes of reflecting and self-reflecting; this can be called ‘appropriation’, can happen beyond contexts of reception.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Derek permalink
    November 26, 2012 11:23 pm

    great summary and breakdown of terms and ideas, thanks a lot, very helpful!

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