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mass media, sociology of

mass media, sociology of A medium is a means of communication such as print, radio, or television. The mass media are defined as large-scale organizations which use one or more of these technologies to communicate with large numbers of people (‘mass communications’). Dependent upon innovations in the electronics and chemicals industries, the period between 1860 and 1930 was a formative moment for the mass media. These years saw the development and introduction of still photography, moving photography (cinema), cable telegraphy, wireless telegraphy, the phonograph, the telephone, radio, and television. These new technologies formed part of the wider transformation in popular culture during this period and typified the new more intensive capitalization of the leisure industries and their associated concern to address mass audiences.

As defined by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite (1956), the mass media have two important sociological characteristics: first, very few people can communicate to a great number; and, second, the audience has no effective way of answering back. Mass communication is by definition a one-way process. Media organizations are bureaucratic and (except in societies where all media are state-controlled) corporate in nature. Media output is regulated by governments everywhere, but the restrictions vary from very light advisory regulation (for example no cigarette advertising or nudity on TV), to the most comprehensive forms of censorship in totalitarian societies.

Mass media dominate the mental life of modern societies, and therefore are of intense interest to sociologists. From the earliest studies in the 1930s, the main concern was with the power implicit in new media technologies, especially radio and television. Adolf Hitler's successful use of radio for propaganda was an object lesson in the possible dangers. The concept of mass society added force to the idea that the electronic media might create an Orwellian situation of mind control, with passive masses dominated by a tiny élite of communicators.

Early studies by Harold Lasswell, Paul Lazarsfeld, and others seemed to show that media effects were indeed direct and powerful–the so-called ‘hypodermic’ model of influence. But more intensive research revealed that mass communications are mediated in complex ways, and that their effects on the audience depend on factors such as class, social context, values, beliefs, emotional state, and even the time of day.

Media research has expanded enormously since the 1960s, with most attention going to television as the most pervasive medium ( D. McQuail 's Mass Communication Theory, 1983
, is an excellent introduction and overview). Four distinct areas of research can be distinguished. First, media content studies, concerned with the cultural quality of media output, or with specific biases and effects such as stereotyping or the promotion of anti-social behaviour and violence, especially on children's television. Second, patterns of ownership and control, the integration of more and more media into a few large corporations, cross-media ownership, and the increasing commercialization of programming. Third, ideological influences of the media in promoting a total pattern of life and thought. Fourth, the impact of electronic media on democratic politics via agenda-setting, the distortion and reduction of news, deflecting public attention from social problems, and the use of television advertising in political campaigns.

Some critics have suggested an even more fundamental influence of television. Since the first modern newspapers were published in the early seventeenth century, mass media have been linked to the spread of literacy and education. Neil Postman (in Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985) is among those who have argued that the electronic and visual media have reversed the trend towards greater literacy and understanding, and are in the process of destroying the foundations of traditional education.

The national organization of the press and broadcasting (radio and television) has been a distinctive feature of these mass media throughout this century. However, a number of writers have argued that this organization of the mass media has increasingly been challenged, especially since the 1960s. Most clearly in relation to television broadcasting–the pre-eminent medium of the post-war years in Europe, America, and a good deal of Asia–it is argued that we live in a transitional period. In Britain, this is characterized as a movement from an era dominated by a conception of public-service broadcasting based upon channel scarcity, a national service, and a particular set of communication technologies (including terrestrial broadcasting), to a new age of global media corporations, new technologies, and more segmented (as opposed to mass) audiences. Government policy in Britain has been central to this process. A neo-liberal concern to open up media markets to greater competition has challenged public-service notions of broadcasting as dealing in social goods. This has been accompanied by a shift away from seeing the audience of radio and TV as citizens to seeing them as consumers being offered choice. Opening up media markets has primarily offered new opportunities to emerging global media organizations such as Time Warner, Sony, and News Corporation. These corporations have been concerned to detach audio-visual markets from the space of national cultures. New generic channels (dedicated to sport or news or movies) have spearheaded the new service, carried along new delivery systems (satellite, cable and telephone lines), funded by new forms of payment (subscription or pay-per-view).

Underpinning these developments has been not only the tighter integration of the media sector, but also the convergence of entertainment and information businesses with the telecommunications industry. Driving this process of convergence has been a concern to reap the rewards of media synergy. It has been argued that there are four dimensions to this process (see Paul du Gay ( ed.) , Cultures of Production/Production of Culture, 1997
). The first concerns ‘synergies of software’. This refers to the simultaneous presentation and promotion of a performer or author across a range of media, entertainment products, and leisure goods. In practice this means linking together in a highly systematic way discrete forms such as audio recordings, still images in books or magazines, T-shirts, advertising, film, TV broadcasts, home video, and computer games. The second form of synergy refers to the integration of software and hardware. The electrical goods manufacturer Sony's decision to buy CBS Records and its listing and back catalogue of artists (‘software’) represents one example of this phenomenon. The third form of synergy concerns the convergence of previously distinct hardware components and is the result of new micro-processing systems and digital technology. Popularly known as ‘multi-media’, this enables still and moving photos, sound, and text to share the same (digital) format. Finally, new media synergy is possible through new technologies of distribution. The key development here is the fibre optic cable, which can deliver media products and services such as movies or banking along its length. In doing so it lays the basis for the so-called information super-highway.

Discussions concerning the social and cultural implications of this reconfiguring media landscape have focused around the issues of democracy, access, and the creation of new public spheres. Positively, developments such as pay-per-view and subscription are seen to introduce an element of consumer responsiveness into programming, whilst the more developed forms of interactivity associated with video, digitalization, and the Internet allow consumers to organize their own way through particular media experiences. The Internet is also seen to offer positive possibilities for groups previously marginal to the mass media to organize themselves and establish a space of communication and identity.

In a more negative vein, however, critics have pointed to the increasing gap between the so-called ‘information rich’ and the so-called ‘information poor’ in the new media universe. Access to the new technologies looms large in this argument, and with it questions of social marginalization, where groups are denied opportunities to express themselves via these new means of representation. What is striking here is the enormous concentration of ownership across media production, reproduction, and distribution. In this sense, although the new media may represent greater social and cultural diversity in their range of products, this is not reflected in the social make-up of the media corporations themselves.

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