Political Economy

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In the field of communication and information studies, "political economy" is a term generally used to describe scholarship concerned with the relationships among economic, political, and communications systems within the structure of global capitalism. The tradition is rooted in the classical political economy of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill, among others, and the radical political economy of Karl Marx. Their works, spanning the late eighteenth to late nineteenth centuries, sought to understand the nature of the emerging industrial phase of capitalism. Though the original political economists had relatively little to say about communications systems, they established a holistic and normative approach upon which contemporary political economists of communication and information have built.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, classical political economy gave way to neoclassical approaches that displaced political and moral considerations from the study of economics for the purposes of establishing a discipline in the tradition of normal science. This pattern was replicated in almost every branch of the social sciences, including communications studies. By the late 1950s, the quest to make communications studies a science had relegated critical analysis of media institutions and organizations to the margins. Increasingly, however, communications scholars raised questions about the control of communication and information systems, as social and political changes in the late 1950s and 1960s brought them to the fore. In the 1970s, the search for answers led to a renewed interest in the work of the Frankfurt School on the culture industries and inspired the emergence of critical political economy of communications as a distinct approach within mass communications theory.

Communication and Class Struggle (1979, 1983), a two-volume collection of original and republished essays edited by Armand Mattelart and Seth Sieglaub, and The Political Economy of the Media (1997), a two-volume compilation of reprinted articles and book chapters edited by Peter Golding and Graham Murdock, document the origins and continuing evolution of this perspective. In The Political Economy of Communication (1996), Vincent Mosco categorizes the various approaches within critical political economy by the regional contexts in which the work was produced. Dallas Smythe, Herbert Schiller, and Thomas Guback pioneered a North American approach. Nicholas Garnham, Golding, Murdock, and Mattelart developed a distinct European approach. These scholars influenced, and were influenced by, political economists working in third-world countries. By the late 1990s, a fifth generation of critical political economists began entering teaching and research positions in the academy.

Most political economists take Marx's critique of capitalism as their starting point. Marx showed how the logic of capital shapes the reproduction of human existence in particular ways. Political economy studies have extended this analysis to the communications system, examining the ways in which the logic of capital affects the structure and output of the information and culture industries. For example, Marx argued that capitalism has an inherent tendency toward concentration as capitalists logically seek to control their markets through horizontal and vertical integration in hopes of maximizing their profits. The political economic history of the media and telecommunications industries, as well as the accelerated concentration occurring in these sectors of the economy in the late 1990s, reflect this tendency.

For political economists, concentrated and centralized control of the communications system has ramifications that extend beyond the high prices, artificial scarcity, and poor quality usually associated with monopolistic control of basic goods. In addition to the ability to influence markets and reap excess profits, those who have ultimate control of the culture and information industries can use their power and wealth to influence public opinion and policy. Schiller's ground-breaking The Mind Managers (1973) serves as a touchstone for understanding how the capitalist class extends its power through both the media and the state. Ben Bagdikian's influential text Media Monopoly (1983) falls outside the neo-Marxist tradition, yet it provides ample evidence of ways in which institutional networks link the capitalist class, the government, and the culture industries. Such networks operate to affect media content, from the censorship of news deemed harmful to specific and general corporate interests to the promotion of causes that are regarded as beneficial. In Manufacturing Consent (1988), Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky develop a propaganda model to study systematically how these institutional networks shape media coverage of U.S. foreign policy in similar ways.

Political economists who study the media as culture industries also focus on how the pursuit of profits affects the form and substance of the output of mass media. The culture industries, following common oligopolistic practices, seek to manipulate consumer demand through heavy investments in marketing and promotion. However, the demand for informational and cultural products is inherently harder to influence than in markets for basic consumer goods. Accordingly, in order to minimize economic risks, culture industries tend to rely on imitation, formula, sequels, series, spin-offs, stars, and other sorts of strategies to attract already existing audiences. Additionally, culture industries dependent on advertising revenues must produce content to attract audiences within the demographic range desired by advertisers (i.e., those with the ability to consume). The result is increasingly homogeneous informational and cultural output distributed globally.

The primary challenge to the critical political economy tradition has come from cultural studies. Cultural studies theorists have criticized the tradition for reducing the analysis of communications systems to economic determinants at the site of production and distribution while ignoring the polysemic nature of texts and the interpretive capacities of audiences. Another challenge comes from information policy studies that emphasize the dynamic processes at work in information and communications markets largely generated by continuing development and deployment of new technologies.

Political economists have responded to these challenges by returning to their roots, such as the retrieval of Raymond William's concept of determination, defined in Marxism and Literature (1977, p. 87), as a process involving the "setting of limits" and the "exertion of pressures" rather than a strict one-to-one causal relationship. The response also involves the recovery of Marx's dialectic relationship between social structures and human agency. To paraphrase Marx, while human beings are born into specific social conditions they have the capacity to change them, which leaves plenty of theoretical space for polysemic texts and readings. Similar to information policy studies, political economists recognize the central role of communications in processes of social change. However, political economists reject the notion that technology alone can bring it about.

See also:Cultural Studies; Culture and Communication; Culture Industries, Media as; Williams, Raymond.


Bagdikian, Ben H. (1983). The Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon.

Golding, Peter, and Murdock, Graham, eds. (1997). The Political Economy of the Media, 2 vols. Cheltenham, Eng.: Elgar Reference Collection.

Herman, Edward S., and Chomsky, Noam. (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

Mattelart, Armand, and Sieglaub, Seth, eds. (1979, 1983). Communication and Class Struggle, 2 vols. New York: International General.

Mosco, Vincent. (1996). The Political Economy of Communication. London, Eng.: Sage Publications.

Schiller, Herbert I. (1973). The Mind Managers. Boston: Beacon Press.

Williams, Raymond. (1977). Marxism and Literature. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press.

Ronald V. Bettig