Media, Ritual, and Identity

Media, Ritual, and Identity

Media, Ritual, and Identity

Media, Ritual, and Identity

Synopsis

Media, Ritual and Identity examines the role of the media in society; its complex influence on democratic processes and its participation in the construction and affirmation of different social identities.It draws extensively upon cultural anthropology and combines a commanding overview of contemporary media debates with a series of fascinating case studies ranging from political ritual on television to broadcasting in the third world.

Excerpt

In political theory and empirical social science alike, there is a growing recognition that a fully-differentiated civil society is necessary for the development of an inclusive, solidaristic, and democratic society. While the precise meaning of civil society is far from settled, one thing is certain: the mass media has an extraordinary impact on its forms and functions. While organizational structures are essential, the “currency” of civil society is influence and commitment, in the form of a symbolically powerful public opinion. Because most theories of civil society focus primarily on its boundary relations—its autonomy from the state and economy, and the powerful regulative institutions, such as law, which draw these boundaries in a sanctioned way—they fail to consider how civil society works as a communicative space for the imaginative construction and reconstruction of more diffuse, but equally important, collective identities and solidarities.

We will show what is at stake in this debate by reconsidering Elihu Katz’s contributions to an understanding of media communication. Katz’s micro-oriented work—encompassing his research on personal influence, the two-step flow model of media reception, and cross-cultural media reception (with Tamar Liebes)—exposes the errors of passive—actor models of media reception and mass culture versions of ideology critique. His later, more macro and anthropological research on media events (with Daniel Dayan) shows what is wrong with a model of mass communication predicated on rationalist and cognitivist grounds. We will argue that, when this body of work is considered as an interrelated whole, it underlines the need for re-centering civil society theory around a more empirically viable model of media communication. In the latter part of this essay, we will outline such an approach to civil society, one in which the media is involved in the construction of common identities and universalistic solidarities, in multiple publics and multiple sites of reception. While a common code and common narrative structure allows for intersubjectivity and cross-communication between different publics, the narrative elaboration of events and crises—understood as social dramas—is crucial for providing a sense of historical continuity in the crisis bound, episodic constructions of universalistic solidarity that continually form and reform civil society. We will illustrate this theoretical argument by examining some of our own ongoing empirical research into the cultural dynamics of civil society, in particular our research on the Watergate (Alexander 1988a, 1988b) and Rodney King (Jacobs 1996a) crises.

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