Culture, Society, and the Media

By Michael Gurevitch; Tony Bennett et al. | Go to book overview

8

Communications, power and social order

JAMES CURRAN(1)

Mass communications are generally discussed as if they were exclusively modern phenomena. Indeed, this assumption is embodied in most social scientific definitions of the mass media. According to McQuail (1969, p. 2), for instance, 'mass communications comprise the institutions and techniques by which specialized groups employ technological devices (press, radio, films, etc.) to disseminate symbolic content to large, heterogeneous, and widely dispersed audiences'. Only modern technology, it is widely assumed, has made possible the transmission of communications to mass audiences; for, as Maisel (1973, p. 160) amongst others would have us believe, 'in the pre-industrial period, the communication system was restricted to direct face-to-face communication between individuals'.

In fact, a variety of signifying forms apart from face-to-face interaction-buildings, pictures, statues, coins, banners, stained glass, songs, medallions, rituals of all kinds-were deployed in pre-industrial societies to express sometimes highly complex ideas. At times, these signifying forms reached vast audiences. For instance, the proportion of the adult population in Europe regularly attending mass during the central middle ages was almost certainly higher than the proportion of adults in contemporary Europe regularly reading a newspaper(2). Since the rituals of religious worship were laid down in set liturgies, the papal curia exercised a much more centralized control over the symbolic content mediated through public worship in the central middle ages than even the controllers of the highly concentrated and monopolistic press of contemporary Europe.

Centralized control over mass communications is thus scarcely new. An historical comparison with older communication forms-including communications reaching small élites as well as mass audiences-serves, moreover, to throw into sharp relief certain aspects of the impact of communication media that the 'effects' research tradition, relying upon survey and experimental laboratory research techniques, has tended to ignore. Our concern will be with the impact of communications on the power structures of society. In particular, attention will be focused upon the effect of new media in bringing into being new power groups whose authority and prestige have derived from their ability to manipulate the

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