Media Studies and the Sociological Imagination

Liam French, Lecturer in Media and Cultural Theory, University College Plymouth St Mark & St John

For those immersed from cradle to grave in a media and consumer society, it is …important to learn how to understand, interpret, and criticise its meanings and messages (Kellner 1995: 2)

Reading through the contributions submitted so far, the diversity of the various manifestos presented is quite striking and fascinating. It is also interesting to note that for some contributors there are clear-cut distinctions to be made between media education, media studies, media practice and media literacy and some definite tensions around these terms. I have chosen to write my manifesto for Media Studies, because for me, Media Studies by definition encompasses elements of all the other three (or at least it should do).

Deacon et al. (2007) discuss the twin lineage in media and communications research and make a broad distinction between Media Studies (rooted mainly in the social and behavioural sciences) and Cultural Studies (rooted for the most part in the humanities). This strikes me as a useful distinction to make and it certainly resonates with my own experiences at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels. It is also well documented that Cultural Studies itself is something of a trans-disciplinary discipline “comprised of inputs from a whole range of disciplinary environments that pre-existed it” (Tudor 1999:6). Deacon and his colleagues go on to point out that the ‘interaction’ between these fields characterises media and communications research as an “interdisciplinary space, where a range of existing academic disciplines meets” (Deacon et al. 2007: 2). I couldn’t agree more. A key strength of Media Studies is its propensity for absorbing and taking on-board theories, methods and concepts from wherever it so chooses. It truly is, at times, what Geraghty (2002) terms an ‘unruly discipline’ (2002:25). This is what makes Media Studies such an intellectually worthwhile and academically exciting endeavour.

My route into Media Studies was principally shaped by the social sciences – predominantly Sociology – and this has, for better or for worse, certainly influenced my understandings of what media studies is or should be about. I believe that Media Studies can continue to be underpinned by a broadly sociological form of inquiry and sets of concerns. I am not advocating a purely sociological approach or the application of a singular sociological perspective to the exclusion of everything else, but I am suggesting that a broad-based sociological ‘lens’ for a Media Studies manifesto is more than useful. This isn’t to say that sociology has all the answers – clearly it does not. But I do think that the sorts of questions that sociologists ask and the key concern of at least attempting to theorise / conceptualise the relationship between the media and / in society is an important one. This is because in the Twenty-first century, the media play a key role in social, political and economic life. According to Deacon et al (2007) the media and communication industries

..are central to organising every aspect of contemporary life, from the broad patterning of social institutions and cultural systems, to intimate everyday encounters and people’s personal understandings of their world and their sense of themselves. We cannot fully understand the ways we live now without understanding communications (Deacon et al 2007:1).

This seems to be a fair enough point to make. If we map the quote below from Fenton (2000) directly onto this statement, some interesting connections and intersections can be made:

..most of the information through which we understand the world around us is constructed from media messages of one sort or another. The media are thus relevant to all areas of social research and media saturation of societies raises important issues for the key sociological questions of social order, social change and the relationship between the individual and society (Fenton 2000: 297).

At the heart of much sociological work in the field of media and communications is the central problematic of conceptualising the relationship between media and society and I would maintain that in its broadest sense, this core issue or theme should always underpin Media Studies as a foundational concern. Central to much sociological work on media is an attempt to better understand the workings of the media both as industries and as part of a wider set of institutions that are inter-connected within a societal context, taking into account production processes, economic organisation, regulation, media content and audiences. A sociological lens always critically foregrounds the role of the media within a wider societal context, opening-up core issues around media accountability and responsibility, funding and regulation, ownership and control, everyday life, economic and social relations, the construction of meaning, and power structures in society.

Historically, these concerns are well established in media sociology and with good reason. Take the recent furore over the possible regulation of social networking media wherein Twitter and Facebook might become subject to similar privacy laws as press and broadcasting media. At the centre of this controversy are some fundamental issues that emerged in early media and communications research in the broadcast era: the public and private spheres of social life, media regulation, media freedom, accountability and social responsibility, the public interest and so on. If we cut through the commercial hype and utopian rhetoric surrounding the ‘digital revolution’ it is evident that, as Croteau and Hoynes (2003) argue, some enduring questions and issues continue to remain on the agenda. With these themes in mind, I have constructed my manifesto as follows:

Media Studies must be:

• Relevant: it must always be able to say something relevant – that matters – not just about the media but also about social relations and the world we
live in today.
• Theoretical: the creative exploration and generation of theory and the application of theory to concrete examples / instances of media performance, systems, technologies, texts and audiences must remain central to media studies.
• Textual: an understanding of texts and inter-texts, of style, form, signification, representation, traditions, conventions, aesthetics and genre are all crucial to understanding the construction of meaning(s) and the potential ambiguities in meaning production / reception.
• Practical: the application of ideas realised creatively through actual production practices and techniques in a range of media formats / contexts. Where applicable, theory and practice should be inter-twined.
• Research-driven: the use of established methods along with the application of emerging and the creation of new techniques should continue to be a feature of media research / media studies in the study of audiences, institutions, technologies and texts.
• Reflexive / Reflective: an understanding of the strengths and limitations of different approaches, methodologies, theories and models.
• Critical: although ‘critical’ should not be conflated or confused with pessimism / negativity. The task should be to provide a critical but balanced assessment of media culture(s). The end point of every study should not necessarily be that the media are ‘bad’ / capitalism is ‘evil’.
• Historical: a sense of history – of systems, technologies, institutions, practices, texts and audiences. But also a history of media studies / theory / research and how it has evolved. An understanding of the past (and all the baggage that it entails) is important if we want to move forward and (critically) trace the continuities and discontinuities within the ongoing transformations in media culture in the Twenty-first century.
• Social-psychological: an understanding of how we make sense of our-selves and others through our engagement with various media texts, practices and technologies.
• Contextual: in order to be truly meaningful all of the above points must always be framed by an understanding of the complex ways in which they are constituted in and through as well as framed by specific social, political, economic and cultural contexts.
• Global: increasingly important is the need to understand the circulation of meaning(s) and levels of media activity / power in terms of local, regional, national and international contexts. Imperative if Media Studies’ is to remain relevant in the Twenty-first century (back to the first point).

There is considerable debate at the moment about the future direction of Media Studies, about what should be dispensed with and what should be retained in terms of theories, concepts, models, methodologies, issues and debates in light of ongoing ‘new media’ developments. On one level, these internal debates are both necessary and welcome because they represent a healthy and robust subject area that is not afraid to interrogate its own roots / routes. But too much introspection and internal wrangling can be unhealthy. Similarly, the writing of manifestos (which we can’t all agree on) brings the risk of circumscribing too tightly or ring fencing “some absolute object called media study” (Burton 2010:12).

Whatever the outcomes of these debates, I believe that a broadly sociological orientation will provide a useful foundation (or a framework) for a Twenty-first century Media Studies manifesto. If my understanding of Gauntlett’s (2009) assertion that “Media Studies 2.0…emphasises a sociological focus on the media” (2009: 149) is correct, then it seems plausible to at least consider that a sociological orientation might be the common ground for bridging the (potential) chasm between advocates of Media Studies 1.0 and Media Studies 2.0. The trajectories that Media Studies might take over the next few years are, to an extent, in our hands but what we should never lose sight of is centrally addressing “the critical problem of media-in-society” (Toynbee 2008: 277).


Burton, G. (2010) Media and Society: Critical Perspectives Second Edition. Open University Press.

Croteau, D. & Hoynes, W. (2003) Media Society: Industries, Images and Audiences Third Edition. Pine Forge Press

Deacon, D., Pickering, M., Golding, P. & Murdock, G. (2007) Researching Communications: a Practical Guide to Methods in Media and Cultural Analysis Second Edition. Hodder Arnold.

Fenton, N. (2000) Mass Media, in Taylor, S. (ed) Sociology: Issues and Debates. Palgrave MacMillan

Gauntlett, D. (2009) Media Studies 2.0: a Response, in Interactions: Studies in Communication and Culture, Volume One, Number One. Intellect.

Geraghty, C. (2002) ‘Doing Media Studies’: Reflections on an Unruly Discipline, in Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, Volume One, Number One. Intellect.

Kellner, D. (1995) Media Culture. Routledge.

Toynbee, J. (2008) Media Making and Social Reality, in Hesmondhalgh, D. & Toynbee, J. (eds) The Media and Social Theory. Routledge.

Tudor, A. (1999) Decoding Culture: Theory and Method in Cultural Studies. Sage Publications

1 Comment

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  1. Geoff Lealand says:

    I pretty much agree with this.

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