Adrienne Shaw, Katherine Sender, and Patrick Murphy
Critical audience studies is the branch of media research primarily concerned with what people do with the media they consume, rather than on the supposedly negative effects of media on people. Critical audience studies has long drawn on “ethnographic ways of seeing” to investigate the everyday uses of media in myriad contexts. This area of audience research has had to define who and what constitutes “an audience,” where audiences are located, and how best to understand how people’s lives intersect with media. Changes in media production and distribution technologies have meant that texts are increasingly consumed in transnational and transplatform ways. These changes have disrupted historical distinctions between producers and audiences. Critical cultural approaches should be considered from a largely qualitative perspective and look at feminist and global reception studies as foundational to the understandings of what audiences might be and how to study them. Taking video game players as a boundary example, we need to reconsider how contemporary media forms and genres, modes of engagement, and niche and geographically dispersed media publics affect audiences and audience research: what, or who, is an audience, how can we understand it, and through what methods might we research it now?
The six-month-long occupation of the historic city center of Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 became one of the first social uprisings to be thoroughly intermeshed with the creation of old and new media. Graffiti, performance protest, and independent radio proliferated and found its way into the many digitally recorded activist videos shown in community centers, on occupied television, distributed on DVD, and streamed on the Internet. Such media activism attests to continuities and discontinuities with what has been known as “New Latin American Cinema,” that is, the militant and social realist films made in analogue formats that were gaining world attention in the 1960s and 1970s. Oaxaca’s media activism also signals links among diverse leftist social movements and community and collaborative video in indigenous languages from throughout Latin America and beyond. Often called “indigenous video,” these works, like the New Latin American Cinema, have also spawned diverse scholarly interpretations. Although the Mexican student brigades and Super 8 video movement are not usually included in the critical scholarship on New Latin American Cinema, they, too, constitute important precursors for Oaxaca’s media activism and for collaborative and community media in the region. How to understand media militancy and anticolonial struggle, in turn, has changed. These changes reflect technological shifts from analogue film to digital video and the growing impact of indigenous social movements on the political left. Audiovisual militancy has shifted from the denunciation of U.S. neoimperialism and a Marxist-Leninist vision of revolution to broader, more open-ended, antiauthoritarian alliances among filmmakers, anarchists, feminists, indigenous organizations, and diverse other social movements that embrace decolonization. In contrast with anticolonial struggles, decolonization does not necessarily seek to oust a colonizing military force but aims to change colonial relations and their postcolonial aftermath under settler colonial conditions through prefigurative politics.
The digital is now an integral part of everyday cultural practices globally. This ubiquity makes studying digital culture both more complex and divergent. Much of the literature on digital culture argues that it is increasingly informed by playful and ludified characteristics. In this phenomenon, there has been a rise of innovative and playful methods to explore identity politics and place-making in an age of datafication.
At the core of the interdisciplinary debates underpinning the understanding of digital culture is the ways in which STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and HASS (Humanities, Arts and Social Science) approaches have played out in, and through, algorithms and datafication (e.g., the rise of small data [ethnography] to counteract big data). As digital culture becomes all-encompassing, data and its politics become central. To understand digital culture requires us to acknowledge that datafication and algorithmic cultures are now commonplace—that is, where data penetrate, invade, and analyze our daily lives, causing anxiety and seen as potentially inaccurate statistical captures.
Alongside the use of big data, the quantified self (QS) movement is amplifying the need to think more about how our data stories are being told and who is doing the telling. Tensions and paradoxes ensure—power and powerless; tactic and strategic; identity and anonymity; statistics and practices; and big data and little data. The ubiquity of digital culture is explored through the lens of play and playful resistance. In the face of algorithms and datafication, the contestation around playing with data takes on important features. In sum, play becomes a series of methods or modes of critique for agency and autonomy. Playfully acting against data as a form of resistance is a key method used by artists, designers, and creative practitioners working in the digital realm, and they are not easily defined.
Media technologies are at the heart of media studies in communication and critical cultural studies. They have been studied in too many ways to count and from a wide variety of perspectives. Yet fundamental questions about media technologies—their nature, their scope, their power, and their place within larger social, historical, and cultural processes—are often approached by communication and critical cultural scholars only indirectly. A survey of 20th- and 21st-century approaches to media technologies shows communication and critical cultural scholars working from, for, or against “deterministic” accounts of the relationship between media technologies and social life through “social constructivist” understandings to “networked” accounts where media technologies are seen embedding and embedded within socio-material structures, practices, and processes. Recent work on algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and platforms, together with their manifestations in the products and services of monopolistic corporations like Facebook and Google, has led to new concerns about the totalizing power of digital media over culture and society.
Sarah J. Jackson
Because of the field’s foundational concerns with both social power and media, communication scholars have long been at the center of scholarly thought at the intersection of social change and technology. Early critical scholarship in communication named media technologies as central in the creation and maintenance of dominant political ideologies and as a balm against dissent among the masses. This work detailed the marginalization of groups who faced restricted access to mass media creation and exclusion from representational discourse and images, alongside the connections of mass media institutions to political and cultural elites. Yet scholars also highlighted the ways collectives use media technologies for resistance inside their communities and as interventions in the public sphere.
Following the advent of the World Wide Web in the late 1980s, and the granting of public access to the Internet in 1991, communication scholars faced a medium that seemed to buck the one-way and gatekeeping norms of others. There was much optimism about the democratic potentials of this new technology. With the integration of Internet technology into everyday life, and its central role in shaping politics and culture in the 21st century, scholars face new questions about its role in dissent and collective efforts for social change. The Internet requires us to reconsider definitions of the public sphere and civil society, document the potentials and limitations of access to and creation of resistant and revolutionary media, and observe and predict the rapidly changing infrastructures and corresponding uses of technology—including the temporality of online messaging alongside the increasingly transnational reach of social movement organizing. Optimism remains, but it has been tempered by the realities of the Internet’s limitations as an activist tool and warnings of the Internet-enabled evolution of state suppression and surveillance of social movements. Across the body of critical work on these topics particular characteristics of the Internet, including its rapidly evolving infrastructures and individualized nature, have led scholars to explore new conceptualizations of collective action and power in a digital media landscape.
Susan J. Drucker and Gary Gumpert
Cities themselves function as media of communication. They are places where messages are created, carried, and exchanged by structures, infrastructures, and people. Urbanity is an age-old phenomenon undergoing radical transformation as developing means of communication redefine traditional notions of place and space. Urban communication meshes population density, technology and social interaction. Urban communication, like urban studies, is an interdisciplinary field that provides a fresh perspective from which to view the city and its transformation. The communication lens offers valuable perspectives and methodologies for the examination of urban and suburban life. It conceptualizes the city as a complex environment of interpersonal interaction, a landscape of spaces and places that shape human behavior, and an intricate technological environment.
The development of urban communication research and activities is traceable from the early works a diverse group of urbanists to more current research programs conducted by communication scholars. Urban communication foregrounds communication in the study of the urban landscape. The unique patterns and needs of urban dwellers and communities are examined in an age where cities are layered with media technologies. An increasing number of technologies enable information from the digital world to be layered onto the physical world through augmented realities, thereby altering the person–environment relationship by creating spaces in which users interact with their physical surroundings through digital media. The future of cities is increasingly influenced by media technology. Cities are global, connected, inclusive, livable, green, sustainable, mega, and smart. Cities have been identified as communicative cities. There are many ways of looking at communication and cities and the history and broad parameters of the growing area of urban communication.
J. Macgregor Wise
Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. His key writings include Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense as well as a number of commentaries on a range of philosophers and volumes on film, literature, and painting. His is well known for his collaborations with radical psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, including Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze’s work focused on matters of immanence, becoming, and multiplicity. In Difference and Repetition he challenged the image of thought as representation and argued instead for the idea of thought as an encounter and event. In The Logic of Sense he explored the relation of language and event, developing his concept of sense. In his collaborations with Guattari they promoted the idea of thought as a rhizome and developed the concept of assemblage as a process of articulating and arranging bodies, discourses, affects, and other elements. Deleuze’s work therefore challenges common models and understandings of communication. In his later work he elaborated on the idea that communication was a means of control. Deleuze’s work has entered the field of communication scholarship through the influence of both Australian and North American Cultural Studies and through the uptake of his work on cinema and concepts of rhizome, assemblage, and control in media studies research.
Political economy approaches examine the power relations that comprise the production, distribution, and exchange of resources. They are distinguished from economics by a deeper concern for history, the social totality, moral philosophy, and praxis. Numerous schools of thought mark the political economy approach including early conservative, communitarian, and Marxian perspectives. Today, neoconservative, institutional, neo-Marxian, feminist, environmental, and social movement based approaches offer a wide variety of political economies. Communication scholars have drawn on political economy approaches to carry out research on media technologies, including broadcasting, telecommunications, and computer communication. In doing so they have developed distinctive geographic perspectives covering North America, Europe, and the less developed world.
Political economy approaches are built on specific philosophical assumptions including a range of epistemologies that, on one end of a continuum, accept the reality of both concepts and observations and, at the other, claim that all explanations can be reduced to one essential cause, such as the economy or culture. Political economy approaches also range from perspectives that emphasize social change, social processes, and social relations to those that focus on social structures and institutions.
Political economy approaches tend to concentrate on three processes that make up the main starting points for political economy research on media technologies. Commodification is the process of transforming things valued for their use into marketable products that are valued for what they can bring in exchange. This can be seen, for example, in the process of turning a story that friends tell one another into a film or a book to be sold in the marketplace. Spatialization is the process of overcoming the constraints of geographical space with media and technologies. For example, social media surmounts distance by bringing images of world events to every part of the globe and companies use media technologies, now often comprised of cloud computing, big data analytics, the Internet of Things, and telecommunications networks, to build global supply chains. Finally, structuration is the process of creating social relations, mainly those organized around social class, gender, and race. With respect to social class, political economy approaches describe how access to the mass media and new communication technologies is influenced by inequalities in income and wealth, which enable some to afford access and others to be left out. Political economy approaches are evolving in response to challenges from cultural studies approaches. Political economies of media technologies are now placing greater emphasis on international communication, on communication history, on standpoints of resistance, on new media technologies, and on new media activism.
Central to many definitions of the term “cultural imperialism” is the idea of the culture of one powerful civilization, country, or institution having great unreciprocated influence on that of another, less powerful, entity to a degree that one may speak of a measure of cultural “domination.” Cultural imperialism has sometimes been described as a theory, especially where scholars build a case that the cultural influence of the stronger entity has had a pervasive, pernicious impact on the weaker.
The term evolved from 1960s neo-Marxist discourses within cultural, media, and postcolonial studies that contextualized the post–World War II “independence” wave of new nations emerging from colonial servitude. It was propelled by the writings of nationalist revolutionaries, revolutionary theorists, and their sympathizers of the 1950s and 1960s, but it has sweeping relevance across human history. The foremost western theorist of cultural imperialism in the West was Herbert Schiller. The concept was adopted and endorsed in the 1970s by both UNESCO and the Non-Aligned Movement.
Following Oliver Boyd-Barrett, the concept may denote a field of study embracing all relationships between phenomena defined as “cultural” and as “imperialism.” These encompass cultural changes that are (1) enforced on a weaker entity and (2) occur within both stronger and weaker entities through contact, contest, and resistance, including (3) assimilation of social practices encountered by the stronger in the weaker entity, and (4) original hybrids manifesting cultural traces of both stronger and weaker entities.
The concepts of cultural and media imperialism were much critiqued during the 1980s and 1990s, and many scholars preferred alternative concepts such as globalization and cultural globalization to analyze issues of intercultural contact, whether asymmetrical or otherwise. John Tomlinson critiqued the concept, identified four different discourses of cultural imperialism, and argued in favor of its substitution with the term “globalization.” Mirrlees has placed Tomlinson’s work in context by describing the dialectical—parallel but mutually aware—development of both a cultural imperialism and a cultural globalization paradigm. Both are influential in the 21st century.
“Imperialism” commonly references relations of conquest, dominance, and hegemony between civilizations, nations, and communities. “Cultural imperialism” relates primarily to the cultural manifestations of such relations. Culture and empire relate in many different ways, fueling different theories that often play on dichotomous discourses, including territorial/non-territorial, totalistic/partial, benign/malign, ephemeral/perpetual, superficial/essential, voluntary/involuntary, intended/unintended, welcome/unwelcome, forceful/peaceful, noticed/unnoticed, linear/interactive, homogeneous/heterogeneous, and acceded/resisted.
The concept has affinities with hegemony, the idea that stability in conditions of social inequality is achieved not mainly by force but by securing the consent of the masses (starting with co-option of their indigenous leaders)—through persuasion and propaganda—to the elite’s view of the world. This process is commensurate with forms of democracy that provide the appearance but not the reality of choice and control. Fissures within the ranks of the elites and within the masses create spaces for resistance and change.
Culture encompasses the totality of social practices of a given community. Social practices are manifest within social institutions such as family, education, healthcare, worship, labor, recreation, language, communication, and decision-making, as well as their corresponding domains. Any of these can undergo change following a society’s encounter with exogenous influences—most dramatically so when stronger powers impose changes through top-down strategies of command and influence.
Analysis of cultural imperialism often incorporates notions of media imperialism with reference to (1) print, electronic, and digital media—their industrialization, production, distribution, content, and capital accumulation; (2) cultural meanings that media evoke among receivers and audience cultures; (3) audience and media interactions in representations of topics, people, and ideas; and (4) relationships between media corporations and other centers of power in the reproduction and shaping of social systems.
Media are logically subsumed as important components of cultural imperialism. Yet the significance of media can be understated. The concept of mediatization denotes that “knowledge” of social practices draws heavily on media representations. Social practices that are experienced as direct may themselves be formed through exposure to media representations or performed for media.
Discourses of cultural imperialism speak to major current controversies, including: cultural suppression and genocide; ideas of “globalization”; influential economic models of “capitalism” and “neoliberalism”; ideologies that are embedded in the global spread of concepts such as “modern,” “progressive,” “growth,” “development,” “consumerism,” “free market,” “freedom,” “democracy,” “social Darwinism” and “soft power”; cultural specificity of criteria and procedures for establishing “truth”; instrumentalization for the purposes of cultural conquest of academic disciplines such as psychoanalysis, economics, social anthropology, or marketing, or environmental crises, especially as linked to western ideologies that underwrite humanity’s “right” to dominate nature.
John D. H. Downing
Social movements are the matrix of many forms and formats (technologies, genres) of media that contest dominant power. Such media are in many ways the lifeblood of such movements. Media activism denotes collective communication practices that challenge the status quo, including established media. Frequently, such media are underfunded or unfunded and have a much shorter life cycle than capitalist, state, or religiously funded media. They are a “tribe” within a much larger continent of nanomedia (also called alternative media and citizens’ media). Their functions may spill over at times within the operation of established media, especially in times of social turbulence and crisis.
The “dominant power” in question may be quite variously perceived. Extreme-right populist movements, as in several European countries, may define the political establishment as having betrayed the supposed racial purity of the nation, or in the case of India’s Islamophobic Hindutva movement, as having traduced the nation’s religious purity. Labor movements may attack capital, feminist movements, or patriarchal and sexist structures. Sometimes these movements may be local, or regional; other times, they are transnational.
The impact of these media is still a matter of considerable debate. Often, the debate begins from a false premise—namely, the frequently small size and/or duration of many social movement media projects. Yet women’s right to vote and the abolition of slavery in the Americas were not won overnight, and neither was the dismantling of South Africa’s racist apartheid system. The Hindutva movement goes back over a century. We should not hold social movement media to a higher standard of impact, any more than we should ascribe instantaneous power to established media.
Social movements wax and wane, and so do their media projects. But the persistence of some such media activism between the peaks of movement activism is generally essential to the regeneration of social movements.