Carey Me Home

Carey, J. W. (1989). A cultural approach to communication. In Communication as culture: Essays on media and society (pp. 13–36). New York: Routledge.

Gitlin, T. (1978). Media sociology: The dominant paradigm. Theory and society, 6. 205–253.

Hall, S. (1992). Encoding/decoding. In Culture, media, language (pp. 128–138). London: Hutchinson.

Hall (1992), in what seems to me to be unnecessarily dense prose, outlines a semiotic model of mass communications in which a message is encoded into a symbolic system of some kind—words, images, words and images—and then decoded again by an audience. Both ends of this process are framed by various cultural influences: “frameworks of knowledge,” “relations of production,” and “technical infrastructure” (p. 130). Hall intends this model to replace the behaviorist model that he (among others) believes has overwhelmed mass communications research. He proposes three positions from which a transmitted, encoded message can be decoded: “dominant-hegemonic,” in which the audience receives exactly the message the encoder intended; “negotiated code,” in which the audience takes the message with qualifications, adaptations and objections; and “oppositional code,” in which the audience rejects the message entirely (pp. 136–138).

Gitlin (1978) is also quite concerned with picking apart what he has identified as the dominant paradigm of mass communications research, Lazarsfeld’s “personal influence” model and the behavioral studies of media’s effects. Gitlin particularly discusses the “two-step flow of communications” theory that “opinion leaders” influence the general population, instead of the mass media doing so directly. Gitlin argues that this improperly diminishes the influence of the media, and that measuring short-term opinion change is an inadequate way to measure the influence of the media. Gitlin roots his argument in an historical analysis of Lazarsfeld’s “administrative” approach to social science, and his relationships with the sources of his funds—particularly the Rockefeller Foundation, CBS, and a publisher named Mcfadden who sponsored a particular study of Lazarsfeld’s and may have (Gitlin argues this case) influenced the choice of variables and subjects (p. 236). Gitlin does not offer a particular new paradigm to replace this other so much as call for one. Media sociology, Gitlin writes, “could work, in other words, to show a dynamic but determinate media process articulated with the whole of political culture” (p. 239). And in a footnote, he refers to “the alternative approach of cultural studies, influenced by Marxist cultural theory and semiological “readings” of content” which he calls “the most promising angle of analysis” (p. 246). The semiological analysis leads directly back to Hall (1992), and also segues well into Carey (1989).

I took a class with James Carey at Columbia, and as a journalism student, I had a vague idea that he was a bigshot, but his class, “Critical Issues in Journalism,” which he co-taught with a journalist, was not particularly heavy on theory. Still, it was the highlight of my Fall, since it was the one of only a couple of classes I had that dealt with ideas. Now as I make a career shift from journalism to media studies, he’s become a hero to me. I found myself boxing in passages and littering the margins with asterisks—my sign to myself that I am excited by ideas. I particularly enjoy Carey’s insight that “communication is not some pure phenomenon we can discover; there is no such thing as communication to be revealed in nature through some objective method free from the corruption of culture” (p. 31). To Carey, culture is a human construction, and communication is the constant production and reproduction of that culture. This is the “ritual” view of communication, one more closely linked to “community” than to the transmission of messages. In this view, the ritual of reading a newspaper helps to construct or reinforce a view of the world more than it transmits information (though he allows that a newspaper can do that as well). Carey works well with Hall in that both endorse the semiotic view of communication as constructed symbols, though Hall seems to be using the “transmission model” that Carey mostly rejects as stultifying. What excites me so much about Carey is that he acknowledges that acts of communication are rooted in historical time, and that he is willing to mine the disciplines of “biology, theology, anthropology, and literature” for ways of looking at communication (p. 23).

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