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3.2: Political Economies of Mass Culture

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    • 465px-Elvis_Presley_promoting_Jailhouse_Rock.jpg
    • Contributed by Media Hack Team
    • Hack-a-thon at University of Otago and others
    • Published by Creative Commons

    Whilst PE has been applied as a way of exploring and understanding the media since the 1960s and 70s, the ways in which it has been used can be characterised as being divided into two fairly distinct approaches which stem from roots in Europe and the USA. Within Europe, the cultural and political tradition of social(ist) democracy entailed that the model of broadcast media such as television and radio were dominated by public service broadcasters such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), who were state funded organisations whose services were free at the point of contact and featured no commercial advertising. Consequently, early PE approaches to broadcasting within these countries adopted a Marxist approach which was heavily focused upon the relations between political governance and the media industries, exploring ways that regulation and legislation impacted upon the media whilst also exploring the links between commercial organisations and sections of the press. By contrast, in the USA the lack of a social democratic tradition and politics saw the media organised along strictly commercial lines, which led to PE approaches to media being more focused on the economics of media ownership than their European counterparts.

    CC image by Gwydion Williams

    In the UK, Raymond Williams was a key figure concerned with the study of media and culture within the university system, and his writing made some important revisions to Marxism which were central to the political economy of culture. Marx’s materialism posited that the socio-economic reality of material experience and commodity production formed the base of society, whereas cultural content such as communications and media were seen as the superstructure which grew out of the base. Numerous Marxist readings of culture subsequently argued that as the economic base determines the cultural superstructure, the superstructure simply presents an ideological reflection of the base. Williams, however, contested these notions, arguing that:

    We have to reevaluate determination towards the setting of limits and exertion of pressure, and away from a reflected, reproduced or specifically dependent content. And crucially, we have to revalue ‘the base’ away from the notion of a fixed economic or technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men in real social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations and therefore always in a state of dynamic process.Williams 1973 p6