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Category Archives: class assignments

These are just notes yo.

A bullet of how I might proceed in this discussion: A. Let’s make the following suppositions 1. It is possible to be ‘scientific’, but that what constitutes ‘science’ is a contested set of tools and methods for approaching the things we observe, as in the things we sense in the broadest notion of the verb -to sense.   2. The way one goes about ‘being scientific’ varies and must vary from one field and context in that field to the next.  

3. Our field is a matrix of constructed/constructing fields, the social. The social is an insanely complicated collection of agents bearing their habitus and shaping the bearing of it. What I like about the Turner piece is that it reminds us of the need for representations, models, theories as a sort of ‘language of sociology’ – but only with the understanding that these are indeed ‘just models’ and mappings to provide some method for discussing occurrence and concepts of occurrence, an attempt to gain the ‘clear definitions’ Weber, Durkheim and Marx all through method and constant definition.  I think Bourdieu provides an aside that I feel comfortable with just before he presents this convincingly complex model of ‘the space of social positions’ (Bourdieu, 128): “…this diagram does not aim to be the crystal ball in which the alchemists claimed to see at a glance everything happening in the world; and like mathematicians who also treat what they call ‘imaginary’ as a necessary evil, I am tempted to withdraw it in the very act of presenting it. For there is reason to fear that it will encourage readings which will reduce the homologies between systems of differences to direct, mechanical relationships between groups and properties; or that it will encourage the form of voyeurism which is inherent in the objectivist intention, putting the sociologist in the role of the lame devil who takes off the roofs and reveals the secrets of domestic life to his fascinated readers” (Bourdieu, 126) Bourdieu invites in some respects the same question Engels prefaced in Marx’s challenge to the science of political economy: 

“Political economy has generally been content to take, just as they were, the terms of commercial and industrial life, and to operate with them, entirely failing to see that by so doing it confined itself within the narrow circle of ideas expressed by those terms…classical political economy never went beyond the received notions, and therefore never arrived at a clear comprehension” (Engels in Marx, 111). A clear comprehension never entirely clear by the very fact it must always be re-clarified. “You have to confess before you profess” Art Homer, professor of poetry at my Bachelor alma mater use to say. However,   We must cause our definitions, which are really our perceptions plotted out, to confess. While Turner provides what I feel to be an excellent reference for thinking about the structure of theory (which I digested really well thanks to all the ‘all other things equal’ in the language of Capital 1-3) he does not go far enough with his: “The goal of sociology is to gain knowledge about the nature of human organization.” (Turner, 1).  Bourdieu invites us, and in a wonderfully explicit manner, to acknowledge that in claiming the ‘right’ to study society in this way we have a responsibility to use our specialization in a way that ‘writes -diagnoses /and/ prescribes- with understanding’. It is not enough to merely view and describe the what is. It is vital to invite discussion among as many people as possible; with as much information and ‘understanding’ as possible as to what we like and dislike about the social in which we now endure. We are invited into the question, what does our research mean? Why do I research what I do? For whom? Why do I research it this way? What do I think about this situation? What can I do about it? How does what I do effect the production of it? At the very least we must try.  As my friend ‘Maeffro’, a Bachelor of the fine arts program at the University of Iowa (theater) once related the sentiment, ‘a hero is a man who does what he can’. Maeffro now works with the mentally disabled and participates in the production of theater and music. His sentiment is transcribed here like ‘the words of the plumber’.   Social science cannot be neutral not merely because the researcher is positioned in so many related positions in so many related fields but because those fields and all the capital brought to them are never neutral, they are perpetually contested, dominated, and defined. But this cannot just be polemically achieved. There is responsibility in the research process itself, a responsibility of understanding; of understanding the world of the subject without necessarily imposing your own categories of meaning upon them. Of being aware of the loss of fidelity and the ‘true fidelity’ achieved in the act of transcribing our sense of the subjects who become our objects and the modesty that demands on the part of the social scientist.  There is an act of representation. I enjoy also how Bourdieu establishes sociology as the ‘opposite of journalism’. In light of the above discussion of ‘what is social science’ it neatly summarizes much of what I dislike in much of the approach applied and reproduced in the field of journalism; precisely why the imperative to challenge concepts like ‘professional’ and probe deeper into the role of author as authority; the way in which authority is accumulated, exercised, produced and reproduced, challenged and changed. 

I want to talk about something completely different this week. Well, to be honest it’s not that different. In fact it definitely constitutes an element of international popular culture. Star Trek. What role can or do television serials –a timeless format, have in political discourse? My aim for the remainder of this article is to demonstrate why this is not ridiculous to ask.

First of all, I believe that it is difficult to talk about the political, or at least to talk about it in traditional terms. The classic categories of culture, economics, and politics are utterly intertwined –the evolving product of human mind, mouth, and labor. We cannot criticize news for preferential coverage of elite ‘politics’ on the one hand, but then on the other hand suggest that hard news or strict informational programs (the very programs the officials fully harness) are the only formats of/for televised legitimizing discourse. While such programs, when presented in deliberative formats, may aid the democratic discussion, to suggest they are the only programs to do so is to look at only one part of the picture. To relegate the majority of what happens on television as ‘just entertainment’ and therefore irrelevant or even damaging to political discourse and then leave it unstudied and unanalyzed is a disservice. It conceptualizes entertainment content in monolithic and ‘less than’ terms without considering the actual quality of the various contents. Furthermore, it neglects the fact that not all politics is functional and issue driven. In addition to the ‘emotional politics’ exemplified in some talk show formats and adeptly advocated by Costera (Costera-Meijer: 2001). Politics also has a theoretical-abstract element as well which I believe people can and do access and consider in some storytelling contexts.

             Serialized story-telling is ancient. Communicating abstract concepts, morals, and beliefs through story is timeless. In story, characters, (usually) of a type the audience identifies/sympathizes with, navigate obstacles and antagonists both of which combine to bring the character’s life, identity, and/or normative views into crisis. Characters make questionable decisions. Audiences reflect upon the decisions a character made and sympathize, vilify, admire, admonish, ignore (or whatever) as they reflect and judge -a statement of agree or disagree or agree but… The actions of the characters in the story reveal ‘truth’ not only about the characters and ethics involved, but quite possibly some ‘truth’ within the life-world of the reader as well. In exceptionally crude forms this plays out in sensational dichotomous struggles. However, there are more ‘sophisticated’ morality plays, and it is the potential for television’s drama/fiction serial format to engage the audience in abstract thinking on issues as complex as ontology, epistemology, competing ethical codes, international relations, gender and identity, agency/structure, acceptance or rejection of the ‘other’, etc. that interest me. There is important ‘de-intellectualized’ discourse at play in culture that may well shape the way people approach and interact with ‘the political’.

In particular, I believe the three Star Trek serials: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, are examples of ‘popular’ television that can engage the audience in a substantive and humanist discourse using science-fiction scenarios of the Star Trek Universe as analogs for our own. I will give only one example, as there are probably more examples than there are episodes.

In “The Most Toys”, episode 70 of The Next Generation, Data, an android (a sentient machine) is abducted by an eccentric and extremely egoistic collector of rare objects. He covets Data because Data is a one of a kind object. Data is placed in a special room, made to shed his identity (Starfleet uniform) and ultimately coerced into sitting on the podium and chair intended as his mount or display. Data, who the audience has come to identify for 70 episodes as a peculiar subject, an emotion-les (incomplete) subject, is certainly to most in the audience more a ‘human’ than a thing. The injustice of this abduction is apparent. It is the narrative hook. The villain sees Data as a thing, no different in essence than a vintage baseball card that still smells of stiff and stale gum.

From this scenario one can draw many metaphors. However, one metaphor that has ‘really’ been drawn and applied (at least as a pedagogical tool) from this particular episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation has to do with ethnographic museums and the plundered nature of many ‘exhibits’. Although the discussion of repatriation of cultural artifacts is more progressive within the United States than in Europe, discussion of the issue is gaining ground. Behind glass casing objects lose much of their significance. They are removed from the culture and uses that endowed them with meaning. Behind glass the object is dead. However, that same dead object may possess a meaning beyond what we from our very different culture can perceive. The Maori skull recently repatriated from the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, here in The Netherlands, is a good example. What to us is a curiosity, a Maori skull, is to the Maori a ‘living’ ancestor. So sincerely is this meaning ascribed by the Maori that upon receipt of the skull they sang to the ancestor an orientation of the journey to come (since the ancestor had never heard of planes they needed to be briefed so as not to be alarmed or confused along the way). On two separate occasions two separate objects conservators known to me used excerpts from the aboved discussed Star Trek episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation to communicate these rather abstract and progressive treatments of subjectivity/objectivity, meaning, identity, and significance all of which in the case of repatriation connect to and try to address a legacy of plunder and exploitation in world systems.

In short, I think attention needs to be paid to the ways in which television entertainment acts inter-textually with politics instead of ad hominem dismissals. What other meanings are people drawing out of serials? What elements must be present between the reader and text to engage in the type of meaning construction discussed here? To what extent do people passively watch or actively watch such theoretically loaded and internationally known shows as Star Trek? How do we measure this or something similar? Could a model like Costera’s be adapted to analyze the discourse of television serials? “The variety in attitudes and activity begs an open mind towards what constitutes the political. Citizenship, for that matter, is not a constant, but constantly changing in content and meaning. Life politics and the ‘language of the lifeworld’ (should) have a collective echo in political communication. (Brants: 413).

Works Cited 

Brants, K. (1999). A Rejoinder to Jay G. Blumler. European Journal of Communication, 14(3), 411-415

Costera-Meijer, I. (2001). The public quality of popular journalism: Developing a normative framework. Journalism Studies, 2(2), 189-205

AV is officially back-logged. The number of pieces to post is outpacing the time to post them. In an attempt to ameliorate this some longer posts will be serialized and released in an asynchronous manner. For those who may have already read part 1, I made significant revisions so chose to replace the old ‘part 1’ post with ‘parts 1 and 2’. On that note, let me present AV’s new category, “The Vulgar Barrel”!

So much sociology is riddled with impotent functionalism, crude depictions of radical perspectives, and liberal apologist stances seemingly limitless in ubiquity, naïve in conception, and utterly unoriginal in content. The Sociology of Journalism is one such work. In chapter two Brian McNair presents two ‘traditional paradigms’ and suggests a ‘new approach’ for transcending the traditional perspectives and approaching journalism as sociological subject with fresh analytical eyes. However, McNair’s ‘traditional paradigms’ are poorly conceptualized and his ‘new paradigm’, ‘the dynamics of the production environment and the relative impact of its elements on the form and content of output’ (McNair: 33), is not new in the least, and has, in fact, been part and parcel to the theory and method of the very radical and Marxist perspectives McNair seeks to deligitimize in this ‘must read’ text for university bound communications students.[1]    

To begin, McNair establishes an inadequate frame which he uses, more or less, to discuss the objectivity norm and ideological struggle in and over journalism’s ethical standards (a socially constructed and sanctioned method for practicing professionalized journalism (Schudson: 2001)). McNair conceptualizes the competitive perspective which holds normative views and expresses ideal iterations of content and form, and the dominance paradigm with its “focus on things as they are, and the gaps between the real and the ideal”’ (McNair: 19). Now, I do appreciate dichotomous relationships, or bimodal analytical frames. They can be useful so long as one remains aware that they seldom tell the whole story, and even then the story they tell may not make sense if the dichotomy is not well constructed. McNair’s dichotomy is not.

‘The competitive (or normative) paradigm views advanced, liberal capitalist [‘western’] societies…as arenas of essentially equal competition between diverse groups of social actors, for whom media function as resource and representative…” (McNair: 19). The media is a “’fourth estate’: an independent institutional source of political and cultural power which monitors and scrutinizes the actions of the powerful in other spheres” (McNair: 19-20). ‘Capitalism is the best of worlds we can reasonably expect, journalists ideally serve the public interest, media provides competition of thought, opinion and ideology; audience with freedom of choice’ (McNair: 21).

 This is not a surprising construction. However, it must be pointed out that the assignation of the ‘normative’ function to this particular paradigm makes about zero sense. Everybody holds normative views, whether they ‘buy in’ to the hegemonic Weltanschauung or not. A normative view is nothing more than a person’s perspective on how something ought to be and need not be mystified as a certain paradigm’s function. I would be willing to agree with McNair’s linking of normative generation with this paradigm only inasmuch that journalism can, as one effect of its product, reinforce mores and norms as they change and shift within the broadening or narrowing restraints of larger, slower moving material and ideological constructs. In that sense, journalism as we know it is complicit in the shaping of normative views whether intentional or not. However, this is not what McNair means, and this is, in fact, the core critique of McNair’s other ‘traditional paradigm’.     

The ‘dominance paradigm’ is, essentially, McNair’s concept of radical (mainly Marxist) critique. Naturally the ‘dominance paradigm’ sees ‘capitalism…as characterized by exploitation, injustice and inequality”. This paradigm draws attention to how, ‘…inequalities of life chance…generate social tensions and pressures which must be managed through relations of domination and subordination which structure the socially stratified system. The liberal pluralist ideal has little to say about the role of the media in managing these tensions’ (McNair: 22). McNair characterizes the dominance perspective with a structuralist-functionalist interpretation of media as performing simple (and intentional) conflict management on behalf of a particular ruling class. The essential problem with this is that it presents Marxism and radical theory as only concerned with economic conditions such as patterns of income distribution. This is a reductionist approach to Marxism that should have died long ago, and one which helps lead McNair to some fairly outrageous conclusions, which I discuss further below.

With respect to media, McNair presents the entire Marxist camp’s perspective as one of media engaged in the business of perpetuating particular ideologies to maintain social stability in the face of otherwise hostile and stratified groups. ‘The media function as an outlet for communicating the already existing ideological or value system: the cultural consensus prevailing in a given society at a given time’ (McNair: 23). Similar to what Gramsci more succinctly conceptualized as the hegemonic Weltanschauung. From this is produced a ‘dominant discourse’ so that the effect of journalism is to “reproduce legitimizing and rationalizing discourse across social boundaries and over time” (McNair: 23). The media are able to produce this discourse because, thanks to the ‘competitive paradigm’ they are perceived “as purveyors of truth…a persuasive power which can influence the structure of ideas circulating in a given society” (McNair: 24).

McNair’s presentation of the ‘dominance paradigm’ is almost adequate in parts, and as I agreed above, media can aid in de/legitimization. However, McNair’s ‘dominance paradigm’ really only betrays a superficial acquaintance with Marxism and related radical perspectives. Underneath his construction brews a tension as he tries to present Marxist critique in a monolithic and anti-subjective manner. Of course, this may well be the only way McNair knows how to approach radical theory. Indeed, I would expect little more from one who can write “market forces…create incentives to invest in quality journalism” and still take themselves seriously (McNair in Hackett: 90). One incapable of imagining a journalism beyond investment structures has no business in summarizing radical approaches in the study of journalism -period.

Nevertheless, he tries, and in doing so definitely and with prejudice follows the narrow confines of Marxism’s ‘orthodox’ (Leninist) and structuralist (Althusser) interpretations, in addition to the somewhat broader views of the Frankfurt School (which he does not reference) and their adoption of the ‘hypodermic needle’ model of cultural inculcation of the masses by the dominant strata via monopolized media channels. “Ideology…is present in journalism as part of the environment within which it is made. Journalism itself contributes substantially to the maintenance and reproduction of that environment and the social system which has generated it” (McNair: 25). Okay. Then how do ideologies change according to the ‘dominance paradigm’? Changes in dominant ideologies, according to McNair, occur when present ideologies fail to legitimize inequality at which point political revolution ensues and replaces the old ideology. In other words, McNair presents ideological change in the ‘dominance’ paradigm as the product of an exceptionally crude and two-dimensional economic and political determinism. He uses, predictably, the Bolshevik example, and in doing so completely guts Marxism (and even its Bolsheivk iteration, to be fair) from its essence as a paradigm of praxis. Any Marxist worth their weight knows they cannot afford to sit around and wait for economic and political conditions to ‘ripen’ to such an extent that neither the state nor ‘its’ media can hide the alienation of the human from the systems they’ve made.

The Marxist approaches missing from McNair’s paradigmatic summary will be discussed in part 3. 

Works Cited

Hackett, R. (2005). ‘Is There a Democratic Deficit in US and UK journalism?’ In S. Allan (Ed.), Journalism: Critical issues (85-97). Maidenhead, Open University Press.

McNair, B. (1998). The Sociology of Journalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schudson, M. (2001). ‘The Objectivity Norm in American Journalism’. Journalism, 2(2), 149-170.


[1] This book (as well as McNair’s immanent one) were promoted as such on Amazon.com, accessed 05.07.2006

I prefer to avoid the habit of starting off papers with paraphrase or quote, but sometimes someone says something so right and with such polemic that I can’t help but repeat. There is a battle for the soul of the internet, and if a greater democracy is to claim this soul it will only do so through the work of ‘ordinary people’, us, entering, shaping, and governing these new means of production, these new communication means (Coleman 2005b: 280) –and governing them at our, that is ‘ordinary people’s’ behest. There is virtually unanimous recognition that the new media have capabilities ‘suited to occupy the space of civil society’ (McQuail: 135). However, despite potentiality, concerned researchers are faced with the question of why this new and improved civil society does not appear to be taking shape.           

This is the point where empiricists and critical-theorists part ways, which for us means saying good-bye to McQuail’s textbook. Without a doubt he hits the most obvious impediments to an internet enhanced democracy: ‘developed in the interests of state and capital; stratified access so that the costs of technology and its use continue to favour the same already privileged beneficiaries as does the investment in infrastructure and management systems (McQuail: 136); differential empowerment (McQuail: 139); and increasing possibilities for management and control (McQuail: 139). However, he goes on to close the question with nothing but presupposition: ‘the situation is too early and too unsettled to make an assessment, but it is not too early to say that even the most free means of communication cannot escape the operation of various ‘laws’ of social life…and especially those of economics and social pressure” (McQuail: 138). Not even a hundred ‘smarty quotes’ could wash the impotent functionalism from these words—not to mention his proverbial nail in the coffin, ‘the internet will be ‘free’ only where this serves the purposes of commercial development’ (McQuail: 140). Of course, why should one expect a textbook to take the next logical step?

What disturbs me most about McQuail’s treatment of the problem is the probability he is right in the sense that the capitalist mode of production will continue to impose itself upon the new media so as to retard or prevent the emergence of a robust civil society. Fortunately I am not alone. Contra to McQuail’s capitulation to fetishism, Blumler & Gurevitch characterize the internet as containing “a vulnerable potential to enhance public communications” (Blumler & Gurevitch: 2). To nurture this potential they prescribe ‘deliberate institution building’ (Blumler & Gurevitch: 1) as a “safeguard against the exploitation of interactive civic facilities for ulterior purposes—commercial gain, plebiscitary support, populist agitation, administrative convenience or just to seem accessible in public relations terms” (Blumler & Gurevitch: 10). While this is indeed a step in the right direction, it raises theoretical and practical problems. Mainly, how are we to mark where ‘civic facilities’, where ‘political deliberation’ begins or ends?

Civil society, at least Gramsci’s version, does not draw hard or fast lines between the over-determined and inter-tangled spheres of politics, economics, culture, and whatever it is that happens in-between the subject and the state. I understand that Habermas’ ‘public sphere’ is supposed to define roughly where ‘the political’ angle lay in civil society, but I’m not convinced that such a definition is the most useful at this point. It might be that ‘deliberative democracy’ is making itself felt first in other spheres of civil-society, and that researchers need to broaden the scope of what constitutes ‘the political’.

Peer to peer file transfer may or may not involve dialogue in the traditional sense, but when it comes to the sharing of copyright material (often and erroneously termed ‘piracy’) there is an implicit dialogue between sender/receiver, a dialogue which actively disregards the sanctity of capitalist market and property relations. While such activity is not traditionally defined as deliberative dialogue, it is indisputably the power of people engaged in a dialogue with the capitalist mode of production, which is in many respects at the heart of or pillar to the complaints of not only our dear McQuail, but Blumler & Gurevitch, and Polat as well (Polat: 454). It is clear, of course, that file sharing itself will not do the democratic trick. There is still the need to construct deliberative, dialogic forums if ‘ordinary people’ are to have any hope of democratic participation in the policy of state. What I suggest is that a proliferation of dialogic forums engaged in policy deliberation is far more likely to emerge from the community ethics surrounding ‘digital piracy’, free-ware and similar or related activity than through a simple secular increase in online participation, or one-off ‘success’ stories such as Minnesota’s fledgling e-democracy.   

With respect to problems of participation, Polat cites research pointing to a public apparently disinterested in seeking out policy information, and the ubiquitous lack of internet access and technical skill (Polat: 453). Polat is quite right to observe “the use of the Internet is shaped within the parameters of current trends in political participation” (Polat: 452). To expect decades of disillusion with prevailing political norms to simply wash away in but a few years of the internet tool is unrealistic. It may well be that significant structural or cultural changes need to take place before there can be a ‘return to politics’. It will also take struggle and popular skill acquisition to make the internet a forum of universal access. It would, at the very least, require a seizure and reorganization by ‘ordinary people’ of the fixed capital which makes the internet possible: the servers, networks, wireless transmitters, and whatever else, as well as the knowledge needed to run them. Given the unlikelihood of such an event in the short-term, the immediate challenge in preserving the internet’s democratic potential is to see that those who have access now do not irreparably corrupt the machine; to see that the democratic ethic now taking root in cyber-space is able to withstand the breadth and bully of both capital and state so as to emerge with a cache of mediation channels quintessentially democratic and utterly self-governed. This could mean encouraging measures similar to Minnesota’s e-democracy as stop-gap measures in the short term. Ultimately, however, solidarity, coordination, and radical action will be required among those already and soon to be engaged in this struggle.

A growing number of people are gaining skill and expertise in various computing technologies. To return to Gramsci, it is precisely these people who must be encouraged to adopt the role of ‘organic intellectuals’, that is people who will use their training and skill less in service to the system as it stands, and more in alliance with the normative ideals of a strong civil society where the capitalist hegemony does not rule. Moreover, given that the ‘new media’ represents the first defendable trench against production organized around the commodity, it may be that those who would defend this trench ought to make the acquisition and sharing of computer skills part of their life activity. The more authors contesting the internet, the harder it will be to take popular authority away. “Technologies are never neutral: they are designed, shaped and socially modified in accordance with discourses that are often profoundly political and hegemonic” (Lessig in Coleman 2005a: 185). In short, the question of democracy and the internet is undetermined. What is already determined, however, is potential. The real question is then which hegemony will rule?   

Blumler, J. & Gurevitch, M. (2001). ‘The New Media and our Political Communication Discontents: Democratizing cyberspace. Information, Communication & Society, 4(1), 1-13. 

Coleman, S. (2005a). ‘New Mediation and Direct Representation: Reconceptualizing representation in the digital age’. New Media & Society, (7)2, 177-198. 

Coleman, S. (2005b). ‘Blogs and the new Politics of Listening’. The Political Quarterly, 76(2), 273-279 

McQuail, D. (2000). McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, 4th ed.
London: Sage Publications.

Polat, R. (2005). ‘The Internet and Political Participation: Exploring the explanatory links. European Journal of Communication, 20(4), 435-459.