Marxist Media Theory
In Britain and Europe, neo-Marxist approaches were common amongst media
theorists from the late '60s until around the early '80s, and Marxist influences,
though less dominant, remain widespread. So it is important to be aware of key
Marxist concepts in analysing the mass media. However, there is no single Marxist
school of thought, and the jargon often seems impenetrable to the uninitiated. These
notes are intended to provide a guide to some key concepts.
Marxist theorists tend to emphasize the role of the mass media in the reproduction
of the status quo, in contrast to liberal pluralists who emphasize the role of the
media in promoting freedom of speech.
The rise of neo-Marxism in social science represented in part a reaction against
'functionalist' models of society. Functionalists seek to explain social institutions in
terms of their cohesive functions within an inter-connected, socio-cultural system.
Functionalism did not account for social conflict, whereas Marxism offered useful
insights into class conflict.
As the time of the European ascendancy of neo-Marxism in media theory (primarily
in the 1970s and early 1980s), the main non-Marxist tradition was that of liberal
pluralism (which had been the dominant perspective in the United States since the
1940s) (see Hall 1982: 56-65). As Gurevitch et al. put it:
Pluralists see society as a complex of competing groups and interests, none of
them predominant all of the time. Media organizations are seen as bounded
organizational systems, enjoying an important degree of autonomy from the
state, political parties and institutionalized pressure groups. Control of the
media is said to be in the hands of an autonomous managerial elite who allow
a considerable degree of flexibility to media professionals. A basic symmetry
is seen to exist between media institutions and their audiences, since in
McQuail's words the 'relationship is generally entered into voluntarily and on
apparently equal terms'... and audiences are seen as capable of manipulating
the media in an infinite variety of ways according to their prior needs and
dispositions, and as having access to what Halloran calls 'the plural values of
society' enabling them to 'conform, accommodate, challenge or reject'.
(Gurevitch et al. 1982: 1)
In contrast, they continue:
Marxists view capitalist society as being one of class domination; the media
are seen as part of an ideological arena in which various class views are
fought out, although within the context of the dominance of certain classes;
ultimate control is increasingly concentrated in monopoly capital; media
professionals, while enjoying the illusion of autonomy, are socialized into and
internalize the norms of the dominant culture; the media taken as a whole,
relay interpretive frameworks consonant with the interests of the dominant
classes, and media audiences, while sometimes negotiating and contesting
these frameworks, lack ready access to alternative meaning systems that
would enable them to reject the definitions offered by the media in favour of
consistently oppositional definitions.