Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Mass Media and Society

James Curran and Michael Gurevitch (editors)
London and New York: Arnold
0 340 61418 8
£14.99 (pb)
vi + 378 pp.

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Mass Media and Society is a revised edition of the successful 1977 Mass Communications and Society; there are seven new chapters, six are updated, and four remain unchanged. The collection has been revised for two reasons: firstly, to encompass changing theory and practice; secondly, to make it more digestible as a general text destined for student consumption. It succeeds on both scores. The selected chapters present the broad view of media theory necessary for the new student (with the possible exception of the impact of hypermedia technologies), and reflect the developmental shift in emphasis from materialist theories of production to postmodern theories of consumption. The first section contains general accounts of the role of the media in society; the second section focuses on media production; the third section looks at the media's role in the social construction of meaning. A variety of positions are taken up, and the fact that authors make reference to one another's work within the volume means that the reader is provided with enough signposts to make sense of a complex dialogue.

The chapters of McQuail, Curran and Bulmer and Gurevitch respectively address the (changing) role that different media formations occupy in a democratic context. Schudson comprehensively surveys the sociology of news production, and Hallin examines professionalized news media in relation to its market. Fiske explores Baudrillard's postmodernist account of the consumption of media images, and concludes that it needs to be 'grounded' in social materialism. (This is interesting given the inclusion of Wasko's understanding of the 'Disney Universe'. For Baudrillard, theme parks are simulacra par excellence. Fiske's assertion that ideology, value and meaning cannot be evacuated from our consumption of media representations is seemingly borne out by Wasko's study.) While Fiske is optimistic about the power of the consumer, Golding and Murdock draw attention to tangible economic constraints. Sreberny-Mohammadi contests postmodern intimations of the end to history and the loss of the subject, demonstrating that identity politics are increasingly relevant in the world today through a subtle examination of global, regional, national and local southern media sites. Gurevitch similarly explores the globalization of television news. Another challenge to postmodernism is present in Lichtenberg's timely defence of objectivity. Addressing what motivates the assertion that there is no 'truth', Lichtenberg understands how claims to objectivity can be regarded as suspect, but demonstrates by reasoned argument that objectivity, as distinct from neutrality, is both possible and valuable.

The entertainment industry has traditionally been devalued in mainstream media sociology, and for this reason Frith attempts a reprisal. However, entertainment has flourished through the semiotic analysis of media texts, especially the feminist analysis of soap operas and romantic fiction (Van Zoonan). But semiotics is only part of the equation. Geraghty demonstrates how semiotics 'paved the way' for an acknowledgment of the active role that audiences play in the construction of meaning, an acknowledgment that needs to be substantiated by increased attention to the reception of different media. To this end, the chapters of Corner and Livingstone provide a useful introduction to the evolution of effects research. Finally, the variety of positions that emerge from the volume is concordant with Ang and Hermes' attention to the variety of different subject positions that it is possible for readers (of any 'text') to construct. A recognition of the active and changing role of the consumer does not mean an abrogation of politics; indeed, multiple identities need to be taken into account before one can meaningfully discuss power relations. It is this rationale that underlies Ang and Hermes' rejection of 'women' as a homogeneous group, and their advocacy of particularistic, ethnographic studies.

In conclusion, the 'crisscrossing interconnections', alternatively conceptualized as 'skirmishes and liaisons', that pervade the collection produce a subtle and multifaceted picture of a similarly multifaceted field without obscuring its complexity. For this reason, Mass Media and Society successfully articulates shifts and inequivalences in media theory, as well as providing points of inspiration for contemporary ethnographic studies conducted in media terrain.

Jane Irina McKie
Department of Continuing Education
University of Warwick

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996