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Television and the Moral Imaginary: Society Through the Small Screen


Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke (2012)
ISBN: 9780230234819 (pb)

Reviewed by Yves Laberge, Centre de recherche en éducation et formation relatives à l'environnement et à l'écocitoyenneté

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Cover of Television and the Moral Imaginary: Society Through the Small Screen Professor Tim Dant is among the foremost sociologists in Great-Britain; he has written many important books including the almost ‘classic’ Knowledge, Ideology & Discourse: A Sociological Perspective, now available again in the ‘Routledge Revivals’ book series (2011 [1991]). This book, Television and the Moral Imaginary: Society through the Small Screen, has two main dimensions. First, it is a case study of five popular programmes, namely, The One Show, New Blues, EastEnders, Panorama, and Crimewatch. However, the second strength and one of the most rewarding elements of this book are its conceptual and theoretical developments related to 21st century television and social imagery.

Dant argues several key ideas; that, ‘television has become the prime medium for sharing morality and dispersing the mores, the general ways of being and acting, throughout a culture’ (p. 2), that this ‘moral imagery’ on television is simply ‘a repository of ideas about the possible ways of living in the world’ (p. 2), and ‘a way of sharing ideas across a society that can bring together groups of people’ (p. 2).

The author revisits a range of perspectives on television, from identification (‘how we engage with characters’) (p. 115) to Habermas’ concept of the public sphere (p. 132). Among many other core ideas brought here, Dant refers to Zygmunt Bauman’s concepts of postmodern ethics within television studies and ‘telicity’, ‘in which we look but do not care’ (pp. 66 and 172). Incidentally, this idea of a ‘distant suffering’ was already present in the early works of Luc Boltanski (1993). Newer concepts are also explored. Elsewhere, Dant reassesses Garfinkel's idea that ‘the viewer is not simply a cultural dope to consume like an empty vessel being filled up with product’ (p. 130 and contests Baudrillard’s assumption ‘that the masses respond uniformly and as a silent majority in the era of electronic mass communication’ (p. 146).

Chapter 7 is an interesting chapter, focusing on how the viewer is watching, observing, judging, witnessing how reality is represented and deformed (p. 171). Countless media events and phenomena are studied, for example the fact that ‘mass audiences’ of millions watching the same programme at the same moment are less frequent in an era of media fragmentation: ‘As different people increasingly watch different things, or even watch the same thing at different times, the sociability that the medium affords is undermined’ (p. 214). In his concluding remarks ‘What’s Good on Television?’ Dant insists on maintaining a variety of topics, styles, views, and perspective in the media, and especially on television (p. 215). Yes, sometimes, television can be good.

I liked this book, which is obviously not a moralistic plea for more (or less) morality on television but rather a sociological book about television ‘mediating morality’ (p. 147) as ‘the content of the continuous present of television is watched as an alternative reality but one in which viewers use the same interpretative resources as they do to make sense of the paramount reality of everyday life’ (p. 3). In my view, Television and the Moral Imaginary is among the most interesting books in the field of sociology of television available. We need more sociological books such as this one about social imageries. Students and scholars in the usual fields (sociology, media and cultural studies, education, citizenship studies) but also in philosophy and social ethics will find here a clear, engaging, rigorous and often innovative text.


BOLTANSKI, L. (2008) Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dant, T. (2011) Knowledge, Ideology & Discourse: A Sociological Perspective. Abingdon: Routledge Revivals, 2011 [1991].

MILLER, T. (2010) Television Studies, the Basics. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.