Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Carol MacKeogh (2001) 'Taking Account of The Macro in The Micro-Politics of Family Viewing - Generational Strategies'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 1, <>

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Received: 9/3/2001      Accepted: 29/5/2001      Published:


This article uses Bourdieu's concept of habitus, to explore how external discourses relating to young people and television, enter into the micro-politics of family viewing. It is based, primarily, on observation data collected by informants in the homes of young people. These data reveal the tactics and strategies that are used both by the young people and by their 'parents' to control the viewing process. It is possible to tentatively identify the projection of discourses of vulnerability onto young people who, in turn, attempt to position themselves as competent viewers evoking public discourses around youth and media savvy. Within the family setting these viewers develop a 'sense for the game' of viewing which informs the strategies they use to increase their control of the viewing experience.

Adolescents; Age; Audience; Bourdieu; Discourse; Family; Micro-Politics; Participant Observation; Television


This paper reports on some of the findings from a participant observation study that set out to investigate the viewing experiences of an adolescent television audience. The main study aimed to explore their 'critical' viewing skills, that is their ability to comment on television with a level of awareness of the constructed nature of television programmes (MacKeogh, 2001). Young people are often depicted as a vulnerable audience, and one of the themes of the research was the notion that critical viewing skills might be important for the young person to establish age-status, and an identity of competency in order to counter discourses of vulnerability. Following Palmer's study of young children, the motivation to work at a self-image of competency was construed as part of a desire to control the viewing environment and establish access to the television (Palmer, 1986, 1988). Bourdieu's concept of habitus is used to explain how wide social discourses of vulnerability can enter into the micro setting of family viewing (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). [1]

Managing the Viewing Environment

Following Palmer's (1986, 1988) study of young viewers, it was possible to use the data from this study to describe some of the dimensions of organisation around the television. Managing the viewing experience can include controlling the environment (selecting the right seat and having a clear view, controlling talk and noise in terms of both the amount and the volume, having possession and control of the remote), and the use of the television itself (deciding on the volume, the programme selection and the form of viewing, whether dedicated to one programme or hopping around the channels). These factors can operate as flash-points for potential conflicts of interest though it was not always possible to identify if these were actually the causes or the symptoms of conflict. Before programmes even commenced, participants in the current study tried, at various times, to enforce silence and establish the environment that best suited their engagement with the television. In the 16 case studies that make up the current research, the television was a shared resource which was often viewed consensually but there was no family that did not at some point, partake in negotiations over some element of the viewing environment. Gray points out that the:

...relationship between the viewer and television, the reader and text, is often a relationship which has to be negotiated, struggled for, won or lost, in the dynamic and often chaotic processes of family life. (Gray, 1987: 40)

One of the main commonalties between families, is that the struggles are not between equals. Personal resources that are called on can take many shapes and forms. In the micro context, the vagaries of unique circumstances may hold sway, such as the right to watch a programme because of its relevance to a project or the added status of a viewer who might be confined to the house due to illness. While such contingencies arise from household to household, it is also possible to see underlying factors that make such exceptions precisely that, exceptions. It is possible to see where power may be held though not immediately exercised, and it is at this level that parallels can be drawn between families.

Previous research on home viewing indicates that individuals within families are assigned differential power with regard to managing the process. Socio- cultural categories, such as gender, have been identified as entering into the viewing context and as playing, at least, a partially determining role in the allocation of power within that context (Gray, 1987; Morley, 1980, Lull, 1990). These categories are only partially determining in that they rely on individual members to enact them through discourses and practices. They are not automatic or innate to the self but are rather shifting and constantly in a process of becoming (Hall, 1996). While such roles may seem like second nature they only impact when members self identify; they are constituted discursively. 'Age' appears, from the current data, to be an important underlying factor which has the potential to explain patterns of control of family television viewing. The 'eldest' appears to have more tacit power, but while there is an almost 'natural' connection between 'age' and 'power' (as opposed to the more socially constructed connection between gender and power) even the status of the 'eldest' does have to be worked at, and made legitimate precisely by reference to the pervasive discourses around age and privilege.

It is assumed that viewers will tend to work (mainly subconsciously) at increasing their control of the viewing experience even if this results in deciding to exercise self-constraint. This paper looks more closely at how this control might be achieved. It looks at how adolescents may position themselves (and others) in order to gain more control. It looks at how others may position the adolescent and the role that their age (and discourses around age as a sociological construct) may play in that positioning.

In relation to dominant theories as to the concept of 'family', a social interactionist approach as opposed to a normative or functionalist approach (Lee and Newby, 1989) is favoured in the current study. The 'conflict' or 'negotiations' that are uncovered are viewed as part of the process of 'family' formation as opposed to any threat to some presumed set of stable family relations. In other words, 'family' is a construct that only exists in so far as the individual members work at creating and maintaining the appropriate social interactions. Negotiations, such as those that take place around the television are a dynamic part of 'family' formation rather than a threat to already existing and unchanging familial bonds. Rogge and Jensen (1988:86) claim that 'the family as such simply does not exist' except as a 'system'. They explain that 'each family constructs its own media world' which includes 'knowing about the media - for example, knowing what programs are available and knowing about genres, influences, and effects' (Rogge and Jenson, 1988:89). ). This shared knowledge and understanding, in turn, forms part of the particular family's sense of being a 'family'. While a social interactionist approach places great emphasis on the individual's work at constructing their social reality, this does not take place in a socio-cultural vacuum. Roles such as that of 'viewer' are at least partially determined in the wider cultural context (Bourdieu, 1977).

The Habitus of Viewing

Linking the local micro-politics of one family's viewing experiences to wider macro-level social discourses is extremely problematic. Bourdieu's concepts of 'field', 'practice' and 'habitus' are used to theorise such links (Bourdieu, 1977; 1984; 1986). Bourdieu developed the notion of 'field' to describe the inherited, normative expectations that influence social interaction. 'A field consists of a set of objective historical relations between positions anchored in certain forms of power...' (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: 16). The domestic sphere is a field in an abstract or idealised sense. Historically conceived of as 'traditional' or 'nuclear', it is a social space in that it is defined by its reproduction, in western culture, within particular power relations. The field is the site of external factors, of society's expectations and norms and of the constraints that emanate from economic standing. Bourdieu used the term 'practice', on the other hand, to refer to the observable actions and interactions of individuals. 'Practice' is not '...wholly consciously organised and orchestrated...' and is the site of relatively fluid and indeterminate action (Jenkins, 1992:70). It is a form of 'improvisation' (Bourdieu, 1977:8). It is not completely random behaviour, but is regulated by 'practical sense'. It has a purpose informed mainly by culturally inherited dispositions, interests and ways of proceeding. Tending towards these goals or interests entails the use of strategies. Bourdieu described practice as akin to a game entailing a degree of chance and a lot of skill based on previous play, but also on a purposeful knowledge of the field of play (Jenkins, 1992: 71).

Bourdieu's main contribution to what could be described as an agency /structure entrenchment, lies in his development of a third concept, habitus, as a link which proposes how the individual manages to embody the rules and expectations of their culture and yet, retain a sense of individual agency. Habitus is a 'regulating mechanism' - '...the mediating link between individual's subjective worlds and the cultural world into which they are born and which they share with others' (Garnham and Williams, 1986: 120). Habitus is the individual's heuristic of their society. It includes their understanding of their role, and the role of others (immediate and generalised), and of the codes and conventions that will make interaction possible. The habitus informs practice but generally at a tacit level. It is a '...durable yet transposable set of dispositions...' (Bourdieu, 1977:72) which makes a socially appropriate response possible even in novel situations. Jenkins describes Bourdieu's application of his concepts as an

...interplay of culturally 'given' dispositions, interests and ways of proceeding, on the one hand, and, on the other, individual skills and social competencies, the constraints of resource limitations, the unintended consequences which intrude into any ongoing chain of transactions, personal idiosyncrasies and failings, and the weight of the history of relationships between the individuals concerned and the groups in which they claim membership. (Jenkins, 1992: 72)

This abstracted set of 'inputs' into a social interaction could be a description of a television viewing session. The 'field' of television viewing contains normative or culturally given, ways of proceeding many of which will be decided by the institutions, such as film or video certification. The television 'habitus' is the individual's merging of the 'field' with their more specific family viewing arrangements making possible relatively predictable behaviour, among family members, despite idiosyncrasies and unintended consequences.

Silverstone (1994: 40) points out that 'families construct for themselves their own media world, a display of their own competence as media consumers and of their knowledge and appreciation of programmes and technologies'. That families see 'competence' as a desirable attribute relates to their perception of the field and culture of television viewing. That they might develop indicators of 'competency' within their own viewing interactions, reveals the habitus accommodating external discourses. Finally, practice entails the precise tactics or strategies used to exhibit, for example, that competence. A number of parents in the book Parents Talking Television (Simpson, 1987), made it clear that, from their perspective, competent or 'good' viewing practice allayed their fears about the negative impact of television on their children (Rowe, 1987: 32; Ferguson, 1987: 58; Ferrari, 1987: 77). The current study, however, also explores some of the practices that parents use to intervene in the viewing process.

Habitus allows some tentative move from the micro level of the politics of particular living rooms to the wider social structures that are interwoven into those practices. Discourses that circulate in the public sphere, which are shaped, distributed and even amplified by institutions such as the media, can militate against, or be used in favour of control of the viewing process, at the micro level. It is possible to look at the strategic practice of viewers and begin to build a picture of their habitus, and tentatively to point to the discourses that inform it.

Viewing Ethnography

This study is based on an ethnographic approach which prioritises participant observation, in order to gain insight into the context-bound experiences of home viewing. To preserve the delicate ongoing social interactions around the television, the study was carried out with the help of informants, most of whom were observing relatives, or friends of relatives, in their own homes.[2] The observation notes contain descriptions of the settings and interactions that were witnessed, but also some reflexive notes from the informants as members of those settings. Semi-structured interview data were also collected which were used principally to verify aspects of the observation notes and facilitate their interpretation.

Following group discussions, informants decided themselves whether or not to inform the adolescent participants in advance of the research, though parents (or figures of authority) had to be informed in advance in order to gain consent. However, in one case study the adolescents viewed in their granny's house (the informant in this case is the granny's daughter; she is also therefore the adolescents' aunt) so that the authority figure was not the person who was informed of the research[3]. This unintended consequence allowed a unique view of the ongoing negotiations between the 'owner' of the television and the adolescent viewers and forms the main source of data for the current analysis.[4]

There were four viewing sessions in this particular Case Study (see Case Study 1 in Observation Notes) covering episodes of Home and Away, The Late Late Show[5], Lois and Clarke, >The New Adventures of Superman, and The X Files. The participants consisted of four siblings - 3 males (Jack, 15 years; Robin, 18 years and Matt, 20 years) and one female (Claire, 11 years), along with their Gran, their aunt (the informant for the study) and the informant's boyfriend, Tom (31 years) who is a regular visitor. Tom suggested viewing the first programme, their Gran selected the second programme and the final two programmes were selected by the adolescents. Not all participants viewed every programme so that this is specified for each session.

In her description of the setting (Click here for Observation Notes and Floor Plan), the informant emphasises the physical aspects of her mother's house as the main reason that attracts the grandchildren to view in her home. There they enjoy a supply of snacks and control of the remote. Although 'habitus' operates at an abstract level in terms of providing values and dispositions that relate to a wider society it is also, according to Bourdieu (1977:89), rooted in the body and space. Viewing at Gran's house is very different from their own home. Gran maintains an open fire and continues the home cooking that she has done for a previous generation, except now it is food to attract rather than feed the young people. However, just as Gran creates some old style bodily comfort, it becomes clear that she also expects some old style respect. Gran's provision of a good comfortable environment is an embodiment of the values she also wishes to instill.

Gran is no longer the main guardian and can now take on some of the doting aspects of a 'grandmother' role. Her daughter comments, with some pique, on how she spoils the grandchildren so that clearly this behaviour is not part of Gran's personality so much as an acquired role. What seems 'only natural' in Gran's is, in fact, a setting that has been mutually constructed over years. Gran's house is a 'habitus' in that it is a '...history turned into nature...'(Bourdieu, 1977:78). Both Gran and the children work at maintaining this unique space often using the television as a site in the dynamics of that relationship.

To attempt to reveal the tacit process of the micro- politics of the living room demands the analysis and interpretation of what appear to be the mundane, sometimes even inane, comments and interactions that take place during viewing. It is a piecemeal task that benefits most from detailed attention to the contextual nature of a limited amount of viewing. At times some of the comments may appear to be over-analysed, but according to Bourdieu's, '[I]t is because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that what they do has more meaning than they know (Bourdieu, 1977:79). Analysing 'what they do' can make a person's actions seem premeditated and intentional but, intended or not, all actions are meaningful. Out of the many potential ways to interact, participants make choices, even if subconsciously, and these choices are seen to relate to the formation of differential power and levels of control. The following analysis could be queried in terms of 'reading the right meanings'. While there is a level of interpretation, this is grounded in, or supported by, other data sources. These interpretations fit a jigsaw that is made up of the observation notes, the informants' own reflexive notes and follow-up interviews.

Case Study One - Habitus and Discourse - Adult/Adolescent Relations

Observational Study

Gran's Late Late Show (Jack, Matt, Tom, Gran, Informant):- The second viewing session in this case study stands out from the other three as the Gran's session. The Late Late Show is her selected programme and during the observation it becomes clear that she employs a number of strategies to assert her right to control the viewing of the programme, not least of which is an explicit announcement:

The TV is switched on, but the volume is muted.
As The Late Late Show begins, my mother asks Matt to increase the volume.
At first he doesn't hear her because Jack is asking him and I quote 'Is it possible to hook up the stereo to the TV?'
My mother repeats her request this time a little louder.
She also says to no one in particular. 'Keep quiet now this is the only programme I watch in the week'
(1:108 Observation: The Late Late Show)

This is a very straightforward announcement of her interest in the programme. It is addressed 'to the floor' and does not invite a response. It establishes the status quo for the rest of the session. However, it is also perhaps a protestation that, while she is very keen on this particular programme, it is the only one she watches. This bolsters her right to silence, but also maintains her sense of disapproval of 'too much' television which becomes apparent during the sessions which feature the adolescents' choice of programmes. The comment reveals a great insight into aspects of the Gran's 'habitus' - her sense of the value of television which, in turn, makes sense of the actions she takes during the other viewing session. While it would be impossible to establish whether Matt did not hear his Gran's request or was ignoring it, or whether his Gran even considered either possibility, it would seem that she expects to be attended to during this particular programme; that actions and comments should take account of her presence.

All other comments during the course of The Late Late Show are interpretable within the framework of the Gran's very explicit 'ownership' of the programme. It is no surprise that silence does ensue during most of the programme and that when the silence is broken it is at the Gran's instigation both at the beginning of the programme and following two sets of advertisements. It also seems that Gran monitors the comments made by others:

Again Tom responds 'That's David Norris'
Matt then remarks almost absent-mindedly 'He's gay isn't he'
Tom nods and Gran looks disapprovingly at the TV but says nothing.
(1:171 Observation: The Late Late Show)

Gran's 'gaze' is used a number of times during the programme. While this might be an expedient way to exercise control without interrupting viewing, it is also a highly significant form of expression. It may indicate extreme disapproval in that the conversation had bordered on what Bourdieu would term 'doxa'. While discourses operate within an area of 'argument' or 'contestation', doxa describes the universe of the 'unthinkable' or 'what cannot be said' (Bourdieu, 1977:170). Gran's 'gaze' is a means to censor talk around sexuality without having to explicitly name the 'unthinkable'.

The 'gaze' may also be an assertion that Gran's right to control is so obvious that a 'look' suffices. Her sense of viewing 'habitus' combines the norm of respecting the 'elder' with her particular practice of viewing The Late Late Show. It does seem valid to questions whether this controlling mechanism reflects her interest in The Late Late Show so much as her sense of maintaining the correct viewing habitus.

The volume is lowered by Matt during the advertisements, and as this is not done during the programmes that the adolescents themselves choose to view, it would seem that this is a practice that their Gran may have initiated during her programme, and which is now automatically performed by the younger viewers (history turned into nature). In the 'field' of television viewing, commercials would be seen as a necessary evil and as anathema to quality television. Gran transposes this wider social discourse into the habitus of the living room by the practice of cutting out the commercial nature of television, as opposed to simply disregarding or talking over the advertisements. Symbolically, this cuts the commercials off from everybody rather than Gran cutting herself off from them.

At one stage Gran's attention is distracted during an advertisement break and when she attends to the television again she inquires of Matt 'Is that RTE ?'. The illocutionary force of this comment can be described in socio-linguistic terms in that 'every utterance can be analysed as the realization of the speaker's intent to achieve a particular purpose' (Eggins and Slade, 1997: 40). Matt knows that this is not so much an inquiry about which station is on, as an indirect command to change back to RTE 1. He therefore responds simply by changing the channel. Gran once again has asserted herself as the locus of sense making during The Late Late Show.

Gran's sense of control is not, however, simply directed at the television. She makes a number of comments which show that she wishes to exert influence in a more general sense. She attempts to stop the informant from writing her notes:

My mother at one point comments 'You should finish up for tonight'
She is still looking at the TV as she speaks, so it is easy for me to mutter something about wanting to try and finish
as I hurriedly open one of the economic books on the table. (1:131 Observation: The Late Late Show)

Gran also assumes responsibility for getting the supper; all she asks is that the other viewers can wait until she sees who is on next. It may seem odd that the three supposedly less interested viewers are unprepared to offer to make the tea. However, Gran may prefer to be the one to serve as this would also feed her sense of control. It is clear that the tray of tea and biscuits is a regular feature during the viewing of The Late Late Show. Only Gran does 'supper'. While the adolescents regularly 'snack' in front of the television these are fetched and eaten without any co-ordination or communication. In subsequent sessions Gran comments on the adolescents' eating habits, as their ad hoc arrangement does not seem to please her. 'Supper', on the other hand, is announced and organised for communal partaking. The organisation of food would be a key aspect of the domestic 'habitus'. Gran's disposition is towards a more ritualised form of practice. Her organisation of food consumption as a discrete, conscious and controlled act also forms part of a 'bodily hexis' (Bourdieu, 1977:93) in that it is symbolic of her view on other forms of more abstract consumption such as television. As becomes evident through out these sessions, Gran also disapproves of the children viewing indiscriminately. The wider social discourse of the TV junkie enters into the habitus through Gran's more restrained consumption practices of both food and television.

While Gran is very assertive, she does not seem to feel the need to control the technology of the television, at least not directly. Matt holds the remote and does not hesitate to switch channels as soon as there is an advertisement break. He also controls the volume. At the beginning of the session Jack asks his brother whether it is possible '... to hook up the stereo to the TV'. It is not clear if this query is for the benefit of his Gran, but his interest in the technology certainly fits with the sense in which the younger members monopolise the technology. Their Gran appears to be dependent on them when she repeatedly has to request a station change or an alteration to the volume. It is unlikely that their Gran is incapable of operating her own television, but it is none the less interesting that she relinquishes power of the remote to the younger members of the audience. It is interesting to note that Gray also found a technical competence ascribed to children at the expense of their mothers. When one of her respondents commented that she did, at times, operate the timer, she mentioned enlisting the help of her son (Gray, 1987: 43).

Gran's control of viewing during The Late Late Show operates mainly at a tacit level There may be gentle reminders underpinning her comments as to who, in fact, owns the house. While she may well be glad to have her grandchildren around, she clearly has to operate a careful balance between making them welcome and restraining their 'take over'. Her sense of being a 'good' Gran (her perception of herself in the field of familial relations) is accommodated within the habitus of being a Gran under particular conditions. The children obviously enjoy her home where they have the run of the kitchen as well as fairly unlimited access to the television. They too use strategies in order to be 'good' grandchildren. They attend well to a programme which is clearly not of their choosing.

Tom inquires about Jack's impressions of the show saying 'What do you think of The Late Late so far not great is it?'
Jack responds by saying 'Well, it's not my favourite programme anytime really, but if Gran is watching it, that's it'.
(1:218 Observation: The Late Late Show)

The Adolescents' Programmes:- While Gran has 'her' one programme, the children seem to have the run of the television during the rest of the week. However, Gran does adopt a number of strategies to make her presence felt during those programmes.

During the following session, entailing a programme that Claire, Jack and Robin are very keen to watch, she intervenes at the beginning of the programme.

As they come back in Gran stands in the doorway with the coal bucket saying
'Jack, can you get me some coal for the fire please?'
He responds with a horrified look.
'Ah Gran, I can't. The first episode of Lois and Clark is starting in a second;
it's the new series where we find out if he tells her he's Superman.'
(1:279 Observation: Lois and Clarke)

The interaction continues and becomes somewhat more confrontational before Tom, the visitor, intervenes. Gran 'scolds' Jack but, even more annoyingly for Jack, she proceeds to inquire as to what their Dad is doing. If Jack is not getting the coal, then Gran is not going to let him engage with his programme either. Given that their Dad is the reason that they are not watching television at home, this may be a tacit reminder, on the part of their Gran, to be more grateful for her television rather than a simple inquiry as to their father's activities. The intervention relates back to The Late Late Show on two levels. Firstly, it is clearly another example of their Gran's need to control. Doing small jobs for her is a way of respecting what is provided - the fire doesn't just happen. Similar to Hurd who admitted grumbling about her children watching television when in fact she was annoyed at having to clean up after them, there is a sense that Gran needs acknowledgement of her 'work' (Hurd, 1987: 70). However, the television also occupies a key position in Gran's desire to control. Referring back to her announcement that she only watches one programme a week her interruption, and challenge, of the children's viewing activity makes sense. Her 'diet' of one a week proves she is not an addict or 'hooked', but the children are not so self-controlled. It may not be a case of the television threatening her power so much as providing an opportunity for her to exercise some moral guardianship. She is challenging the young people's focus on the television, modifying their urgency, undermining the programme's importance and the children's commitment to it. The informant, her own daughter, made the following comment after observing the interaction between Jack and his Gran.

(The exchange I have just witnessed between herself and the kids reminds me of my own teenage years with my mother.
It strikes me how mischievous she can be).
(1:309 Observation: Lois and Clarke)

Their Gran's tactic of interrupting is clearly not accidental to the particular viewing sessions. The expectation that she will intervene becomes apparent at the end of the final session while the younger viewers are watching The X Files.

At approximately 10.50 p.m. my mother returns home.
She is back earlier than expected and Matt and Jack look agitated as the front door closes.
Jack remarks 'Well, there goes the end of that programme'.
(1:563 Observation: The X Files )

Sure enough, their Gran enters the room with a 'cheery greeting'. When she is asked to wait just five minutes before chatting she responds with:

'Well, that's a lovely greeting isn't it'
(1:580 Observation: The X Files )

This comment perhaps sums up their Gran's 'expectancies' or sense of the field of viewing. There are conventions governing interactions, one of the most basic being the greeting of an individual as a simple but important acknowledgement or recognition almost of their existence - particularly appropriate where the person entering the context is the owner of the setting. While their Gran may view the television as an invasion on a number of levels (introducing 'gay' personalities), it is perhaps most threatening at the basic level of undoing social conventions and codes of practice. The observer recorded the following observation during The Late Late Show

She warns him not to make a mess saying 'Leave that kitchen as you find it Jack.'
It's not clear if he heard her, but if he did, he's studiously ignoring her, a pattern to which it seems they are both accustomed.
(1:155 Observation: The Late Late Show)

The observer herself was amazed as she realised that some of her mother's annoying habits of interrupting viewing were quite blatant strategies for monitoring and controlling the use of the television. She began to understand some of her own past viewing experiences. In a sense what she had experienced as irritating 'practices' were now making sense as emanating from and reinforcing a rational, if tacit, 'habitus'. Whether informed by notions of the damaging effects of television or notions of wasting time, it appears that this (grand) parent did not always (if ever) explicitly express her desire to halt or disrupt the viewing process. It may be that she did not intend to halt it completely but, in some way, to break the engagement that her children (and now her grandchildren) have with the television thus transferring wider notions of young people's vulnerability into the habitus of her own livingroom. It may be the case that she herself was not completely aware that she was interrupting viewing in such a predictable and strategic way. Rogge and Jensen (1988: 96) reported, in their research, that mothers restricted viewing as a result of their own upbringing but that this was not 'conscious to the mothers'.

The young viewers have adopted their own strategies to try to counteract their Gran. Their control of the technology, mentioned above, is consolidated further by their television expertise. Jack tries to avoid having to go and get coal at the beginning of the viewing session of Lois and Clarke by explaining to his Gran what is going to happen in the programme that he might miss. As the observer points out, his Gran is unimpressed. However, Jack's appeal to his Gran was less concerned with 'telling her the story' than with letting her know of his commitment to it and, perhaps, that he had an expertise in predicting or knowing what was going to happen. However, Jack's comment indicates a sense of devotion to the programme which may be an ill-judged strategy to employ with their Gran.

By this stage Gran has clipped the beginning of one programme and the end of another. Just as she cuts out the volume during the advertisements, she also challenges the integrity of television programmes, the implication being that they are 'just' programmes. She proves this by even deferring satisfaction during The Late Late Show when she states that all she wants to see is 'who is on next' - she doesn't need to slavishly view every minute of the programme but just needs to be kept informed.

As well as foregrounding their technical ability and programme knowledge, the young viewers also showed an awareness of some of the codes and conventions operating within the viewing habitus. There is an awareness of expected seating arrangements, and when Jack reminds Gran that he is quiet for her programmes, an awareness of the give and take that generally operates at a tacit level.

Case Study 1 - Interview Data

In the follow up interview with these young viewers, they exhibit a great awareness of the reciprocal nature of their viewing context. They view in their Gran's house because it is more comfortable, but also because they have greater scope to choose the programmes and more peace. This is partly due to a baby in their own house, but also because their Mom and Dad talk over the programme they are viewing even more than their Gran does. Further they can tell their Gran to keep quiet, something they would not dare to say at home. For their part they are aware that she enjoys company and that she has her favourite programmes. They describe their Gran's viewing of The Late Late Show as a Friday night 'ritual' and they think that she often watches it just in case she might miss something. The implication is that her viewing skills are not great. They do not think that their Gran deliberately interrupts their viewing. They consider that she is just unaware of what might be on the television and just likes to chat. In response to a final question, one participant sums up their view of their Gran's ability to use her VCR

Matt 'Oh yeah, I taped it for her once, but I think she wiped it out in the process of trying to play it back.
Don't ask me how she did that! Gran's a bit clueless when it comes to the VCR.
Same as Mum really. Like Mother like daughter.
(Interview: Matt - 20 yrs)

The projection of incompetence on to the figure of authority underpins the implication of ownership of 'competence' that is exhibited by the participant. These young people tend to infantalise their Gran (perhaps because of a combination of age and gender). They are confident of their ability to accommodate her, work around her and manipulate her if necessary. In their eyes she operates with out any intentionality. Her interruptions are blunders rather than contrived challenges to their viewing. Of course it may well be in Gran's best interests to be seen as a blunderer rather than a manipulator. On the other hand, the young people can follow programmes and operate the technology in a way their Gran does not. They undertake performances of competence which appear to reside at a level of practice. It is 'natural' to them. Their competence as viewers is clearly a facet in their ability to manipulate their Gran and the viewing environment. It is their accommodation of a wider discourse into their habitus in order to facilitate their practices of controlling the television. Equally their Gran appears to introduce an opposing discourse of vulnerability which informs her habitus and subsequent practices.

Supporting Data

The case study described above is an ideal case. It is ideal methodologically in that it is the only observation session where the 'parental' figure is unaware of the research process. It may also reflect a 'distilled' sense of 'parental' authority in that the Gran is not directly responsible for the adolescents' daily welfare, nor does she share the house with them. There may be clearer boundaries in the Gran's house and more obvious codes of practice. Another case study (Case Study 9) was sited in the home of the adolescents' grandparents and again this dynamic arose of the grandfather, in this case, appearing to want to direct the adolescent's attention and maintain a sense of interaction distinct from the engagement with the television. In the course of a televised football match the Grandfather makes a number of attempts to engage Mike (16 years) in conversation, and in each case the informant is clear that these interjections irritate and annoy Mike:

Grandfather 'Are you sure it wasn't Sheridan?'
Mike 'No, Cascarino' quite annoyed
(9:213 : Mike - 16 yrs: Football Match)

Because the Grandfather is aware of the research project it is not clear whether he may be trying to encourage a greater response for the observer's benefit or whether his sense of responsibility for maintaining social interaction during viewing is an ongoing practice. Comments made by the participant during the follow-up interview suggest that his Grandfather's behaviour was not out of the ordinary but that '..that's just how he is'; '..he asks a lot of questions'. While there is less evidence to interpret the Grandfather's motives for interrupting Mike's viewing, it is clear that, similar to the previous case study, the adolescent viewer does not perceive any intentionality. He sees the Grandfather's queries and comments as unproblematic and due to his grandfather's ignorance rather than any concern about Mike's own viewing practices.

There are indications during other observation sessions of parents operating very similar strategies of challenging adolescent viewing practices (Case Study 7). There is also a strong emphasis on the mother as the figure who 'innocently' or 'naively' interrupts.

My mother walks in at this stage.
My Mom starts to speak to Edel and Edel replies 'Mum, I can't talk now, Home and Away is on'.
Carl tells Mom 'You're in my way' and then 'sorry' because Mom gives him a glare.
(7:196: Edel -13 yrs.; Carl - 18 yrs.: Home and Away)

Even with the older age group where the 'young' participants, and the informant, are in their 20's the 'mother' role is still very prominent (Case Study 14):

She sits and looks at the TV and asks if this is Star Trek.
I tell her it is.
Mam 'You like this programme don't you?'
She is looking at Dave.
Mam 'Dave'
Dave 'Yes, I do'
Mam 'How's the flat going?'
Dave 'Grand'
Dave is very irritated by the look of him.
His hands are over his eyes and he is leaning forward.
Mam gets up and pokes the fire and looks at me
I say 'I know, I'll do it' [fetch coal]
Mam 'Do it before dinner'
Mam leaves the room again and Dave looks around at me.
Dave 'Unbelievable isn't she'
'Pretty bad' [I say]
(14:272: Dave - 23 yrs.: Star Trek)

This is only a snippet of this particular mother's ongoing battle to assert 'reality' over the television. She continually brings to the fore the immediate environment and events of the day, in an attempt to force the television into the background. It is clear from the participants 'knowing' exchange after she leaves, that this is not an isolated incident. In further case studies, there is evidence of 'interruptions' from parents (Case studies 8, 10, 13) and in one case, the mother interrupts viewing in order to chat about her day (6:188). There is no indication in this case that the mother is challenging her daughter's engagement with the television, but certainly it fits the pattern, suggested tacitly in all the other cases, that adolescent viewers may need to be reclaimed from the television with 'reality checkpoints'. It is also suggested in the current data that the mother may play a lead role in this process. While there are indications that the father, in at least three case studies (2,9,12) is 'fun' to view with and engages more fully in the process, the mother appears to be the figure who holds back and attempts to insert some challenging presence to the television. However, the indications in the case study outlined here, that the method of asserting this presence is often done through ignorance or inability (or more likely the feigning of it in most cases), also gains some support from other observation sessions.

In another case study, the following actions are observed:

Jill moves around a bit.
Adam is still.
Mother enters
Mother comes in cleans up.
No reaction from the others
Dad enters
Dad comes in and sits down
(5:27 : Adam - 16 yrs.; Jill 20 yrs.: Home and Away)

A very mundane but perhaps very telling contrast of symbolic disengagement (mother) and engagement (father). The observer, their son, does not offer any analysis, a case in point perhaps of lack of critical distance. It is not clear from the observation notes whether there was any ulterior reason for the mother doing her clean up during the programme but, as in the following comment, they certainly reveal aspects of gender roles.

Mother comments that it's not too late yet for Ireland to win.
Rick turns to me and says 'don't mind Mum, she knows nothing about football'.
He has a big grin while he says this.
(10:148: Rick - 16 yrs.: Football Match)

A snippet from an interview with two young male participants clearly outlines their sense of their own media competence.

Interviewer 'Do you ever watch a video with your parents?'
Saul 'No'.
Interviewer 'Not even the war ones?'
Stephen 'No'
Saul 'No'
Interviewer 'Why?'
Saul '...we just..'
Interviewer 'Do you think that's unusual?'
Stephen 'They just keep butting in and asking the story'
Saul 'It's not that it's unusual, it's that they can't follow it, they never seem to get the story line and we keep having to explain it to them.'
Interviewer 'yeah, I know and they keep asking the same questions'
Saul 'And then, if someone gets shot or something Mum says...
Stephen ''Why did he get shot?''
Saul ''Oh that's too bad' or 'awful' or something. And you have to fast forward the porno scenes as well, although....
Interviewer 'How do you know when they're coming up though?'
Saul laughs 'You know the way it says P.G....yeah, well we have to check it out for Mum and Dad' Laughs
Stephen 'What?' Laughing
Interviewer 'Nothing'
Saul 'C.G rather than P.G.'
[Child Guidance rather than Parental Guidance]
(Interview : Saul - 15 yrs.; Stephen 16 yrs)

It is clear from this quote that the parents' queries about programme content may not be intended for the purposes of gaining information but may be a form of supervision or control which becomes more tangible when the content is 'porno'. While the interviewer focuses on 'parents', the participants single out their mother as being a particularly inept viewer and more prone to ridicule in her responses to the media. However, this quote also reinforces the idea, suggested earlier, that young people may be countering parental attempts to exert influence not just with a dismissiveness of the strategies used, but also an assertion of their own familiarity or expertise with television. The whole system is wrong, according to these two adolescents, instead of Parental Guidance videos should carry Child Guidance certificates. Parents may have authority but they are not very knowledgeable or sophisticated in their responses to television, compared to the superior knowledge of the adolescents.

In one particular case study the relationship between the mother and the participants stands out as different. It appears to be less one of parent / child than of peers. The 'children' are all in their 20's but it has been noted that in other case studies even 20 year olds are treated as 'children' in relation to the television. In this case study, the mother does not appear to intervene in the viewing. In two sessions in which she participates there does not seem to be any conflict of programme choice nor is she automatically the one who fetches the 'tray' of tea. The first of these sessions is a talk show (which does not appear to be the choice of the younger participants, although they seem interested in some of the guests that are on the show. Although they scramble to change the channel when the show is over and their mother leaves the room, they did not change during the course of the programme even when she was called away to the phone. Her relationship with her children may be quite unique. She is the only mother who was addressed by her children by her first name rather than her title. O'Connor found that the groups in her research '...arrived at distinctive orientations to, and interpretation of, the film the Ballroom of Romance which were largely determined by social-class and gender-based discourse' (O'Connor, 1997: 83). However, she also points out that '..there were differences within groups which cannot be fully accounted for in social class or gender terms' (O'Connor, 1997: 84). The family in the case study cited above, were not so unique so as to transgress any norms from the field of viewing, but they did appear to adopt them to a more unique viewing habitus. Bourdieu points out that 'habitus is a '... system of dispositions - a past which survives in the present and tends to perpetuate itself into the future by making itself present in practices structured according to its principles...' (Bourdieu, 1977:82).


It is suggested by the current data that 'parents', especially mothers, adopt strategies to assert their presence and contest the engagement their children have with television. This forms a 'practice' whereby the dangers of television and the vulnerability of their children are translated from the 'field' of macro social concerns into the 'habitus' of the livingroom.

However, these strategies of querying and questioning television content appear to be taken at face value by many of the adolescent viewers, and are seen as reflecting a lack of knowledge or insight on the part of the parent. This may well suit a parent who wishes to be, or may in fact be, a low consumer of television and would not wish to be seen as a knowledgeable viewer. While the adolescents' viewing comfort is threatened by these interruptions, their own sense of expertise is enhanced.

Bourdieu notes that any 'field' 'presents itself as a structure of probabilities - of rewards, gains, profits, or sanctions - (Bourdieu and Waquant, 1992: 18). Those that transfer to the habitus of family viewing become most evident when the control of the viewing itself is explored. The role of authority is repeatedly focused on relatively intangible and perhaps ineffective restrictive practices which make sense in terms of discourses of vulnerability. Young people, on the other hand, try to profit and gain from a discursive subjectivity of competence. This competence does not emanate directly or specifically from their critical ability (as in meta-critical skills) but would obviously draw much of its authority from that voice. In other words, the competence related to gaining control may be critical or uncritical (it may relate to a high degree of referential knowledge of a programme) and will rarely be immediate (as if a critical comment were a form of command). A young person's ability to critique television will contribute to a generalised sense of their competence. It forms an on-going social construct of their individual viewership which can be called into play in the game of viewing.

Whereas 'doxa' describes the universe of the 'unthinkable' or 'what cannot be said', discourse refers to 'what goes without saying' (Bourdieu, 1977:170) or that which is assumed but not necessarily held to be 'true'. Many of the public concerns with regard to young people and television may be underpinned by beliefs in the sacredness of childhood, and may be extremely resilient because they belong to the universe of 'doxa'. However, some aspects of this social construct of childhood do give rise to discourses or areas of contestation. On one level these take place in countless living rooms when disputes over definitions of 'what' is viewed and 'how' it is viewed are tacitly contested through discursive practices.

According to Foucault ' never localised here or there, never in anybody's hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth' (Foucault, 1980:98). Gran could exercise a legal power and presumably could bar the grandchildren from her home if they did not behave as she desired. However, this would leave Gran without the company of her grandchildren, and would also leave her without any means to monitor their television viewing. Further, if she tried to restrict their viewing they would probably view in their own home. Gran's recourse is to harness the discourses and assumptions about television that lend weight to her point of view. She becomes the 'vehicle' of a powerful discourse that projects vulnerability onto a young audience. But she too finds herself confronted with notions of youth and media savvy that attempt to undermine her authority. 'Individuals are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power' (Foucault, 1980:98). Adolescents also have a number of social understandings that empower them, in particular their media knowledge and appreciation compared to the incompetence of figures of authority.

While both the adults and the adolescents find minute but persistent ways to assert their legitimacy as viewers, these practices remain 'obscure in the eyes of their own producers' (Bourdieu, 1977:79). Yet despite their somatic nature such strategies can be seen as 'mechanisms of power' that are '...invested and annexed by more global phenomena' (Foucault, 1980:99). In the habitus of the living room the global field informs local practices and the local informs the understanding and sense of the global.

While the empirical data for this paper is drawn primarily from one family, the findings are presented as revealing roles and assumptions that may strike a vein at a generic level. Glaser and Strauss have explained that most useful sociological accounts are precisely those which

insiders recognize as sufficiently inside to be true but not so
'inside' that they reveal only what is already known. (Glaser and Strauss, 1965: 9)

While conducting this research I was stung by memories of how I had often feigned ignorance of a programme in order to encourage my daughters to take some critical distance from the television. In this way I enacted the discourses of vulnerability in my own home. My daughters, in turn, would point to my ineptitude and highlight their own competence. Age and gender are constructs that confer power, but this study suggests that this process is not automatic or predetermined. It is constantly negotiated in the micro-politics of viewing.


1While the whole study entailed observation sessions and follow-up interviews in 16 households, involving 55 participants and over 70 viewing sessions, this paper can only gain some depth by dealing primarily with one case study entailing 4 viewing sessions. These findings are then supported by selected extracts from other observations sessions and some follow-up interview comments.

2 Fieldwork was conducted in Feb.-May 1995 and Oct.-Jan 1995- 1996.

3 All participants were subsequently informed of the observations and all agreed to follow up interviews.

4While it was not their home, the informant was adamant that it was a second home where they had slightly more room to maneuver because their father tended to dominate the television in their own home (either by watching it himself or carrying out noisy DIY work when not watching it). In other words, this case study did not take place 'at home', but was, nonetheless, in a place where the participants regularly viewed irrespective of the research

5The Late Late Show is a long running, Irish produced chat show.


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