Communication Media Sociology
by
Silvio Waisbord
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0064

Introduction

This article offers a review of key works in media sociology and identifies key themes in sociological research that have contributed to media studies. Given the interdisciplinary nature of media/communication analysis, establishing what falls within media sociology and drawing clear-cut distinctions between sociological and other approaches are not easy tasks. Here, media sociology is understood as research that situates communication and media research within the dynamics of social forces and links them to questions about order, conflict, identity, institutions, stratification, authority, community, and power. The origins of mass communication/media research are grounded in sociology. Not only was it sociologists who charted key themes in the field of communication/media studies, particularly in the United States in the 1920s, but foundational research was concerned with core sociological questions, such as the integrative role of the media in the transition from traditional to modern societies and the community-building dimensions of the media. Around the time of World War II, US media sociology experienced two transitions. Geographically, the center of studies moved from the University of Chicago to Columbia and Harvard Universities, and the research foci changed from news and media to public opinion and mass communication. Analytically, the focus shifted from the relation between media and modern society to questions about war propaganda and persuasion. Given the focus on the dynamics of public opinion, sociological questions about personal and media influence moved to the forefront, and interest in issues related to media and community faded. With financial support from the US government and private foundations, public opinion attracted considerable attention from media and communication researchers in the 1950s. However, as questions embedded in social psychology and behavioral research gained currency, sociological approaches, particularly those focused on structural issues, gradually lost centrality. This shift indicated the beginning of the rift between sociology and media/communication studies in the United States. Sociological theories and questions increasingly became less relevant for mass communication research. The historical trajectory of media sociology has been different in Europe, however. It has not had the focus on public opinion research and media effects that it has in the United States. Instead, it has been grounded in different theoretical paradigms and research questions. Traditionally, it has been more concerned with questions about class, power, institutions, and social differentiation.

General Overviews and Readers

Several monographs and readers demonstrate the breadth of sociological analysis of the media. Hardt 2001 discusses how key sociological questions informed early media research in Europe. Hesmondhalgh and Toynbee 2008 confirms the persistent importance of “thinking sociologically” about key issues in contemporary media. The classic compilation Gurevitch, et al. 1982 captures lively theoretical and empirical debates about news, culture, and institutions in media sociology in the late 1970s. Scannell 2007 and Stevenson 2002 are examples of sophisticated sociological analysis of media and communication. Overviews of contemporary sociological questions in media research are included in Tumber 2000 and Tunstall 2001. Benson and Neveu 2005 claims that the work of Pierre Bourdieu remains a rich source of ideas for the study of news media and journalism.

  • Benson, Rodney, and Erik Neveu, eds. 2005. Bourdieu and the journalistic field. Cambridge, MA: Polity.

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    A stimulating collection on Bourdieu’s contributions to the study of journalism. Contributors discuss the merits and limitations of his wide-ranging ideas. Despite disagreements about the value of his assessments about the state of contemporary media, they agree that Bourdieu offers valuable theoretical insights for media studies.

  • Gurevitch, Michael, Tony Bennett, James Curran, and Janet Woollacott, eds. 1982. Culture, society, and the media. London: Methuen.

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    This collection features classic articles, such as those by Hall, Murdock, Blumler and Gurevitch, and Boyd-Barrett, that bring up critical issues in the study of media and society. The book discusses the impact of economic, cultural, and political forces on media institutions and offers theory-rich analysis of media developments.

  • Hardt, Hanno. 2001. Social theories of the press: Constituents of communication research, 1840s to 1920s. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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    Hardt has written a valuable overview of classic German social theory that influenced early US communication research and still offers plenty of conceptual insights to understand contemporary media. The book discusses a range of theories and concepts that are particularly central to critical and cultural studies.

  • Hesmondhalgh, David, and Jason Toynbee, eds. 2008. The media and social theory. London: Routledge.

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    A collection of critical essays that show why social theory matters in understanding contemporary media. The authors link arguments in classic and current theories to the analysis of media industries and content. Collectively, the authors show the merits and blind spots of critical theory.

  • Scannell, Paddy. 2007. Media and communication. London: SAGE.

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    A comprehensive examination of social theory in the study of media and communication. Scannell chronologically reviews the work of key sociologists who influenced theoretical and empirical research in the field.

  • Stevenson, Nick. 2002. Understanding media cultures: Social theory and mass communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    An overview of social theories and media analysis that demonstrates the diversity of conceptual frameworks and research questions in the field. It makes a strong case for why sociological theories offer considerable insights into central questions to study contemporary media.

  • Tumber, Howard, ed. 2000. Media power, professionals, and policies. London: Routledge.

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    This volume covers key topics in media studies: policy, power, management, professionalism, and identity. Several chapters (particularly those by Tumber, Philip Schlesinger, Rodney Tiffen, and Simon Frith) demonstrate the uses of sociological analysis to examine media performance and change.

  • Tunstall, Jeremy, ed. 2001. Media occupations and professions: A reader. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    The book features a range of essays dealing with issues related to professionalism in the media. Media occupations uneasily fit conventional understanding of professions, given multiple educational and career paths, requirements, status, and so on. The authors tackle key questions to understand why and how diverse media occupations can rightly be considered professions.

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