In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Scandals

  • Introduction
  • Edited Books
  • Functions of Scandal
  • Macro-Level Theories about Scandals

Communication Political Scandals
Uwe Hartung
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0042


Political scandals are a special field of study within mass communication and social sciences. The field is seldom recognized as such, while empirical studies in areas such as news selection, role of journalists, news framing, and media are sometimes conducted using issues that fulfill the criteria to be considered scandals. This article, however, is primarily concerned with literature focusing on scandal as a type of issue in public communication that evolves under special conditions, knows specific roles for participants, offers them certain options for reacting, and follows a typical trajectory. In everyday language, “scandal” refers to violations of social norms or transgressions and to a particular type of public communication that sometimes ensues from the violation. From the perspective of communication, it is imperative to separate the two meanings as not all publicly known transgressions generate scandals, nor are scandals necessarily based on de facto transgressions. Basic questions for the study of scandals in communication research emerge: Which transgressions (social problems, malfunction, misbehavior) does a society select for scandal, and which of them does it ignore or tolerate? Who makes the choices in scandal selection? For what motives? What are the chances to create a scandal? Which devices are promising in creating a scandal? How can a scandal can be contained or terminated? We can formally define scandal as the intense public communication about a real or imagined normative transgression that is by consensus disapproved by the public. In this entry, scandal goes along with the qualifier “political,” referring to the function of politics to codify the norms of a society. Any discussion of the validity and applicability of social norms is therefore political. In that sense, a political scandal is any one in which the validity and applicability of norms is addressed. Many of the texts listed in the various chapters of this bibliography could easily be sorted in other chapters. That is especially true in Macro-Level Theories about Scandals, Edited Books and Components and Parties of a Scandal. Almost all the publications under “macro” also contain chapters you want to read when you are interested in a “micro” or phenomenological approach to scandal. That goes vice versa. And many of the edited volumes contain chapters that would fit in one or both of the theory sections. Aside from this, there are comparative studies of many kinds, and of course single-case studies can also be instructive. Selection criteria were originality and a relationship with the theoretical considerations in the introductory remarks to the chapters.

History of Scandal

The academic discipline of history produces work on individual scandals, but they are not the prime interest here. Historians have seldom addressed scandal as a category, as an object worthy of study for itself. That is changing. Scandals can only occur in open societies where the powerful allow their misdeeds to be discussed. They are therefore a feature of modernity, but ancient societies knew the phenomenon, too. The Middle Ages, in contrast, are often said not to have known scandals.

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