In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Critical Media Theory

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • The Frankfurt School
  • Ideology and Hegemony
  • Semiotics and Representation
  • Medium Theory
  • Poststructuralism
  • Post-Marxism and Postcolonialism/Decoloniality
  • Media and Popular Knowledges
  • Media Events and Spectacles
  • Media Audience and Reception Theories
  • Media Industries and Production Studies
  • Television Studies
  • Postmodernism
  • Digital Cultures
  • Mediatization
  • Media Infrastructures
  • Affect
  • Actor-Network Theory

Cinema and Media Studies Critical Media Theory
Kevin Glynn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0333


Critical media theory can be traced back to the development of critical theory by thinkers associated with the so-called Frankfurt School in the 1920s and 1930s. The critical theory of the Frankfurt School was generally neo-Marxist and Hegelian, and established powerful critiques of positivist, mainstream forms of social science and philosophy. The Frankfurt School’s approach to theorizing the emergent 20th century “mass media” therefore founded a powerful critique of mainstream, positivist, “administrative” mass communication research that became dominant in the early decades of the discipline. Arguably the most direct theoretical descendants of Frankfurt School critical theory (via the latter’s critique of industrialized culture) are the forms of political economy of the media that emerged in their wake. By the 1960s and 1970s, however, competing Marxist analyses began to challenge what they took to be the economism, reductionism, and determinism of Frankfurt School and political economy approaches. The most important movement in these respects came out of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. The so-called Birmingham School developed forms of structural and cultural Marxism that drew heavily on the work of Althusser and Gramsci in particular. Additionally, the CCCS developed semiotic and ethnographic approaches to critical media studies that drew upon thinkers such as Barthes and Geertz, and thus gave rise to theories of media audiences that differed sharply from those of the Frankfurt School and political economists. During the late-1970s and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the critical media theory of the Birmingham School engaged closely with feminist theory and politics, and with critical race theory; it also engaged in dialogues and debates with poststructuralism, postmodernism, post-Marxism and postcolonialism, and spread internationally under the stripped-down heading of “Cultural Studies.” Though not unrelated, critical media theory can be differentiated from film theory: many film theorists reject the characterization of cinema as a “communication medium,” and equally rejected (for many years, at least) the engagement with television that spurred the development of a great deal of critical media theory and that helped give rise to the field of television studies in the 1970s and 1980s. Critical media theory in general, and television studies in particular, have incorporated some forms of psychoanalysis to one degree or another, but neither has been anywhere near as absorbed by psychoanalytic approaches as film theory was for many years (arguably as primarily a consequence of the specificity of the cinematic apparatus). In more recent years, new media theory in particular has been central to the continuing development and concerns of critical media theory more generally.

Textbooks and General Overviews

There are a number of useful overviews and textbooks that cover one or more of the various subdivisions and areas of interest associated with critical media theory. Mosco 2009 provides a broad account of the political economy approach. Laughey 2007 delivers an accessible and engaging introduction to key themes and schools of thought associated with approaches that stem from critiques of positivist, behavioralist social science. Similarly, Storey 2018 offers a much-revised edition that covers critical theoretical approaches to media as constituent components of popular culture. Hall, et al. 2013, a textbook on different theoretical approaches to the problematics and politics of cultural representation, is regarded as a classic of the genre. Miller 2011, Merrin 2014, and Bollmer 2018 all address key concerns and major theoretical approaches to the new, digital media environment.

  • Bollmer, Grant. Theorizing Digital Cultures. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781529714760

    Bollmer introduces key themes and major theoretical debates in the field of digital cultures, including technological infrastructures, bodies and affects, forms and aesthetics, identities and posthumanism.

  • Hall, Stuart, Jessica Evans, and Sean Nixon, eds. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. 2d ed. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2013.

    Hall and colleagues provide an exceptional overview of key theoretical issues around the critical analysis of representation, meaning, and politics in contemporary media culture, including semiotic and discursive approaches, race, gender and coloniality, and consumption and spectacle.

  • Laughey, Dan. Key Themes in Media Theory. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press, 2007.

    This overview of key thinkers and critical theoretical themes in media studies includes modernity and postmodernity, structuralism and semiotics, race, gender, and postcolonialism, and cultures of consumption and everyday life.

  • Merrin, William. Media Studies 2.0. London: Routledge, 2014.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203083581

    Merrin surveys the history of critical media theories and argues for the adoption of new critical tools for the new, post-broadcast media age of digitalization, convergence, and producers.

  • Miller, Vincent. Understanding Digital Culture. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2011.

    Miller offers comprehensive coverage of theoretical developments and debates in contemporary digital cultural studies, including the economic underpinnings of information societies, the expansion of surveillance and convergence, digital divides, cyber politics and warfare, digital space, identity, and posthumanism.

  • Mosco, Vincent. The Political Economy of Communication. 2d ed. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446279946

    This textbook delivers a comprehensive overview of the historical development of critical political economies of communication and major themes and areas of investigation such as gender, class, race and social movements, commodification, and globalization.

  • Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. 8th ed. London: Routledge, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315226866

    This widely used textbook, now in its eighth edition, presents a wide array of critical cultural perspectives on popular media, including Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism and semiotics, feminism and gender theories, critical theories of race and representation, and postmodernism.

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