Mass Media and Cultural Identity Research Paper

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The term ‘mass media’ refers to media of communication such as the printed press, cinema, radio, and television which have characteristically addressed large and diverse audiences. The term ‘cultural identity’ refers to the attribution of a given set of qualities to a particular population. A cultural identity is not static and eternal but rather changes through time. Cultural collectivities commonly think of their identities in terms of how they differ from others. Distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’ is therefore central to groups’ cultural self-identification. In this research paper, the relationship between mass media and debates about cultural identity is examined.

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1. How Mass Media Relate to Cultural Identity

Throughout the history of mass communication, there has been a continuing interest in the relationships between mass media and cultural identities. This has been driven by the general, underlying assumption that different media variously form, influence, or shape collective identities as such. How mass media might, at various times, specifically affect the formation and maintenance of national cultures and identities has occupied center stage in this continuing discussion. National identities normally embrace a range of cultural identities based on ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity. Nationalists, however, often wish to portray national identity as based in a single culture. Nation-states remain, for the most part, the political frameworks in which claims about cultural diversity and expressions of cultural identity within a given society are pursued. Nevertheless, cultural identities may transcend the state system, as for instance in the case of systems of belief that unite members of the world religions. Diasporic communities also share cultural identities despite belonging to different nations and holding diverse citizenships (Schlesinger 1991, Hall and du Gay 1996).

1.1 Mass Media and National Identities

From a historical perspective, mass media have been an important part of the nation-building process. Successively, the press, the cinema, radio, and television have been invoked as shapers of collective consciousness, as the bearers of a collectivity’s culture, or as objects of policy for shaping collective identities. To the extent that the mass media have contributed to the construction of national cultures, they have also necessarily played a role in the creation of national identities, which are still the most important forms of modern cultural identity in the new millennium.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the development of a popular press, nationally distributed magazines, and news agencies making use of the telegraph reinforced the creation of national communication systems in countries such as the USA, the UK, and France. Mass communication developed intensively within the boundaries of national states and through widespread, cross-class consumption, it contributed to the creation of common space for public debate, a shared political agenda, and that sense of collective belonging that characterizes national identities (Carey 1989). Mass communication has therefore played an increasingly central part in the formation of national political cultures. The latter part of the nineteenth century also saw the first major steps in the development of what would come to be a worldwide communications capacity carried through the spread of telegraphy and subsequently telephony in part in line with European imperial expansion. These nineteenth-century beginnings have proved to be the foundation stones of the developing global communications infrastructure which has become steadily more relevant for debate about the development of transnational cultural identities at the end of the twentieth century and at the start of the twentyfirst.

1.2 Audio isual Culture

The rapid growth of the cinema before and up to the First World War inaugurated an era in which the moving image ultimately came into its own as the globally dominant cultural form. From its inception, the cinema developed as a national cultural institution. It provided images of the people and, through stardom, of popular icons of identification that played into the elaboration of national identities by representing a culture. At the same time, however, the early cinema was also an international medium that addressed diverse audiences across the boundaries of nation-states. This duality has made the relationship between the moving image and the maintenance of cultural identity within the territorial boundaries of the nation-state an especially potent issue for many countries.

Since World War I, the role of Hollywood in the international cinematic marketplace has been of prime importance. What has accompanied this primacy has been a widespread concern, long articulated in Europe by politicians and cultural elites from the 1920s onwards, about the impact of ‘Americanization’—the exporting of US cultural values, tastes, attitudes, and products—on national cultures and identities. The most vociferous critics have seen the transnational flow of the moving image as an instrument of a US government policy intent on global cultural domination. Other detractors have seen ‘Americanization’ as the unintended outcome of a successful model of production that invites competition as a mode of selfdefense.

Given its salience, it is hardly surprising that throughout the twentieth century ‘Americanization’ has repeatedly come to the center of public debate. Looked at from the vantage point of elites, it has been identified with the reshaping of popular culture and seen as having a negative impact on actions, beliefs, and identities, especially among young people and the working class. For such groups, American cultural forms have been a key source of pleasure: they have embodied modernity and an escape from a dominant version of national culture.

Although Hollywood’s output has often been the principal point of attack, there has also been a much more diffuse concern among national elites with the effects of consumerism on the moral fabric of their societies. So, for instance, jazz and rock, fast food and Coca Cola, shopping malls and coffee bars, advertising and blue jeans have each, at times, come to represent the threatening and transformative ubiquity of America to disconcerted moral guardians. The cultural challenge constituted by ‘Americanization,’ moreover, has also gone deeper into the social fabric to encompass the challenges represented by the economic model of free-market capitalism. This has long been seen as inimical to the social solidarity ideally aspired to by European welfare states. Not surprisingly, then, the history of US market dominance and cultural anxiety in recipient countries has played into intercultural relations across the Atlantic. It also shaped the wider, global debate about cultural and media imperialism.

Alongside the rise of the cinema, the development of nationally based radio broadcasting in the inter-War years and through to the 1950s ensured the dissemination of a range of genres—drama, music, news, comedy, sport—that addressed segments of nationally constituted audiences. Radio domesticated national culture, defined national public spheres, and ensured that cultural identities became deeply mass mediated in many respects.

The audiences for radio and, later, television shared a public world which persisted for most of the twentieth century. The classic vehicle for explicitly pursuing the role of televising the national culture from the 1950s onwards was public service broadcasting, of which the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been the key model, broadly replicated in many countries (Scannell and Cardiff 1991).

Before its networks and channels began to fragment and specialize with the diversification of distribution systems, general broadcasting offered a container of common mediated experiences to its audiences and articulated these with other forms and sites of cultural consumption. Formally, through the education system, learners would encounter variants of the national folk history and absorb key literary reference points that in combination offered marks of collective identity and thereby constituted collective memories. More informally, outside the sphere of broadcasting, whether as citizens or consumers, people encountered the national cultural gamut in all its variety. This included recorded and live music, popular comedy, theatrical performances, and national and local sporting events. State ceremonies and religious celebrations punctuated the calendar. By both complementing and re-engineering these cultural forms into its own output, broadcasting invited listeners and, later, viewers into a new relationship of social communication. It offered shared ways of speaking and looking that became an integral part of everyday life. It invented schedules that structured temporal patterns and genres that shaped cultural expectations.

Although its transmissions are no respecters of political or cultural boundaries, for the most part radio has been experienced by listeners as a national medium. However, it has always played an important transnational role in wartime propaganda, whether in the hot war of World War II or during the Cold War from the late 1940s until the turn of the 1990s. And music radio has always had strong cross-border attractions, sustaining international communities of taste.

Besides public service systems, commercial systems of broadcasting such as the US networks—ABC, CBS, NBC—both in their heyday and since, have also had a profound impact on the mediation of national culture by way of providing a wide range of televisual forms. US programs have been pre-eminent in defining the international experience of television for many countries. National television systems, and latterly subscription-based movie channels, moreover, have been important vehicles for the dissemination of cinema, especially of Hollywood’s output, which has thereby reached a global audience alongside distribution via the theatrical circuit and through the sale and rental of video recordings.

As the ways in which television was distributed rapidly diversified in the 1980s and 1990s—with the growth of cable and satellite broadcasting, alongside the original terrestrial systems—the relations between cultural identity and the medium became more complex. The national audience’s experience of television consumption began to fragment. These changes ushered in the crisis of public service broadcasting in many countries. Fragmentation of the national television experience is likely to be further accentuated as digital signals increasingly replace analogue transmissions, and as the range of channels on offer multiplies rapidly in the most developed parts of the world. It is also going to be affected in increasing measure by the delivery of radio, television, and music over the Internet, as these will impact on the range of available choices and bypass broadcasting schedules.

2. Cultural Identity, Mass Media and Cultural Imperialism

The debate about the impact of mass media on cultural identity increasingly rose up the policy and academic agendas in the 1970s. This coincided with the new interest being taken in the cultural impact of films and television programs that were crossing state frontiers. Shaped by the political contours of the Cold War, in which the strategic interests of the capitalist West were both symbolically, and in reality, opposed to those of the communist East, the debate was greatly stimulated by the postcolonial and postimperial interest in the influence exercised over the rest of the world of cultural production deriving from the main capitalist states (Tomlinson 1991).

2.1 International Debate on Cultural Identity

Discussion centered on the work of the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and on that of the critical writings of media scholars such as Schiller (1969) and Mattelart (1979). In the early 1970s, the first major studies of international television flows were published and academic debate about the significance of audiovisual trade intensified. In Latin America, which became the key locus for critical thought, arguments centered on the economic and cultural dependence of Third World states on those of the developed First World and the perceived threat posed to indigenous cultures and identities by popular media and consumerism.

UNESCO’s interventions stimulated a critique of US cultural and media imperialism. The role of journalism (not least US-, UK-, and French-owned international news agencies) was central to this debate. The news agencies were seen as exercising monopolistic control over news flows and as screening out ‘south–south dialogue.’ Arguments centered on the worldwide impact of the consumption of Western cinematic and televisual fiction as well as that of news. To counter media imperialism, its critics proposed that a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) be instituted. The idea of such an international order implied the existence of a transnational communicative space that should and could be regulated in the interests of more equal dialogue. The defense of national cultures in weak and dependent nations and the pursuit of equity and balance in the flow of reports and images in international cultural trade reached its high-water mark in the UNESCO-supported MacBride report (MacBride 1980). This debate prefigured later attempts to discuss the conditions for creating an international public sphere of open debate (Habermas 1997).

2.2 Supranationalism and Cultural Identity

The defense of national cultural identities by nationstates has remained on the international media research agenda, and not just in the Third World. The European Union (EU) has been a key test case for thinking about the relationships between mass media and cultural identity. The EU is the outcome of a halfcentury-long process dating from World War II, in which previously warring states have sought to develop a framework for political and economic integration. By the end of the twentieth century, 15 European states were bound together by treaty as a trading bloc in the global economy, with a growing line waiting for accession. Official thinking in the EU has assumed a strong causal connection between media consumption and cultural identity. The desired shaping of a new, ‘European’ cultural identity has been linked to the formation of a supranational political public sphere and a common citizenship.

EU policy-makers’ views on imports of US audiovisual products have strikingly echoed arguments aired in the NWICO debate: from a cultural perspective, the flow of films and television programs has been represented as a threat to European identity. As noted earlier, ever since World War I, political and cultural elites in Europe have been concerned about the impact of American films on their national cultures and identities (Jarvie 1992). The original national focus has been easily transposed into official, supranational preoccupations about ‘European culture.’

The cultural case for domestic film-making has been that home-made moving images represent the nation and invite its members to see themselves as part of a community with a common culture. As television broadcasting became a cultural force across Europe from the 1960s on, official and industrial worries about US dominance of the box office extended to the small screen. There has also always been a major economic interest in limiting imports and safeguarding jobs at home. Hence, the EU successfully negotiated the ‘cultural exclusion’ of audiovisual services from the final settlement of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) in 1993. The USA did not accept this principle and the issue remains on the agenda of the successor World Trade Organization.

The EU has found it impossible so far to create a single European cultural marketplace for the moving image. The aspirations have stretched no further, and reasonably so. That is because in the case of radio, television (imported entertainment aside), and the press, cultural preferences have remained predominantly national and regional, following the contours of states and languages. There is no reason to think that this is going to change, even though English is increasingly widely diffused as a second language.

Despite their political convergence, European states still offer a bulwark against widespread cultural homogenization. Publishing, the press, radio, and national education systems continue to sustain diversity and difference in each country. Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, despite some relatively modest investment in financing cross-national film and television coproductions, in supporting producer training and distribution, and in enforcing the provisions of the EU’s single-market legislation, that there is little evidence of the growth of a major transnational audience for European audiovisual products. Both national and transnational patterns of cultural consumption co-exist. So, at the start of the new millennium, despite 15 years of policy intervention, Hollywood still provided the common audiovisual diet, with national cinema an also-ran everywhere apart from France, where cultural protectionism had been most vigorously enforced.

Although a supranational polity, the EU is based on nation-states that seek to maintain their distinctive national cultures. The EU’s integration process has stimulated a reassertion of regional identities, thereby undercutting the hegemony of nation-states. In some instances, these regions are also ‘nations without states’ such as Catalonia and the Basque Country in Spain, and Scotland and Wales in the UK. There, regionalism is inescapably connected with the protection of national and cultural identity. Particular importance has been attached to the role of indigenous mass media in sustaining distinct national cultural identities within the wider state.

2.3 Mass Media, Language, and Cultural Identity

National media systems have been crucial disseminators of standardized vernaculars. Anderson (1991) has suggested that the convergence of capitalism and printing created the conditions for the dissemination of secular vernaculars in the early modern period.

‘Print language’ allowed national languages to be disseminated through markets for books and newspapers, creating a common culture. Audio and audiovisual media have performed a similar role in reinforcing the national idiom. For instance, it was not until the post-World War II period that the majority of Italians came to speak standard Italian, and this was substantially due to the role of radio and television broadcasting, reinforcing and complementing the earlier influence of the cinema. Similarly, in Latin America, it was the mass media that first gave audiences images of themselves that they could connect to their everyday life experiences, offering them an entry point into the national culture and the political public sphere. The mass media also provided the idioms of a common culture. Key instances were the Mexican cinema of the 1930s to 1950s, Argentinean radio drama from the 1920s to the 1940s, and popular journalism in Chile from the 1920s to the 1950s (Martın-Barbero 1993).

Although mass media have had a homogenizing impact within national boundaries, in some places they have been used to ensure language diversification. This has depended on the political efficacy of language activists seeking access to the media. Success or failure has depended on the status of the language concerned, the amount of political support for broadcasting or otherwise disseminating a language, whether a language campaign has been effectively led, and the state authorities’ willingness to encourage linguistic diversity.

Many European states regulate their broadcasting systems to ensure that minority and ‘lesser-used’ languages are assured of airtime and thereby encourage and sustain a diversity of cultural expression and identities. The policies of individual states have been supported since 1992 by a European Convention on regional or minority languages and in several cases—notably in the Basque Country and Catalonia in Spain, Wales in the UK, and among the Sami of Scandinavia—minority-language broadcasting appears to have been successful in sustaining their language communities. However, Europe is by no means unique. Movements aimed at securing both public support for, and state endorsement of, indigenous radio and television production have been active in Australasia and the Americas (Browne 1996).

Canada has been an especially illuminating case of the complex inter-relations between linguistic and cultural identity considerations as the Canadian state has fought its identity wars on two fronts. Externally, the country has had to define itself politically and culturally against the USA. Internally, Canada has had to deal with the continuing debate over the status of Quebec, where claims to sovereignty have long been argued in terms of a distinctive national cultural identity (Collins 1990).

By the middle of the twentieth century, the advent of television extended the existing US media penetration of English-speaking Canada by print and radio. The presence of American media has long shaped Canadian policy-makers’ understanding of broadcasting as essential to the maintenance of national identity and cultural sovereignty. As commercial television developed alongside the public sector, governments tried to regulate the system to ensure that Canadian content was carried by Canadian broadcasters, alongside highly popular US material. Consequently, in line with this protectionist stance, when Canada negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the USA in 1993, it sought successfully to ensure the ‘exception’ of its cultural industries from the treaty (McAnany and Wilkinson 1996). This paralleled the EU’s approach to GATT, for similar reasons.

While the establishment of public service broadcasting in Canada was in part a response to the commercial model prevailing south of the border, it also took the form of reinforcing the country’s cultural and linguistic fault-line between Anglophones and Francophones. Although Francophone broadcasting has sustained the national cultural identity of French speakers, this has run counter to the Canadian federal government’s attempts to create an overarching political and cultural identity.

Such tensions have also been experienced in the heartland of global media production, the USA. The major migratory impact of Hispanics has transformed the cultures of states such as California and Florida and has provided the market conditions for the development of Spanish-language television channels with a national reach. This assertion of cultural and linguistic difference has provoked debate about the unique position of the English language in the USA and how multiculturalism relates to a common national identity.

2.4 Globalization and New Cultural Identities

In the twenty-first century, the impact of transnational and global changes on what are still largely nationstate-bound systems of communication is likely to increase (Castells 1997). Ideas of communication sovereignty rooted in the heyday of the nation-state are increasingly difficult to sustain in the face of crossnational media mergers, the development of supranational polities such as the EU, and the rapid, if unequal, diffusion of access to the Internet with its capability of making global communicative connections. Although the worldwide flow of information and cultural products has now permeated the boundaries of states in unprecedented ways, such ‘globalization’ does not mean that the world is becoming uniform. On the contrary, the reshaping of communicative spaces worldwide means that new cultural identities will emerge continually within, and across, the existing international system of nationstates.


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