Harold Innis

As a recognized field of study, political economy of communication has its most obvious roots in the concept of ‘knowledge monopolies’ as developed by Canadian economist Harold Innis. Innis coined this term to illustrate the fact that throughout history certain privileged groups (priests, kings, bureaucrats, soldiers, scientists, etc) have enjoyed a monopoly of access to certain kinds of knowledge. Innis therefore tends to appear as the pioneer of all political contemporary economic studies in the field of media.

While it might be said that Innis is responsible to some significant degree for the straw man that separates communication technologies from communication, by focusing on the relationship between communication technologies and forms of civilization, Innis provided an historical materialist method for studying political economies of communication, a method that has proved invaluable scholars that followed.

By separating communication “content” from technological form, Innis provides a means for seeing how new media can sustain, erode, or otherwise transform various kinds of civilisations throughout history based on the types of technologies used to maintain ‘knowledge monopolies’ (1950, 1951a, 1951b).

He also helpfully expanded conceptions of media, just as the term was becoming singular and monolithic: “The Media”. Innis helped show that myth, prayer, alphabet, architecture, libraries, transport systems, weaponry, and many other technologies as means of communication, and therefore as means of producing, sustaining, and destroying knowledge monopolies, civilizations, and their associated cultures (1951b). (Graham)