Political Economy of Communications

Political economy is often characterized as studying how different types of values are produced, distributed, exchanged and consumed; how power is produced, distributed, exchanged, and used; and finally, how these aspects are related (Graham). Political economy of communications (PEC) focuses on structures for the production of the media and communication industries under capitalism; on thethe production and consumption of media and communications; and on flows of information.

History of PEC

Political economy is originally influenced by Marxist thought on economics, which studied the manner in which the economic base of society determines the super-structure, and consequently influences the cultural and political spaces within society; labor and the international division of labor, ownership, modes of production; and the importance of class structures and struggles. Flor a long period, the main schools of political economy did not develop a strong interest in the fields of culture or communications. Two academics served to adopt a PE approach to media and communications and set the tone for the school of thought.

  • Harold Innis – Harold Innis may perhaps be responsible for the first application of the political economy approach to the field of communications. Innis presented the idea of “knowledge monopolies,” to describe how through history, certain social groups had enjoyed control of various types of information. In the process of separating technology from content, Innis explained how media could affect social dynamics based on the type of media used to maintain knowledge monopolies. Innis defined the concept of media very broadly, a definition that McLuhan would later adopt.
  • Frankfurt School – Horkheimer and Adorno’s work on the ‘culture industry’ also plays a prominent role in the early development of PEC. According to them, the culture industry produces mass deception and a false sense of happiness – it promotes an affirmative and conformist consciousness. According to Wittel, the Frankfurt School theorists were probably among the first to recognize the growing process by which cultural practices became objects for the valorisation of capital.

Polemic Debates

In the late 70s, several academics, including Smythe, began espousing the notion that television should be studied in more economic and less cultural terms. Garnham (1979) quickly replied that the cultural aspects of television consumption were as important as the economic aspects. Furthermore, he wrote that the ideological dimensions should not be separated from the economic ones.

Moderates

Mosco can be said to be more of a moderate. He resists totalization and maintains there are three entry points in communications processes: commodification, spatialization, and structuration. Entry points are ‘insertions into the social field that provide a substantive focus for thinking about characteristic social practices without suggesting that they provide the essential definition that captures the totality of the field’ (p.10). This comes from a realist, inclusive and critical epistemological framework, treading a fine line between relativism and essentialism, in which simple causality is eschewed in favour of ‘multiple, dynamic interactions’ (p.137) and an ontology that stresses ‘social change, social processes and social relativism’ (p.138) rather than structures and institutions.

According to Vincent Mosco (1995), “political economy is the study of the social relations, particularly the power relations, that mutually constitute the production, distribution, and consumption of resources, including communication resources.” Mosco offers three concepts for the application of political economy to the field of communications:

  • Commodification – The process of taking goods and services that are valued for their utility and turning them into commodities. Mosco (1996) defines commodification as “the process of transforming use values into exchange values, of transforming products whose value is determined by their ability to meet individual and social needs into products whose value is set by what they can bring in the marketplace.” Commodification is the term for a process in which a product’s value deriving from human want or need (use value) is transformed into the value it could get from exchange (exchange value) (p.141). An example of this in relation to the mass media would be the commodification of audiences, and, increasingly, cybernetic commodification in the form of electronic information about our consumption habits.
  • Spatialization – The process of overcoming the constraints of space and time in social life (Mosco, 1996).
  • Structuration – The third entry point is structuration, developed from Anthony Giddens theory of structuration, whereby the interconnections of structure and action are understood to reproduce social life (p.212). Mosco examines aspects of the structuration of the communications industry in terms of the dimensions of class, gender and race. These he suggests are mutually constitutive categories in terms of structuration processes (p.239) and that two possibilities for considering them together are to be found in the focus on social movements and hegemonic processes. This entry-point incorporates the idea of agency, social process and social practice into the analysis of structures.

PECs Focus

According to Wittel, PEC contains several notions about culture, communication, and media:

  • They are all perceived as industries.
  • They are perceived as commodities that carry meaning.
  • They are perceived as things that can be produced, distributed, and consumed.
  • Production and consumption are perceived as being separate issues.
  • There is a clear hierarchy between production and consumption.

There are three missing perceptions that Wittel also points out:

  • Relying on Mosco, he points out that PEC has conventionally focused on structures. We should abandon the focus on structures for an approach concerned with structuration, an equilbrium between structure and agency, and an interest in processes.
  • Blurring between production and consumption. Movement from linear thinking to circular thinking.
  • Move from effects of cultural commodities to operations of cultural commodities. How people appropriate.

Criticizms of PEC

  • Debate between PEC and cultural studies.
  • Economic reductionism – According to Garnham (1979), historical materialist theories are inadequate to deal with the real practical challenges they face because of the reductionist explanations, which excessively favor economic determinism or an ideological autonomy.
  • Focuses too much on class
  • Heavy emphasis on structure and dependency leaves little room for the importance of agency.
  • Too functionalist.

References

Boyd-Barrett, O (1995), ‘The political economy approach’, in O Boyd-Barrett and C Newbold (eds.), Approaches to MediaApproaches to Media, Oxford University Press.

Garnham, N (1979), ‘Contribution to a political economy of mass communication’, in N Garnham (ed), Media, Culture and SocietyMedia, Culture and Society, volume 1, number 2, Academic Press, London.

Garnham, N (1990), ‘Media theory and the political future of mass communication’, from F Inglis (ed), Capitalism and Communication: Global Culture and the Economics of Information,Capitalism and Communication: Global Culture and the Economics of Information, Sage Publications.

Graham, P, Political Economy of Communication: A CritiquePolitical Economy of Communication: A Critique, philgraham.net, viewed on 19, April 2006, <http://www.philgraham.net/MME%20Chapter_Final.pdfhttp://www.philgraham.net/MME%20Chapter_Final.pdfhttp://www.philgraham.net/MME%20Chapter_Final.pdf>.

Mosco, V (1995), The political economy tradition of communication research, Unit 4 of the MA in Mass Communications (by distance learning), Centre for Mass Communications research, University of Leicester.

Mosco, V (1996), The Political Economy of Communication: Rethinking and Renewal,The Political Economy of Communication: Rethinking and Renewal, SAGE Publications, London.