Home > Internet > Communication & Media Return to the Centre of the Sociological Imagination: An Interview with Jeffrey Pooley

Communication & Media Return to the Centre of the Sociological Imagination: An Interview with Jeffrey Pooley

Recently I read Jeff Pooley and John Durham Peters’ chapter, “Media and Communications”, in the new Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Sociology. It’s a really great piece of work that is sweeping in its synthesis and provocative in some of its points and the criticism it offers to those in communication and media studies.

For those who want a tightly knit overview of how the field has developed since the inception of contemporary sociology in the late-19th century, and some of its main currents and preoccupations today, this is a great place to start. As I have done in the past with communication and media scholars Christian Fuchs, Michael Stamm and Robin Mansell, I got in touch with Jeff, who is associate professor of Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, to see if he’d be interested in talking about the Media and Communications chapter with an eye to publishing our talk on my blog.

I am delighted that he agreed. Our conversation follows.

Dwayne: I’ve been reading your work for the last, I guess, five years, and Peters’ since the late-1990s. We met at the International Communication Association (ICA) conference in Chicago a few years back (2009). In the session, Sue Curry Jansen and Michael Schudson, amongst a few others, made compelling arguments about the need to revisit how Walter Lippmann has been set up in our field, especially by critics such as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, as a bogeyman, an architect and advocate of “manufacturing consent” as a necessary mode of governing in modern democracies.

Jansen and Schudson offered a compelling argument that Lippmann was nothing of the sort, at least not until later in his life, but rather a public intellectual who charted and criticized the use of propaganda techniques that had been forged in wartime (WWI) in the years after the war. That’s an aside, but the fact that you helped organize the panel on Lippmann’s legacy at ICA reflects well your position as an intellectual historian of the field and member of a new group of scholars revisiting, reviving and rewriting media history. Can you give us a quick sense of how you arrived where you’re at, where you teach and perhaps some of why you see media history as being so important?

Jeff: Thanks for setting this up, Dwayne. That was a great panel at ICA in 2009, packed to the gills. Schudson’s paper was later published in IJOC, as was Kurt and Gladys Lang’s contribution. Jansen’s paper on Lippmann was an instant classic, since published in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies. Together with her brilliant 2008 chapter on Lippmann as “Straw Man of Communication Research” and a forthcoming book (Walter Lippmann) from Peter Lang, Jansen has exposed the Lippmann we all came to know through James Carey, Chomsky, and Stuart Ewen as an utter caricature.

She happens to be my colleague and mentor at Muhlenberg College–and the reason I joined the faculty in the first place. When I applied to Muhlenberg a decade ago, I was a Ph.D. candidate with a half-finished dissertation on the origins of the powerful-to-limited-effects storyline of American mass communication research. I had contacted Jansen when I had come across an abstract for a paper on the field’s history–a paper, I believe, that she never delivered for some reason or another. She invited me to talk to one of her classes. When a job listing at the Allentown, Pennsylvania college opened up, I canceled the class visit and wrote Jansen that I was planning to apply.

Jansen’s presence there, my own interest in teaching at a liberal arts college, and the department’s unusual and longstanding critical orientation (with an explicit social-justice mission) all attracted me to the place. Jansen is not well-known in the wider field, mostly because of her profound humility and resistance to self-promotion of any kind. As anyone who has read her scholarship (or her astonishingly rich book reviews) knows, she is among the most thoughtful and learned figures in our field. She deserves to be much more widely read.

My own interest in the history of media research grew out of undergraduate activism. I was puzzled by student apathy at Harvard, where protest gatherings during my time there in the mid- to late 1990s would attract only a handful of students. I became interested in a loose tradition of work–including the chastened writings of Western Marxists like Gramsci and Lukacs that argued, more or less, that media and culture help snuff out the revolutionary zeal of the masses.

As a graduate student at Columbia I wanted to write a history of this kind of thinking–a history, really, of an argument about culture and quiescence. So far so good. But when I started to read the published work on the field’s history, I got caught up in that literature. Many existing histories struck me then as Whiggish, doing legitimacy work for a vulnerable discipline. In the same vein, many histories were narrated to establish originality, to discredit a contemporary disputant, or to mine for a usable past. I quickly set aside the history of leftist media thought.

My project shifted to looking at the history of the field’s history–the history, in a way, of its origin myths. I have been writing on these topics ever since. Of course the chapter with John Durham Peters–which is really a modest update of an earlier version that he authored–ties in with this interest.

To more directly answer your question, I do think we need more and better work on the history of media research. For one thing, there really is buried treasure in the archives that could inform and challenge current research. (As it is, there is a lot of wheel reinvention going on, just because we’re so ahistorical as a field.) More important to me is the work that disciplinary memory is or isn’t doing in graduate pedgagogy and the field’s self-understanding.

As I’ve argued in a pair of chapters (here and here) and a more recent polemic, the U.S. field of communication research depends on a set of remembered stories, as well as amnesia regarding its messy institutional roots. These stories are often worse than misleading. And the institutional forgetting prevents us from confronting the institutional sources of intellectual poverty in the field, to paraphrase the title of a classic 1986 Peters article. These are some of the reasons I’ve recently started the Project on the History of Communication Research .

Dwayne: The chapter you and John wrote opens up with this amazing sweeping synthesis of the place of communication in the last one hundred and twenty- five years or so of sociology. You tick off names from the sociological cannon–Tonnies, Tarde, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Mead–and contemporary sociologist such as Pierre Bourdieu, Jurgen Habermas, Manuel Castells and Barry Wellman. The argument is bold: “sociology has been the study of communication” or at least made that a primary axis of social organization (and integration) — by another name. You and Peters, however, argue that sociologists now mention communication only in passing, if at all. Likewise, communication and media scholars have demoted sociology. You seem to be arguing that this ought not be the case, while also, at the end of the chapter, suggesting that the recent work of Castells and Wellman may be helping to restore the historical connection between the two fields: sociology as well as communication and media studies. Q2. Does that capture reasonably well some of your ideas and arguments?

Jeff: Yes, we do argue that mass communication was bound up in, and often central to, sociologists’ attempts to make sense of modern life, from the beginning of “classical” sociology in the late 19th century. And sociologists were among the most numerous, and arguably the most important, investigators of media on through the post-World War II years. Among American sociologists, John’s great reader (edited with Pete Simonson) makes this case directly, through excerpts: Mass Communication and American Social Thought: Key Texts, 1919–1968.

In the American case at least, sociologists more or less abandoned the study of mass communication in the 1960s. The whole thing is complicated, but I think two overlapping factors do most of the explanatory heavy lifting.

The first is a major change in foundation and government funding for social science, and the second is new mass comm doctoral programs in journalism schools around the same time. In the early Cold War, the dollars for social science came mostly from foundations like Ford and military agencies like the Office of Naval Research. In this first funding system, the focus was on problem-based, interdisciplinary research teams, and decisions about who and what to fund were greatly influenced by a few key “brokers” like Paul Lazarsfeld and Herbert Simon. After Sputnik in 1957–as Hunter Heyck has shown in a brilliant study–a second pattern of social science funding emerged, overlapping with the first for a few years.

This second system was characterized by civilian agencies like the National Science Foundation and, notable for communication research especially, the National Institute of Mental Health. By the early 1960s the whole interdiscipilnary “behavioral sciences” milieu that Ford and the military agencies had helped to incubate had weakened. And the newer system favored medical sociology–drawing some would-be media sociologists like Eliot Freidson away–while in the realm of media more often funding psychological work.

So when Bernard Berelson claimed the field was “withering away” in 1959 he was, in a way, correct: his world of cross-disciplinary media research was dissipating. But waiting in the wings were Wilbur Schramm and his fellow J-school colonizers. Schramm, the consummate academic entrepreneur, had already in the late 1940s started a doctoral program at Iowa in mass communication, within its J-school. With help from Bleyer children—students of Wisconsin journalism educator Willard Bleyer–Schramm’s J-school model spread around state universities in the Midwest in the 1950s. Thus, even as Berelson’s field was dying Schramm’s J-school alternative was thriving.

And it was much more psychological in its intellectual orientation. The result of all this was that U.S. sociologists stopped studying media, or if they continued they were drawn into student-rich, high-paying communication programs. There were, of course, bursts of sociology of media, like the newsroom sociology of the mid- to late 1970s and early 1980s.

It has only been in the last 10 years, however, with the rise of the internet and digital culture, that sociologists returned in great numbers to the study of media. One index of the new interest is the fact that, in 2002, the “Sociology and Computers” section of the American Sociological Association changed its name (and focus) to “Communication and Information Technologies“. Elihu Katz and I have told this fall-and-rise story at greater length in a 2008 article.

Q3 (Dwayne) Why Wellman and Castells’ work? To me, there seems to be two reasons set out in your chapter. First, their emphasis on communication as the sinews of social interaction recovers a sense of Cooley and other late–19th and early 20th scholars. Second, I may be wrong, but early in the chapter you say that the study of communication has long been a garbled mixture of descriptive and normative views, from Tonnies, Tarde and Dewey in the 19th and early–20th centuries to Habermas more recently.

In that passage I sense something of a lament, or at least a sense that the normative dimension has swamped the descriptive elements. Is there a lament for the commingling of descriptive and value-laden judgments? Are Wellman and Castell singled out not just because they bring communication back home to sociology, but also because they somehow get past this “facts” and “norms” problem, or get the balance better?

Jeff: That’s a really interesting question. You are right, first off, that the late-essay appearance of Castells and Wellman is a narrative device–a tie-back to the opening discussion of Cooley, Dewey and others. In different ways, Castells and Wellman look to social networks (online or otherwise) as constitutive of social order; hence the echo of Cooley’s communicative sinew. It’s also interesting that both really come out of urban sociology, so that their work, like early sociologists’, places media in a wider social context.

Still, Wellman and Castells are merely prominent stand-ins for a happy trend: the return of sociologists to media questions. Why now? The main reason, I think, is the unmistakeable, society-wide disruption brought on by the internet and digital culture.

As to the blending of fact and norm in the early works, John and I do claim that sociologists (especially in the U.S.) have tended to reassure, to minimize fears of media power. (Some of the figures we write about stress, of course, just the opposite, that media power operates to prop up an unjust status quo.) Perhaps you mean that some sociologists–Cooley, Dewey, Katz, Carey and, in a much more complicated way, Habermas–substitute their hopes for hard-nosed description. That’s there in the chapter, for sure. Pete Simonson has a great paper [pdf] on what he calls “communication hope” in that tradition.

Still, we did not intend for Wellman and Castells to count as late arrivals with a refreshing focus on description, over normative claims. I hesitate to speak for John, but my own view is that a neat separation isn’t possible, and that claims for value-freedom end up masking smuggled-in normative agendas. Castells is far more critical than the more-or-less upbeat Wellman, but both scholars mix the normative and the descriptive. What is your read on the two?

Q4 (Dwayne) Early in the synthesis that opens the chapter you and Peters also point to some of the trans-Atlantic/trans-national links between German political economy and evolutionary philosophy, on one hand, and the communication-centric approach to sociology, on the other, that developed in the U.S., again in the late–19th to the early–20th centuries mostly, by the likes of Cooley, Dewey, Mead, etc., mostly with the ladder [LATTER] learning at the feet of German and French sociologists such as George Simmel, Gabriel Tarde, and so on. Could you tell me a bit more, first, about the links between political economy and American sociology that you have in mind, and second about the transnational links?

Jeff: Our mention of the German connection is just to repeat the fact that many prominent turn-of-the-century U.S. sociologists–Park, Small, Mead, Ellwood, etc–studied in Germany. The Germans really established the modern research university, and the earliest US examples–Clark, Chicago, Johns Hopkins–modeled themselves on the German.

Up until very late in the nineteenth century, though, sociology didn’t really have a distinct identity, in Germany or the US. “Political economy” was, in effect, a catch-all term for the pre-discipinary social sciences as a whole. So when we write about political economy here, we really have in mind something like “social science”– and in this period the direction of influence was from Europe to the U.S.

Did you have in mind something closer to what gets called “political economy” today, or the British tradition that Marx is critiquing? Certainly the influence of German and French scholars on U.S. media sociologists has been completely understudied.

Q5 (Dwayne) I think this is an interesting phenomenon that has not been explored enough. The only communication scholar that I know of who has looked at Anglo-German ties with much depth is the late-Hanno Hardt (here and here). I also see this as the tip of a potentially bigger iceberg related to what I would call the “methodological nationalism” (Beck) that frames the intellectual history of our field and our ‘objects of analysis’ that, if properly addressed, could lead to a deeper and more significant global frame of reference for both of these considerations. Others have talked about a broader trans-Atlantic intellectual culture that took shape in the same time that you are talking about.

I’m not well-versed in this literature, but D.T. Rodgers’ book, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in the Progressive Age (1998), makes a similar case for the social sciences generally. Alexander Badenoch and Andreas Fickers in Materializing Europe: Transnational Infrastructures and the Project of Europe (2010), are also trying to write media history in a more trans-European framework. Your chapter opens some interesting possibilities along these lines in the first couple of pages when you discuss the work of Franklin Giddings in the same breadth as you refer to John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, etc..

I agree with this move because Giddings, like the others, emphasizes, as you note in the chapter, that the movement of goods and ideas are the lifeblood of modern society, and serve as forms of integration amidst a backdrop of increasingly differentiated and complex modern societies. I wonder if your introduction of Giddings might be usefully developed further in relation to your discussion about the cross-pollenization of ideas between U.S. and European sociologists? In particular, I’m thinking that there might be even deeper links between sociology and communication on both sides of the Atlantic, and between them and a broader set of developments that led to the formalization of political science, international relations and law, also in the late–19th and early 20th centuries?

I am not an expert on Giddings but in previous work I have found him to be part of another group of American political sociologists including Woodrow Wilson (the subsequent two-term president, 1912 “ 1920) and Paul Reinsh who served as founders of political science and international relations in the U.S. These scholars interacted a lot with French (Jean Luc Renaud, German, Dutch (Tobias Asser) and a few other European scholars in relation to global politics, multilateral institutions, international law, etc. They saw the modern world much in the same way that you describe European and American sociologists as doing: as a system tied together through flows and structures built out of a lattice-work of technologies, law, money, power and public opinion.

Like the scholars you focus on, this latter group (Wilson, Reinsch, Giddings) also placed great emphasis on, as you and Peters call them, the “material’ (technologies, institutions, etc.) and “symbolic’ aspects of communication, and the need to create mechanisms fit for the scale, pace and complexity of the modern world. Giddings expresses this view, for instance, in Democracy and Empire (1900), while Wilson put communication and public opinion alongside economic and technological integration and the rule of law as the basis of the “modern world system’ (instead of such things being just idealistic patter hiding the ambitions of ascendant U.S. economic, military and foreign policy power). Sorry, this is a rather long wind up.

My point is that while you and John peel back the veil, you don’t really develop the “transnational/global’ aspect as fully as you might. As a result, we get a kind of thin trans-Atlantic culture and when it comes to media, while questions about globalization emerge at the end of your chapter as a really just a recent phenomenon. Do you see what I’m getting at, or am I reading something into these ties I shouldn’t be?

I also wonder if part of the reason for this outcome might be due to the snug coupling between the media and the nation-state that has typified our field? Your chapter draws this out in the section on “the national frame” (pp. 407–409). And you do so by pointing to the work of Benedict Anderson, who sees the “imagined community’ of the nation-state as emerging co- terminously with the rise of the “big five’ modern media since the 15th century: newspapers, magazines, movies, radio and television. You also point to how broadcasting was, and in some developing areas of the world, still is, tied to a project of fostering national integration. The media/nation- state coupling, as you and Peters note, was clearly advertised by the names of radio broadcasters since the 1920s: e.g. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), National Broadcasting Company (NBC), Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), American Broadcasting System (ABC), etc. Clearly the media/nation-state coupling exists, but I wonder if you obscure the more global, or transnational dimensions of (a) media history proper and (b) the intellectual cross-fertilization that shaped the development of communication and media studies as a field of inquiry by over-inflating that aspect? Any thoughts?

Jeff: That is a huge and important question. Yes, the transnational gets short shrift in the chapter, both–as you say–in the history of media proper and in the field’s intellectual history. It is bracingly true that disciplinary histories have overwhelmingly focused on self-incapsulated national traditions. Dave Park and I, in a forthcoming survey of work on the field’s history, found this to be overwhelmingly the case. (We also found stunning North-South imbalances in the published work.)

Some of this reflects the insularity of national traditions, but a great deal derives from the limits of the historians drafting the history–including, in this case, John and me. The only pre-World War II literature I know reasonably well involving trans-Atlantic intellectual exchange is on public opinion and communication, which you also allude to.

From the 1870s on, systematic study of public opinion and its relation to social order was underway in Germany (e.g., Schaffle), France (e.g., Tarde, Le Bon), Britain (e.g., Bryce, Wallas), and by the early 1900s American figures (like Wilson, but also Lowell, Ross, Lippmann) were part of a trans-Atlantic conversation of just the kind you describe. I wasn’t aware of Giddings’ role in this discussion–so great, though, that books like Democracy and Empire are now in the public domain–but instead his fascinating journey through the social sciences as they were differentiating: an erstwhile economist in the late 19th century, then on to a primary identity as a highly influential sociologist at Columbia University through the 1920s. Robert Bannister’s Sociology and Scientism has the only extended treatment of Giddings that I know of–though this great recent article by Cristobal Young on the relationship of sociology and economics during this period uses Giddings as a case in point.

But you make a really good point about the chapter, that it over-emphasizes the national at the expense of cross-national intellectual exchange. No doubt you’re right too about media history proper. This stuff–the translational–is so damn hard to do well. Plus the sociology of academic translation and exchange is fascinating in its own right. I’d love to hear more about the political science/IR trans-Atlantic ferment you’ve touched on above.

  1. December 20, 2012 at 6:24 pm

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