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Sociological Perspectives on the Mass Media

Most of us go about our everyday lives thinking that we are masters -- or mistresses -- of our own lives, making decisions by ourselves and for ourselves, the embodiment of autonomy. We do not like to think of ourselves as being under the control of the major social (and cultural) institutions of our society. And yet, of course, we are in no way independent of these institutions: Family structure, religious traditions, political structures, economic trends, the mass media all sculpt our lives. In this paper I will use three important sociological theories -- functionalism, conflict theory, and interactionism -- to analyze the ways in which the mass media affect the individual in society as well as the other important institutions that in concert construct our social reality.

Functionalism -- or "structural functionalism," to distinguish it from the functionalist school of philosophy -- is a mode of sociological (and more broadly social scientific) inquiry that takes as its basis a view of society as a single structure with interrelated part. In functional analyses, society is often seen as a living body, with each of the major sociological institutions (such as the media) as different organs in the body. This is no longer a widely used model of sociological analysis given that it does focus on society as an essentially integrated mechanism, with some friction among the different "organs" (for example, between government and religious institutions, for example), but an overall unified purpose. Anyone who has read a newspaper or watched the news in the last year can hardly think of American society as integrated.

Functionalism is essentially a carryover from the work of Durkheim, who viewed the work of sociology as providing an explanation of the ways in which societies are stable and cohesive over time (Holmwood, 2005, p. 88) (This has in general been replaced by sociological perspectives that emphasize the importance of understanding change ans conflict -- although of course societies always contain some element of stability as well.) Functionalism can be seen to apply to the institution of the mass media in that at least a large block of the mass media can be seen as upholding social institutions. (Here we come upon one of the key problems of functionalism: It presumes a high degree of homogeneity in terms of both form and function that does not exist in contemporary America.)

So, for example. Fox News can be seen as upholding conservative elements of society -- such as the past Bush Administration, the current Tea Party movement, and the interests of large corporations. This element of the current mass media universe in the United States can be seen as a stabilizing element and certainly it represents long-term interests in American society. What functionalism fails to do is to explain radical (or at least semi-radical) mass media outlets such as the blog Daily Kos, since the goal of progressive mass media organizations is to disrupt the status quo. This is true even during a Democratic administration: Witness the current push by organizations such as in trying to get President Obama not to retreat on healthcare.

Functionalism does not do a good job of explaining how social change occurs within mass media organizations given that the whole purpose of functionalism is to explain what endures whether than what changes. With something of a stretch, I think that functionalism can help to explain the fact that the mass media remain important to us as Americans as a whole and that what endures is the importance of a free press. However, this is a very partial explanation.

People who work for the mass media no doubt vary in their attitudes depending on whether they are liberals (who see the media's role as disruptive) or conservatives (who see their role as preventing change). People in society as a whole are also no doubt split, with conservatives seeing the media as allowing for too much change and progressives arguing that they promote too little change.

Social Conflict Theory

The social conflict model can be seen as the mirror image of functionalism: Where functionalists arguably ignore social change as it struggles to explain society as a stable, cohesive and enduring entity, social conflict theorists arguably ignore the stable and cohesive elements of society as they focus on the aspects of society that are in conflict with each other. As noted above, society is of course a mixture of change and stasis.

Social conflict theory arises in largest measure from Marxist theory. As a result, conflict theorists tend to focus on economic issues. Social conflict theory looks first the unequal division of material goods -- money, land, other forms of wealth. Those with great wealth (the minority of any population) try to keep their unequal share of the wealth by suppressing the majority who have few resources. The rich are able to keep the poor (who outnumber them many fold) through the resources that money can buy -- including influencing the government, influencing the legal system, brute force (sometimes under the color of authority), or through the bribery of charity. In this model, the primary force for change in society is the result of these conflicts between classes as the wealthy try to maintain their position of power and influence and the poor shift between being dominated and either rebelling or even engaging in revolution (Thio, 2009, p. 87).

As is the case with functionalism, a significant problem with using social conflict theory to analyze the American mass media is that the media are not unified or homogeneous. A social conflict theorist could certainly see Fox News (or CBS or Disney) as helping to sustain the status quo, and a status quo that exists to protect the rich. Fox News, for example (or Rush Limbaugh) works to get elected the kind of politicians who will create and execute legislation that will help the rich stay rich. While Fox argues that it is simply being "fair and balanced," it seems likely that its executives and columnists are being (at best) disingenuous. A social conflict theorist would have no difficulty explaining Fox News.

But social conflict theory does not easily explain an organization like (an exemplar of one of the forms of new mass media). is not a supporter of the status quo: Neither those who work for the organization nor its opponents believe it to be the case. As a result, social conflict theory does not provide a parsimonious explanation for its existence. It is possible that a social conflict theorist might argue that the powerful (and wealthy) in society allow the existence of such progressive mass media as or Mother Jones because they provide an outlet for the masses of poor to believe that they are not being discounted by the wealthy. Such a belief might keep the poor from staging revolutions. While there may be slices of truth in this, it is not in its totality a convincing explanation. Or at least it is not sufficient in itself as an explanation.

People outside of the mass media tend to see their own general views reflected in their views of the mass media: Liberals tend to see the mass media as controlled by Big Business and the conservative wealthy (a point-of-view that has truth in it) while conservatives tend to see the mass media as being the voice of liberal journalists (a point-of-view that has a very small amount of truth in it).


The final theory that I will examine here is that of interactionism. Unlike the previous two theories, which are macro-sociological theories (which try to explain society from a top-down perspective, examining the ways in which large social institutions like the government and organized religion affect individuals), interactionism is a…[continue]

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