Political Economy of Mass Communication, Nicholas Garnham

Several sociologists we’ve read call attention to  modern communication systems becoming too closely tied with other institutions of capitalist societies. Nicholas Garnham expands on Raymond Williams’ call for a major revision within this cultural theory in his piece “Political Economy of Mass Communication.” Chief among concerns about a powerful emerging media landscape is its role of influence among other institutional forms, especially within the government. Garnham noted that the government was not only acting as a controlling force of the media, but together they produced culture within shifting economic, ideological and political levels. Media had become an ideological apparatus and function of capitalism, which ultimately results in the industrialization of culture.

It’s become clear that media informs the way we interact and behave, but it’s also important to note the other institutions that inform these cultural norms. One way in particular that the government continues to influence social life outside of the political sphere is through our academic institutions. Like the economy of the media, higher education can be seen as a business commodity that serves to reiterate the dominant ideology. We talked in class about the model of teaching that most schools use, from primary school to college, which shuffles students in and out based on institutional terms of “graduating” to the next level. The system repeats itself within the student’s experience enough that by a certain point, the idea of gaining an education isn’t necessarily synonymous with attending school.

Another issue that arises when thinking about the role that the educational system plays within the political sphere is the concept of standardized testing. In March, the College Board announced that it would be conducting a major overhaul on the structure of the SAT, once known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test and later as an acronym without meaning. The college entrance exam has since been under scrutiny over whether this kind of testing really serves the interests of the students, or if it just benefits the affluent and reinforces the institutions of higher education. Among the changes in the test include getting rid of obscure vocabulary words, eliminating the point penalty for wrong answers, and making the essay portion optional. Those in favor of getting rid of this kind of testing altogether cite that schools teaching for the test do nothing to favor student learning, instead pushing for memorization while leaving critical thinking aside.

Cameron Graham and Dean Neu go a step further to say that standardized testing is a political way to shape the population in their essay “Standardized testing and the construction of governable persons.” Students are usually the focus of standardized testing discussions, although it also plays a factor in the lives of parents, teachers and others in the educational system. The authors write, “The entire bureaucratic apparatus of the education system serves to constrain and enable those who work in it, and provides a context for classroom experiences that must always be considered when examining the way students are ‘produced’ by mass education…” This production of mass education enforces an expectation of self-government so the government can manage populations through measurement tools and numerical calculations.

In the case of standardized testing and the goals of government-funded education systems, Garnham would argue that the institutional systems are all politically connected. They help foster an industrialized culture that influences the way populations behave in accordance to the dominant ideology.


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