Skip to content

Media and the development of modern societies (Thompson 1995)

April 1, 2010

The second chapter of Thompson, John, B. (1995) The media and modernity: A social theory of the media. Cambridge: Polity. This is a historical overview that draws from the theoretical discussion presented in the previous chapter.

44 From late Middle Ages to early modern period onset of huge, albeit uneven, institutional transformations across Europe

44-5 Thanks to Marx, Weber and other classic and more recent scholars, the key institutional transformations are clear: (1) from feudalism to capitalism, (2) from countless political units to a few interlocked nation-states, (3) states acquire monopoly over legitimate use of force within own territories

45 However, we know much less about cultural changes; unclear whether modernisation has entailed cultural transformation. Social theorists et al ‘have been looking in the wrong place for the signs of systematic cultural change’. 46 Very hard to generalise about changes in people’s values and beliefs [cf. Inglehart and Welzel, this blog]

46 Thompson’s thesis: if shift attention from beliefs and values to symbolic forms and how they are produced and circulate we can see how ‘a systematic cultural transformation’ began in late medieval and early modern period: this is the ‘mediazation of culture’ [see also similar concept of mediatization, this blog]

Institutional dimension of modern societies

48 Industrial Revolution of late C18 and early C19 didn’t occur in a void but rather amidst capitalist economy in place for centuries – property and productive relations didn’t change that much.

49 In late C15 there were 500 state-like formations in Europe. By late C20 dramatic reduction to about 25. Nation-states have become key political entities. 50 Outside Europe, the C19 and C20 change from colonies to nation-states perpetual source of conflict in modern era.

51 How did ‘the social organisation of symbolic power’ change with the emergence of modern states? First, Church became ever more marginal to political power. Second, secular centres of knowledge and learning expanded gradually. Third, script gave way to print and this led eventually to creation of media industries.

Communication, commodification and the advent of printing

52 We can trace back to second half of C15 the emergence of media industries as new sites of symbolic power. Printing presses were capitalist businesses and relied on ability to commodify symbolic forms.

55 Early presses had huge output: by late C15 some 35,000 editions published, with circa 15-20 million copies circulating.

56 Because they commodified symbolic forms, their relation to political and religious authorities was crucial but very complicated. 57 Church tried to control the industry but failed time and again – flourishing trade in smuggled books.

58-9 Spread of print helped diffuse Protestantism, revive interest in classical thought, and offer businessmen and merchants guidance for their activities beyond their homebases.

60 Practice of reading aloud meant that audience for printed texts much larger than literate minority.

60-1 National literary traditions arose out of standardised printed materials, accompanied by decline of Latin – linked in complex ways to decline of Church and rise of nation-states. Luther himself strove to craft a standardised German language and dropped own Lower Saxony dialect. In 1539 French became official language of courts of justice, and it became ever more important to speak French for dealing with state and employment.

62 Benedict Anderson’s famous thesis: convergence of print, capitalism and diverse late C15 century in Europe led to ‘imagined communities’ as foundations of national consciousness. This argument has problems, though:

1) never details alleged link between printing and nationalism. Why did it take 3 centuries between the appearance of plural reading publics in C16 and onset of nationalism in C19 and C20? 63 Other factors likely to have played a more important role in rise of nationalism.

2) because he’s focussing on nationalism, Anderson neglects communication media as phenomena in their own right, e.g. how individuals used media products, the transformations in how people acted and interacted, or how people’s relation to tradition changed – all these explored later in this book.

The rise of the trade in news

64-6 Two main developments in Europe’s communication networks, C15-C17:

1) regular postal services, eventually interstate as well as domestic

2) printing techs applied to producing and disseminating news

66 Amsterdam hub of swiftly expanding news trade by 1620. First English-language paper probably published there. Most early papers covered foreign news primarily.

68 In England Stamp Acts C18 were attempts by political authorities to control newspapers but resisted and eventually abolished in 1860s. Indeed protracted fight for free press played fundamental part in formation of modern constitutional state. 69 By late C19 free press was constitutionally protected in many Western countries.

The theory of the public sphere

71-5  Habermas rightly drew attention to importance of periodical press in early modern Europe. But historically Habermas’ theory of the public sphere is problematic:

1) overlooks non-bourgeois public sphere, esp. popular social movements very different to his model

2) downplays commercialism, sensationalism of early press

3) fails to account for exclusion of women from bourgeois public sphere (Landes)

4) dubious notion of ‘refeudalization of the public sphere’ in C19-C20 in which assumes passive media consumers being easily duped and plays on a superficial similarity between feudal lords and media tycoons

The growth of the media industries

76 From C19 increasingly commercialised media industries. 77 Shift from traditional family concern with proprietor-publisher to large multimedia organisations. Increased concentration of resources, esp. newspaper industry, e.g. by early 1990s four groups controlled 92% of circulation of national dailies in UK.

78-80 Globalisation of communication going back to mid-C19, still ongoing, rapidly changing conditions today [mid-1990s] with digitisation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: