Approaches to Media History

Media history, as a discipline in its own right, is a relatively new pursuit and consequently there is not yet a significant body of work with standardized approaches, consistent definitions, or defined protocols.  Our readings this week focus on the many ways in which media are perceived and the associated methodologies that can be used for studying media history.

In the past, media history has been ‘accidentally’ studied as part of other histories such as the history of technology or the history of the book (Nerone, 2005). Nerone attributes this problem to the lack of general agreement on how media should be defined.  Although there are many ways to perceive media, most can be generalized into two main categories: (1) the materials or technology that transmit media, and (2) the corporate institutions who produce mass communications.  But as Nerone and Gitelman (2006) point out, these definitions aren’t useful for scholarship because the former is modernistic, while the latter is too influenced by economic concerns.

In addition to the confusion around the definition of media, there are varying, and sometimes conflicting, methodologies for investigating media history.  Curran (2002) explores media history from seven perspectives including liberal, feminist and populist frameworks.  I do find his work valuable for exposing the alternate histories that have generally been buried under traditional narratives. However I disagree with his dismissal of the technological determinist narrative as flawed.

In contrast to Curran, Nord (2003) exposes the determinism that has plagued past studies in media history where the approach has been top-down, starting with the current state of media and looking back to explain how it came to be, as opposed to a bottom-up approach where new stories are unearthed to help deepen our understanding of things past.  Additionally traditional media histories have been skewed by the influence of cultural relativism and, from the postmodern perspective, the fact that historical accounts are dependent on the media they employ and therefore the media themselves play a part in shaping our interpretation of the facts (Nord & Gitelman).  Finally, Gitelman reminds us that even new media such as email and blogs are also history.  They are still uncertain, vulnerable to societal and cultural change, and not yet fully evolved.

To address the above issues, we need to carve out a defined field and framework for studying media history in its own right.  In the style of Carey (1992), Nord calls for a more cultural approach to media history that shifts the historical focus away from the producers of media, and instead focuses on audiences.  Similarly, Curran suggests a synthesis of six different narratives that shift emphasis away from studying British media, and toward studying British society as a whole.  This approach is somewhat revolutionary in that it focuses on the commonalities, as opposed to the differences between each medium.   On the other hand Nerone identifies the problem, but not the solution.  His argument would be strengthened by offering a suggested course of action for future study.  Gitelman suggests an approach that focuses on individual case studies and therefore provides a very specific account of one history placed within a specific social and cultural contexts.

I would suggest that regardless of which method one employs, the focus should not be on the media materials themselves but rather the social and cultural context in which these media are consumed.


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