Curran, James. (2002) Media and the Making of British Society c. 1700-2000


The study of media history is plagued by three main problems:

  1. Mono-medium history – Many study a specific medium and provide a historical account of that one medium.  This results in incomplete understanding of the historical role of media
  2. Media-centric narrowness – focuses on the content of the media or the organizational structure of institutions that develop media.  This causes us to miss links between different media and wider socio-cultural trends
  3. Technological determinism – This problem arises out of #1 and #2.  Marshall McLuhan isn’t even a historian yet many textbooks use his account of media history.

“This tradition is intellectually flawed.  It pays too much attention to the technology of communications, and too little to their content and processes.  It generally views new communications technology as an autonomous cause of change because it overlooks the ways in which the development and application of this technology was influenced by the wider context of society.  Above all, it exaggerates the impact of new communications by downplaying non-media influences” (135).

Curran has examined how media have connected long term social and cultural changes in Britain.  He identifies six different interpretations of the impact of media over the last 300 years:

  1. Liberal Interpretation (freedom and empowerment)
  2. Feminist Interpretation (advance of women)
  3. Populist Interpretation (cultural democracy)
  4. Libertarian Interpretation (culture wars)
  5. Anthropological Interpretation (national identities)
  6. Radical Narrative (reassertion of elite control)

Concludes with three comments.  First, each of this six interpretations has defects.  Second, each contains elements of truth.  Third, the best way to study British media history would be to study British society, and insert media where appropriate.

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