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Unquestionably, his most influential work is The Political Economy of Communication: Rethinking and Renewal, published in and revised and updated in Almost 15 years after its original publication, this book is considered a classic by communication scholars and an indispensable tool for those who wish to understand communication from a critical perspective. In this interview, Professor Mosco summarizes some of the main concepts, ideas and processes that he has studied throughout the years. He shares his insights on the tradition of the political economy of communication and some of its main entry points, discusses technological and social change, and reflects on communication and media at the current crossroads.
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Indeed, the capitalist system is facing serious contradictions today and new opportunities for civil society and democratic development have emerged. Mosco talks about these changes focusing on the dialectical relationship between structure and agency and between power and resistance, paying special attention to the new media. A revised and updated edition of your landmark book The Political Economy of Communication was published in The core concepts you develop in the book are commodification, spatialization, and structuration.
How do these concepts still help understand the most important features and relations of the communication phenomena today? It seems to me that these concepts are more important than ever. First, commodification refers to taking goods or services valued for their use and turning them into commodities that are valued for what they can bring in exchange. Commodification is my entry point to understand communication and it seems to me that it is more central today to understanding mass media, new media and information technology than ever before.
The new media we have today make it easier to commodify stories, news and other forms of information and entertainment, and to distribute them widely. We also have more and more transnational businesses that are using new technologies as inputs to produce more commercial products. Therefore, in essence, commodification is central because it is more and more apparent that the mass media are commercial products. When I was writing the first edition to the book it seemed to me that commodification does not completely explain social relations, and should not be the only tool in the political economy of communication PEC.
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I made this point on philosophical grounds, whose underlying view is that we should not reduce all phenomena to one essential cause. That is why I developed additional entry points including, first, spatialization , which looks at the ways in which we overcome spatial constraints with communication and information. I use spatialization, a term that has been used by geographers for many years, as opposed to the more popular term globalization. I do that, in part, because I consider globalization more of a euphemism, which is used to support the extension of business and other institutions worldwide.
Spatialization is a more objective term, which refers to the ways in which communication and information technologies are being used to extend communication and media across spatial boundaries. This means that agency is constrained by structures and structures are built with agency. Structuration thereby studies the process by which agency and structure interact and create different kinds of social relations, including those based on class, gender, race and other social relational formations.
These are the three major entry points. Permit me to say one other thing about them. I think it is important to emphasize that these three entry points work in a dialectical fashion, i. Similarly, spatialization does not simply mean the extension of commercial institutions, State and other structures on a global basis; it is also opposed dialectically by those who defend, for example, local structures or public spaces against this commercial spatialization.
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Finally, structuration exists in a continuous process of struggle, whether that is class struggle to fight against the hegemony of the dominant class, struggles over gender, struggles over race, and other social struggles to protect, for example, as in our field, the mass media as an institution to advance social life as opposed to simply having commercial purposes.
We think it is really valuable that you put emphasis on agency, but understanding agency in the context of the structures that limit and constrain the possibilities of human action. We are thinking about your recent work with Catherine McKercher , , which deals with knowledge and communication workers in the so-called information society. Your empirical research documents that workers around the world are responding critically to the new challenges that arise from technological change, neo-liberalism, and the new global capitalist informational economy.
I think that is a very good question. It is important to emphasize that labor is a central component of the commodification process. We chose to concentrate on labor, in part, to make communication scholars more aware of the importance of labor in the process of making media, but also to inform labor studies scholars that they need to pay attention to communication and cultural laborers, something that they have not done.
You are absolutely correct. The point of emphasis in our book is to focus on the agency of workers. We do that because much of what research has been done on labor, media and technology is about how new technology and the corporations that use it exploit labor and degrade the labor process. But if you look at this dialectically we recognize that labor is an active participant in the process of creating value and some of that participation is resistance in a variety of ways; individual ways in which people try to control and make some sense of their work and more collective ones when workers get together in labor unions and other forms of workers organizations.
We noticed in our research —first in the United States, then in Europe and now, in the latest stage of our research project, globally- that there is an upsurge in the resistance of workers worldwide in the cultural, communications, telecommunications and I. So our job is to begin the process —along with other scholars who work on this- of describing this resistance, this active social agency of workers.
We see this in traditional, such as the ways trade unions, like the Communication Workers of America, are organizing in the new media sectors. We see this happening in Canada and Europe too. We have also observed, however, new forms of workers organizations that have been especially important in the I. For example, workers organizing at Microsoft, where the workers association WashTech has had an impact on the labor process of what is one of the largest I.
We also see this outside of the core of developed societies. I have done research in India and China and find remarkable and very courageous evidence of worker agency and resistance. You are correct to point out that what we are describing are mere examples. How pervasive are they? I think this remains to be seen, but it seems to us, preliminarily, that it is pervasive enough to bring it to the attention of communication scholars who need to focus on labor organizing and labor resistance, both in traditional and in new ways.
Coming back to the core concepts of The Political Economy of Communication, could you comment on the origins of the processes of commodification, spatialization and structuration? What historical periods and structural factors fostered their development?
I think that these concepts are both universal and specific. I think it is reasonable to see them in both senses, and even necessary, certainly, in the study of the media. Commodification, or the development of exchange value and of markets, has been a process that has been a part of societies for a long time, even predating capitalism.
Similarly the process of spatial expansion has been with us for a long time.
Certainly, there has been, if I return to structuration, patriarchy for a much longer period of time than we have experienced capitalism. In one sense, these are general, universal concepts that are more or less applicable to different historical periods. I choose to give them emphasis by starting with commodification and moving on to the other two in this period because they are historically relevant in very specific terms to a capitalist world-system. Commodification emerges as a leading entry point in the 17 th and 18 th centuries in Europe as capitalism, starting with commercial agriculture and then commercial industries, emerges as a major organizing social force.
I focus on these terms in the way I do today because they are historically, in my view, the most relevant to understand contemporary social relations. In the context of a capitalist economy, what social actors are more responsible for the commodification of the communication flows?
Is it the State, since it has liberalized the markets? Is it the media, for adopting the principles of commodification? Is it a certain logic within the system? I think, first and foremost, it is capitalists who have advanced capitalism. But if we look at this more specifically, I think we need to focus on three distinct forces that promote commodification.
The first are the specific media producers, that is the corporations that produce and distribute mass media, develop new technologies like social networking sites for commercial purposes, i. Secondly, we have the State, which contributes broadly to mobilizing institutions, laws and public support for this process. It provides the institutional framework for media producers. The third force is the general collection of capitalists, who, for example, use the mass media to advance their own messages, specifically through advertising, but also by working with media producers to ensure, broadly, that information and entertainment promote commodification.
In essence, we are talking about a triangle at the top of which are the media producers themselves and at each corner we find, on the one hand, the State, and on the other side, capitalists in general. In this context that you are describing, what role do you think the public media and the State may play in the future? Could the State challenge the capitalist and media elite?
Again, it is important to return to the concepts of the dialectic and of agency. All social processes contain contradictions, contestation and resistance. The State itself is what we call a contested terrain, i. In general terms, the State is organized to advance the interests of capital, for example, by managing tensions and conflicts in private and commercial media markets through law and regulation and also by keeping down public and other forms of media that might challenge commercial interests.
At the same time, however, the State needs the broad support of its public, of society, and that includes organizations that work to advance public media and oppose commercialization. It has to respond to pressure to build more public media by admitting some of it into the system.
So most developed societies have a public television channel and a public radio; they have public means of communication, which is part of resistance. So we have a process by which the State promotes capital, but then tries, at the same time, to incorporate public media because it is pressured to do so and because by incorporating, it can clean it up and make it less controversial. In the course of doing that, public media have a very important role to play in revealing the limitations of capitalism and uncovering government problems.
We have a long tradition of resisting through public media and we also have new forms of public media developing at the community level. I think that there are great opportunities for communication scholars to describe and participate to advance a more public and democratic media. In North America there is an organization that I and some colleagues helped to form in , The Union for Democratic Communication, which brings together critical scholars and alternative media practitioners and, internationally, the I.
International Association for Media and Communication Research , which serves as a forum for critical scholars worldwide. So, yes, there is control by capital and the State, but resistance takes place. With regards to the interaction between the State, the media and other social actors of the capitalist system, do you think that there is a relation between the commodification of communication and cultural flows oriented towards consumption and entertainment, instead of being oriented towards education and liberation, and a certain decline of class consciousness and the weakness of workers as an engine of social change?
It is very difficult to draw conclusions on such a general concept of global consciousness. However, I think it is important in our responsibility as academics to draw conclusions based on our research that are helpful in understanding such important issues. First of all, it is vital to see that what television, new media and the Internet provide is a form of education; in essence, a form of educating people to be good consumers, to prepare them to become obedient workers, to advance a system that would singularly turn everything into a marketable commodity, to turn every space into a private, commercial, restricted space.
It is absolutely accurate to conclude that there has been a massive and global system of education to create the global consumer. And this does make it more challenging for those of us who think that there is more to social life than simply consumption and advancing profit. With that said, I think that there are many other individuals and organizations around the world that would support the view that there is more to life than commercialism and capitalism. We see this in all sorts of movements to resist and oppose the forces of capitalism. Sometimes this has difficulty in being expressed because people feel it individually and do not have outlets, institutions, organizations that they can turn to.
I would say that on a general level, on the one hand, yes, capitalist culture has won major victories worldwide in reducing a good deal of culture to the singularity of capitalism. At the same time, it is important to recognize that capitalism contains significant contradictions that have contributed to its own failures. On a general level we have had, certainly during the last year and a half, a massive global financial crisis in capitalism that has had a powerful effect on both old and new media. The economic crisis that we face worldwide has had that impact, and it is only the latest in a series of the so-called bubbles that have disrupted capitalism significantly.
It is important to recognize that media, especially new media, play an important role because capitalism, which, in essence, reached a limit in its ability to generate surplus value production through agriculture and through industrial capacity, has turned to new media and mass media to generate profit. But this itself has fed the bubble, the crisis within capitalism. Consider the widespread view that capitalism can accomplish everything with new media -that it can end history, overcome geography, and transform politics.
It is important for us not just to retain hope, but to analytically understand that these are not just presumed capacities of capitalism; they are also myths that capitalism uses to build support for its practices. Moreover, when bankers, insurance companies, and other informational capitalists act on these myths, they result in contradictions that disrupt capitalism. Capitalism is conflicted internally and we are now experiencing the consequences through massive unemployment, declining standards of living, and the failure of States to resolve the crisis without drastic measures.
At the same time, most contradictions and other forces are creating resistance at a level of consciousness.
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They seek diversity, they seek complexity and they raise questions when capitalists try to turn everything into a unitary mode of production or consciousness. They look for alternatives. While it may be the case that capitalist culture is very powerful worldwide, my research and my travels around the world, including in places where one would not expect it, for example in China and Singapore, where one finds evidence of authoritarianism, one also finds an opening up, a willingness and a desire to create a more democratic culture and way of life.
How do you view this situation? The Political Economy of Communication appears widely in course curricula in China, where I regularly visit to lecture and do research. I serve on the editorial boards of academic journals in the North America, Europe, Asia, and Latin America and have held research positions in the U. In addition, I have served as a consultant to trade unions and worker organizations in Canada and the United States. In I received the Dallas W. Smythe Award for outstanding achievement in communication research.
The Digital Sublime won the Olson Award for outstanding book in the field of rhetoric and cultural studies. In the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication honored me and my partner in life and in research, Dr.