1 O V E R V I E W O F T H E P O L I T I C A L
E C O N O M Y O F C O M M U N I C AT I O N
Political economy is a major perspective in communication research. Since the 1940s, the approach has guided the work of scholars around the world and its global expansion continues today (Cao and Zhao, 2007; McChesney, 2007). This first chapter identifies the major ideas that subsequent chapters develop in depth and calls attention to key references that are drawn from throughout the book. The book begins its map of the political economy approach by defining it, identi-
fying its fundamental characteristics, and providing a guide to its major schools of thought. From here, it proceeds to examine how communication scholars have drawn on the theoretical framework to carry out research on communication media and information technologies. The section highlights recent trends, including the globalization of political economic research, the growth of historical research and of studies that concentrate on resistance to dominant media. It also emphasizes the transition from old to new media and the spread of communication activism. The book then turns to the philosophical foundation of a political economic
approach in order to better understand the enduring and new issues that need to be addressed in communication studies. Specifically, it calls for an approach to under- standing that accepts as real both the concepts or ideas that guide our thinking as well as our observations or what we perceive with our senses. It thereby rejects the view, prominent in some theories, that only our ideas or only our observations, but not both, are real. It also rejects the view that reality is little more than a chimera or a fig- ment of our imagination and that neither ideas nor observations are in any sense real. Moreover, this perspective means that reality is established or constituted by many sources and cannot be reduced to the essentialism of either economics (e.g. money alone drives the media) or culture (e.g. people’s values drive the media). The approach also brings to the forefront the concepts of social change, social processes, and social relations, even if that means re-evaluating the emphasis that political economy has traditionally placed on social institutions, like media businesses, or on seeing social class as a category rather than, as this approach suggests, as a social relationship. Putting these ideas into practice, the book moves on to identify three processes
that make up the main starting points for a political economy of communication.
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Commodification is the process of transforming things valued for their use into marketable products that are valued for what they can bring in exchange. This can be seen, for example, in the process of turning a story that friends enjoy into a film or a novel to be sold in the marketplace. How does the human act of communica- tion become a product produced for a profit? Spatialization is the process of over- coming the constraints of geographical space with, among other things, mass media and communication technologies. For example, television overcomes distance by bringing images of world events to every part of the globe and companies increas- ingly use computer communication to organize business on a worldwide basis, thereby allowing them greater access to markets and the flexibility to move rapidly when conditions make it less favorable for them to stay in one place. What happens when communications goes global and when businesses use communication to cre- ate and manufacture their products worldwide? Finally structuration is the process of creating social relations, mainly those organized around social class, gender, and race. For example, with respect to social class, political economy describes how access to the mass media and new communication technologies is influenced by inequali- ties in income and wealth which enable some to afford access and others to be left out. The book wraps up by describing how the political economy of communication responds to challenges from disciplines on its borders, specifically from cultural studies and public choice theory by building bridges across theoretical divides. The book concludes with a brief coda on new bridges to build.
What is Political Economy?
Let’s put more detail into this overview by taking a closer look at the makeup of this book. Chapter 2 covers the meaning of political economy, first by defining it and then by considering the main characteristics of the approach. Two definitions of political economy capture the wide range of approaches to the
discipline. In the narrow sense, political economy is the study of the social relations, par- ticularly the power relations, that mutually constitute the production, distribution, and con- sumption of resources, including communication resources. This formulation has a certain practical value because it calls attention to how the communication business operates. It leads us to examine, for example, how communications products move through a chain of producers, such as a Hollywood film studio, to distributors, and, finally, to consumers in theaters or in their living rooms. It also directs us to the ways consumer choices, such as the websites we visit and the television shows we watch, are fed back into decisions that companies make about new media products. Furthermore, it asks us to focus on how information about these choices and even our attention to media become products for sale in the marketplace. The definition directs the political econ- omist to understand the operation of power, a concept that addresses how people get what they want even when others do not want them to get it. It also leads us to think about what it means to be a producer, distributor, or consumer, and to appreciate the growing ambiguity about what constitutes these categories.
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A more general and ambitious definition of political economy is the study of control and survival in social life. Control refers specifically to how a society organizes itself, manages its affairs and adapts, or fails to adapt, to the inevitable changes that all soci- eties face. Survival means how people produce what they need to reproduce them- selves and to keep their society going. According to this interpretation, control is a political process because it shapes the relationships within a community, and sur- vival is mainly economic because it involves the process of production and reproduc- tion. The strength of this definition is that it gives political economy the breadth to encompass at least all human activity and, arguably, all living processes. This defini- tion was initially suggested to me by Dallas Smythe, one of the founding figures of the political economy of communication, in an interview for the first edition of this book. But since that time, it has been advanced by other political economists who are concerned about how humans relate to our increasingly threatened environment (Foster, 2002). Similar views have been advanced as well by leading figures in the rapidly developing field of science and technology studies (Haraway, 2003; Latour, 2005). The principal drawback of this broad definition is that it can lead one to over- look what distinguishes human political economy, principally our consciousness or awareness, from general processes of control and survival in nature. Another way to describe political economy is to broaden its meaning beyond what
is typically considered in definitions by focusing on a set of central qualities that characterize the approach. This section of Chapter 2 focuses on four ideas: history, the social totality, moral philosophy, and praxis. These are qualities that all schools of political economic thought tend to share, whatever their other differences. Political economy has consistently placed in the foreground the goal of understand-
ing social change and historical transformation. For the founding figures of political economy, people such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill, who were leading figures in European intellectual life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this meant explaining the great capitalist revolution, the vast social upheaval that transformed societies based primarily on agricultural labor into commercial, manufac- turing, and, eventually, industrial societies. Responding to this first wave of political economy thinking, Karl Marx shifted the debate by critically examining the dynamic forces within capitalism and the relationship between capitalism and other forms of political economic organization. He did this specifically in order to understand the processes of social change that would, he contended, ultimately lead from capitalism to socialism. The issue of explaining social change remains central for the political economist today but the debate has shifted to include the question of whether we are now entering an information society. Specifically, is ours a new kind of society, as was capitalism, or is it just a form of capitalism, perhaps to be called informational capital- ism? Are the forces of new communication and information technology so revolu- tionary that they are bringing about a radical restructuring that will lead to the transformation or even the dissolution of capitalism? Whatever the differences among political economists on this issue, there is no lack of attention and debate over it. Political economy is also characterized by an interest in examining the social whole
or the totality of social relations that make up the economic, political, social, and cultural
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areas of life. Political economy has always believed that there is a big picture of society and that we should try to understand it. Adam Smith was not constrained to look at only those things that a narrow discipline told him to see. He cared about the relation- ships among all facets of social life, including the political, economic, moral, and cul- tural. The same applied to Karl Marx, as it also does to today’s political economists, whether they belong to the institutional, conservative, neo-Marxian, autonomist, femi- nist, or environmental schools of political economic thought. They differ on many points but all aim to build on the unity of the political and the economic by account- ing for their mutual influence and for their relationship to wider social and symbolic spheres of activity. The political economist asks: How are power and wealth related and how are these in turn connected to cultural and social life? The political economist of communication wants to know how all of these influence and are influenced by our sys- tems of mass media, information, and entertainment. Political economy is also noted for its commitment to moral philosophy, which
means that it cares about the values that help to create social behavior and about those moral principles that ought to guide efforts to change it. For Adam Smith, as evidenced in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1976), a book he favored more than the much more popular Wealth of Nations (1937), this meant understanding values like self-interest, materialism, and individual freedom, that were contributing to the rise of commercial capitalism. Whereas for Karl Marx (1973, 1976a), moral philosophy meant the ongoing conflict between viewing human labor as a source of individual fulfilment and social benefit, as he hoped would be the case, or simply as a mar- ketable commodity, as he concluded was the case in capitalism. Contemporary polit- ical economy supports a range of moral positions but, on balance, tends to favor the value of extending democracy to all aspects of social life. This includes the political realm, where democracy means the right to participate in government, but it also extends to the economic, social, and cultural domains where supporters of democ- racy call for income equality, access to education, full public participation in cultural production, and a guaranteed right to communicate freely. The fourth characteristic of political economy is social praxis, or the fundamental
unity of thinking and doing. Specifically, against traditional academic positions which separate research from social intervention and the researcher from the activist, politi- cal economists have consistently viewed intellectual life as a means of bringing about social change and social intervention as a means of advancing knowledge. This is in keeping with a tradition tracing its roots to ancient practices of providing advice and counsel to leaders. Political economists certainly differed on what should characterize intervention. Thomas Malthus so feared that population growth would outstrip the food supply that he supported open sewers because the spread of disease is one way to control population. On the other hand, there was Karl Marx, who called on workers to seize power. Notwithstanding these differences, political economists are united in the view that the division between research and action is artificial and must be overturned. Chapter 3 documents how the political economy approach is also distinguished by
the many schools of thought that guarantee a significant variety of viewpoints and vigorous internal debate. Arguably, the most important divide emerged in responses
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