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‘If the Judaic God had created a world as an advanced industrial civilization from scratch (s)he would probably have spent the seventh day in front of the television set’ (McGuigan, 1992: 129) Quotes such as this go some way to illustrating the dominance and intrinsic nature of television in our modern lives. Indeed, Gell’s (1986; cited in Morley, 1992) account of Sri Lankan fisherman who, at great cost, purchase television sets to be displayed as status symbols [despite the lack of an electricity supply] show the dominance of the television in our everyday lives.
Furniture arrangements and seating orientations in households around the world will never again be the same.
Our question is whether or not the phenomenon of television can be studied through sociological discipline in order to understand its effects on society. This essay will look at attempts by sociologists to articulate criticisms of the institution of television, and then decide whether or not this constitutes a distinct ‘sociology’. Since the first television broadcast by the BBC in 1936, its effects on the nation have been studied.
Even before the Second World War, the BBC had built up a reputation as a national institution (Hood & Tobary-Peterssen, 1997: 29). The history of television from the post-war era (broadcasting ceased between 1939 and 1946 for national security reasons) is of interest, as it can be understood by the approaches to its study, rather than its overall distribution or consumption.
As with many theorists, Srinati (2000) looks at the distinction between the ‘effects’ and ‘uses & gratifications’ approaches to understanding television’s function.
The advent of television brought about initial reactions in the 1940s that grew from seeds of cynicism towards the ‘effects’ it was having on the largely unsuspecting audience. After correctly equating it with the mass culture theory of popular television, Srinati succinctly describes this approach as the idea that:
‘T.V. determines what people think and what they do and thus controls them psychologically and socially. It can make people think things they would not otherwise think, and do things they would not otherwise do.’ (Srinati, 2000: 179) The literature at the start of this phase in understanding television’s function continued into the 1950s and 60s, and it is with a historical source paradigm that we study such seminal ‘effects’ works as Packard’s ‘The hidden persuaders’ (1957). As the title suggests, this charismatic book likens the trend in merchandise advertisement as akin to an overall hidden ‘effect’ that permeates his contemporary society in politics and industry:
‘All this probing and manipulation… has seriously antihumanistic implications. Much of it seems to represent regress rather than progress for man in his long struggle to become a rational and self-guiding being’ (Packard, 1957: 13) Thus the ‘effects’ approach implies passivity and paranoia in the collective consciousnesses of the television audience, in line with (in Packard’s case), the West’s increasing Cold War mentality of social change.
In a more explicit reference to this McCarthyism era in the USA, Packard sensationalises this with the assertion that ‘Americans have become the most manipulated people outside the Iron curtain’ (ibid.: 9). Whether or not the ‘effects’ paradigm is ultimately accurate in its assertions, the 1950s saw a shift toward a new model of television’s function, that of ‘uses & gratifications’. The basic idea was that instead of being blindly lead by what it was viewing, the audience ‘uses’ television for its own needs or ‘gratifications’.
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