In Latin America communication studies started during the late 1960s, and were characterized by two very different conceptions. On the one hand, there was the functional paradigm, from the United States (where many Latin American professors had been trained), which related the study of communication to the diffusion of innovations, and which was part of a development policy primarily for the rural sector. On the other hand, there was the theory of dependence, developed by Latin American economists and sociologists, which asserted that mass communication was part of the process that included the domination Latin American countries had to put up with.
Even though the functional-diffusionist perspective silenced social and cultural problems by linking communication directly to the development of the mass media, the number of newspapers sold, or the number of radio and television sets per consumer, the theory of dependence provided a conceptual approach within which it was impossible to separate the action of the mass media from the social context and the political processes of the Latin American region. This is why both research and academic training on communication were initially characterized by a double function: development of the media and the training of its professionals, as well as trying to understand the role played by communication processes and the mass media in the changes that were taking place in Latin America.
From the beginning, the field of communication studies in Latin America has faced two issues: the technological one, characterized by the modernizing and developmental argument of the “technological fact,” and the socio-cultural one, which relates to cultural memory and identity in a struggle for both social survival and cultural reconstitution based on movements of resistance and re-appropriation.
The Beginnings: Communication and Cultural Imperialism
During the late 1960s, the Latin American reflection on communication was first synthesized by the works of Paulo Freire (1967) and Antonio Pasquali (1968). Freire discovered and discussed the communicative dimensions of a liberating pedagogy: education as a dialogue and activity of appropriation of the cultural universe that constitutes the tissue of language. Pasquali researched the relationship between communication and the cultural/political structure of society, and introduced a groundbreaking distinction between information, which is characterized by unidirectionality, and communication, which implies some form of reciprocity.
During the 1970s, advances in the theoretical analysis of communication depended on the strength of the theory of dependence and structuralist semiotics. The focus of theoretical work was mass communication as a strategic instance of ideological struggle. The rise of the concept of “form of merchandise” permitted Armand Mattelart (1973) to analyze the process of fetishization undergone by media messages: the process of message production is concealed, providing the medium with an almost magical strength/influence, and ignoring the structural relation between communicative products and the trade system that marks messages and consumption with the “factory brand” of the dominant ideology in society. L. R. Beltran (1973) devoted himself to analyzing the “deep regions” where ideology ritualizes social impotence, but also where the imaginary mythical-utopian dimensions of the hope for social liberation come from.
The theoretical and methodological development of those times was greatly concerned with the ideological dimension of mass discourses. Eliseo Veron (1971 and 1975) had a prominent role in this. His main contribution was the study of the processes of production and consumption of significations, which overcame the quantitative reductionism of content analysis and reoriented research toward the latent and connotative levels of operation of the signifying structure: a structure from which the signification of messages refers to the central conflicts experienced by a society.
The ideological and commercial fabric of communication takes its real shape in the transnational space, which is conformed by the imposition of an economic model to the internationalization of a political model where the mass media play a crucial role. In the field of communication, the “transnational issue” will clarify the need to develop new political ways of facing information imbalance (CIESPAL 1973), as well as the implementation of new modalities of intervention and participation on the part of civil society (CIID 1976).
The 1980s: Relation Between Communication and Cultures
Communication studies in Latin America experienced deep changes during the early 1980s, due mainly to a general shift in the social sciences. The greatest change had to do with the questioning of instrumental reason, which was present not only in the functional model but also in Marxist ideology. Conceptual and methodological shifts seeking to renew the field of communication studies came not only from the academic arena, but also from new social movements and cultural dynamics.
First, the relationship between the media and national cultures became historically important. It is impossible to separate politics and culture in the twentieth century from the shaping influence of communication processes and the media. The notion of modernity, which had been the basis for the national development projects since the 1930s, had already articulated an economic movement – the entry of national economies into the international market – into a political project which consisted of making them nations through the creation of a national culture, identity, and feeling. But that project was possible only through communication between urban masses and the state. The media, especially radio, became the spokesperson of the process which, as part of a state initiative, transformed the masses into peoples and peoples into nations. In radio, populist leaders found a medium that facilitated a new way of communication, as well as a new political discourse that broke away from the rhetoric of both church and parliament. In radio, this new discourse found a fundamental mediation with “popular” language, as well as with a capacity to orally re-elaborate the passing from the expressivesymbolic rationality of the rural world to the informative-instrumental rationality of the urban world (Martin-Barbero 1987, 170).
In social terms, the cultural mediation offered by the mass media in Latin American countries refers to a new sense of the popular, which emerged with urban culture. The word “popular,” whose meaning implied both the primitive and the uneducated, became the culture of tango, movies, and football: an early hybrid of the national and the foreign (Sunkel 1985, 27). The radio facilitated the passing from rural cultures, which were still a majority, to the new urban culture, without completely abandoning a number of traits of oral tradition. Movies helped develop a sense of nationhood through the theatricalization of rural culture, disrupting customs to the point of transforming what for long had been thought of as vulgar and cheap into an element that helped define a sense of “national identity” (Monsivais 1976, 112; 1981, 42). Both media decisively contributed to the development of a powerful Latin American imaginary, which included musical genres and rhythms such as tango, bolero, and ranchera, as well as movie stars like Maria Felix, Libertad Lamarque, and Cantinflas.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Latin American research on communication processes focused on the contradictory trend of cultural globalization and fragmentation, as well as on the worldwide diffusion and revitalization of the local through communication. The press, as well as radio and, increasingly, television, became most interested in differentiating cultures on the basis of region or age as it tried to connect them to the rhythms and images of the global. On the other hand, the presence of companies like Mexican Televisa or Brazilian Redeglobo in the audiovisual space of this world has been established at the price of molding these peoples according to the image of audiences that were gradually becoming more neutral and undifferentiated. These changes have been oriented by the demands of the model imposed by globalization. Such demands have become evident in the privatization of national television systems all over the world (Portales 1988). Nevertheless, the increase in the number of channels, the diversification and the growth of cable television, and the expansion of satellite connections have increased programming time and led to a growing demand for shows that has opened up the market to Latin American productions, especially soap operas. This has affected US television hegemony, as well as the image of a world traditionally divided into the producing countries of the north and the consuming countries of the south. Notwithstanding this, market experience is an evident victor in the field, as the media industry has managed to make a profit out of cultural differences by renewing worn-out narrative forms and by connecting them to other sensitivities whose vitality is re-signified in favor of a culture of indifference (Getino 1993).
The Latin American Agenda in The Twenty-First Century
Globalization and Its Effects On Cultures
In the current map of Latin American communication research it is possible to have a look at the landscape of the new century. Research on the political and cultural disorganization introduced by globalization has redefined the identification of the periphery with the foreign. It is within our countries, both nationally and locally, where culture is diffused worldwide (Ortiz 1995), because globalization is not simply a wider distribution of products, but a re-articulation of international relations due to a decentralization that concentrates power, and a loss of roots that hybridizes cultures. But what is really at stake in this hybridization (Garcia Canclini 1990) is not only the rise of new cases of cross-breeding; it is the reorganization of culture by a logic that detaches cultural experiences from the niche repertoires of each ethnic group and social class, as well as from the opposition between modernity and tradition, and modernity and modernization (Ianni 1996).
Such logic thickens the technological mediation that blurs the boundaries between art and science, between work and game, and between the oral, the written, and the electronic; it radically challenges theoretical inertias, the barriers between different kinds of social knowledge; and it proposes, not only “new research objects,” but new ways to think about the struggles between the market and symbolic production, between culture and power, and between modernization and democratization. A particular reconfiguration of culture is carried out by the audiovisual universe, particularly by television, which, as a device that radicalizes the detachment generated by modernity, redefines the hierarchies that used to rule culture, its modalities, levels, and languages.
The Mass Mediation of Politics
Second, we can see the study of the processes of mass mediation of politics (Landi 1992), as well as the assimilation of political discourse into the model of communication proposed particularly by television, which establishes a sense of identity between the public and the scene of the media, and influences the new forms of political representation and citizenship. Once the transformation of politics into a show is analyzed as a whole, future studies will be geared toward the analysis of the specific devices that link television and the emergence of a new political culture.
This is a research path that opens up analysis of the ways in which the media act, not as a substitute, but as a constituent part of the fabric of political discourse and action, because they densify the symbolic, ritual, and dramatic dimensions politics has always had, and are part of the new forms of recognition and questioning of social subjects and actors. According to Mata, this displaces research on the mechanisms that confront “the square to the stalls,” i.e., the scene of the media, and focuses instead on the tensions between them; on the uses of the media in politics – the ways it looks at the camera – and on the re-signification procedures through which the scene of the media transforms the sense of political action into a representation that reduces publicity – the act of making something public – to mere visibility (Mata 1992, 61–77). Additionally, there is another research path which displaces the viewpoint of formal politics in order to inquire into the role of consumption in the other forms that create identities and citizenships: the socio-cultural practices that establish forms of self-identification and need-satisfaction, as well as rituals of distinction and forms of communication which make consumption not only a means of squandering, showing-off, alienation and submission, but a means by which we re-elaborate the sense of the social, redefine the signification of the public through the publication of what we believe is socially valuable, and remake what we perceive as our own, as well as the ways in which we unite and establish differences (Lechner 1995).
The City as Communication Space
The city as a space for communication presents itself as another watchtower from which to glimpse fundamental changes. The close relationship between the expansion and spread of cities and the growth and densification of electronic media and networks demands analysis of the anthropological scope of changes in ways of coming together, and of the new socialities that match the newly emerging urban scenarios of communication (Garcia Canclini 1998). Located at multiple levels, and composed of greatly diverse constituents, these scenarios correspond to the imbalance generated by an irrational and speculative urbanization which is evidenced by an impoverishment in the sense of solidarity and interaction among neighbors, the reduction of usable city space by citizens, and compensation for such constraints through a culture of delivery service, as well as through the reinvention of social bonds where the information running through international networks is mixed with a need of local membership and attachment.
These scenarios define the imaginaries from which people establish their feelings and representations of their city: events, characters, founding myths, places, aromas and colors, stories, legends and rumors that describe and identify cities in ways that greatly differ from the conception of city planners. These come together with the process of modernization, as well as with tensions between ethnic-local and transnational memories, which generates a mosaic whose set-up differs from the regularities defined by experts and tends to correspond to the disorganization and chaos experienced by citizens in their act of living together (Silva 1992). There are also the scenarios of the event-city, which, every time the inert daily life is altered, reveal how fragile the modern urban order is and uncover the corruption that connects the explosive inefficiency of public utilities – damaged sewage systems that cause floods and leave thousands homeless, or gas leaks that blow up entire neighborhoods – to the underground devices of power, while also revealing the communicational thickness of the survival strategies and the means of establishing citizen identity among the powerless (Reguillo 1995).
Media Use and Cultural Consumption
Finally, another research field lies in the reception and use of the media and cultural consumption. An especially controversial and, even for some, worn-out field, the study of reception processes is characterized by an ambiguous duplicity, as well as being strongly revealing, in relation to some of the deepest changes in communication research (Orozco 1994). This is because of the loss of the viewpoint that was sought in Latin America – reception/consumption as an epistemological and methodological starting place to rethink the process of communication – which was confused with the stage when, according to the American perspective, it had to do with the paradigm of “effects” and then with that of uses and gratifications. Nevertheless, when research on reception/consumption is identified, in a good number of research works, with a sort of hypostasis of reception, the value of such studies ends up confused with the “consumer power” fallacy.
The goal is to discover the extent to which communication works as an interchange and interaction between subjects (Wilton de Sousa 1994) who are socially established and located in produced and productive conditions and scenarios that present asymmetrical differences and are, therefore, areas of power where disputes, shifts, and struggles for hegemony take place (Garcia Canclini 1995). On the other hand, it is necessary to understand the forms of sociality that are generated along the paths of consumption, the level of cultural competence in such paths, which is possible from the perspective of an ethnography of usage (Sunkel 1999) that inquires into the trends of rupture and continuity, of attachment and placelessness, as well as into the longand short-term memories that go through and support them. The resulting perspective is especially future-oriented if applied to the cultural paths of younger generations, strongly characterized by their connection with or disconnection from technologies, and by their ability to insert themselves into the rapidly changing society (Cubides et al. 1998).
Institutional Development of Communication Studies
The field of communication studies in Latin America is going through a period of strong growth with the teaching of new academic programs, but not in terms of research in the field. Among the institutions engaged in research are the Departments of Communication at the Universidad de Sao Paulo and the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá; the Department of Socio-cultural Studies of the ITESO in Guadalajara, Mexico; and the Faculties of Communication at the Universities of Buenos Aires and Lima.
In these departments and faculties the two leading indicators of research are the increasing number of publications, particularly of journals in which the different types of research are published, and the launching of international research programs such as OBITEL, which is devoted to the study of the production and international circulation of soap operas.
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