The study of the culture industries has become increasingly more complex in the field of communications in light of the ways in which expanding research into their organization, activities, and logics connects with questions and arguments concerning culture, commercialism, and social control. Largely originating in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), the term “culture industry” was initially utilized to critique the proliferation of commercial mass culture and what the authors perceived as the increasingly routinized techniques employed in the processes of cultural production.
The Original Concept
In trying to explain why the working class revolution predicted by Karl Marx failed to materialize, Adorno and Horkheimer posited that a new, more subtle form of social domination had emerged which operated through the mass appeal and production of standardized leisure commodities and amusement culture which served to keep the population docile and distracted from recognizing the real conditions of their labor and exploitation under capitalism. Calling this process “enlightenment as mass deception,” the authors suggested that administrative techniques within advanced capitalism played upon societal myths regarding scientific enlightenment, essentially curtailing the development of any revolutionary impulses toward systemic change from below. Consequently, the ideas and ideology (the “superstructure”) of the ruling classes are able to condition and shape the material and historical impulses for change within the sets of economic (the “base”) and social relations. In turn, individuals are “conditioned” and society is “structured” toward reproducing and expanding the relations of capital. In their analysis, the culture industry and its approach to cultural production was responsible for the “commodification” of culture, making the “exchange” value of cultural objects more important than their “use” value, and cultural products themselves, assemblyline commodities. Through these processes, culture became pseudo-culture, where a surfeit of meaningless and unnecessary information and products gratified people while impeding their ability to experience and understand phenomena on deeper levels. The information, technology, and organized rituals of pseudoculture thoroughly mediated their ability to think through their “false consciousness,” keeping the masses oblivious to the monotony and meaninglessness of their lives. Advertising contributed to these processes, creating false needs and fostering and promoting “lifestyle” choices which implicitly disciplined work and leisure practices in ways that directly supported and reproduced the networks of capitalism. Consequently, market interests trump cultural considerations in society, citizens become enamored with and enslaved to consumerism, the mechanisms for ideological control induce uniform thinking and behavior within the population, and the masses are kept obedient to the system through their devotion to mass culture.
This sharp and pessimistic attack on mass culture, its mode of production, and the ideological control its instrumental and technological rationale imposed sought to highlight the detrimental social impact of commercial logics on cultural production. Moreover, it sought to underscore how these logics masked social domination, which occurred subtly in the manner by which mass-produced culture distorted the proper role of art in society – namely to challenge thinking and enhance cognitive development, rather than to entertain, gratify, and ultimately deceive the population.
Although often simplified and misinterpreted, this critique does not posit that all cultural products are necessarily homogeneous, that the logics of cultural production necessarily produce certain outcomes (and are simply matters of class domination), or that individuals are merely passive subjects readily controlled by the ideology of the culture industry. As such, the authors leave a space for the concept of agency and the development of an oppositional social politics to emerge, at least in theory.
From Culture Industry To Cultural Industries
Since the late 1960s, the critique of the culture industry has become more detailed in light of developments in critical-cultural theory, insights from other disciplines, and the increasing recognition that significant differences separate the various types of content, systems, and processes related to cultural production. In turn, the plural term cultural industries has emerged as a way of speaking about investigations into institutions that produce symbolic objects/commercial products related to the construction of social meaning. The core institutions of the cultural industries have subsequently been distinguished as advertising, marketing, the broadcasting industries (radio, TV [cable, digital, and satellite]), the film industry, the Internet, the music industry, print and electronic publishing (newspaper, magazine, and book), and video/computer games. This shift from the singular to the plural has opened new avenues for exploring the processes related to cultural production and the dynamic variation among the institutions invested in integrating cultural objects and ideas into the realm of capital.
Scholarship utilizing integrated and interdisciplinary research methods began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s, serving both to extend and to nuance the perspectives of Adorno and Horkheimer, which had come to be known as part of the Frankfurt School critique of mass culture. Employing insights from political economy, sociology, and cultural studies, several scholars (Kaarle Nordenstreng, James Halloran, Armand Mattelart, Nicholas Garnham, Herbert Schiller) began to consider the ways in which the cultural industries – through the dynamics of their economic and cultural power, institutional networks, and transnational influence – were implicated in new forms of cultural imperialism related to the emergent global political economy and ideas of globalization.
Bernard Meige’s (1989) insightful sociological examination of the diverse logics of production and varied modes of labor organization in the cultural industries, however, challenged many of these ideas within the “cultural imperialism” thesis. By collectively considering a wide array of economic and sociological variables, Meige outlined the distinct plurality of the “social logics” of production within the cultural industries, underscoring not only how cultural production occurs across various sites of contestation, but also the extent of ambiguity involved in assessing the processes and outcomes related to cultural commodification. His work strongly suggested that media institutions and products have political and cultural dimensions and implications beyond the economic relations of their production. And despite the fact that critics have challenged Meige’s analysis on the grounds that it accomplishes little beyond description, it nonetheless deepened how the communication industries, their structures, employee activities, and the range of processes that constitute their activities have subsequently been conceptualized. These ideas have been further developed in the work of Bill Ryan, Keith Negus, and Jason Toynbee.
Pierre Bourdieu’s empirical work, which examines how social relations within the processes of cultural production enact and reproduce networks of social meaning, power, and domination, has increasingly been incorporated in recent studies of these industries, complementing and extending the theoretical trajectories that seek to reconcile the tensions between structuralism and agency that often arise in considerations of the cultural industries and their impact upon individuals and society (especially in developing ideas about “cultural capital” and “cultural intermediaries”).
Although less concerned with distinguishing the plurality of the cultural industries or addressing the Frankfurt critique directly, the work of Robert McChesney has nonetheless been instrumental in identifying how the policies, practices, and organization of these institutions are specifically linked to questions involving macro-social power, democracy, and social justice. In the interest of nurturing media policy and grassroots activism, his critiques of corporate cultural production have been particularly effective outside the scholarly community, illuminating in plain terminology the links between institutional power, politics and media policy, and the negative impact commercial imperatives have with regard to the media’s role in fostering conceptions of citizenship, democratic governance, and civic society. In many ways, McChesney’s work pragmatically extends the call to arms that Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay initially put forward regarding reclaiming our media culture from the industries and logics that produce it.
Shifting Terms And Overlapping Terrains
Since the 1980s, a number of terms – i.e., “cultural industries,” “media industries,” “production of culture,” “the production of culture/cultures of production,” “creative industries,” “cultural work,” “cultural economics,” “cultural economy” – have been employed by various disciplines (economics, organizational sociology, media studies, etc.) to examine the cultural industries from different perspectives. These investigations have both broadened understandings of the organization, activities, and influence of the cultural industries, and caused confusion with regard to exactly how they differ in their theoretical and methodological approaches. Only recently has an interdisciplinary dialogue begun to emerge, allowing popular communication scholars to draw from a wide range of insights in investigating the mutually constitutive relationship between culture and economy, examining cultural production as a series of interconnections between production, consumption, identity, texts, regulation, and discourse.
These dialogues (which increasingly include input from practitioners as well as scholars) range in their optimism/pessimism regarding the impact of the cultural industries and their products upon the development of society. Nonetheless, a consensus is emerging which recognizes “the complex, ambivalent, and contested” nature of the cultural industries, the texts they produce, and the social relations of symbolic creativity that constitutes activities within them, while simultaneously acknowledging the very real power they wield as networks of logics and forces (Hesmondhalgh 2002, 3).
Recent theoretical explorations from Manuel Castells, Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, and Scott Lash & John Urry have considered how the logics and forces of capitalist production are reproduced micro-socially in ever more complex organizational configurations within macro-social formations of power. These studies are particularly relevant when considering how the cultural industries are implicated in extending commercial logics ever further into all aspects of modern life, understanding how economic organization and power impacts social practices and the construction of textual meaning, and how the transnational development of neoliberal policies and practices are advanced and sustained.
Consequently, many of the original charges raised within the Frankfurt School critique still resonate and remain relevant, valid, and pressing concerns today for scholars examining the operations of the cultural industries and their relationship with society. Future research will most certainly continue to explore the links between institutional organization, technological innovation, cultural development, the implementation of power, and the role of agency as they relate to the cultural industries and upholding democratic principles, enacting egalitarian practices, and reproducing social and cultural justice within the expanding realm of global capitalism.
- Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. (1977/1944). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception. In James Curran, Michael Gurevitch, & Janet Wollacott (eds.), Mass communication and society. London: Edward Arnold, pp. 349–383.
- Beck, A. (ed.) (2003). Cultural work: Understanding the cultural industries. London: Routledge.
- Castells, M. (2000). The rise of the network society. Oxford: Blackwell.
- DiMaggio, Paul (1977). Market structure, the creative process and popular culture: Towards an organizational reinterpretation of mass-culture theory. Journal of Popular Culture, 11, 436 – 452.
- du Gay, P. (ed.) (1997). Production of culture/Cultures of production. London: Sage.
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- Hardt, M., & Negri A. (2001). Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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- Lash, S., & Urry, J. (1994). The economies of signs and spaces. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Meige, B. (1989). The capitalization of cultural production. New York: International General.
- Negus, K. (1992). Producing pop: Culture and conflict in the popular music industry. New York: Routledge.
- Negus, K. (1999). Music genres and corporate cultures. London: Routledge.
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- Toynbee, J. (2000). Making popular music: Musicians, creativity, and institutions. London: Arnold.
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- UNESCO (1982). Cultural industries: A challenge for the future of culture. Paris: UNESCO.