Communication as an academic field of research in Western Europe scarcely predates World War II and, with minor exceptions, did not develop as a full program of study until the last quarter of the twentieth century. The main exception was Germany, where a press science (Zeitungswissenschaft) was quite well established in some German universities before the war and was later restored under the name of Publizistik.
Much of the early work was historical or practical, but theory about the links between the press and society had also been developed by German sociologists (Hardt 2003). Early French sociologists, notably Gabriel Tarde, had also paid attention to the press and other means of publicity as influences on collective behavior, the formation of opinion, and the transition to modernity. Early British sociology was focused primarily on social problems, and the “media” attracted little academic attention until after the arrival of television in the 1950s.
Influences on the Field and Areas of Research
In general, the large task of postwar reconstruction and regeneration in Europe overshadowed issues relating to the media. All in all, at the middle of the twentieth century the field seemed very open to an influx of American ideas about mass media and methods of inquiry, not least because American media, especially film and music, were already ubiquitous in Europe. As Tunstall (1977) observed, not only were the media American, so was media science.
The social sciences were still underdeveloped and the field of media and communication was largely left either to informed speculation and elite commentary or to investigations carried out by the media themselves for internal purposes, with only limited publication. Postwar American influence showed up especially in a predilection for sample survey inquiries into “media use” and studies of media effects carried out by statistical methods. It took the arrival of the new mass medium of television to really stimulate media research. In the 1950s and 1960s, the study of mass communication in Europe was largely framed according to topics that lent themselves to inquiry within the frames of leisure time use, effectiveness in political persuasion, protecting the interests of children and youth, and assessing the merits or demerits of “mass culture”. Apart from this, a central and growing concern of the media industry and others was the measurement of audiences, as media increasingly competed for advertising revenue. In several countries, public broadcasting organizations played a key part in initiating research, as part of their public service mission.
From the later 1960s onwards, a new wind was blowing in European social science, perhaps especially from Britain. The dominant paradigm of study of media uses and effects was challenged by critical theory that interpreted the tendencies of media content, especially in news, as a form of hidden ideology designed to maintain hegemonic control on behalf of state bureaucracies or big business. Attention also turned from messages, audiences, and effects to include the political economic supports for the media system. Another strand in the new movement was the development, more or less simultaneous in North America and Europe, of sociological inquiries into the media production process, especially of news, usually with a critical purpose. The results shed light on the dominant tendencies of content and supported the view that media tend to maintain rather than challenge the status quo. A major change also occurred in the study of popular and mass culture, involving a revaluation of the significance of popular forms (in music and fiction especially) and a rejection of what were perceived as elitist and hierarchical perspectives.
Although it has sometimes been claimed that European media research is distinctively more “critical” than American research, in line with Merton’s (1957) contrast between American empiricism and European Wissensoziologie, by the time of the general post-1968 upheaval, there is not much to choose between America and Europe in this respect. The distinctiveness of the European field of media inquiry was not clear at the end of the 1970s, except perhaps in the area of popular culture (in the UK at least) and also in a preference for qualitative methodological alternatives to surveys, experiments, and statistical analysis. One of the forms this took was the greater use of ethnographic methods, especially for studying audiences, or “interpretative communities”. Another was the attraction exerted by semiological theory and other linguistic methods in the study of media content, largely following the guidance of French theorists, especially Barthes, Grémas, and Lacan.
The development of critical theory in Europe was affected at some point by a growing gap between those who emphasized the determination of media ownership on media structures and therefore eventually content, and those who focused more directly on the ideological tendencies in content that favored the status quo or the potential for popular resistance. In the end, the “culturalist” branch of critical inquiry largely parted company from the political economic school, leading to separate publications and a cessation of dialogue across the divide. It also moved to a position where popularity (variously defined) became a criterion of merit and a guide to understanding media culture. The political economic school was to some extent vindicated by the huge changes to media systems that were driven by technology, economics, and politics, more or less in that order. For the cultural school, there was at least the relative novelty in Europe of a popularly driven abundance of media culture.
The Institutionalization of Teaching Programs
Until about 1970, there were very few programs of study at any level or for any purpose, whether academic or professional. The study of media was mainly an individual research pursuit or organized in a handful of underfunded research centers. Occasionally there were courses within the framework of the study of politics, sociology, psychology, or education. In some countries there were separate institutions for the professional training of journalists, but the courses were practical in orientation and made little contribution to research and theory.
The main exception, again, was Germany where several universities had established programs in communication science, and much the same was true of Belgium and the Netherlands. However, from the early 1980s onwards more or less the whole of Europe saw a rapid institution and expansion of undergraduate and also graduate programs in media and communication, under various names, in response to demand from growing student numbers and the expansionary policies of educational authorities.
The precise reasons for growth at this time are hard to pin down, but a general explanation can be found in the belief that an “information society” was being born, in which skills relating to communication of all kinds would be in demand. There was a practical correlate in the expansion of media industries, leading to new work opportunities in the field of communications, media, and information services. The enthusiasm for opening courses was not much restrained by the fact that the background of most existing communication research institutions (focusing on media effects on society) was not very well adapted or practical for meeting the expected new needs.
Nevertheless, the study of mass media provided the available core that could be expanded to deal with more relevant matters such as organizational communication, legal and policy issues, media management, understanding new technologies, and developing practical skills of communication in advertising, public relations, public information, and journalism. Particularly important and difficult was the need to bridge the gap between the public communication functions of mass media and the private (person-to-person) communication networks carried largely by telecommunications and subsequently the Internet. Despite the difficulties, a new and expanding field of media and communication teaching and research has been forged in Europe.
Reasons for Differences
Despite the debt owed to the United States for the founding principles of “communication science” and the continuing influence wielded through literature and the dominance of international scientific publication, a distinctively European approach to media and communication developed. This is not, as is sometimes caricatured, simply more qualitative or more critical (or more amateur), but different in its agenda of issues and in the relative salience of different themes.
The distinctiveness stems ultimately from the fact that European media systems and circumstances differ between countries and from other countries around the world in many respects, despite widely shared legal, normative, and professional principles. Even habits of media use by the public vary a good deal from country to country. Virtually every communication “problem” takes on a somewhat different definition. This opens the way for fruitful and even necessary cross-national comparative analysis which is not really possible in North America.
European media systems tend to have a significant relationship to the state and the political system which seems unusual, even sometimes undesirable, to American eyes. There is no standard model for arranging these relationships, but it means that politics does tend to have some acknowledged interest in media performance and some means of influence (Hallin & Mancini 2004). At the same time there are mechanisms in place for managing this relationship to insure a degree either of independence or of transparency in the arrangements for linking politics with media.
The conditions described have resulted in persistent concerns about political diversity and balance in the media. This has been a legitimate object of policymaking in many European countries. Various forms of economic intervention have been adopted, especially in relation to the newspaper press (broadcasting being separately regulated in this respect), and in some countries limits have been set to the degree of concentration of ownership. With varying degrees of effectiveness, many countries have also adopted self-regulatory mechanisms such as press councils and ombudsmen (see Bertrand 2003). There have also been safeguards in some cases for the rights of journalists within their employing organization.
In most European media systems, the most distinctive feature, as seen from outside, is the existence of a large publicly financed broadcasting service alongside now numerous commercial channels (with the ratio of public to private now long reversed). Public broadcasting was and remains an important means of linking the political system with the media system. However, powers of control have mainly been used to insure that broadcasting does not upset the balance of advantage between established political interests. Whatever the pros and cons, the presence, which is taken for granted, of a public media sector has left its mark on the agenda of European communication research. In general, the degree of “commercialism” of media in Europe certainly has to be considered as a variable rather than a fundamental and universal principle. It is also at times an object of disdain.
The particular geography of Europe has consequences other than those mentioned. The boundaries set by nation-states, and often by language, create divisions and also provide some natural protection against international media competition and incursion, except where small countries are overshadowed by a large same-language neighbor, as with Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, and French-speaking Belgium. Within a number of countries, differences of languages and historic regions have persisted and are either reflected in the media structure or give rise to pressure for recognition (e.g., in Spain and France). For many countries, it is hard or even impossible to maintain a viable audiovisual sector without heavy reliance on imports. The winds of globalization seem to have blown rather coldly across Europe for at least 20 years in the age of satellite, cable, and Internet, and this has provided a focus for research relating to national and cultural identity.
Research as Response to Reality
Communication research everywhere tends to respond to the circumstances and events in the “real world” as they affect the media and their audiences. News media in particular frequently become implicated in the events they report. In the period of development of communication science in Europe there have been major themes that are particular to the region.
These include the Cold War and the “Iron Curtain” actually dividing Europe; the tensions in relations with America over foreign policy and in the cultural sphere (globalization); the gradual move toward a more united Europe by way of the EC and later the EU; the marked turn toward deregulation and stimulation of communication markets that has followed the “communications revolution,” with new challenges to policy and governance especially as these affect the future of public broadcasting; ideological conflicts between left and right in the political arena that have diminished but not disappeared; various internal insurgencies and terrorist movements that have afflicted several major European countries, including the UK, Spain, Germany, and Italy; varied responses to the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the “War on Terror”; the response to immigration into Europe, especially in the later phase of large-scale asylum-seeking and economic migration. These and other matters have often provided the stimulus to research and shaped much of its agenda.
Against this background, we can better understand the evolution of the main themes of European communication research and their particular focus. Most of the issues mentioned are matters of public concern and have a political dimension. There are also some very large and growing areas of research in Europe, especially in relation to issues of culture and its many new forms and expressions and also the large expansion of attention to what might be called “commercial” or applied communication. Not far behind in growth is research into the use and content of Internet-based media.
European Specializations in Communication Research
The preceding remarks about European “exceptionalism” mainly relate to the traditional core of research attention to news and related genres. An essential feature of development during the last 20 years has been the growth of different specializations in research and in educational programs, with different institutions adopting different profiles.
In one important respect there is still a large difference from the United States and that is in the lack of development of study of interpersonal communication or of what typically falls in the United States under “speech communication”. However, even here, developments in the field of psychology have led to more work and teaching in these subject areas, even if still somewhat cut off from the mainstream of media and communication study. In summary, it could be said that much of the field of communication in western Europe is accounted for by the following main agenda items: news research; television fiction genres and audiences; journalistic roles and ethics; popular culture; audience and reception research; content and text research; the public sphere; cultural identity, Europeanization, and globalization; political campaigning; political economy issues; policy issues, especially relating to public broadcasting.
Variations within Europe
Although it is possible to generalize about “Europe,” as in the above observations, there are and have always been considerable differences within this space. The most obvious differences are linguistic, but below the surface are less visible distinctions of academic culture and schools of thought. From this perspective, it is possible to sketch the outline of certain national or regional “schools,” each with its distinctive character and path of development.
A francophone school began with quite strong influences from postwar American empiricism and an emphasis on media institutions. It became marked subsequently by linguistic and semiotic theory and then by a strong focus on new technologies and “telematics” generally. The latter phase reflected an interaction between government policies and intellectual elites. A Scandinavian school, with Sweden initially in the lead position, also originated from American empiricism, with a strong focus on political communication, press institutions and policy issues, international news research, and applied communications.
A British school has also embraced empiricism with respect to media audiences and effects. It has also given rise to founding theories concerning popular culture, and remained attached to critical political economy perspectives. The sharing of a language with the USA did not make it more likely that it would follow the American language, and in some respects it has remained somewhat insular.
A German-centred school has typically been very empirical in orientation (studies of content, audiences, and effects), with a strong focus on politics and the newspaper press and on media institutions. High standards of scholarship and methodological correctness are typical. Issues to do with the clash between public private television and the division of Germany, as well press history, have been prominent.
A “Mediterranean” school, especially in Italy and Spain was initially dominated by linguistic theory, but has diversified with development. In Italy, the state broadcaster RAI played an important role in stimulating research from an early date, while Spain was held back until the demise General Franco in the 1970s. Smaller countries were not necessarily backward in developing the field of communication and some, such as Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, and Finland, took leading positions. Nor were they lacking in distinctiveness, but even so they were more likely to be eclectic borrowers from surrounding cultures.
Since the 1970s, along with the growth of educational programs, there have been strong signs of convergence. These have been stimulated by several factors, including a common focus on new technologies and new media plus the impulses stemming from the European Union, with its educational, cultural, and technological policies. There have been numerous teaching and research programs promoted and financed by bodies such as the EU, the Council of Europe, and the European Science Foundation. The result has been extensive cooperation, networking, and sharing of paradigms and ideas. The wide use of English as a lingua franca has, somewhat paradoxically, been itself a vehicle for convergence and for the emergence of something like a European identity for the field. After an uncertain and troubled start, a new Europe-wide association of communication scholars, the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA), was founded in 2005 as a merger of two previously established associations, although to some extent the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) association had earlier fulfilled the role.
This tendency has been supported by a great expansion of publications in the field, in all languages and in the form of periodicals as well as books, even if the main periodicals that count as “international” are likely to be in English. These include European Journal of Communication, International Communication Gazette, Journalism, Communications, New Media and Society, Media Culture and Society, European Journal of Cultural Studies, Global Media and Communication, Discourse and Society, and Intermedia. There are many other specialist journals in related fields.
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