Theories have their own history and reflect the concerns of the time in which they were developed.
In “Approaches to theorizing international communication,” Daya Thussu supports this opening assertion by discussing some of the prominent theories put forward to analyze international communication and how they reflect the social, cultural, political and academic environments in which they arose.
The bulk of Thussu’s writing focuses on theories that arose following the second World War, beginning with modernization theory, which first rose to prominence in the early days of the Cold War, when the West and the East were engaged in an ideological battle over developing nations. Modernization theory examined how international mass communication could be used as a tool for bringing Western-style values to “traditional” countries, including formerly colonial states in Latin America.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many of those states were in turmoil, and history has shown that much of Latin America’s economic and political strife during that era was caused or exacerbated by U.S. corporate, economic and political influences. These decades saw the rise of dependency theory, which held that developing countries were heavily influenced by transnational corporations, often supported by the government of the corporation’s home country, and that development frequently served the interests of the corporations more than those of the developing nations. This relationship extended not only to politics and economics, but to cultural imperialism as well. Dependency theorists had several views on how information flows contributed to this structure, such as Johan Galtung’s argument that northern dominance was supported by a southern elite whose interests coincide more closely with those of the dominant forces than with those of the disenfranchised people in their own countries.
Critical theory, first used in the 1940s and appearing throughout the following decades, focuses on the impact of what critical theorists call the “culture industry,” and argues that industrial production of culture in capitalist countries encourages the development of a working class ideology that serves those in power. Thussu cites Jürgen Habermas, who argued that corporate influence of the public sphere has reduced its ability to function as an independent arena in which the views of the citizenry can develop. The impact of culture industry has grown and changed with the improvement of entertainment technology and information management like lobbying and PR.
None of these theories are flawless, as Thussu points out. Modernization theory, for example, often ignored the social, political and cultural ramifications of Western “modernization” and the impact of increasing income disparities. Dependency theory often overlooked the role of the cultural consumer. And Habermas’ public sphere has “very male, Eurocentric and bourgeois limitations.” But each sheds light on important aspects of international communication.
Thussu’s chapter concludes with a focus on how the international communications debate has shifted in recent decades to a greater emphasis on culture, the information society and globalization. U.S. control of information and communications technology has long supported the nation’s ability to promote its global agenda, but the continuation of U.S. hegemony is not a given. Thussu describes the potential for “a world communication order led by transnational business and supported by their respective national states,” but ultimately, it is impossible to predict anything about the future of international communication with absolute certainty. Nonetheless, under the right circumstances, Thussu believes international communications could have an important role in bridging borders in the years to come.