Monday, September 7, 2009

The Power of Communication: A Cultural Perspective

This week’s readings all emphasized the importance of integrating culture within paradigms. Daya Thussu writes that there are “two broad but often interrelated approaches to theorizing international communication”- the political-economy approach and the cultural studies approach. Thussu notes that theories emerged out of great change such as the Industrial Revolution. While Thussu argues that the political-economy and cultural studies approaches are often interrelated, they are distinctly two separate approaches to envisioning the order of our global society. I am absolutely fascinated by cultures. Coming from a bi-cultural family and having taken a fair amount of Anthropology classes as an undergrad, I have a very difficult time understanding how theorists in the past could so easily distinguish and ignore culture from the economic and political realms of society.

Of the readings this week, the one I found to be most intriguing, and equally abstract, was the article written by James Carey called “A Cultural Approach to Communication”. Carey identifies and defines two views of communication- the transmission view and the ritual view. The ritual view is one in which communication enables us to share a common belief or be a part of a fellowship, where as the transmission view of communication is the process in which “messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people” (Carey: 15). He further extends that we (as humans) have the ability to create reality through communication. Furthermore, Carey illuminates that the way to create reality is through models of communication. These models are to act as a guide of how we communicate. Raymond Willams argues that we change these models when they are no longer are adequate. Creation and alterations to reality reminds me of the quote my Mahatma Gandhi. He said, "Change occurs when deeply felt private experiences are given public legitimacy." Public legitimacy is the exact cultural confirmation in which Carey refers to exemplify the order of the social process.

Additionally, within his analysis of communication and culture, he points out that Americans do not fully identify with a culture (in the traditional sense of the word). Gary Weaver and James Carey mention the irony of identifying American culture. I, too, agree with them that our nuanced American culture only becomes more defined once you leave it. Why are Americans not as conscious of their culture? Does it have something to do with the fact that Americans, along with other Westerners, have dominated the field of Anthropology? Weaver argues that nations are becoming more aware of their own culture, and that “this increased consciousness has led to the increase of nationalism” (Weaver: 13). If that is the case then how is it that Americans have such a strong sense of nationalism, but have a hard time identifying our own culture? And what distinguishes nationalism from culture?

Finally, in Gary Weaver’s speech to Aoyama Gakuin University, he personally details the field of international communication as a holistic one. He argues that the field of international communication is multidisciplinary, but that it is imperative to be cognizant of culture because “it is not simply a matter of how to communicate to people, but rather with people, in a dialogical manner.” Clearly, throughout the readings for this week, the notion of culture (integrated with political and economic values) is intertwined with the creation and reproduction of realities in the international system and must be included into paradigms to gain a comprehensive view of the world.


  1. Laura, I was intrigued by your culture-centric analysis of the readings because I approached them from a totally different perspective. What struck me most was what I saw as a recurrent theme of information manipulation.

    The most obvious example is probably Carey, who refers to communication as a process by which reality is created, but the other writings included subtler examples. Innis follows a similar line of thought, arguing that a communication monopoly confers political and cultural power. Those who control knowledge and information have the power and the means to define how reality is perceived.

    Thussu talks about the political-economic emphasis on how those in power can control the very ideas available to the less powerful -- an idea, if you can forgive me for a telescopic citation, that takes its roots in Marxism: "The class which has the means of material production has control at the same time over the means of mental production so that, thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it...." (Karl Marx, cited in Murdoch and Golding, cited in Thussu). Modernization theory, dependency theory, structural imperialism, critical theory -- every one of these theories identifies information as a tool that can be used to achieve a goal, be it the spreading of Western ideology or the subordination of the working class.

    In Weaver's speech, he muses on the potential drawbacks of information imbalance for the United States, which tends to export more information and ideology into the Western hemisphere than it takes in from its neighbors. This can curb the growth of information industries in other countries, he acknowledges, but restricting the free flow of information -- even an unbalanced flow like this -- is dangerous, and likely impossible.

    All of this is related to culture, but what the readings really impressed on me was how cultural changes can be forceably influenced by deliberate actions made by those who control the means of communication. Communication, in these cases, is clearly an important an effective tool, but I suspect it's not powerful enough to work alone -- which brings me to a point that Weaver made at dinner tonight, namely that the study of international relations being multidisciplinary, students tend to take it in a variety of different directions. Two students can read the same writing and come away with totally different impressions. So it seems that people in power may control the ideas that are disseminated, but they can't control how people respond to them.

  2. I think your post relates to this weeks reading by Karim Karim about Diaspora. He talks about migrants, cultures and of course the way in which communication affects these groups who leave their country or nation-state. I found that article fascinating because it presents a diaspora theory about the diversity inherent in most countries. Karim also acknowledges that information flows from North to South and that developed countries influence the under developed. It is interesting, though, to see how immigrants and minorities use the same communication forums, the media, and internet to keep their culture alive and create communities. Karim mentions that these technologies are making it less likely that the immigrants will assimilate. I too find cultural perspectives fascinating. What I found refreshing was what Karim states about how the melange of cultures within a nation-state help "vibrant bodies of literature as well as other intellectual and artistic forms" emerge.

  3. Great insights, Amparo~I, too, found that Laura's post reflects relevant cultural critiques by Weaver and Karim. I was especially drawn to Weaver’s reaction to the cold war realist perspectives of Dr. Huntington. Instead of portraying multiculturalism as separatism, Weaver and Karim use the idea of borderless communities of shared ethnicities and values to demonstrate cultural differences as catalysts of increased global communication and unification. I loved the idea that globalized communication permits different cultures to challenge each other’s fundamentals by means of moderated, appropriate interaction and hence, create new consumer cultures (not devoid of culture, as has been suggested, but multifaceted). After speaking with Professor Weaver at the SIS dinner last week, I’m especially interested in reading his new book where he proposes an answer to the question Laura poses above, “how is it that Americans have such a strong sense of nationalism, but have a hard time identifying our own culture?” Professor Weaver addresses this very issue with the same theory of multicultural communication as a positive phenomenon resulting in the creation of nationalism and the identification of a new “American Culture.”