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Social Class and the media. Critical analysis of media. Though most critical studies scholars trace their approach back to Karl Marx, don’t close your mind because of that

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Social class and the media

Social Class and the media

Critical analysis of media

Critical analysis of media

  • Though most critical studies scholars trace their approach back to Karl Marx, don’t close your mind because of that

  • They make a fairly mundane claim—that the culture is biased in favor of the interests of the powerful, and that cultural bias works to the disadvantage of the less powerful



  • Critical theorists talk a lot about ideology

    • Definitions vary but the gist of it is that we all have a certain way of looking at the world that shapes our understanding of realit

    • New information is evaluated according to our ideology

    • Our culture largely determines our ideology

Hegemony gramsci

Hegemony (Gramsci)

  • When one group (according to Marx, the bourgeois class) is the dominant intellectual force in a society—and the dominant economic force—then the others learn to adopt a view of the world that reflects the interests of the dominant class

    • False consciousness

Hegemony continued

Hegemony (continued)

  • Subordinate classes buy into the ideology of the ruling class and act against their own interests

  • Thus, they act to discipline themselves in the interest of the powerful, reducing the need for physical force

    • Workers who accept their role do not present as much a threat in the mines and factories

Neo marxism and cultural studies

Neo-Marxism and cultural studies

  • Recent turns in theory have reduced the focus on economic class, have said that the dominance of the powerful is less complete and more fluid than implied by traditional Marxist writings and thought, and the acceptance of the dominant ideology is always incomplete, contested and open to change

Critical analysis

Critical analysis

  • Okay, if we accept the basic premise, why spend lots of time and effort re-proving the obvious?

    • First, it is not always so obvious how the culture is affected by power

    • Second, the mechanisms that promote the bias are contested even among critical scholars

    • Third, many wish to find ways to ‘demystify’ the culture and reduce or remove the bias

Critical analysis1

Critical analysis

  • Two flavors:

    • Analysis of news, documentary, political pundits, etc. in non-fictional content areas

      • Looking for bias, falsehoods, etc.

    • Analysis of entertainment media

      • Looking for ideological, mythical presentations of the world

Social and economic class

Social and economic class

  • All societies have been arranged hierarchically

    • The U.S. is no exception

      • More uneven in wealth distribution than most industrialized capitalist societies, but not as much so as less industrialized countries

      • Historical trend toward less economic stratification was reversed beginning in the 1980s

Cultural studies

Cultural studies

  • This branch of neo-Marxism is especially interested in the role of popular culture in generating, maintaining and/or changing the beliefs among the public

    • Ideology/hegemony

      • Framing

    • Popular myths/narratives

Common concerns in news

Common concerns in news

  • How does the structure of news shows impact their perceived authority?

  • How do news shows frame social debate on important topics?

  • What do they focus on and what do they ignore?

Social and economic class1

Social and economic class

  • Social class includes more than income or place within the economic system

    • Education

    • Taste/culture

      • Manners (breeding)

      • Religion

      • Preferences

    • Race and gender

    • Residence

Does class exist in america

Does class exist in America?

  • Largely denied by U.S. culture

    • “Classless society”

  • “The belief that the United States is a classless society or, alternatively, that most Americans are “middle class” persists . . . despite pervasive socioeconomic stratification”

    • (Bullock, Wyche and Williams, 2001)

Social class and the media

Source: Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, "Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(1), 2003. Updated to 2005 at

Social class and the media

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Income Tables, Table F-3.

Source: Analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data in Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America 1994-95 (M.E. Sharpe: 1994) p. 37.

Social class and the media

Source: Congressional Budget Office, Historical Effective Federal Tax Rates: 1979 to 2004, Table 1C, December 2006.

Social class and the media

  • “ It is impossible to understand people's behavior...without the concept of social stratification, because class position has a pervasive influence on almost everything...the clothes we wear...the television shows we watch...the colors we paint our homes in and the names we give our pets... Our position in the social hierarchy affects our health, happiness, and even how long we will live. ”—William Thompson, Joseph Hickey, Society in Focus, 2005



  • Although we are used to thinking of stereotypes in terms of race, stereotypes exist for all ‘groups’ including class

    • Blue Collar

    • Hillbilly

    • Redneck

    • White trash

What are stereotypes

What are stereotypes?

  • Stereotypes are ‘ideal’ characterizations of a member of some identified group

  • Though often based in some ‘reality’ they are often vastly exaggerated and may be distorted (often in a negative fashion)

What do stereotypes do

What do stereotypes do?

  • They can blind observers to the individual variation among members of the ‘group’

  • They impact intergroup interactions and even may become self-fulfilling

  • They justify social inequality of treatment and/or public policy that relates to groups

    • Blaming the victim

Social class affects

Social class affects:

  • Media access/choice

  • Content preferences

  • Interpretation of media content

  • Representation within media content

  • Power over media

Interpretation of content

Interpretation of content

  • We see the world through class-inflected eyes

    • We are often unaware of the influence of class in our lives, but that doesn’t stop us from interpreting the world according to our upbringing/current experience

    • Fiske: Homeless shelter and the reaction to crime drama

Class representation

Class representation

  • Over-representation of professionals and relatively well-to-do on TV

    • Parallel situation in film, though more varied

    • Working class and poor ‘invisibility’

      • Except as cops and criminals

Perhaps it s not all so innocent though

Perhaps it’s not all so innocent, though

  • Middle- and upper-class depictions tend to be more ‘positive’

    • Working-class males often are demeaned

      • Butsch

    • Race-inflected depictions have traditionally reflected negative stereotypes tied to class

      • Scharrer

      • Portwood-Stacer

What are lower class men like

What are lower-class men like?

  • Violent

    • Brutish

  • Dominant

  • Stupid

  • Ignorant

  • Focused on cars, sports, sex

  • Racist

  • Sexist

  • Engage in hair-brained schemes to get ahead

  • Lack taste

When lower and working class men are depicted

When lower- and working-class men are depicted:

  • Tend to be portrayed as foolish or ignorant

    • Archie Bunker

    • Homer Simpson

    • Al Bundy

  • “Trailer trash” can be portrayed in ways that would cause significant outcry if applied to racial minorities, etc.

    • Blue Collar Comedy/Jeff Foxworthy

    • Jerry Springer

Social class and the media

  • The prototypical working-class male is incompetent and ineffectual, often a buffoon, well-intentioned but dumb. In almost all working-class series, the male is flawed, some more than others: Ralph Kramden, Fred Flintstone, Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson. He fails in his role as a father and husband, is lovable but not respected. Heightening this failure is the depiction of working-class wives as exceeding the bounds of their feminine status, being more intelligent, rational, and sensible than their husbands.

  • Butsch, Social Class and Television in Encyclopedia of Television

Occasionally though

Occasionally, though:

  • The Waltons

  • Police shows (cops on the beat v. detectives/specialists)

  • The Deadliest Catch

  • CEO switch thing

What are lower class women like

What are lower-class women like?

  • Either:

    • Oversexed/Trashy

      • Violent

    • Unsophisticated

  • Or:

    • Domestic

      • Kids

    • Sensible, qualified for higher status

Negative class based depictions

Negative class-based depictions:

  • Imply, if not openly claim, that biological/genetic ‘causes’ of depicted inferiority explain social inequity

  • Are painful for those they supposedly pertain to

  • Justify harsh social policy, police action as the only reasonable response to socially objectionable behaviors

What does all this lead to

What does all this lead to?

  • Blaming the victim

    • Those who receive less of the system’s output deserve their fate because they have personality flaws or don’t try hard enough

  • Maintenance of an uneven social reward system

    • Rewards not fairly tied to performance

  • Low self-esteem among ‘lower classes’

  • Exultation of self-interest

    • Mean World (for real)

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