On the early social science of the media

From the 1920s until the end of World War II, the conventional wisdom was that the role of mass media in modern society was, and ought to be, an instrument of propaganda for the optimal functioning of the state (@Bernays:2004vo; @lippmann1932public). With the rise of information theory, which would become a basis for modern computing (@Shannon:2013iy; @gleick2011information), in the post-war period there was a flowering of social-scientific efforts to link the propaganda role of media to the burgeoning framework of information theory [@wiener1965cybernetics; @Deutsch:1953ww; @Deutsch:1966ux; @McLuhan:1994tf; @Ellul:1965uf].1

Norbert Wiener was arguably chief among the towering intellectual figures of the midcentury attempting to understand society with the new tools of information theory. Wiener named the new science “cybernetics,” a term which gained some limited currency at the time but has since fallen into oblivion. Cybernetics was, essentially, an information theory of society: institutions, organizations, and even social systems more generally are machines comparable to mechanic devices. What they all have in common is that their existence is sustained by mechanisms which effectively send signals and respond to signals. The mechanism in an automobile engine which prevents it from overheating is a mechanism which responds to the signal of too much heat, just as the mechanism of elections is supposed to prevent politicians from pursuing unpopular policies. Information theory would allow us to understand political power and social control as essentially, in their most basic units, dynamics of communication.

For Wiener, then, communication and control were the same thing, and he argued passionately that humanity was on the brink of a new age where communication and control would define society: “The thought of every age is reflected in its technique… If the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are the age of clocks, and the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries constitute the age of steam engines, the present time is the age of communication and control.”

But Wiener also wrote passionately and ominously that the American state and small elite groups posed an extraordinary threat in this new age of communication and control. Starting in World War II and continuing throughout the Cold War, the US state was aggressively bringing science under its aegis. This is well-known and well-documented, but it is especially interesting that it is also reflected in the lives and thought of many of the very towering intellectual figures who were at the forefront of the new sciences. Wiener, for instance, believed firmly in the independent scientist and avoided institutional affiliations, although he did choose to help the war effort in anti-aircraft research. “Without any doubt,” he wrote, “we possess the world’s most highly developed technique of combining the efforts of large numbers of scientists and large quantities of money toward the realization of a single project.” [@Wiener:1989ud, 126].2

Today, the incipient social-scientific theories of thinkers such as Wiener and McLuhan appear remarkably cynical: given the longstanding conventional wisdom of elites that the media were mere tools of propaganda, the emergence of legitimately scientific models of information quite naturally led social theorists to conceptualize the media as instruments of social control. Thus, these early efforts are laden with surprisingly sinister vocabularies, the most recurring themes revolving around the control, monitoring, and shaping of mass publics.

These early social scientists of the media, most of whom were writing within democratic states, had surprisingly little to say about the media having anything to do with the empowerment of the masses. This is puzzling given that, today, scholars and schoolchildren alike are most immediately inclined to think of the media as a watchdog over government, the main purpose of which is to ensure popular sovereignty through the free flow of information. Today, even those social scientists most critical of media effects are exceptions which prove the rule, as they typically frame their findings as raising questions about the medias well-known function as government watchdog.

If the earliest and most influential social-scientific models of the media were so cynical, then why, when and, how did contemporary social scientists develop such a sanguine view of the media? I do not pretend to offer any definitive answer to such questions, but we ought to float some short and provisional answers to these questions.

Wiener understood the system-level of ideas and communication politics, but he was surprisingly naive to think his ethical arguments could win the day. According to his very outlook, such ideas were like “negative feedback” mechanisms which were purely imaginery: the nervous system he described had to discard that ethical information like our bodies discard germs. For, his ethical critique called into question the very nature of state-and-market-centered political system in the information age.

The extraordinary negative pressures faced by people such as Wiener and Oppenheimer and Einstein when they chose to speak out, is perhaps evidence of the political system’s nervous system neutralizing threats. Oppenheimer’s villainization by the state as a “security threat” and the humiliating trial in front of the House Un-American committee was itself an act of power and control through communication–the public was being told these people and their ethical ideas were bad, i.e. their behavior was being shaped away from such ethical principles. Wiener’s publishers (embodying market forces), put pressure on him to tone down the political sharpness of his perspective,observable in the difference between the first and second editions of The Human Use of Human Beings.

But where did our benign democratic notions of the media come from, when for several decades the conventional wisdom on the role of media was expressly anti-democratic and the very nature of information was now becoming understood scientifically? This intersection in intellectual history would seem to predict a future in which the various media would become all the more powerful tools for small national elites to control and manipulate mass publics, the vision largely shared by so many incipient post-war social scientists. But yet, the notion of propaganda recedes from the social sciences from its high point around 1950, while the study of information continues increasing and the social scientific study of media begins in earnest.

In some sense, these social-scientific currents which are only just beginning to theorize the mass media with an emphasis on propaganda and information control are absorbed by government and the private sector. It appears as if this incipient social-scientific perspective is adopted and put into practice by various branches of the state, as in the rise of “counterinsurgency” abroad (Carruthers) and government “public relations” at home, or otherwise the private commercial development of communications engineering and “operations management.” As the new sciences of information control are put into practice by the state and the private sector, it is at this time that the curiously mild-mannered attitude toward the media is elevated into a baseline for political science research (Lazarsfeld 1944; Berelson 1954; Campbell et al. 1960).3 This baseline conventional wisdom of “limited effects” from media would no doubt be challenged within political science, but it nonetheless has remained dominant (Katz; Bartels 2008). That research funding distributed by the U.S. government and the private sector played a prominent role in the mainstreaming and institutionalization of the Columbia and Michigan models of political science research approaches, at the very same time that information theory is being rapidly mobilized in actual state and corporate operations and logistics, further tempts one to the hypothesis that perhaps the greatest achievement of state and corporate media control was to have ensured that social scientists would never quite succeed in understanding or demonstrating the media’s function in social control.

This is why the present detour through intellectual history is not merely a review of the literature; rather, this sociological review of the literature is itself suggestive empirical evidence, however circumstantial, regarding a crucial transformation in our thinking and practices of media politics. I have traced in the record of the social sciences the transformation of media-as-propaganda to media-as-transparency to outline a general gap in the literature which this volume contributes to filling, but also to present some provisional evidence, very close to home, of precisely how media-as-propaganda may shape certain institutional political outcomes in ways which have hardly been noticed. Indeed, if the media are most importantly propaganda tools then, to the very degree they are politically effective, we would expect them to go unnoticed by institutional social science. Indeed, even the exceptions suggest evidence for this rule, for the most popular intellectual inheritors of the media-as-propaganda tradition today remain marginal to dominant mainstream social science.4

@Horkheimer:2009te, @adorno2001culture, and @Debord:1967vn.

  1. To say nothing of concurrent and parallel movements in radical, continental theory. See

  2. Oppenheimer, a crucial figure in the American development of an atomic bomb, would later speak out against the hydrogen bomb and was aggressively maligned as a “security threat” by the US government and in the mass media. Einstein, as well, was mocked for his critical attitude toward developments in the state’s relationship to science. All of this is to point out that the most towering intellectual figures of this time were beginning to converge on the belief that the institutional dynamics of science were unconscionable.

  3. The Columbia group around Lazarsfeld, from the beginning, was really only interested in what was already a highly narrow and market-oriented type of behavioral variation. Bartels notes how they only turned to electoral behavior when they could not find grantvmoney to study consumer behavior (Rossi 1959, 15-16, as cited in Bartels 2008). The point for our purposes is that these pioneering studies which would become baselines for the modern study of political behavior rose to prominence with a view of the media that already abstracted away from the more “sinister” media effects predicted by the group discussed above. Thus, by the 1954 *Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign, *the Columbia group finds little evidence for the role of parties and media in presidential campaigns. The later Michigan group, whose election studies would become an increasingly institutionalized backbone of American political science research, also had a view of the media which is puzzlingly inane and conservative read alongside work of roughly the same period by someone such as Karl Deutsch. Of course, I do not here take issue with the validity of these early findings as far as they go; my point is only to flag that these foundational studies in American political science adopted an approach which generated strikingly inane findings on the political effects of media, especially when read alongside those who were grappling with the more general historical functions of media as institutions of social control.

  4. For instance, see @Herman:1988ta [@mcchesney2000rich; @luhmann2000reality]

Cite this post: RIS Citation BibTeX Entry

Murphy, Justin. 2014. "On the early social science of the media," http://jmrphy.net/blog/2014/02/18/the-early-social-science-of-the-media/ (April 24, 2017).