Michael Skey: Nation, media representations, audiences, models, studies, influence

Introducing Michael Skey

Michael SkeyDr Michael Skey currently teaches sociology at the University of East London. Prior to that he taught sociology at University of Leicester and media and communications at the London School of Economics, where he completed his PhD in 2008. Dr Skey’s research interests include nations and nationalism; multiculturalism and belonging; media rituals; cosmopolitanism; sociology of everyday life; and discourse analysis.

This interview is based on his earlier work and his forthcoming book, “National Belonging and Everyday Life: The Significance of Nationhood in an Uncertain World”. This book focuses on ethnic majorities in Western settings and argues that their largely taken-for-granted status is used to underpin claims to key material and ontological benefits. In studying the value of this privileged position, we are better able to explain why multicultural or cosmopolitan policies are often resisted and the need to address (though not necessarily condone) majority concerns and anxieties around social change.

This is the second part of the interview. The first part is Michael Skey: National identity, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, globalisation.

Interview

Nationalhood, media studies and representations

Book cover Michael SkeyHow has the role of the media in articulating national identity evolved?

Early approaches, while both influential and important in foregrounding the crucial role of media/communications, tended to adopt a rather crude, top-down model whereby media inculcated national identities into relatively powerless audiences. Much of this work saw both the media and nations as homogeneous, failed to account for change and rarely provided much in the way of empirical evidence for their claims.

Subsequent research, which has built on insights from cultural studies and anthropology, has offered a much more nuanced approach, focusing on processes of meaning-making and the manner in which people negotiate and perform their identities in different contexts.

However, there is very little work that has tried to get to grips with the ways in which media, in all its various forms, contributes to the idea that we live in and belong to nations and this, for me, would be the next step in trying to understand the relationship.

What role do media play in the articulation of non-national identities?

One of the problems with much of the classic literature is that it largely assumed that the media enabled people to imagine themselves as part of this or that nation without offering much in the way of concrete evidence.

However, as Sabina Mihelj’s recent work “Media Nations” (2011) shows, even during the so-called age of nationalism, there were many forms of media that were articulating non-national identities, whether through religious pamphlets, local newspapers, city-wide radio, regional television and the like.

In the same way, much of the debate around digital technologies has assumed that they undermine national identities because of their potential to cross borders, link distant people and places, publicise more global concerns etc. There isn’t nearly enough research on the topic but what little there is indicates that national frameworks of meaning and practice still matter online.

Media, practices and nations

Which techniques do media use to naturalise (depict as common sense) a particular vision of national identity?

There are a whole host of micro-linguistic features, the most obvious being deictic terms, such as ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘them’ and ‘here’, which are often used to address audiences in national terms.

Simply naming nations as actors in a story is also important (as obvious as that sounds) as in this way they become anthropomorphised and are seen to have their own needs, desire, traits and abilities. These words or phrases are often combined with visual cues, such as maps or flags, and, while they may seem rather insigificant, make a major contribution to the everyday representation of the world as a world of nations – so much so, they we often cease to notice them or register the discursive role that they play.

Perhaps the key element, however, is the manner in which media producers (whether larger organisations or single users) assume that ‘their’ audiences will, broadly speaking, have the same sorts of concerns and forms of knowledge about who and what matters. This is what Clark & Brennan label as ‘the heuristic of communicative membership’ (1991) and is a crucial factor in allowing us to orientate ourselves to other people (whether physically or virtually) in everyday contexts.

Often these assumptions and forms of knowledge are only exposed when we encounter ‘foreign’ media and puzzle over the identity of this or that individual or try to make sense of a story featuring organisations or actors that we know very little about.

What are the most common methods to study the role of ‘the nation’ in the media and do you have any advice in this regard?

Recent research has used a combination of textual analyses and ethnographic studies and, as I noted above, these have allowed us to generate much more sophisticated analytical frameworks.

My main criticism of current approaches is that they tend to focus on individual texts, events or groups and, as a result, miss out on studying the cumulative impact of media institutions, representations and practices (what people ‘do’ in relation to the media) in articulating and performing the ‘nation’.

This requires far more systematic studies of, say, media content to trace the ways in which news reports, adverts, films, radio programmes, blogs and so on contribute (or otherwise) to this process. In terms of methods, we might try and combine traditional content analyses of the press, radio and television with forms of network analysis to explore online patterns of connectivity (local, national, global etc).

Understanding people’s media practices is, of course, more challenging but we might use a combination of diaries, interviews and ethnography to examine everyday preferences and habits alongside process of meaning-making and people’s (mediated) experiences.

Media influence, models and audiences

To what extent do media and their audiences mutually influence each other and what kind of research (questions) would be useful to better understand this interaction?

Models that emphasise the power of the media (top-down) and the audience (bottom-up) have largely been discarded and now it’s a question of trying to build framework that are able to account for questions of power and domination (who owns and regulates the media, who appears on it, who and what is seen to matter) and agency (people’s ability to switch off or consult alternative sources, the potential of user-generated content).

So, while media and audiences (although they are also ‘producers’ of media in many cases!) do mutually influence each other, some people/institutions are more influential than others.

Elsewhere, one of the key challenges facing scholars at the current time is how to build theoretical and methodological frameworks that are able to capture the complexity of the (mass) mediation of everyday life. Put simply, it’s difficult to think of an area of public life (politics, health, economy, sport, transport) where debates are not shaped, framed and informed by the media.

As a result, there has been a shift from theorising the media as one important institution among many, to thinking about the way in which the media mediate between different constituencies. This is what Nick Couldry is talking about when he refers to the ‘myth of the mediated centre’, arguing that the media position themselves as offering un-rivalled access to society’s key institutions and organisations.

In terms of the nation, I think that we need to draw more of an analytical distinction between the mediation of this or that nation, as groups struggle over key symbolic and material resources, and the mediation of nationhood; the idea that the world is naturally divided up into nations, individuals belong to a nation and, as a result, have certain beliefs, characteristics, responsibilities and entitlements.

Above all, what should be emphasised is the extent to which these processes are viewed as normal, so that they are neither remarked upon nor seen as remarkable. Paraphrasing Roger Silverstone, this means investigating ‘how the media consistently and persistently represent the world [as a world of nations], how they consistently and persistently represent otherness, other peoples, other cultures, and in doing so, how they define for us a relationship to the world’ that is naturalised but certainly not natural (2002: 3).

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