Thursday, 4 October 2012

SCAM - or Soc Cult?

What to call this blog? I want to write about the sociology of culture... but that sounds a bit too earnest. 'Soc Cult' was a possibility - the abbreviation is popular for courses on the sociology of culture. But SCAM was what two courses that I've taught has been called; the acronym stands for Sociology of Culture and Media. But it caught on as a label because both staff and students through it was a bit of a 'scam' to study for a degree course by watching television and talking about newspapers. So SCAM it is...

I've been teaching and writing about the sociology of culture for many years and have followed various themes. I began with a PhD on the sociology of knowledge and read quite a bit of Karl Mannheim's work including his essays on the sociology of culture. When I was a graduate student, Mannheim's interests seemed a bit distant; he was into sculpture and intergenerational history and the connections between classes and belief systems. What I was interested in was what was then still 'new media' - television, pop music, movies, magazines and videos. Cultural studies and media studies have taken on some of the approaches of the study of literature including its critical theory to study the modern channels of cultural stuff. But what has always interested me is how cultural products always connect back to the society that they emerge from and that uses them. Societies make culture for themselves.

We could say that culture to some degree reflects the society that it comes from; it gives some clues about its values, interests, they way lives are lived, what sociologists and anthropologists call the 'mores', the accepted ways of doing things. But it is not a simple mirror on a society, reflecting it as it is; it at least distorts what is going on and sometimes originates or extends a new idea or perspective. Nonetheless, I often found when I was teaching sociology in seminars that as I moved between small groups discussing, say, Marx's analysis of class relationships, I would get to the next group and they would be talking about something they had seen on television the night before. Perhaps they'd got stuck with what 'embourgeoisement' meant in the question on the board so they'd turned to social chat while waiting for me. But I liked to start with the television programme - perhaps a soap opera like Coronation Street - and work from the storyline back to the topic of class and embourgeoisement. It worked surprisingly well for a very wide variety of sociological topics and it got me interested in television and how it is related to society.

Television is a fascinating medium because it draws in all sorts of other media; novels get adapted for television, plays can be shown just as they are played on the stage or scripts can become screenplays that are filmed like a movie. Music can be shown as it is performed and whole cinema films can be fitted into the schedules on the small screen. What makes television famously different from most other media is that it can be live; we can watch Mo Farah win the 10,000 metres at the Olympics as it happens. We can join in the excitement of the crowd who are watching because none of us knows who will win the race until it happens. And when it does we can jump for joy simultaneously with all those people in the stadium, tens, hundreds or thousands of miles away from us. But unlike those who are actually there, we can watch it again and again because as well as 'live', television can do 'recorded'. Of course television has become so powerful a medium that it actually turns up at live events so that those at the back can also watch in close-up on a big screen - and the screen can give them the action replay too. At sports events and pop festivals - anywhere where there is a big crowd - television has become part of the live experience, amplifying the visual and capturing it for a second, later viewing, perhaps at a slower pace or from a different camera angle.

When television shows sports events it reflects something that is of interest and concern to lots of people in society (though far from everyone). An event like the Olympics is global and interests people in many different countries but interestingly the way in which it is shared through television still retains a national society perspective. Each country likes to send its own television crew to record the event in a way that will be of greatest interest to the viewers back home, with an emphasis on their team. Nonetheless, there are values and mores displayed in sports events that, for the most part, cross national boundaries - it is a part of the Olympic ethic, for example, that excellence in performance will be the dominating factor. But more than that, participants are not only expected to do their best as but also to be a 'good sport', to be graceful in defeat, to applaud the winner and to leave other issues - such as politics and economics - aside. In the reporting of 2012 Olympics there was great emphasis on women's achievements in a variety of sports and the Paralympics have attracted more interest and attention than ever before. It is reasonable to conclude that there has been a shift over successive Olympics in the way that women and those with bodily impairments are seen and valued by their society; the television reflects these changes to everyone who watches, including those who just catch a few moments on news or magazine programmes.

So television can reflect social values, mores and the morality of what is good and bad. It is a supreme means for distributing these ideas because it is not dependent on much in the way of prior knowledge - you don't have to be literate to get most of the messages. Television is not only a live medium, it is very good at remembering. The 'golden oldie' radio show that rediscovers the music that was popular a few years ago has provided a staple format for whole programmes that recall periods of recent television history; comedians and comedy shows, soap operas and variety shows as well as pop music. The television corporations have built up wonderful archives of previously broadcast material of every description that can be cut up and re-edited into new programmes. The past is also reconstructed to become a visual experience in costume dramas and 'reality' history programmes like BBC's Victorian Farm. These reflections of the past provide a comparison with contemporary life, showing how lives were lived, showing, the moral order as it was, such as, for example, the boundaries between women's and mens roles Of course we should be cautious about the exactitude of representations of both past and future society - things are always more complex than they appear on the small screen.

Television as it is broadcast has become a repository for ideas and values, a way that the members of a society remind themselves about what is important. And what is most import is how they live together, how they treat each other, what is acceptable and what isn't. Television isn't real - even the so-called 'reality' shows are constructed out of what is concocted in front of a camera and deemed worth showing - it is an imaginary experience that the audience consumes as two-dimensional moving images with synchronised sound through an electronic device. I think of television as being a 'moral imaginary', a continually changing and modifying repository of ideas, values, ways of being and doing, attitudes and emotions that is available to all those who wish to tune in. For all its flaws and limitations, television is a potent channel of communicating between all those in a society who can never meet each other face to face, just what it is that they share and that makes them a society. 

Tim Dant is Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, UK, and is the author of Television and the Moral Imaginary: Society through the Small Screen, London, Palgrave, 2012.

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