How Not to Establish a Subfield: Media Sociology in the United States

Abstract

US-American sociology has largely failed to examine the transformation of mediated communication of the past 20 years. If sociology is to be conceived as a general social science concerned with analyzing and critically scrutinizing past, present, and future conditions of collective human existence, this failure, and the ignorance it engenders, is detrimental. This ignorance, we argue, may be traced back to the weak self-identity, institutionalization and position of media sociology in the discipline. Our argument here is threefold: 1) There was an opportunity structure for specialization, that is, a venerable research tradition in media sociology since the first half of the twentieth century. This tradition links back to classics in sociology and peaked at a time (1970s and 1980s) when the discipline differentiated institutionally and many new sections emerged in the American Sociological Association. 2) Despite this tradition, media sociology has not become established in sociology in the United States until recently. 3) Lastly, we locate reasons for non-establishment on three distinct but interconnected levels: the history of ideas in media sociology, institutional/disciplinary history, and disciplinary politics.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This logic influences the ways information is processed, organized, presented by different institutions and recognized by its recipients.

  2. 2.

    To put it in simplistic terms, the hypodermic needle theory suggests that media are able to “inject” certain opinions into the masses who follow them passively. The mirror theory of media effect assumes that media are a mere reflection of social reality.

  3. 3.

    Shortly after he presented the proposal, Weber initiated legal action for slander against one newspaper and essentially demanded a breach of editorial confidentiality. The willingness of newspaper publishers to cooperate with Weber—one important precondition of the project—was in question after this episode (see Meyen and Löblich 2006).

  4. 4.

    The only analog in the US would be McChesney (1999) and Baker’s (2002) work on the political economy of media, both of which had some impact in media sociology as well. We would like to thank Paul Jones for his helpful comments about the history of cultural studies and these parallels.

  5. 5.

    Goffman’s dramaturgical approach to social interaction has also been used to understand the impact of electronic media in public and private life, which occurs through the separation of spatiality and sociality (Meyrowitz 1985).

  6. 6.

    Framing also became part of a more expansive theory of media effects in communication science associated with agenda-setting, which hold that if media assign importance to certain issues they will also be deemed important by the public (Iyengar and Simon 1993; McCombs and Shaw 1972; Scheufele and Tewksbury 2007).

  7. 7.

    A full text search of a vast digital library of English books archived by Google. We searched the corpus of books published in the United States until 2008. The corpus excludes low quality scans as well as serials.

  8. 8.

    The German Communication Association (DGPuK) also has a section on sociology of media communication (“Soziologie der Medienkommunikation”). The DGS and DGPuK sections organize joint section conferences together.

  9. 9.

    Given that section membership did not increase significantly in the first year after the section rebranding confirmed the expectation from a survey, which suggested that most petition signatories preferred a separate media sociology section.

  10. 10.

    In the ongoing fractal cycles of disciplines, conflicts arise based on ever-proliferating oppositions. Success of one side over the other usually involves “bringing the conceptual and substantive knowledge of the defeated side of a dichotomy under the victorious one” (Abbott 2001:20). This tendency is rooted in the social sciences’ “urge to comprehensiveness that always ends up taking in more than it can digest” (ibid.:35), according to Abbott.

  11. 11.

    See: “Brief History of the Department of Communication at Michigan State,” retrieved from http://cas.msu.edu/places/departments/communication/history/ (accessed March 19, 2015).

  12. 12.

    At that time, big departments listed close to 40 specialties, which was capped to 10 in the annual questionnaires the ASA circulated among sociology departments in the following years.

  13. 13.

    The panel resulted in a special edition on media sociology of The American Sociologist (volume 40, issue 3).

  14. 14.

    In the German context, this macro understanding is much more pronounced to the extent that such organizational studies of media production would not even be considered as media sociology (Ziemann 2006).

  15. 15.

    Between 1970 and 1988 the number of sections in the ASA multiplied more than threefold from eight to 27, see: http://www.asanet.org/asa-communities/asa-sections/all-about-sections/section-membership-history/section-statistics (accessed July 28, 2016).

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Valerie Belair-Gagnon, Christian Daye, Shai Dromi, Jon Fernquest, Paul Jones, Andrew Lindner, Brian McKernan, Michael Schudson and Katharina Scherke for comments on previous drafts of this article. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Matthias Revers, Goethe-University, Frankfurt, Department of Sociology, Campus Westend, Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 6, PEG, Office 3.G 149, 60323 Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Email:revers.matthias@gmail.com.

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Revers, M., Brienza, C. How Not to Establish a Subfield: Media Sociology in the United States. Am Soc 49, 352–368 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-017-9364-y

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Keywords

  • Sociology of media
  • Sociology of news
  • Sociology of mass communication
  • History of sociology
  • Specialization