Medium theory and cultural transformations

Authored by: Joshua Meyrowitz

Routledge Handbook of Cultural Sociology

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  November  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138288621
eBook ISBN: 9781315267784
Adobe ISBN:


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Most studies of media have focused on topics such as how audiences perceive and respond to media content or how political and economic forces shape dominant media messages. Such content-centric research, though important, ignores questions about how changes in forms of communication – apart from specific messages – may undermine old patterns of social interaction and stimulate new ones. This chapter discusses “medium theory” – how the distinct characteristics of each medium (and of each type of media) have cultural influence. Microlevel medium theory explores the consequences of the choice of one medium over another in a particular situation. Macrolevel medium theory explores broader questions about the ways in which changes in media encourage or constrain various modes of thinking, group and religious identity, nationalism, socialization stages, gender roles, status differences, value systems, collective memory, and even the layout of the built environment. This chapter provides an overview of the work of medium theorists (including Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and Walter Ong), outlines four communication/cultural phases as conceived of by macrolevel medium theory, and describes limits of the medium-theory perspective. Pervasive surveillance, hacking, mediatization, technological convergence, battles over intellectual property and net neutrality, propaganda, and the “internet of things” are also briefly addressed.

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