Ideology in Media Studies

Ideology is a difficult - but important - concept to grasp. Simply put, it is the ideas behind a media text, the secret (or sometimes not-so secret) agenda of its producers. It is important to be able to identify the different ideological discourses that may be present in even an apparently simple photograph.

In sociological terms, ideology is a body of ideas or set of beliefs that underpins a process or institution and leads to social relations. These sets of beliefs are those held by groups within society, and the prevalent ones are those held by the ruling/dominant groups.

Dominant ideology or hegemony

In any society the accepted and agreed beliefs are those of the ruling class, i.e. the class which is the ruling material (with all the money) force is at the same time its ruling intellectual (with all the ideas) force. Christianity is the main historical example (think of how many legal systems take Christian moral values as their basis)- are there any modern day equivalents? Football currently has hegemonic status in the UK - glance through the sports pages and see what coverage other sports get - and everyone is expected to understand and accept its national importance.

Hegemony is not a forced political movement, however. To use the previous example, no one is forced to watch/listen to/read about football. It's just sometimes it seems that there are few alternatives. This is how hegemonies take hold: a majority decide to 'fit in' with the cultural values and ideas of their time and place and the minority keep their objections quiet. Hegemony is about consent, and one of the things it consents to is inequality - us and them.

What part does the media have to play in developing and maintaining a hegemony?

- Institutions, language, news/information, arbiting taste, regulating output, representations, ownership, authorship

What part does the media have to play in opposing/altering the hegemony?

-Challenging all of the above by presenting the alternatives in a positive light

Ideological Discourse

These are the issues/attitudes debated over in the Media which form part of the everyday ideological discourse in our society. The views taken on these subjects form the basis of our social rules and practice:

To test your understanding of the above, read a newspaper article and

  1. make a note of any language which assumes the reader holds the same attitudes/values as the writer
  2. list the ideological discourses which are referred to either directly or indirectly
  3. assess what part this particular article plays in maintaining or otherwise hegemonic belief. How does what is said correspond to what the reader wants to read?

Preferred reading

Producers of a media text design it with a certain meaning in mind. They hope that audiences will decode their text in a certain way - particularly if the text is an advertisement. Preferred readings are those which tie in with hegemonic beliefs.

The Beauty Myth

For instance, the idea of beauty and the 'ideal' female shape propounded in Western magazines bears little to no relation to the measurements of the majority of Western women. It is accepted as 'natural' that models in women's magazines should be young and drastically underweight. Since the 1960s the preferred reading has been that these women are beautiful. However, there are signs that, as hegemonic belief begins to adapt to the concerns of many that this body shape is actually unhealthy, the preferred reading is beginning to shift.

Over recent years, size zero models have been banned from the catwalk in fashion weeks the world over. Beauty magazine editors have responded to reader concerns that the models depicted in their pages are unrealistically thin by pledging to use "real women" instead. Dove, a cosmetics company, has made a global campaign for "real beauty" the cornerstone of its marketing. The outcry over the use of Photoshop to create unrealistically young and slim looking images in advertising continues to gather support. There are signs that the hegemonic standards are in flux.

Oppositional Reading

Texts being texts, however, audiences can choose to read them any way they please. Often, if a text is approached by an audience that it was not originally targeted at (teenage boys reading teenage girls' magazines, for example) they will decode it in an entirely different way to the original intentions of the producers, perhaps deriving humour from something that was meant to be serious (check out women's magazines from the 1950s if you want a laugh in this post-feminist world). The audience may have a very different cultural or social experience from the producer, and may connect signifiers to completely different signifieds. Media texts may be less open than other texts (there is the danger that if you do not read, for example, a Marlboro print ad in a certain way it will make no sense at all) there is still room for oppositional reading.

Alternatives to the Hegemony

Some sections of the media present us with texts that offer alternative readings of society and are often known as 'Fringe media'. Media may be defined as 'alternative' through

The Internet And Hegemony

Fringe media in past decades took the form of cheaply produced fanzines & comics, skate videos, pirate radio and TV broadcasts etc, but the Internet changed all that. Many groups and beliefs which could not find public space through mainly economic constraints now have a platform to air their ideologies. It is difficult to predict how this might erode the hegemony in the long run. A comparative historical example would be the 'Pamphlet Wars' of 17th Century England. After the breakdown of censorship following the execution of the King in 1642, people - for the first time - were free to print exactly what they wanted. And they did. A lot of these pamphlets were unintelligible garbage about gardening that no one ever read, but the seeds of popular dissension were widely and efficiently spread, and the result was the breakdown of the monarchy and the Mother of All Parliaments.

Modern debate revolves around who has control of the internet. Some governments (e.g. China) place rigid controls on what their citizens can and can't access via the internet. Other entities (e.g. Google) also place controls on the information we can obtain via our browsers, although their censorship is more subtle. However, internet users find ways to escape and challenge controls, and post/read information in defiance of authority. Does this mean the end of hegemony as we know it, as we move towards a pluralistic society? Or will governments and big business gain control over the internet, restricting our access to information, and channeling only hegemonic viewpoints once again? Watch this space.