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The Critical Theory of Communication (Essay Sample)


The sample is an essay on the role of critical theory in communication and information. Critical theory challenges the position and role of communication, media, and technology in the current (largely) capitalistic societies. It answers the question: “How can the various concepts of media and communication such as capital accumulation, audience commodity, hegemony, propaganda, and fetishization relate and interact to bring about a just and equal society? The paper also discusses the advantages and disadvantages of critical theory in comparison to traditional theories of communication, and provides examples of studies that use critical theory to argue for a more egalitarian society.


The Critical Theory of Communication
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The Critical Theory of Communication
Critical theory refers to the body of knowledge that analyses societal problems and questions social inequality and domination as a means of fostering social change. It is a multidisciplinary and systematic theoretical construct that attempts to confront and challenge the political and socio-economic problems precipitated by capitalism (Held, 1980). The theory addresses the issues of resource ownership, power, resource distribution, resource control, domination, and social struggles, and in which capitalistic structures are perceived as undesirable. According to Horkheimer (1972), the goal of critical theory is the emancipation of society to improve human existence and bring happiness and self-determination for all.
In the context of communication and information, critical theory challenges the position and role of information, communication, media, and technology in contemporary capitalistic societies (Fuchs, 2016). It analyses media, information, and communication in relation to domination, social inequalities, control, exploitation, and oppression with the aim of contributing to the establishment of a co-operative and participatory society. It analyses how the different media and communication concepts such as capital accumulation in media, ideological state apparatuses, audience commodity, fetishization, hegemony, reification, repressive and emancipatory use of media, radical and alternative media, propaganda, informational capitalism, and technological rationality relate and interact to bring about radical change (Schiller, 1973).
Critical communication studies are grounded in the Western European Marxist works of several generations of German social theorists and philosophers known as the Frankfurt School. The first generation’s (1890 – 1970) most prominent critical theorists included Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Friedrich Pollock, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm, and Walter Benjamin. The second-generation critical theorists emerged in the 1970’s with the most prominent being Jürgen Habermas who globalized the Frankfurt School. Richard Bernstein significantly contributed to the development of critical theory in the United States (Fuchs, 2016). The third generation of critical theory scholars mainly include Habermas’ research students in Germany and the United States, and independent scholars influenced by the works of previous critical philosophers. Most notable are Andrew Feenberg, Albrecht Wellmer, Axel Honneth, Rainer Forst, Noam Chomsky, Herbert Schillers, Christian Fuchs, and Cristina Lafont.
Critical theorists argue that that the concentration of corporate control of the channels of communication and culture not only breeds domination and social inequality but also undermines democracy (Schiller, 1973). Chomsky and Herman (2008) state that fulfilling the role of the mass media to inform, entertain, and inculcate value systems in a world where official censorship and monopolistic control over the media is a norm is difficult, if not impossible. The media exists to serve the interests of a dominant elite.
McChesney posits that for a co-operative and participatory democracy to work, there must be a level of wealth and income equality, a communal sense of responsibility among the governing and the governed, and an efficient communication system that passes un-biased and accurate information to the public (Held, 1980). These factors are expressly lacking in most capitalistic and bureaucratic states. Socioeconomic contrarieties confer political powers to a small elite and inhibit the citizens from actively participating in state politics. In such structures, the dominant few exercise control over the media thereby ‘shaping’ information in a manner consistent with eternalizing the domination of the ruling-class (Schiller, 1973). Such is the case in modern capitalistic societies such as the United States.
Fuchs (2016) emphasizes the need for a broader concept of the critical theory of media, technology, and culture. The critical theory of communication provides an analysis of capitalism and domination in the context of media in a contemporary society. An objectivist approach to media and communication only serves to commoditize information, a position supported by Day (2001). Therefore, the task of critical theory is to provide alternative modes of media and channels of communication that do not exist within the realm of capitalism and domination. Information should be viewed as dialectical and should be consumed and understood through the processes of communication, cognition, and co-operation (Fuchs 2016).
In many countries around the world, there is a disproportionate distribution of wealth and income. Money and power exert significant influence on the interests and choices of the mass media (Schiller, 1973). The government and dominant corporates and individuals determine what is newsworthy as to be passed as information to the public by ‘’filtering” out the news. According to Chomsky and Herman (2008), the filters are exercised through, inter alia, limiting the ownership of the media by requiring substantial investments to establish a media outlet. For example, in Britain, the cost of setting up a profitable national weekly in 1837 was less than a thousand pounds with a break-even circulation of 6,200 copies. Fifty years later, the cost had shot to over two million pounds with a break-even circulation of over 250,000 copies. In the United States, the start-up costs of a new paper today entails millions of dollars compared to a century ago where they averaged $500,000 (Chomsky & Herman, 2008). As such, the ownership of the media in both developed and underdeveloped countries falls in the hands of key corporations, families, and governments.
For instance, in the U.S., media organizations are owned by big profit-based corporate conglomerates such as General Electric (part owner of CNBC, NBC, Bravo, MSG Network, MSNBC, National Geographic, American Movie Classics, A&E, Biography Channel, History Channel, among others), the News Corporation (Fox News, Wall Street Journal, 20th Century Fox, Fox Channel, sports teams, and stadiums), Walt Disney (Disney Channel, E!, ESPN, Classic Sports, and Lifetime Network), and Time Warner (Turner Broadcasting, publishing houses, magazines, sports teams, theme parks, and music and film production companies) (Chomsky & Herman, 2008). In 1983, majority of the U.S. print and electronic media houses were operated by 50 corporations but by 2004, the ownership was concentrated among five corporations (Fuchs, 2016). Critical theory examines why giant corporations are interested in media ownership, what information they construct, and how the information shapes the masses’ perception of the world around them.
The domination of the media by the elite and subsequent control over what is considered newsworthy occurs in such a natural fashion that even the news people, despite exercising the requisite professional values, integrity, and goodwill, believe that they objectively inform. Corporate media operates within a propaganda system that is fundamentally ingrained into the communication channels (Chomsky & Herman, 2008). Critical analysis proposes that mass culture and means of communication naturally exist to serve the interests of their owners and proxies with the ultimate purpose of maintaining the status quo. As Schiller (1973) observes, contrary to popular belief that television and radio programming in capitalistic structures aims to arouse concern about social and economic realities, it aims, in reality, to reduce the concern of the masses about the world around them and to help capitalists sell more goods and services through advertising (p.31).
Critical theory has several advantages over the traditional theories. Critical analysis combines theory and practice with the goal of moving from mere theoretical development (Potter, 2003). Additionally, as opposed to the conventional analyses which seek to predict, explain, control, and enhance understanding of the subject matters, critical theorists seek positive social reconstruction. The theories are intended at empowering those whose ideological perspectives are yet to find equality in social-economic structures (Fuchs, 2016). For example, by addressing the question of the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few elites, critical theories empower the citizenry to interpret public information and make social and political decisions intelligently. Critical theorists share the terminal objective of creating a society founded upon reason, justice and freedom. Through these theories, therefore, social change in developed and developing countries is possible. The theories act as guides to effective and responsible social actions (Potter, 2003).
The theories have several weaknesses. Critical theories are subjectivist. Unlike empirical analyses which seek to determine an objective reality, the theories focus on the subjective behaviors of the giver and receiver of information. Thus, a question emerges of whose value sets are contextually better (Potter, 2003). The theories imply that critical scholars and practitioners have special insight and superior moral understanding to perceive the interests and conditions of other human beings and that they should, therefore, act as their liberators.
The informants of mass media are often conscious, and their understanding and interpretation of the information passed to them is informed by their social contexts. The ideals of justice, reason, and freedom propagated b...

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