A society’s relationship with its media is grounded in the idea that there truly is a relationship. The state of the society affects the media and visa versa. The effects of media are well researched and yet still controversial because of their unquantifiable properties. According to Elizabeth Perse, “The study of media effects is grounded in the belief that mass communication has noticeable effects on individuals, society, and culture. Evidence for these findings, though, is problematic” (Perse, 2001, p. 22). There is a lack of truly convincing evidence to prove the extent of media influence on society and the techniques for observing and understanding media effects can be called anything but refined. These hindrances cannot claim to nullify the idea that media effects exist and that media’s effects on society do not have substantial consequences when they influence a great mass of people. Perse explains the background and importance of mass media studies by outlining several models of media effects in areas such as socialization, sexually explicit content and its effects on crisis. She explains that, “As mass communications students and scholars, we should always keep in mind that the goal of our study is improvement – to find ways to mitigate the negative effects and enhance the positive effects of mass communication” (Perse, 2001, p. 259).
Some of these effects include that of mass or popular culture creation. “Popular culture and the mass media have a symbiotic relationship: each depends on the other in an intimate collaboration” (Shuker, 2001, p. 3, quoting Turner, 1984, p. 4). This relationship is one that is often discussed as being problematic because of the power that media holds as an ubiquitous entity of influence. Dire consequences can result from industry corruption, power abuse, and an underestimation of the power potential of the media itself. The events ensuing from the radio broadcast of the Mercury Theater’s War of the Worlds in 1938 shed light on these potential consequences. The broadcast depicted a Martian invasion in New Jersey. An estimated 1.2 million people succumbed to hysteria and panicked in the streets. Many fled to the country while others seized arms and prepared to fight the pugnacious invaders. These events transpired despite interruptions in the program to reassure listeners that it was mere fantasy. Scientists who research media effects in labs have said that the influence of the media on the masses is much less substantial than previously thought (Perse 2001). One must use discretion when considering these lab results. Many lab experiments failed to accurately recreate the potential effects of the media because they limit participant response variability. Without knowing for sure, the possibility still remains that many are underestimating media’s mass effects.
This subject of mass effects encompass other areas that lie outside of mass communication as well. Antonio Gramsci defines cultural hegemony in his work The Prison Notebooks (1975). The scholarly discourse surrounding hegemony has stamped it as a philosophical and sociological concept wherein a society of diverse individuals can be ruled or dominated by one of its social classes. The ideas of the ruling class then come to be seen by the majority of society as the norm, as universal ideologies. Gramsci, a Neo-Marxist, constructs the concept of hegemony through the lens of economics and capitalism. He saw the dominant ideology as being perceived as universally beneficial, while actually being exclusively beneficial to only the ruling class. He explains that cultural hegemony is neither monolithic nor unified; rather, it is a complex of layered social structures, each obtaining its own vocation and internal logic while simultaneously recognizing and contributing to the greater whole. Each individual’s life contributes to the greater society’s hegemony, but most do not recognize the hegemonic structures they live in because they take the norms to be common sense and never question them. Gramsci cries out, asking individuals to neither perceive the prevalent cultural norms as natural nor inevitable. Rather, he asks individuals to investigate the prevalent norms for their roots in societal domination and their implications for societal control and liberation.
Connected to the understanding of hegemony or a homogeneous society is its conception as a means of control. Hegemony creates normalizing effects on a society, eventually homogenizing the preceding individualism within the population. Michel Foucault (1978) speaks about the Panoptcon, a jail that was designed by Jeremy Bentham in 1785 in relation to the idea of control. Refer to Figure 1. The panopticon has a watchtower in the middle of a “periperic ring” of cells that have two windows each that allow light to fill each cell and cast the prisoner into a state of perpetual observation. While in the center tower, the single guard exudes an aura of omniscience because no prisoner knows exactly if and when they are being watched. The prisoners must then behave at all times and eventually discipline themselves, thus producing a homogenizing effect on the entire population of prisoners. “The Panopticon is a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power” (Foucault, 1977, p. 202). Foucault’s statement, “whatever use one may wish to put it to” is interesting and important because the principle of his book shows how the concept and installment of the panopticon has expanded past jail walls into society itself. Society itself has become a building where each individual is being constantly observed by institutions of control. This new type of supervision has created a carceral society where the knowledge and inspection of men is used to control their actions and create a hegemonic effect throughout society. This panopticism, he argues, is woven into the fabric of society where the individual is totally exposed while the forces of coercion are hard to discern because they are veiled behind the natural mechanisms of society. Introducing the concept of “power-knowledge”, where institutions of control (e.g., schools, barracks, factories, prisons, etc.) all use their knowledge as justification and means for control and homogenization, he cautions that society is filled with panopticon-like institutions and there is now an systematic correction of individuality that is used to ultimately utilize wo/man for the production of power.