Electronic Journal of Sociology (2004)

ISSN: 1198 3655

Through the Looking Glass: Class and Reality in Television

Monica Brasted, Ph.D
SUNY College
[email protected]


Sociologists have long recognized that our social class influences how we experience the world. Our social position even influences our consumption of cultural products such as television programs. It is possible that different classes watch different programs, however, it is also possible that these classes watch the same programs, yet interpret them differently due to their class status. A review of a study done by Andrea Press (1991) on women of different classes watching television is provided as an example of this theory in practice.

It has long been recognized that our social position or social class determines how we experience the world. The life experiences of a greeter at Wal-Mart are much different than those of the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Our social class influences in profound ways everything from the cars we drive, the houses we live in, and the types of food we eat. Our social class even influence, according to some, our consumption of cultural products such as television shows, theatre events, and music performances. That is, a person’s position in society can determine the television shows he or she will watch and how he or she will interpret them. In this paper I will explore the link between social class, culture, and interpretation of cultural product in greater detail.

First, a definition of culture. According to Fiske (1990), our "culture" consists of the meanings we make of our social experience and of our social relations. Culture is the meaning we ascribe to life. Culture provides us with a sense of our selves and who we are in relations to others around us. Culture is very important not only because of its key role in defining our social and psychological identities (even our human identity) but also because, according to some theorists, class experience is deeply inscribed in our consumption of culture. That is, the experience of culture (and thus the meanings about our world that we derive from that culture) is dependent on our position in society.

It is often argued that different classes watch different television programs. For example, upper class members may be more likely to tune into a symphony on PBS, while lower class members are more likely to be watching The Simpsons on FOX. Bourdieu (1980) argues for social class viewing differences based on his concept of cultural capital. By cultural capital he means that a society’s culture is as unequally distributed as its material wealth and that, like material wealth, it serves to identify class interests and to promote and naturalize class differences (Fiske, p.18). Therefore, those cultural forms that a society considers to be “high”, such as, classical music, haute cuisine/fashion, and fine art or the ballet, coincide with the tastes of those with social power, whereas low or mass cultural forms appeal to those ranked low on the social structure. In other words, those who have taste and powers of discrimination (i.e., the upper classes and elites) go to syphonies and eat cavier. Those who do not have taste or power (the middle and lower classes) do not.

According to Bourdieu, culture, and the knowledge that is integral to it, is replacing economics as a means of differentiating classes. It is, in this view, always possible to tell someone's social class by the concerts they see and the magazines they read.

For Bourdieu, the existence of cultural capital reveals the efforts of the dominant classes to control culture for their own interests as effectively as they control the circulation of wealth. Like money and our access to it, there is an illusion of equal availability. However, cultural capital is actually confined to those with class power and this restriction of access contributes to the continued stratification of classes. In othe rwords, culture becomes a mechanism of class differentiation and determines the kinds of consumption you can engage in. For example, with the advent of cable television, higher classes often times have more television viewing choices than lower classes because they can afford it.

There is a problem here though and that is with the exclusivity of cultural boundaries. Bourdieu (and others) often assume a direct one to one relationship between class, culture, and consumptions patterns. But is this so. That is, does the existence of a stratified cultural universe where the upper classes are expected to go to symphonies and the lower classes are expected to watch the Simpson's really exist in strict form. Does this really mean that the different classes will consume different programs?

Perhaps we can learn something about the permeability of class boundaries and the fuzziness of cultural capital by considering television. We live in a culture in which television is a main component. The majority of homes in the United States contain at least one television set. The widespread accessibility of television programs to the various social classes makes it unique among cultural products. Therefore, the stratification that results from the consumption of traditional cultural products such as live symphony concerts or theatrical productions may not be found in the case of television. The cleaning person, who may not be able to attend a live symphony concert, can still enjoy one through the medium of television. Mass culture, such as television, can work to undermine class divisions at the level of culture. The result, some would argue (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1977), is homogenization of the classes rather than stratification. In other words, a coming together or commonality among the classes is created. The boss and the employee are now able to share their viewing experiences of the final episode of Friends with one another around the water cooler.

Of course, the homogenization of classes through mass culture has met with criticism since homogenization does not mean equality among the classes. The Frankfurt School (a critical school of German sociology) was one of the first to examine the relationship between culture and class. They were concerned with the influence that the elites had over the working class in society.

Unlike Bourdieu, who believed that cultural capital could be used to exert control and to distinguish the chosen on the hierarchies of class, wealth, and power, the Frankfurt School viewed high culture such as symphony music, great literature and art as something that had its own integrity and inherent value and could not be used by elites to enhance their personal power (Baran and Davis 1995). Under the culture industry all art was affirming of the status quo. However, the Frankfurt School wanted to regain high culture forms of art because they believed it was the one area where there could be negation of the status quo. Still, though high culture was extolled by the Frankfurt School, mass culture was denigrated. Horkheimer and Adorno of the Frankfurt School were openly skeptical that high culture could or should be communicated through media. In their critique of mass culture, the Frankfurt School feared that if bad substitutes for high culture were made available, too many people would settle for them and fail to support the better forms of culture. This relates to their belief that mass culture undermined class divisions at the level of culture by homogenizing the classes. To learn more, Horkheimer and Adorno (1977) develop their criticisms in the article, “The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception.”

So which one is it? Does culture reinforce the status quo or can culture (high or no) be seen as a location for resistance and the removal of class distinctions and hierarchical organization. To answer this question, we need to take a closer look at what actually goes on the the cultural industry.

Basically, cultural products, such as television programs, can be viewed as commodities that businesses create. The rules that govern cultural production are the same that govern other types of mass production. That is, what sells is what will be produced, or in the case of television, the programs that draw the largest audiences are the ones that will be aired. In television there is an appearance of choice, however, the differentiation of products reflects the differentiation of audiences they have created. This differentiation is created in the minds of the audience by mass culture when in fact there really isn’t much difference in products. The media, and the television industry in particular, don’t produce radical products because they must support the status quo. The media industry is influenced by a concentration of ownership that fosters support for the status quo and discourages challenges to the social structure. Production is standardized to reduce risk, but minor changes occur to give the perception that there isn’t standardization and the illusion of freedom. I often hear people complain that they have hundreds of channels, but they can’t find anything to watch. The multiple channels give us the illusion of choice, but the reality is that the programming really doesn’t vary that much.

With the commodification of culture, individuals become reduced to customers and ideological choice is removed. In the case of television, viewers become customers on two levels. On the first level, they are consumers of the individual programs. For example, they will shop for a program that will fulfill their particular need for entertainment or information. On the second level, they are potential customers to be sold to the advertisers that buy airtime during particular programs. The larger the ratings and the greater the number of viewers of a program, the more an advertiser will pay to reach potential customers. Advertisers are willing to spend millions of dollars during the Super Bowl just to broadcast their sixty-second commercial to all of the potential customers who are tuned in. In addition to turning individuals into customers, another criticism is that the more culture and television are commodified, the more they lose any critical potential. As discussed previously, television tends to support the status quo and not challenge the dominant ideology. Rather than be a tool of social criticism, the television industry reinforces the dominant ideologies which are that of consumerism, liberalism, and capitalsm. No real choice is provided.

While this may appear a bleak situation, and while the producers of the television programs may intend to reinforce the dominant ideology, does this mean that they actually succeed? To answer this question we have to look at the way television programs are received by the viewer. That is, is the meaning is encoded in the television shows the meaning that the viewer receives? Put another way, does television simply inject us with ideas or can we, as consumers of television meaning, do "something more" with the ideas presented to us?

At one time it was thought that mass consumers were passive consumers and that they simply absorbed in rote and mindless fashion the meanings beamed through them through the cultural products of television. Media theorists no longer think like that and today argue that people are not “cultural dupes” (Hall, 1981) and that the possibility does exist for people to resist the preferred interpretation of a text.

The critical cultural approach to studying media has been responsible for the shift from the question of ideology embedded in media texts to the question of how this ideology might be read by its audience. A key contributor, Stuart Hall (1980), proposed a model of encoding-decoding media discourse which represented the media text as located between its producers, who framed meaning in a certain way, and its audience, who decoded the meaning according to their rather different social situations and frames of interpretations. Social position or social class does influence the meaning an individual takes from a text. Therefore, although the boss and the employee can now talk about the final episode of Friends they both watched the night before, their experiences and the meanings they take from the program can be very different.

By re-empowering the audience and recognizing individual differences in life experiences and interpretations, the idea of the homogenization of culture has been resisted. The critical cultural studies approach has led to a wider view of the social and cultural influences that mediate the experience of the media, especially ethnicity, gender, and everyday life.

To understand how audiences accept or resist media, we should look neither at the individual nor the masses but rather at social groups. Based on their experiences as members of social groups, audience members are able to interact with a text decoding it as an act of resistance that is influenced by their social location and grouping. They are able to interpret texts created by the dominant ideology in an oppositional way. Because of the polysemy or multiple meanings in texts and the ability of audience members to resist the dominant ideology, the homogenization of culture can be avoided.

Television programs contain multiple meanings not because of the way they are produced but because of the differences located in the viewers. The potential meaning derived from a program is influenced by the social status of the viewers. Although we know that there is a link between social status and cultural consumption of texts, we are not able to predict the actual reading any one viewer may make. We can, however, identify textual characteristics that make polysemic readings possible, and theorize (try to explain) the relation between textual structure and social structure that make polysemic readings necessary.

Meaning is a site of struggle and television attempts to control its meaning. It is the polysemy of television that makes the struggle for meaning possible, and its popularity in class structured societies that make it necessary. The dominated class does have the power to make their own culture out of the products of the culture industry. The preferred reading of a popular text in mass culture attempts a hegemonic function in favor of the culturally dominant. The reader, who statistically is almost certain to be one of the culturally subordinate, is invited to cooperate with the text, to decode it according to codes that fit easily with those of the dominant ideology, and if one accepts the invitation, is rewarded with pleasure (Fiske, p.359). However, the texts can be deconstructed to reveal their instability, their gaps, their internal contradictions and their arbitrary textuality. This reveals their potential for readings that are produced by the audiences, not by the culture industry. This enables members of subordinate subcultures to generate meanings that relate to their own cultural experience and position, meanings that serve their interests and not those of cultural domination.

Put another way, it is possible to say that even if most people in a class society are subordinated, they have a degree of power to shape meanings to support their own lived experiences of the world. There is popular cultural capital in a way that there is no popular economic capital and thus Bourdieu’s institutionally validated cultural capital of the bourgeoisie is constantly being opposed, interrogated, marginalized, scandalized, and evaded, in a way that economic capital never is (Fiske, p.314). In the best of cases, the subordinate classes are able to use the culture provided by the mega-media monopoligies to express and promote their own economic, social, and political interests. The alternative ideologies of these social groups as they intersect with the cultural capital of the elites enable them to resist the preferred readings and to produce resistive meanings and pleasures that are ultimately a form of social power.

For example, women have been empowered through their interpretations of texts. The potential for oppositional reading and resistance has been invoked both to explain why women seem attracted to media content with overtly patriarchal messages, such as romance fiction, and to help reevaluate the surface meaning of this attraction (Radway, 1984). Basically, differently gendered media culture, whatever the causes and the forms taken, evokes different responses, and those differences in gender lead to alternative modes of taking meaning from media. There are also differences in selection and context of use, which have wider cultural and social implications (Morley, 1986).

Andrea Press (1991) provides a good examination of women, class and television in her study entitled, Women Watching Television: Gender, Class and Generation in the American Television Experience. In her book, Press examined the relationship between the representations television presents to women of themselves and their own self-images. She asked how women’s self-conceptions correspond to television images, whether women identify with the female characters they see on television, and whether women use television images in forming their own self-images. She also framed her research with a focus on gender and class by addressing the following questions: Can it be said that television reinforces patriarchal values in our culture? If so, how does television contribute to women’s oppression? Is television in any way implicated when women act to resist their domination in our culture? How does it function to aid this kind of cultural resistance (p.9)?

In addressing these questions Press focused on women’s responses to varying depiction’s of women’s relationship to work and family, since “it was these particular qualities of television’s women which seemed to provoke characteristic responses from each of the two groups (middle-class and working-class women), and since the issue of balancing work and family is central to the current shift in women’s identities in our culture (p.11).”

Press concluded that the answers to the questions raised in her research depended on several factors, the most important being the social class of the women studied. Press contended that women’s inclination to identify with television characters varies with their assessment of the realism of these characters and their social world. She found that working-class women were much more likely to find television characters and situations “real” than were middle-class women. However, she suggests that their evaluations of realism reflect their wishes about reality, especially material reality, rather than any objective assessment of the accuracy of television’s depiction. On the other hand, working-class women were critical of the depictions of their class on television and find these depictions’s to be unrealistic. Middle-class women were found to be more critical of the reality of the depictions but still identified more with the television characters on a personal level. Press concluded that for middle-class women, the television is both a source of feminist resistance to the status quo because of its images of female strength, and at the same time a source for the reinforcement of many of the status quo’s patriarchal values (p.96).

Her findings led her to conclude that the hegemonic aspects of television are more gender-specific for middle-class women and that television’s hegemonic function works in more class-specific ways for working-class women. Press argued that how women interact with television culturally is more a function of their social class membership than their membership in a particular gender group. Women’s reception of television is affected by both their position as women in our society and their membership in social class and age groups. In comparing the remarks of women of different social classes, Press found that television contributes to their oppression in the family and the workplace both as women and, for working-class women, as members of the working-class. Press criticized the media for creating a societal ideal of women in the workplace and the traditional nuclear family, which is not easily attainable. In their ideal depiction of women in the workplace and family, television does not address the real problems and issues that are faced by women. As we know, television does create false images and distortions of reality. Press argued, “by ignoring almost entirely the issues that are centrally important in structuring the real lives of working women, television can only be seen to help glorify and support a status quo that is in many ways oppressive to women. Television’s unwillingness to confront, admit, and address so many troublesome aspects of women’s situations in our society is unfortunately one of the strongest forces ensuring that it is perpetuated (p.48).”

Press concluded that while women criticize television and resist much of its impact, it is clear that television contributes to the dimensions of women’s oppression. Television is both a source of resistance to the status quo for different groups or women and a reinforcer for the patriarchal and capitalist values that characterize the status quo (Press, p.177).

Press’s study provides a good example of how women from different classes interpret programs in different ways. Unlike Bourdieu’s argument that the classes possess different cultural capital and watch different programs, Press has shown that even though cultural capital may vary, class differences don’t prevent women from consuming the same cultural products! Women then use the information provided to actively understand their experience in ways that both challenge the hegemony of the ruling classes and, simultaneously, reinforce the status quo.

In conclusion, television has the power to support the dominant classes and the status quo by reinforcing the dominant ideology through its routinized program choices. However, because people are not cultural dupes who blindly believe all that is presented to them, they are able to interpret television programs in different ways. Thus, television also provides the possibility of resistance though how effective that resistance might be remains an open question.


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