Thursday, August 30, 2012

Communication, Democracy, and Despotism

So, I was working on an article about the concept of information in the context of the field of media ecology, and as I started to discuss information as a function of communication, I immediately thought of Harold Lasswell, a mass communication scholar whose work is foundational in that area of study.  Lasswell is also well known, indeed better known, in the field of political science.

Lasswell is typically cited in communication textbooks for two reasons.  One of them is that he identified three main functions of mass communication:  surveillance (gathering information about the environment and making it available within the social system), correlation (evaluating the information collected, deciding what to do about it, and coordinating activities by way of response), and cultural transmission (socialization and education, maintaining tradition and cultural continuity, and what Alfred Korzybski called time-binding).  

Charles C. Wright added a fourth function to Lasswell's triad, entertainment, and as Neil Postman argues in Amusing Ourselves to Death, it's the only function that matters in the television medium, or at least the need to satisfy that function is so overwhelming that it contaminates and undermines the other three.

But, anyway, back to Lasswell, and I'll get to his other claim to fame in the field of communication in a bit, but first I wanted to mention that when I took a look to see what there was about him online, I came across his Wikipedia entry, naturally enough, and was interested to learn that he was a member of the Chicago School of Sociology, in addition to later becoming a professor of law at Yale. As a member of the Chicago School, he was heavily influenced by the philosophy of pragmatism, and particularly by John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead.  Mead is the founder of the symbolic interaction approach of social psychology, later popularized by Erving Goffman, which we also consider part of the field of media ecology. 

Mead insisted on taking a behavioral approach, albeit one distinct from that of Pavlov and Skinner, less empirical, more theoretical, and allowing for the phenomenon of mind as a form of behavior. Dealing with human behavior in a qualitative manner leads naturally to functionalism, behavior being a function of the mind, or at least the nervous system/organism.  

James W. Carey also employed functionalism in his media ecology approach, known outside of our field as American cultural studies, arguing that you cannot study an entire society empirically by way of testing and using control groups, which makes it difficult to talk about the effects of media on the level of society, which in turn is why so much emphasis was placed on behavioral studies of the effects of media content on individuals.  That is, you can set up an empirical, quantitative study on whether watching a particular TV program leads to an increase in aggressive behavior, but you cannot do the same to find out whether the widespread adoption of television viewing within a society leads to increased incidence of violence.  So we can get precise answers, but only for trivial questions, whereas the really interesting and significant questions need to be dealt with by other means.  Specifically, you can talk about function, which implies effects (the function of informing, for example, and the effect of being informed), albeit indirectly. Carey's main influence, it's worth noting, was the seminal media ecology scholar Harold Innis, who like Lasswell was a graduate of the

I suspect that the influence of the Chicago School on Lasswell's work has been underestimated, or at least overshadowed by the fact that he relied heavily on Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories as he engaged in pioneering work in propaganda analysis.  Here, let me quote some of the
Wikipedia entry:

More influential, however, was Freudian philosophy, which informed much of his analysis of propaganda and communication in general. During World War II, Lasswell held the position of Chief of the Experimental Division for the Study of War Time Communications at the Library of Congress. He analyzed Nazi propaganda films to identify mechanisms of persuasion used to secure the acquiescence and support of the German populace for Hitler and his wartime atrocities. Always forward-looking, late in his life, Lasswell experimented with questions concerning astropolitics, the political consequences of colonization of other planets, and the "machinehood of humanity."

The machinehood of humanity!  Clearly, this was a play on the title of Korzybski's first book, The Manhood of Humanity, not surprising in that general semantics provided significant contributions to the analysis of propaganda, and general semantics was well known in the field of communication during Lasswell's time.  And that's not to mention the fact that Korzybski was originally based in Chicago, and like Lasswell, later moved to Connecticut.  I'm not aware of any interaction that went on between them, however.  In any event, clearly Lasswell had some interest in science fiction as well as futurism, and the machinehood of humanity refers to a time when artificial intelligence outstrips human biological intelligence, making us somewhat obsolescent (in McLuhan's view, that would free humanity up to become an art form).

Anyway, what follows in the entry brings us back to behavior, as opposed to the prior emphasis on psychoanalysis:
Lasswell's work was important in the post-World War II development of behavioralism. Similarly, his definition of propaganda was also viewed as an important development to understanding the goal of propaganda. Laswell's studies on propraganda, produced breakthroughs on the subject to broaden current views on the means and stated objectives that could be achieved through propaganda to include not only the change of opinions but also change in actions. 
The entry also notes his influence on the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, which takes me back to my old doctoral student days, when I studied propaganda with Terry Moran in the late, lamented media ecology program. I should add that Terry's mentor in propaganda analysis was the mass communication scholar George Gordon (no connection to Lord Byron, no), who spent the last years of his career at Fordham University, and was my colleague here back when I was a junior faculty member). And of course, Lasswell was a key source for Jacques Ellul in his book Propaganda, and elsewhere, especially in Lasswell's emphasis on propaganda directed within a society to gain cooperation, as opposed to propaganda directed at other societies, and attempting to influence political, economic, and military decision-making. This helped Ellul to form the distinction between sociological and political propaganda, as well as the propaganda of integration as opposed to the propaganda of agitation.  Also significant for Ellul was the shift in stress from a prior focus on propaganda as an attempt to influence people' attitudes, to Lassell's view that the main goal of the propagandist is to control people's behavior.  Again, note the emphasis on behavior, and the clarification of the function of propaganda.

So, now for some fun.  I looked over on YouTube to see if there was anything concerning Harold Lasswell, and actually there are quite a few videos of various individuals talking about him, and I came across this video, whose opening immediately caught my idea, with images of Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, and Donna Haraway (although no attempt is made to connect these scholars to Lasswell).  I also found the student-eye view (my guess is graduate students made this video, but maybe they're advanced undergrads) of us professors pretty hilarious, although I hasten to add that there is some nice background information on Lasswell here as well:

So, as the video mentions, Lasswell also came up with one of the basic models of communication, in some ways similar to the Shannon-Weaver Model (which I've mentioned before here, for example, see my previous post Children are the Living Messages We Send to a Time We Will Not See), but one that is verbal rather than diagrammatic.  Here it is in the form of a sentence:  Who says what to whom, in what channel, and with what effect?  And the fact that it helps to establish areas of research within the field is certainly useful (although I'd prefer source analysis rather than control analysis, and audience analysis is now often referred to as reception instead).


Whether "to whom" comes before or after the "channel" and whether it's "in what" or "in which" is of no great import, but I always thought that the phrase "in what channel" was out of place, given the simplicity of the model, and when I taught introductory courses, I liked to substitute "how" instead, and present it as a series of questions:

Says what?
To whom? 
And with what effect?

In the field of media ecology, we see this type of point-to-point communication as a special case, but more generally view the process as one of communing, sharing meaning, binding communities together and establishing continuity over time, in addition to sending signals across distances. And communication also involves interacting with an environment. Channel implies a link between sender and receiver, a connection, and not an environment that surrounds the communicators, envelopes them, and provides the basis for their communication. 

Of course, on a more basic level, the model is biased towards the sender, rather than being a receiver-oriented model, which would look like this:

Hears what?
From whom?
And with what effect?

This variation resembles Lasswell's model of politics, which goes like this:  Who gets what, when, and how?  But what would a media ecological version of the model look like? Maybe something like, Within what medium do what effects emerge our of what relationships among which participants?  Well, maybe that one needs more work, or maybe it just won't work out in the end.

But whatever the criticisms of the Lasswell Model, he deserves a great deal of credit for including the question of effects, a point that most other models of communication ignore, or take for granted.  Media ecology has sometimes been referred to as an "effects" tradition, and  it certainly is true that we are concerned with the impact, consequences and effects of technology and techniques, codes and modes of communication, of form, relationship, grammar, and the like. Of course, we've moved away from cause-and-effect terminology, as that is problematic, and alternatives such as formal cause and emergent phenomena seem better suited to our approach and subject matter.

My search on YouTube also yielded two old 10-minute Encyclopedia Britannica Films made in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, both of which feature Harold Lasswell.  While there is a certain campy charm in the old style of educational films, These films, while dated in certain ways, and not without their amusing moments, still are much more to be taken seriously, even now, or especially now, as compared to other films of this sort from that era.  Let's start with the one on Despotism, a subject of immediate interest following the defeat of Nazism and fascism, and the onset of the Cold War, and yet not at all irrelevant today:

It can happen here is an important message indeed, one we need to keep in mind, with the price of liberty being eternal vigilance after all.  So, we really have to ask whether we've moved farther away from despotism, or slid a bit closer in the 66 years since these films were made, or perhaps more to the point, in what ways have we moved in the right direction, and in what ways the wrong?  

And now for the flip side, let's hear all about democracy:

I don't know about you, but I find Lasswell's commentary, and especially his insight on the relationship between economic balance and democracy, altogether impressive.  Ah, Harold, I think we could really use the likes of you these days!

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