Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Lasswell and Hall – Power and Meaning in Media

Posted on | March 6, 2019 | No Comments

Harold Dwight Lasswell was one of the founding influences on the formation of the study of communication, media studies, and sociology. Stuart Hall was a Rhodes Scholar from Jamaica who helped pioneer an area of research at Birmingham Open University that was later coined British Cultural Studies. Both contributed significantly to media studies during their tenures, and and some of their contributions can be discussed by examining the phrase, first coined by Lasswell:

“Who, says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effect?”

Lasswell Model of Communication

Published in his 1948 essay, “The Structure and Function of Communication in Society,” the Lasswell model is easy to understand, and it works for a wide variety of communication and media activities.[1] Noted for its emphasis on effects, how a message influences an audience member, it was picked up by psychology-oriented scholars to examine the media’s influence on human behaviors, including consumption, violence, and voting behavior. It was the era of radio and a nascent technology called broadcast television and social scientists were interested in the dramatic impacts of propaganda and advertising.

The Lasswell model was often criticized for stressing linear, one-way flows of information. Feedback and message-disturbing “noise” were not directly included, as they would be in the new areas of study called cybernetics (Wiener, Forrester) and information theory (Shannon and Weaver). Hall offered an additional criticism, the Lasswell model minimized the role of power in the communication process.

Here is some of a lecture by Stuart Hall where he discusses how culture gives meaning to things, the human tendency to jointly build maps of intelligibility and to create systems of classification, as well as how signifying practices in media production such as image composition, narration and editing work to make meaning. Hall emphasized the role of power in shaping meanings, especially in media images. At the end of this clip he challenges the Lasswell model. (See the Media Education Foundation (MEF) for the video’s transcript)[2]

Hall reworked Lasswell’s formula into “Who has the power, in what channels, to circulate which meanings, to whom (with what effect)?” He wanted us to examine the meanings of images in such a way to show how different interests work to hold a preferred interpretation of that image. What organizations (news media, industry boards, advertising, government, etc.) and areas of specialization (journalism, medicine, finance, etc.) have the power to enforce and police such meanings? Hall emphasized that because the meanings in images are fundamentally flexible and fluid, “power” works to arrest or fix the meanings associated with the image. Brand management, political communication, and public relations are primarily about establishing a set understanding of media images and continually policing their interpretations.

One way power operates to secure preferred meanings is through systems of classification. Organizing the world into categories helps maintain order by discerning distinct differences in things and making sure they stay in those boxes. It is important to realize that culture works to create and maintain these categories through processes of differentiation and control. These would include antidotes, jokes, memes, metaphors, stories, etc.

For Hall, classification is generative. Once a system of classification is created, other things fall into place and serve to maintain the order of the overall structure. In the US, the category of the presidency has recently been challenged by a series of elected candidates that upset traditional notions of who is eligible. George W. Bush was the son a previous president, raising issues of nepotism. Barack Obama, being black, challenged many Americans’ sense of who was racially eligible to be in the “Oval Office.” More recently, Donald Trump, who never held elected office or ran a large organization, was considered by many to be unfit and unqualified to hold the office. These category fits are important to people and a major source of social strife in modern society.

Hall’s primary interest was cultural studies. He helped shift the the study of culture from high culture to popular culture. “Culture, he argued, does not consist of what the educated élites happen to fancy, such as classical music or the fine arts.” The value in such studies is that they can tell about other parts of society that have been marginalized. They can tell us things about how race, gender, and economic classes are rendered in modern society.[3]

His work on Race: The Floating Signifier is a classic on the fluidity of meanings associated with representations of race. Here he expands his work on classification, drawing on the area of semiotics. Semiotics is based on the study of signs, divided into signifiers and signified; the thing and its meaning. He used this approach to examine how culture influences the way we see race as part of a system of classification that is used to order society and the types of people within it.

For Hall, race has physical characteristics, primarily, hair and skin color. But a range of meanings and values are associated with races, those signifiers. He uses a concept by Mary Douglas, “matter out of place” to describe the implications of those classifications. In her Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), she argued that we constantly construct symbolic orders that evaluate and rank items and events. Hall recounts her example of dirt in the bedroom and dirt in the garden. One is “dirty” the other is natural. One is problematic and needs to be addressed at once, the other is invisible. In sum, “dirt” is matter out of place.

For Hall, this is part of the Enlightenment’s project to bring all experience into observation and understanding. The panoptic view of Hall reiterates Michel Foucault’s admonition in Power/Knowledge (1980) that it is not so much that information is power, but rather, it is power that shapes information.[4][5]

Stuart Hall died on February 10, 2014. His legacy was being a major contributor to the creation of cultural studies and specifically, the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies. He warned that power engages in securing preferred meanings to keep the understanding of images from sliding into other interpretations and thus empowering other groups or individuals who would benefit from another set of meanings.

Notes

[1] Lasswell, H. D. (1948). “The Structure and Function of Communication in Society.” In L. Bryson (Ed.), The Communication of Ideas. (pp. 37-51). New York: Harper and Row.
[2] The transcript and the video Representation & the Media Produced & Directed by Dr. Sut Jhally. Edited by: Sanjay Talreja, Sut Jhally & Mary Patierno. Featuring a lecture by Stuart Hall Professor, The Open University and introduced by Sut Jhally University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Distributed by Media Education Foundation (MEF) that produces and “distributes documentary films and other educational resources to inspire critical thinking about the social, political, and cultural impact of American mass media.”
[3] Hsu, Hua. “Stuart Hall and the Rise of Cultural Studies.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 17 July 2017, www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/stuart-hall-and-the-rise-of-cultural-studies.
[4] Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Trans. Colin Gordon et al. New York: Pantheon.
[5] Mason, Moya K. Foucault and His Panopticon. 2019. Accessed March 6, 2019.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY Korea, he taught at New York University (NYU) for 15 years and at Marist College in New York before his move to Manhattan. His first academic position was at Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent ten years at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally from New York, his US home is now in Austin, Texas where he also taught in the Digital MBA program at St. Edward’s University.

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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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