Table of Contents



Title page

Copyright page

Figures and Text Boxes



1 Introduction: Digital Media and Social Theory

Metaphors of media change

Towards a socially oriented media theory

The digital revolution and its uncertainties

A toolkit and some guiding principles

2 Media as Practice

The background in media research

Practice in social theory

The varieties of media-related practice


3 Media as Ritual and Social Form

Practice and social order: a key debate

Media as ritual

The flexibility of media rituals

The banalization of media events

Celebrity culture

4 Media and the Hidden Shaping of the Social

The distinctive nature of media power

Hidden injuries of media power

Digital media as democratization?

Media and the shaping of public discourse


5 Network Society, Networked Politics?

The missing social

Digital media, politics and social transformation

New routes to public politics

6 Media and the Transformation of Capital and Authority

The mediatization debate

Media, capital and authority

Media and the fields of politics, education, religion and art


7 Media Cultures: A World Unfolding

What is a media culture?

Media cultures seen from the perspective of needs

Political needs


8 Media Ethics, Media Justice

Paths not taken

The virtues of media practice

Media injustices

Conclusion: around the fixed point of our need . . . 



To Louise

Title page

Figures and Text Boxes

Figure 1.1 What kind of media theory?

Box 2.1 Twitter and Practice Theory

Box 3.1 The Apprentice, UK

Box 4.1 Jade Goody

Box 6.1 The Ansar Dine Movement in Mali

The axis of reference of our examination must be rotated, but around the fixed point of our real need.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1978 [1953]: 46


This book is about media’s contribution to social organization and to our sense of living in a world. The book’s main title needs unpacking. Society remains the usual word for the containers of social organization within which we live, even though the boundaries of national societies no longer contain all the processes that make up our sense of living ‘together’ and even though some important groups (stateless people, those who migrate regularly across state boundaries to earn enough to eat) do not live simply in one ‘society’. World refers to the environments which make sense to us as spaces for living, up to and including the scale of the planet. Media as a term is intended to be narrower than ‘communication’, but much wider than the media that have made up traditional media (newspapers, radio, television, film). By ‘media’, I mean to cover all institutionalized structures, forms, formats and interfaces for disseminating symbolic content. When virtually all symbolic content is digital and many platforms carry both mass produced content and interpersonal communication, the old research divide between ‘mass media’ and general ‘communication’ becomes blurred, but I retain the word ‘media’ to signal that it is the institutionalized forms of, and platforms for, producing, disseminating and receiving content that are this book’s primary focus. Media in this sense are inescapably entangled with power relations.

In my subtitle, I signal two wrong turns in understanding the relations between media, society and world that I wish to avoid. As many writers argue,1 media commentary about media is a poor guide to understanding what is going on with media, and for a number of reasons. Mass media production is directly influenced by marketing practice, particularly the push of those who want to promote new products, interfaces and platforms and claim some hold on ‘the future of media’. Media commentators on media (and their sources) are often part of a technophiliac elite, and so their interpretations of what’s happening with media are tied up with their own strategies of distinction. Media institutions’ underlying interests in sustaining their position as a ‘central’ social infrastructure (as the place we go to find out ‘what’s going on’) influence the accounts that media outlets give of the difference media make to social life. To avoid the trap of following media hype, research must remain close to what people – all people, not just a technophiliac elite – are doing with media. You will not therefore find much attention given in this book to early adopters: I am more interested in habits of media use across wider populations. It is only in everyday media practice and everyday assumptions about how to get things done through media, where to get information and images from, what can be circulated and how, that we get a grip on media’s relations to society and world. Some of those assumptions have been changing rapidly in the past fifteen years or so.

Talking about media’s relations to ‘society’ and ‘world’ means, whether explicitly or not, taking a view on what ‘there is’ in the social world, that is, adopting a social ontology: what types of things, relations and processes are there in the spaces we call ‘social’? At some level, this involves drawing on social theory. But here we must avoid a more subtle trap: drawing on a version of social theory that constrains how we understand what is going on with media.

Three types of problem have contributed to this. First, until at least the early 1990s, most sociology and social theory neglected to say anything about media. This only began to be reversed with Anthony Giddens’s work on modernity, John Thompson’s work on media and modernity and Manuel Castells’s work on the rise of ‘the network society’, which followed on, although not directly, from important work on the social adaptation and domestication of communications and other technology in the 1980s.2 The same blind spot,3 incidentally, has characterized political theory and taken even longer to be noticed. Second, these crucial interventions in understanding how media alter the possibilities of social organization did not inspire a broader set of investigations, for example about how media change sociology’s other terms of reference (class, group formation and so on). As a result, there is, as yet, no comprehensive account of how media change social ontology, and this book cannot fill that huge gap. Third, some sociologists have started to make media their priority, and particularly the technological base of media, but within a version of social theory that is unhelpful for understanding media and media’s role in social life. Such work is influenced sometimes by a turn towards ‘non-representational theory’, or more broadly towards a rejection of any notion of social order, preferring instead an exclusive language of ‘affect’, ‘intensities’ and even ‘pure immanence’. Leaving aside broader philosophical objections,4 such approaches are analytically unhelpful in grasping how media represent the world, and, in particular, how they represent the social and its processes of ordering, since representing the social is one of the main things media institutions do. They are also politically unhelpful because they seem to turn their back on media’s role in the production of social knowledge and media’s failures to represent the increasingly unequal worlds in which we live.

In thinking about media, I will draw on, and develop, a version of social theory that takes seriously the role that representations, power over representations and how we interact with technologies of representation, play in the possibility of something like ‘social order’. Social order is not a given or natural state; it is constructed practically and represented symbolically, and media representations of the ‘order’ of social life help enact and perform that order. At the level of social theory, the book starts out in chapters 1 and 2 with ontology (what there is in the social and media world). I move on in chapters 3 and 4 to divisions and categorizations (how media divide up the social world, and also claim to bring it together). In chapters 5 and 6, I turn to accumulation – the gathering of social resources for building or opposing power – and the systemic complexities that arise from accumulation and competition. Chapters 7 and 8 move on to questions of evaluation: the needs that shape how individual groups and cultures select from the infinite variety of media and our broader frameworks for assessing whether media contribute to a life together that we can value and that is just. What binds together these themes is a concern to understand better media’s contribution to our possibilities for knowledge, agency and ethics.

Three other points about this book’s approach to media: first, it is not media-centric. I do not assume media are the most important things in people’s lives; a problem with media studies is that it often seems to assume this. Instead, my approach is grounded in the analysis of everyday action and habit. The social grounding of media analysis is particularly important when the forms and technological basis of media outputs are changing fast. From this broader starting point, difficult questions arise: can there be a separate media sociology or media studies? Does the exponential growth of media and communication networks across borders render a sociology focused on national societies redundant? Has the nature of power itself been fundamentally transformed by these processes? How are media changing the phenomenology and ethics of everyday life? Second, my approach is focused primarily not on the production of media outputs, interfaces and platforms but on what people do with them once produced. This book is therefore intended to complement the political economy research which has transformed our understanding of how media get made and circulated, and of the economic forces that shape such production and circulation.5 This is because my own work comes originally out of audience research. However, a simple boundary between researching media production or researching consumption is now unsustainable: political economy must consider the production work of consumers or audiences, while this book strays at times into considering logics of production. Some division of labour between ‘political economy’ and ‘audience’ research remains necessary, given the sheer size of each domain. Third, the book is intended as a toolkit for thinking about everyday practice in relation to digital media through the lens of social theory. While chapters 1 and 2 lay some foundations (an overall perspective on current transformations in media and on the varieties of practice), readers may choose their own path through the remaining chapters, depending on the particular questions in which they are most interested.

In pursuing the many paths that led to this book, I owe a deep debt to two key mentors: David Morley, my MA and PhD supervisor, who saw some research potential in a man in his thirties on a media masters; and the late Roger Silverstone, an examiner of my PhD thesis and, at the London School of Economics, the founder of Media@LSE and then the new Department of Media and Communications, exciting developments of which I was proud to be part.

Thanks to students on the option course on ‘Media Rituals’ that I taught at LSE between 2002 and 2005 and at Goldsmiths since 2006. Their insights and scepticism kept me on track, even as the ‘common sense’ about media changed hugely during the 2000s. Various colleagues and friends, in person or through their writing, have been important interlocutors as I developed these ideas: Sarah Banet-Weiser, Rod Benson, Göran Bolin, Richard Butsch, Jessica Clark, Paul Frosh, Jeremy Gilbert, Jonathan Gray, Melissa Gregg, James Hay, Dave Hesmondhalgh, Marwan Kraidy, Sonia Livingstone, Mirca Madianou, Robin Mansell, Divya McMillin, Toby Miller, Laurie Ouellette, Jack Qiu, Paddy Scannell, Johanna Sumiala, Joe Turow, Bruce Williams and Liesbet van Zoonen. Special thanks to Andreas Hepp, James Curran and Polity’s anonymous reviewers for their comments on draft chapters. Thanks also to Andreas Hepp, Matt Hills, Stewart Hoover, Sebastian Kubitschko, Mia Løvheim, Scott Rodgers, Jeffrey Wimmer and my MA students, Harris MacLeod, Sujin Oh and Yingxi Ziang, for suggesting useful references.

Particular thanks to Andrea Drugan who since 2005 has been an inspiring (and patient!) editor at Polity Press.

Thanks also to: Anglia Ruskin University where I presented a version of chapter 5 at the Platform Politics conference in May 2011; Bremen University where I gave a version of chapter 6 at the Mediatized Worlds conference in April 2011; JMK, Stockholm University where, as Albert Bonnier Visiting Professor, I gave talks based on chapters 6 and 7 in May 2011; and Warwick University where I gave a keynote based on chapter 7 to their fifth interdisciplinary postgraduate conference in March 2011. I am grateful to fellow members of the NSF-funded CultureDigitally symposium, and especially to Tarleton Gillespie (Cornell) and Hector Postigo (Temple), its leaders, for stimulating discussions, and to Gail Ferguson, Polity’s copy-editor, who saved me from many errors and infelicities.

This book has gestated for years but actually been written in the midst of an extremely busy time. Only one person knows how difficult this has been, my wife Louise Edwards. Above all, I want to thank Louise for her love, support and belief throughout, and long before, this book’s work. For her, only the old Latin tag will do. Sine qua non: without whom, not.

Nick Couldry

London, September 2011


1 See, from various perspectives, Livingstone (1999: 61), Caldwell (2000: 15), Herring (2004), Hijazi-Omari and Ribak (2008).

2 Giddens (1990), Thompson (1995), Castells (1996), Silverstone (1994). More recently, see Beck (2000a: 12), Hardt and Negri (2000: 347–8), Urry (2000: 183).

3 Jensen (2010: 105).

4 I deal with aspects of this elsewhere: Couldry (2010: ch. 5).

5 Important recent work includes: Bagdikian (2004), Curran and Seaton (2007), Curran, Fenton and Freedman (forthcoming), Hesmondhalgh (2007), Kraidy and Khalil (2009), Mayer (2011), McChesney (2008), Mosco (2009), Schiller (2007), Chakravarty and Zhao (2008).