John Tomlinson is a professor of Cultural Sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He has explored various topics such as the culture of speed, the public culture of contemporary capitalism and the social and cultural theory of modernity and he is an authority on the cultural aspects of the globalization process.
In this study, Tomlinson explores the debate about media imperialism. In order to make sense of the issue, he analyzes how media imperialism has been defined by other media theorists and then challenges the assumptions made.
Tomlinson begins by examining Dallas, a massively popular American TV series. Dallas’ narrative celebrated and glorified power and wealth and thus theorists believed it had an ideological manipulative effect on the viewers. Tomlinson analyzes a study on the popularity of the show and concludes that viewers find pleasure in watching the program because they simply enjoyed its melodramatic narrative structure, and this had no necessary connection with the power of American culture or the values of consumer capitalism.
Tomlinson then examines a study conducted by Katz and Liebes on the impact of Dallas on different ethnic groups in Israel and how they respond to the messages. Viewers were split into focus groups of three people because meanings of TV texts are believed to be established through a social process of viewing and discursive interpretation. The groups viewed and discussed the show and then were questioned. Based on the questionnaires, they found that different ethnic groups brought their own values to a judgment of the program and even rejected Western values of the show. Furthermore they found that the program reinforced the audience’s own cultural values. Consequently this can’t be taken as evidence of the programs ideological effect because viewers have their own previous set of beliefs on issues between wealth and happiness before watching the show. This demonstrates that “audiences are more active and critical, their responses more complex and reflective, and their cultural values more resistant to manipulation and invasion than many critical media theorist have assumed” (50).
Tomlinson then examines the limitations of empirical research. He explains that there is an artificial nature of any controlled viewing because viewers are being asked to watch a program in a critical manner which makes them critics rather than viewers and in turn makes them active viewers which might no occur in everyday viewing. The manner in which the data is interpreted is also problematic and central to the debate over media effects. The problem lies in whether researcher can correctly interpret responses from a different cultural context in terms of their own cultural understanding. Tomlinson furthers the limitations by examining Chaplin and his ability to make both a man in the poorest state of Brazil and a European sociologist laugh simultaneously. Tomlinson presents the idea of a ‘universal appeal’ however he finds that “the appeal to common humanity…is a denial of essential cultural difference” (53). This idea of universality raises questions about who is making the claim and that claims on universality is always made by a dominant culture. Furthermore he explains that “communality- humanity breaking through the cultural divide- is only a comforting inference from the ambiguous phenomena of laughter” (54). Consequently this idea of universalism simply ignores the problem of interpretation.
The last problem facing empirical work is the question of whether it can be generalized. Katz and Liebes had suggested that their group was a “microcosm of the worldwide audience of Dallas” however Tomlinson argues that there is a higher degree of cultural proximity between these ethnic groups who have chosen to emigrate and who are residents in a modern state and Westerners which allow for cross-cultural understanding. Due to these all these limitations the cultural imperialism argument may be inconclusive.
Tomlinson concludes his discussion by examining the cultural implications of the presence of media in society. Based on the assumption that media are at the center of cultural processes, it is believed that media allows for people in mass socially fragmented capitalist societies to gain a sense of social totality by allowing viewers to perceive the worlds and lived realties of others. However Tomlinson explains that the relationship between media and culture is an interplay of meditations. He argues that people believe the media to be a dominant representation aspect of modern culture however it is still dependent on the lived experience of culture, which is the interaction of friends families and routine life. For example, what we make of a TV program is constantly influenced and shaped by whatever else is going on in our lives. However at the same time, our lives are lived as representation to ourselves in terms of the representation present in our culture such as media. Tomlinson exemplifies this through the use of love in media and real life. Love on TV may add to or shape our real experiences but can’t determine our experiences. There is a constant interchange between our real life and the things seen through the media and it is “implausible to think of real life as absolutely immediate experiences, entirely separate from cultural representations”.