Why, and How, Social Theorists Should Engage with Audiences for News and Current Affairs
by Rob Stones
I decided to write Why Current Affairs Needs Social Theory because I felt that if social theory truly harbours the potential to illuminate social life then it should play a much more significant role in the public sphere than it presently does. If it proved not to be up to the task then perhaps it wasn’t as important as I’d come to think it was. News and current affairs are at the heart of the public sphere, of the arena where socio-political and cultural ideas, values and strategies are most widely discussed and debated. So it seemed to me that the two worlds – social theory and current affairs – needed to be explored for points of intersection and potential engagement. A large number of social theorists would feel intuitively they have special insights into the realms that news and current affairs focus upon; that they have significant things to contribute to knowledge about such matters that could not be contributed by the uninitiated layperson. I found that translating this intuition into something more substantial was far more difficult than I’d envisaged.
Let me start by noting, starkly, what the book does, and by then simply listing the substantive topics the book addresses. This will indicate what kind of book we are dealing with, and will establish that this really is social theory engaging with the raw material of news and current affairs. So here we go. The volume provides conceptual tools for audiences to bring greater sophistication to their interpretations of news and current affairs texts, aiming to develop their capacity to analyse individual texts, but also to think across items and genres. The value of the conceptual tools are demonstrated with respect to a wide range of current affairs issues, involving accounts of: Israeli settlers on the West Bank, the Rwandan genocide, the Egyptian ‘revolution’, the Obama administration’s immigration reform bill, the bases of Germany’s economic success, the conflict between ‘red shirts’ and ‘yellow shirts’ in Thailand, China’s diplomatic relations with Burma, and scandals of mistreatment within the UK and Swedish healthcare systems.
An early chapter is devoted to the analysis of an episode of the Danish political drama, Borgen, in order to: reveal the sophistication that audiences already possess; provide a set of benchmarks against which to judge the relative poverty of many – but not all – of the news and current affairs texts that follow; and spell out the additional reflexivity and conceptual refinement social theory can provide. The interplay between the conceptual tools of social theory and the detail of current affairs texts about particular issues lies at the heart of my argument in the book. The power of the case studies, and ultimately of the book, rests or falls on how convincing its accounts of this interplay prove to be. My purpose in this blog is to recount the steps that took me to the point of making the argument in the way I did, to signpost in a general way what is new in what the book offers, and to highlight the challenges social and cultural theorists need to respond to in order to communicate more clearly with a wider audience. Naturally, in the process, I hope to engage theorists sufficiently for them to want to read the book.
The various case studies listed above represent the end result of a protracted process in which I grappled with a series of intellectual and presentational obstacles. One problem confronting my resolve to try and bring theory to bear on the realm of current affairs was immediately obvious. The language of news and current affairs, especially at the sharp end of television news and newspaper coverage – whether in paper or digital form – is simply a long way from the language of social theory. This poses a problem for any theorist, whatever their special interests, attachments and orientations. If we feel that social theory has something to contribute, and we are serious about enabling it to do just that, then we need to take on the challenge of thinking through how the two languages might be brought into meaningful dialogue with each other. How can they connect, so that each can inform the other?
Of course, something in the general vicinity of this has already been attempted by a number of eminent sociologists, cultural analysts, and media and communications researchers, either engaging directly with news and current affairs texts or, more tangentially, in looking at the political economy or political sociology of news production and effects. These attempts fall into two main types. One type, usually from the left, and not without insight, typically adopts an Olympian vantage point from which to criticise the existing presentation of news and current affairs as ‘ideological’ in one way or another. These critics implicitly suggest that they could do it better if only they were given the opportunity. Another type analyses in closer detail what we might call ‘the rhetoric of the text’, revealing various tropes and strategies lying behind the surface of the words and images presented to us. Analysts reveal the techniques of persuasion at work.
However, what has not previously been attempted, and what Why Current Affairs Needs Social Theory provides, is the construction, on the basis of social theory, of guidelines that can be used to assess the quality of the knowledge within current affairs texts. That is, guidelines that can not only assist one to reveal the techniques of persuasion, but can also enable one to focus in on the specifics of knowledge claims, and the extent to which these are substantiated by evidence. The idea is that the guidelines form the pedagogical basis through which audiences can increase their capacity to make informed, critically assured, judgements about the quality of knowledge claims made in news and current affairs texts. The guidelines themselves lead one, firstly, to focus in a particular way on the techniques of persuasion at work in a text. They do this with respect to a certain range of themes, including those of causation, meaning, strategy or policy, and normative judgement, each of which is discussed in the media frames literature (D’Angelo and Kuypers, 2010). The guidelines then turn to looking beyond the techniques of persuasion to questions focused on the quality of knowledge about causation, strategy, and so on, provided by the texts. All of this is done with sensitivity to the fact that accounts are always provided from within a particular ideological frame or value position.
This is to insist that social theory should be given the task of investigating just how good, or bad, news and current affairs texts are at giving us access to what is happening in the world. Such access – as any theoretically versed audience would insist – is never ‘direct’. Texts are mediated representations of the world, their selections, combinations and inflections influenced by a myriad of factors. Texts project ‘ways of seeing’ that already frame and modulate whatever has happened, is happening, in the world. They do not simply provide a picture of how things were, or are, in and of themselves. They indicate how things appear from within a particular perspective. Any notion of good and bad texts, adequate and inadequate accounts, has to start from this vantage point. It would be intrinsic to any theorist’s integrity to insist upon such protocols. Central to my own argument is the insistence that concepts (lucid or haphazard) are a key ingredient of any perspective, and that how texts combine concepts and evidence is key to the way in which they mediate the world. We need to pay particular attention to this relationship in assessing the status and adequacy of a text’s claims to authority.
But, without a doubt, such theoretical scruples and concerns make it difficult to clear a path of easy communication between the world of social theory and the world of news and current affairs. It is patent that the necessary cavils, caveats and equivocations of social theorists – here around issues of epistemology – take us into the realm of the abstract and the abstruse, which is unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory for most audiences, journalists and news editors alike. All this is only intensified once we harness the realm of epistemology to the realm of ontology. Here we bring in the variety of conceptual shapes and generalisations that theorists use to sketch in the characteristics of the substantive entities and relations that make up the social world. These difficulties need to be acknowledged as the first step in the struggle to work out how best to overcome them.
Even the most open-minded theorists have their theoretical preoccupations and biases. Mine are around ideas of social structure, agency, contextual fields, meaning, time, space, power, culture, norms and ethics. My leanings towards these can be partly explained by the fact that I’ve found these notions the most useful for the topics and questions I’ve grappled with, and attempted to shed some light on, during my own intellectual life (See, for example, Stones 2001, 2005, 2008, 2014; Alexander 2003; Parekh, 2002; Giddens, 1984). For me, a way needs to be found to bring the conceptual shapes associated with these favoured notions into dialogue with the empirical evidence manifested in, or absent from, the words and images of current affairs reports. Having noted these leanings, however, the approach endorsed and advocated, in Why Current Affairs Needs Social Theory, is nevertheless, open, inquisitive, and ecumenical. It is liberal in the best sense of that word. My belief is that any meta-theoretical or substantive-theoretical approach worth its salt should be able to guide, and bring illumination to, readings of news and current affairs without renouncing its integrity. A large part of me also thinks there would be more focus, rigour and intellectual discipline in theorizing if greater salience was accorded to such public engagement. It would guard against theory being driven by what James Rule (1997) has referred to as expressive attachment, rather than by the quest for genuine elucidation, explanation, understanding and care.
The abstract conceptual shapes and generalisations that I believe could illuminate the way we see, feel and represent news and current affairs events can be gathered together around the idea of context. A central motif of my book, one whose refrain I evoke again and again, is provided by Pierre Bourdieu’s passing comments, on just two pages of On Television and Journalism (1998), that the lack of context in television news stories reduces events to the level of the absurd. He argues that lack of context renders events so cut-off from their antecedents and consequences that it is impossible to make any sense of them. The result is a series of flash photos, a fragmented, deracinated, de-historicised, ‘litany of events, with no beginning and no real end’, and no meaningful grounding in a discernible sequence or process (1998: 6-7).
To illustrate his point, Bourdieu gives the tangible example of an outbreak of violence in a high school, and indicates that a news story about such an event would immediately become more meaningful, more understandable, if one were able to place it in a broader context. Thus, the violence might be linked to tensions within the homes and families of those involved, and this in turn might be linked to unemployment in the area, which in turn could be linked to changes in government hiring practices. This would provide a context of relevant networks of relations that would seriously deepen understanding of what had happened. Audiences would be able to build up a picture of the forces behind the event, giving temporal depth and spatial breadth to the surface event of the violence. These are profound comments, worth more subsequent attention and theoretical exploration than Bourdieu, it transpired, was able to afford. In many ways, my argument is a prolonged meditation on the implications and potential of Bourdieu’s comments.
Also nestling in Bourdieu’s comments, however, is a set of perhaps excessive expectations about what it is possible for television news to provide. It is not readily apparent how much of ‘the relevant networks of relations’ one might expect television news to offer on any particular event within its early or late evening schedule. One can, in fact, be sure that a lot will be left unsaid in any conceivable state of scheduling affairs. I see this as the cue for my emphasis on the relationship between audiences and texts, rather than on the production of texts per se. Attempts to improve the telling of news are clearly important, but at least as important is a focus on cultivating the critical capacities of audiences, including their ability to reflect upon the limits of the knowledge they receive from a particular news bulletin. Audiences need to be able to reflect on the quality of the knowledge provided by news texts.
Why Current Affairs Needs Social Theory argues that audiences need to be aware of the status and adequacy of the knowledge conveyed in texts, and of what would be required to test the knowledge claims they imply. Audiences should also learn to attune themselves to the task of asking what additional knowledge (which will always include perspective, concepts and evidence combined) would be needed to answer further questions and conundrums, whether these refer to questions of description, causation, moral judgement, or strategic action. A corollary of this is that audiences need to learn how to combine the knowledge acquired from one source with the knowledge available from other sources and genres. This constructive, creative, approach opens up once one acknowledges that television news will always, inevitably, be limited. The focus switches from critique of an existing form towards a critical pedagogy, informed by social theory, in which citizen-audiences engage in an extended process of learning.
Within this approach, context is formalised as the contextual field relevant to any particular news event. The natural response to the dramatic spectacle of a news event should become one in which the reader or viewer attempts to situate it, position it, within a clearly defined network of relations. The relevant antecedent and subsequent networks of relations can potentially be identified and traced. The status of any fragment of knowledge provided by the text should be examined in relation to its embeddedness within such networks. These procedures can be aided by enlisting the powerful metaphor of mapping, whereby a spectacle or event is positioned within its contextual field in relation to other relevant events, entities and relations. Mapping can take place in the imagination, but it can also be literal, with relations translated into graphic visual representations, which is how relevant contextual fields are presented in the book.
Tools are also developed to allow the status of each fragment of knowledge to be assessed. The knowledge provided by a given news or current affairs text is assessed on a number of explicit dimensions, and always in relation to the networks and processes in focus. The dimensions of knowledge assessed include: the levels and degrees of relevant empirical detail provided by an account; its geographical and historical scope; its thick or thin coverage of the relevant conceptualised networks; and the contiguity of its coverage regarding process, by which I mean the more or less unbroken tracking of key relevant moments and sequences in time and space. All of these, moreover, can be assessed from an external perspective. A moment’s reflection tells us that we need to be aware of these characteristics of knowledge if we are to confidently judge the status of our own knowledge. Do we, for example, know enough about the state of things on the ground to advocate one strategy to improve things over an alternative strategy? The quality of our knowledge matters, and if it matters then it is important that we hone our capacity to assess its status.
But then we also need to address the subjective level of the actors involved in a news event, and this requires us to have access of some kind to the internal perspectives of actors. Here, social theory indicates the need to identify the degree of structural-hermeneutic depth provided by a current affairs account, or combination of accounts. How much do we know about the inner-worlds and ways of seeing the world of the people we see on television news, on migrant boats, in prison cells, with guns in their hands, in parliaments, outside courtrooms, and at international summits? Sophisticated social theory guides us away from thinking of such subjectivities as free-floating, uprooted. It directs us to ask how those inner-worlds of people are linked-in to the various pressures and influences emanating from the salient institutions, organisations and broader contextual fields they inhabit. It asks us, also, to notice how much, and how little, we know of all this.
We always know more or less about something, and we know about some things and not others. Within the approach I’m advocating, one soon comes to understand that all news and current affairs stories are made up of patchworks of different kinds of knowledge. Then, at a subsequent level of complexity, we can think about connecting one news story with another, one patch-worked item with another. This is the level of what we might call ‘composite stories’ that critically literate audiences need to be able to weave together on the basis of different sources. Audiences need to be skilled and creative, combining the fresh and fulsome with the threadbare in many different shades. The varying shades and textures will always be intertwined with breaks, gaps, and breaches in the fabrics their creators manage to sew together, over time, and for as long as they remain devoted to that particular story. Our knowledge is always partial and incomplete.
It will be helpful to conclude by saying a few words about the implications of my argument for the practice of enlisting academic experts in television news, documentaries, and journalistic accounts of one kind or another. Artificially, but for the sake of clarity, I will assume that the knowledge possessed by my ideal-type expert of the current affairs of a particular country or field of activity is not guided and informed by social theory. This is, in fact, usually, although not always, the case. I do want to insist that there is something to be said for such experts. They have typically immersed themselves in a specialist field for years, read widely and deeply in that field, and can have a near encyclopaedic grasp of the historical events, processes and dynamics that have made the present what it is. Such dedicated immersion means, to adopt the appropriate idiom, that experts very often know what they’re talking about. What they lack, however, and why social theory is invaluable for current affairs literacy, is the ability to articulate the conceptual guidelines and insights that can be generalised from one case to another.
The social-theoretical paradigm(s) gathered around contextual fields allows us to identify relevant concepts that are durable and transposable from field to field, case to case, situation to situation. It foregrounds them, makes them explicit. It enables us to be clear about these concepts, but it also means we can think through, and practice, what is involved in applying them in situations that are analogous, only partially similar. An expert would struggle to provide a reflexive account of the relationship between concepts and evidence that underlies their own insights. They are less able, also, to reflect back on the character of their way of seeing, or on the status and adequacy of their knowledge. And, their inspiration for new ways of seeing –for better or for worse – will have to come from sources other than imaginative social and cultural theory. They would rely, instead, on an intuitive, practical consciousness. This limits their ability to draw general insights from their knowledge, and thus their capacity for exporting such insights, in a disciplined and systematic manner, to new, unfamiliar cases and situations.
By way of contrast, current affairs audiences exposed over a period of time to the concepts clustered around the idea of the contextual field, drawing on them to actively engage with news and current affairs reports, would come to embody a social-theoretical habitus. They would be much more readily able to provide a reflexive account of the character of their knowledge than would the expert. Like skilled sailors, who learn to tack, haul, beat and zig-zag their yachts in response to all kinds of surprises in the unfolding present, critically literate audiences would be able to draw on their embodied skills adaptively. Their durable, transposable, knowledge could be drawn on pragmatically and creatively, in situ, in those many cases when they encounter texts on aspects of the social world they previously knew little or nothing about.
Rob Stones is Professor of Sociology at the University of Western Sydney. His book Why Current Affairs Needs Social Theory was published in February 2015.
Alexander, Jeffrey. C. (2003) The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1998 ) On Television and Journalism. London: Pluto Press.
D’Angelo, P. and Kuypers, J. (eds) (2010) Doing News Framing Analysis: Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives. London: Routledge.
Giddens, Anthony (1984) The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Parekh, Bhikhu (2002) Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rule, James (1997) Theory and Progress in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stones, Rob (2001) ‘Refusing the Realism-Structuration Divide’, European Journal of Social Theory, vol.4 no.2, pp.177-197. http://est.sagepub.com/content/4/2/177.abstract
Stones, Rob (2005) Structuration Theory. London: Palgrave Macmillan. http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/structuration-theory-rob-stones/?K=9780333793770
Stones, Rob (2008) (ed.) Key Sociological Thinkers [2nd edition], London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan [3rd edition, forthcoming, 2016].
Stones, Rob (2014) ‘Strengths and Weaknesses of Luc Boltanski’s On Critique’, pp.211-234, in Bryan Turner and Simon Susen (eds.) The Spirit of Luc Boltanski: Essays on the ‘Pragmatic Sociology of Critique’. London and New York: Anthem Press. http://www.anthempress.com/the-spirit-of-luc-boltanski
Stones, Rob (2015) Why Current Affairs Needs Social Theory. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic. http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/why-current-affairs-needs-social-theory-9781780931821/
Readers may also be interested in the following publications in Sage journals:
Djerf-Pierre, Monika, Ekström, Mats, and Johansson, Bengt (2013), ‘Policy Failure or Moral Scandal? Political Accountability, Journalism and New Public Management’, Media, Culture & Society 35(8): 960–76.
Goddard, Peter, Corner, John, and Richardson, Kay (2001) ‘The Formation of World in Action: A Case Study in the History of Current Affairs Journalism’, Journalism, vol. 2, 1: pp. 73-90.
Schrøder, Kim. C, and Phillips, Louise (2007), ‘Complexifying Media Power: A Study of the Interplay between Media and Audience Discourses on Politics’, Media, Culture & Society 29(6): 890–915.
Trilling, Damian and Schoenbach, Klaus (2013) ‘Skipping current affairs: The non-users of online and offline news’, European Journal of Communication, vol. 28, 1: pp. 35-51.
Szostek, Joanna (2014) ‘Russia and the News Media in Ukraine: A Case of “Soft Power”?’, East European Politics & Societies, vol. 28, 3: pp. 463-486.