In considering the ever-changing landscape of the multi-medium phenomenon that is Media, it is imperative that an overarching, theoretical concept, can strike a delicate balance between concrete, set-in-stone statements that roots all sub-concepts, and a malleable nature that allows new modern concepts to be safely slotted in and expand along with time, without much friction with the universal personality of the overarching theories; theories and concepts that concerns themselves with explaining the media and its relationship with human society. In this essay, I analyse Nicolas Couldry’s concept of ‘media rituals’, and consider what it achieves in explaining media’s role in society, how it performs in contemporary society and what has being done in refining this concept.
In simplified terms, Nicolas Couldry’s concept of media rituals attempts to interconnect societal organisation with media, while also explaining how the latter fits into the mold of an evolving society. Essentially, when one connects the two terms, media rituals refers to “the whole range of situations where media themselves ‘stand in’, or appear to ‘stand in’, for something wider, something linked to the fundamental organisational level on which we are…connected as members of a society.” (Couldry 2005, p4). It is thus rather fitting then, to observe contemporary society, and witness constant interaction individuals have with multiple forms of mediated data and content, and refer to it as a feature of contemporary lifestyle. The term ‘rituals’ is obviously, and quite often referred to, as actions and/or behaviour patterns; which may or may not be regulated by any sense of authority or societal standards; that possess an unique personality that is largely shared by a society, for reasons regarding social integration (Couldry 2005, citing Durkheim 1995, p4). It should also be mentioned, that Couldry’s theory largely expands upon the foundations built by French sociologist, Emile Durkheim. Therefore, to understand Couldry’s overall theory, much interweaving of these two theorists’ ideas are needed in order to truly understand the origins and the process of forming the theory of ‘media rituals’.
Couldry believes, that Durkheim’s theoretical connections of the ‘ritual’ (as a singular term) with ‘social integration’ needs to be appropriated to fit the characteristics of modern society, while also increasing the inclusion of media in the equation, a factor which Couldry interpreted in Durkheim’s model as oversimplified and requiring less isolation between different mediums of media, such as mediating coronations and celebrity funerals viewed through different lenses as supposed to mediated issues of government. (Couldry 2005, p4) As per usual, this need for refinement can be understood when one analyses deeper into Durkheim’s mindset, whilst also applying a modern mind’s perspective and a certain amount of common sense. It should be noted, that I very much agree with Couldry’s view on this issue and his theory’s ability to cover a wide scope of mediation’s impact on society, but I still do see validity in Durkheim’s theory, even before Couldry’s refinement.
Again, in broad terms, Durkheim’s theory revolved around understanding the forces that held complex societies together, and keeps it intact. As we observe deeper into his theory, the bulk of his concepts contain a plot hook of sorts: the existence of a social centre, in other words, a gathering, place or ritual that promote a sense of togetherness. An interesting example provided is the purpose of religion in past societies: For Durkheim, religion “is first and foremost a system of ideas by means of which individuals imagine the society of which they are members and the obscure yet intimate relations they have with it.” (Durkheim 1995, p227). In other words, it’s an imagined concept that social beings hold on to, in order to belong. The progression of this concept from religion to its application to human interaction and media is rather natural: the social centre was simply transported from religion to single, collective and physical gatherings, such as the sharing of ideas in cafes or salons, or community gathering to sporting events. It’s when this idea was again appropriated for media by Neo-Durkheim theorists (and Durkheim himself) that this theory starts showing its nearsightedness. The idea of a ‘primitive’ social experience; as my examples above of community gatherings refers to; restricts the definition of societal integration to only those moments in particular, and while it seems plausible to a very limited degree, his idea of media devices such as the television being merely a reincarnation of the early forms of social convention or a new technologically enhanced form of ‘mechanical solidarity’; Durkheims’ term of mutual similarity expressed by individuals when they come together (cited by Couldry 2005, p8); is considered by Couldry to be wildly implausible; and it’s not difficult to see why.
Couldry’s examples of how gatherings or societies within societies occur range heavily, from fashion, bodily style, interests or even as simple as nationality and language. This largely proves the reality that societal integration does not possess a centre, but by multiple deciding factors and…explained in an interesting but no less accurate comparison by Castell; performing like nodes within networks, where data (in this case, people) gather around places of similar climate (interest). (Castell, 2005, p.114) Obvious examples can also be made towards other mediums of data broadcasting: such as radios, smartphones and laptops; all of which does nothing to reinforce this space of physical togetherness or gathering; rather, in short, society’s various factions are instead connected via a virtual space (ie. the World Wide Web), populated by pockets of congregations, but no one centre, it helps connect more individuals, but over greater distances than ever before. I believe, that this modern technological trend only reinforces Couldry’s idea of media rituals, as I will later highlight after explaining the theory in full.
Basic peeks at anthropology connects the term ‘ritual’ with three broad approaches, which concerns themselves with explaining the reasons behind the patterns of repeated or ‘ritualised’ human activity: Habitual, formalised and action involving transcendent values. Having cited them, Couldry also gives particular commentary on the latter two forms of rituals; as he believes that rituals beyond habit involves patterns, form and reasons which gives the action transcendent meaning. (Couldry, 2013, p.2). To finally explain what Couldry is trying to define, we have to concern ourselves primarily with the societal impact of ‘symbolic power’; a characteristic of Couldry’s theory which I believe is the central reason to its effectiveness in defining the impact of media, even in contemporary society. Regardless of which time period I’m referring to, symbols possess influence. For instance, the symbol of the cross being the defining characteristic of the Christian faith, while the face of an iconic Hollywood actor/actress can also be defining characteristics of the international phenomenon that is the craze and elevation for celebrities. Both cases involved the association of something far bigger with a far smaller, literal object/s, which may as well be insignificant without such associations. As many people would be aware, significant and recognisable symbols have the potential to alter societal behaviour dramatically: the sacred atmosphere of the interior of a cathedral, or the transformation of any space occupied by ‘commoner’ people when a person of celebrity status reveals their presence. And thus, Couldry’s concept of media rituals is formed around what he considers the “one central inequality…the historic concentration of symbolic power in media institutions” (Couldry, 2005, p13). Therefore, it would be sufficient to conclude that, media rituals refers to how the mediums of media influence society’s behaviour through collective exposure to patterns and events, which in turn influences society’s pattern of thoughts.
I would argue, that Couldry’s theory of media rituals can indeed survive with its validity intact in modern society. In fact, I believe that its relevance in explaining media’s impact on society becomes even more obvious and capable of evolution as our technological advances continues. Despite being comparatively ignored by Couldry, the habitual side of rituals; I believe; plays no less role in demonstrating media’s hold over society, and the second decade of the 21 century shows no lacking of examples for this. As I begin discussing and analysing how more recent theorists viewed and adopted Couldry’s concepts, I will be weaving in my own interpretations of the theory of ‘media rituals’ and how I see it in the workings of modern society.
Rather interestingly, there exists a common ground of subjects within all my choices of theorists who saw fit to incorporate Couldry’s media rituals: the rather broad concept of the media culture and the impact of the (arguably dangerous) pace of human technological progress regarding communications and media devices. This somewhat also mirrors my own perspectives on interpreting media rituals. To briefly note the theorists in question: John Farnsworth (with Terry Austrin) discusses the ethnography of the new media world, which shares its own similarities to Andreas Hepp’s research on media cultures, though he narrows down his analysis with a constant reference to globalisation; through the inclusion of Transculturality. Hepp also writes; in another article, about the problems presented by the phenomenon that is the ‘mediation of everything’. Elizabeth Bird’s venture into media practice focuses deeply on the sensationalist nature of modern media and how it brought along a new generation of media audiences.
Farnsworth’s research article on the state of ethnography (the study of customs of peoples and cultures) of new media worlds relies on one particular real life example: the rise of Internet poker. The world of the 21 century presents much instances where new technology allows new forms of interaction and consumption of media, and Farnsworth’s research; in relations to Couldry; attempts to expand on the latter’s ideas, in order to accommodate this new sphere of influence. According to Farnsworth, modern “practice ranges from conventional media production and consumption to online dating, web forums…blogging and mobile phone use. The shift in this case is from classical themes of hierarchy and ritual to networks and mobilities…the traditional media ethnography field has expanded in order to accommodate new practices and technologies.” (Farnsworth & Austrin, 2010, p1123). The linked example of poker is certainly a valid point: the traditional tabletop game was a prime example of human interest in recognition and the culture of celebrity, but its mediation into more accessible media space in television and the Internet via online broadcasting and gaming suggests an unstable environment that requires new approaches in order to properly monitor and study. Farnsworth recognises the reliability of Couldry’s themes of media and symbolic power and the presence of media centres. However, he also noted, that this approach “provides no real account of the mediators…or the detailed, human and technological linkages that produce either the centre or the periphery, or the actual connections between them.” (Farnsworth & Austrin, 2010, p. 1129) Thus, Farnsworth introduces an additional element of analysis to Couldry’s media rituals, however, he believes that the concept of mediated centres is incorrect under the assumption, that such abundance of media devices in society means that there are no mediated centres; but instead endless networks that exist in multiple mediums. (Farnsworth & Austrin, 2010, p.1130).
While the two chosen articles by Hepp focused on differing topics, one regarding the perspective of Transculturality while studying media cultures, and the other deciphering the issues of ‘the mediatised world’, both articles saw fit to include Couldry’s theories in similar flavours. In the article ‘Transculturality as a Perspective: Researching Media Cultures Comparatively’, Hepp relies on the very much truthful notion, that the impact of globalisation and the new nature of media via the Internet included “the increase of communication across national borders as well as the addressing of audiences across different states by certain media products.” (Hepp, 2009, p.2) Therefore, it would make sense in Hepp’s case, to consider media a medium of culture, as we can already see in our evolving routines of everyday life, and the increasing presence of media devices and consumption around the household. What contrasts Hepp’s interpretation of Couldry’s concepts with Farnsworth & Austrin, is that he saw more validity in the term ‘mediated centre’ rather than media being a centre of society; although he has shown no disagreements with neither. The assumption, that media “articulate themselves…in an ongoing social construction” as the centre of society (Couldry, 2008, p3), demonstrates Hepp’s belief that media’s role in society is not as much as being the literal centre, but rather a tool of cultural shaping in the midst of society. Similarly, in researching mediatised worlds and presenting the issue of the ‘mediation of everything’, Hepp presents media as a force of centralisation. An easy example of ‘the mediation of everything’ would be the term ‘mobile phone centrism’, described by Hepp as “meaning not only that the possession of a mobile phone is expected but also that one is in principle subsequently reachable anytime and everywhere.” (Hepp, 2010, p.43). Couldry’s concept of the mediated centre can be argued to have materialised in the form of a mobile: a device that connects the individual to a larger society, as Hepp has assumed: that the idea of the mediated centre helps us better understand what centring forces of the media are. (Hepp, 2010, p.42).
Finally, Bird’s article segment regarding media and practice is heavily focused on a particular personality of modern media: the sensationalist nature of a mediated society. In Bird’s viewpoint, the modern mediums of media has gave birth to a new niche in mediated communities: the existence of so-called ‘mediated fans’. With a direct link back to Couldry’s concept of media and symbolic power, “mediated fans engage in a huge variety of active, media-related practices that connect them, their chosen media…together in an articulation that is anything but static and linear.” (Bird, 2010, p.89). The world of fan practices, grossly amplified with modern technology, included fan fiction, video mash-ups and social media pages, such practices no doubt creates a genuine sense of community. (Bird, 2010, p.89). In another perspective, Bird also explores how everyday rituals are now also mediatised. In a spin-off of sorts on Couldry’s ‘media rituals’, Bird’s term ‘mediated rituals’ can be considered social commentary on how familiar rituals, along the lines of weddings, graduations and funerals; which are not normally considered as sites of media consumption; has become so mediated to the point, that planners of such events are influenced by expectations generated through the media. Birds’s commentary that “In media-saturated cultures, weddings are simultaneously about an extreme celebration of the individual, as well as being increasingly public performances that draw heavily on media scripts” (Bird, 2010, p.93) highlights how media practices have broad social and cultural implications. Therefore, Bird’s article has gave us new perspectives on the impact of media culture, consumption and practice on society, which she achieves through Couldry’s concepts of symbolic power and media rituals.
And so, to conclude, the essence of Couldry’s theories and sub-theories surrounding media rituals has proven to survive the test of time; its implications to media may not be as current, but it has the capacity to expand with new ways to research the nature of media and how different influences impact media’s relationship with society. Perhaps the biggest testimony to Couldry’s ideas, is that it still manages to retain relevance in what I consider a rapidly expanding mediated society, where the media’s constant changes; resulted from technological expansions, practice and ritual evolution. Therefore, Couldry’s theory of media rituals has given us the foundations in understanding media’s role in society.
Couldry, N. (2005). Media rituals: A critical approach. London: Routledge.
Couldry, Nick (2008). “The media”: A crisis of appearances. Inaugural lecture as professor of media and communications, Goldsmiths, University of London, http://www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/mediacommunications/staff/couldry-inaugural-lecture.pdf [Date of access: June 4, 2006].
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Consequently, this is an essay I wrote way back in 2015, during my first ever uni semester. So of course, the writing is a lot more sloppy than I can manage now. But I think the ideas explored here are by far the most universally relevant than any of the past extended essays I’ve uploaded here thus far.