As part of a series of occasional interviews with leading social scientists, Denis McQuail talks to socialsciencespace about his career in social science and some of the changes that he has witnessed. The 6th Edition of his seminal McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory was published by SAGE in 2010.
Tell us about how your interest in social science developed
I started out studying history but became quite dissatisfied by its seeming lack of relevance and lack of new ideas and impetus. I discovered sociology and took a post-graduate conversion course to become a social scientist. I went on to get a job in communication research, more or less accidentally (though I was interested in forms of media and had been influenced by the work of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams and by ideas emerging in the New Left movement).The opportunity to be a communication researcher was directly linked to the coming of commercial television in England. Granada TV founded a fellowship at Leeds University – partly for PR, and partly because Sidney Bernstein, the owner of Granada, was a socialist with a mission to contribute to and improve society. My first research interests focused on the political and cultural effects of television. I ended up moving to become a lecturer in sociology after my time at Leeds. There was one person in particular I would cite as of primary and persisting influence: Joseph Trenaman, who was in charge of the programme at Leeds. He had worked for the BBC and had a great impact on me.
What have you found to be some of the most influential developments in the field?
A key development in communication research has been the escape from a very narrow definition of the field. The general main frame that got support for research in the 50s was one in which the media were somehow harmful, and communication research had to solve the personal and social problems of the effects of mass media. The field now has a certain intellectual autonomy in which it can define its own view of what its problems are. The development of sociology as a social science flowered in the 60s and enriched the study of communication in a number of important ways, as did the new critical perspective that was also injected into the study of communication.
Some of the important developments have not always been beneficial in their effect – or have been mixed in their consequences. In the longer term, the critical perspective became too narrowly political and not to my mind very fruitful. The perspective of cultural studies perspective was at first enriching and then somewhat debilitating by diminishing, in some respects, the field in terms of its rigor. The subsequent preoccupation with technology is also necessary but has been mixed in its consequences: it over- emphasizes the technology itself and the medium itself, and draws attention away from the underlying factors in culture and society that are going to be responsible for what people get out of communication and how they use it.
What developments would you expect to have the most impact over the next 5-10 years?
European resurgence in communication studies should be looked at in the light of new influences from the opening up of East Europe and beyond. There’s a new impetus in the European field by the input of new young scholars, new ideas and experiences. China too is making its voice heard, firstly by way of the US but it’s going to be a more autonomous view. Despite the continuing expansion of new media forms with their promise of greater communication freedom, there are gathering threats to genuine freedom of communication around the world.
Continuing convergence is still also important. The field is still fragmented by medium – channel and so on – and the various gaps that result have not been bridged. I think they will be; they have to be, because the field can’t survive by sticking to one or other and being about mass media or new media. It’s a single landscape to work on.
Another area for development is a whole range of problems about accountability of media and the public interest. Many norms and ethics relating to media are in a state of flux for a number of reasons: changing media, values, norms, and principles. There will be a lot of revision about what is appropriate or desirable or necessary in relation to various problems that arise – what communicators might or might not accept as their responsibility. Creative solutions are needed in pursuing the goal of ensuring that the public interest is served by communication developments. This will require establishing alliances between communication science and the communication professions. The threats to freedom mentioned above are as important as issues of accountability and both need theoretical and empirical attention.
The other thing that will need more attention is an old one, but in new guises. This relates to all forms of propaganda control of communication, especially by way of on-line and ‘social media’. The reference is both to hidden ideological influence and also manipulation for commercial ends. The topic needs more integrated, concentrated attention as to how the process works, who’s doing it, what’s involved. Communication research and theory can help.
Finally, the problem of exclusion from the communication opportunities; by which I mean the lack of ability or access to the good things of communication. It’s a moving target to try to deal with the inequalities of communication potential in society.