The concept of ‘mass’
The ideas of ‘mass society’ date from the 1940s but before that time, since the19th century, there have been different ideas of what ‘mass’ means.
One use of the term ‘mass’ was negative to refer to the mass of people or the ‘common people’ – who were seen as uneducated, ignorant, unruly or violent.
‘Mass’ could also be used in a positive sense as in ‘mass movement’ – such as trade unionism, socialism, or working class solidarity against the forces of oppression. Terms such as ‘mass support’ or ‘mass action’ are other examples.
Another way of looking at ‘mass’ is to look beyond just a ‘large number’ of people to see if the group are acting collectively, or rationally, or orderly.
Today, ‘mass’ tends to have negative connections because in Western capitalist societies there is more emphasis placed on people taking individual responsibility and ‘standing on their own feet’ rather than working together in mass action.
Mass society theory
This is about how institutions are dependent on one another and together exercise power and authority.
Media content is likely to serve the interests of those who hold political and economic power. The media do not criticise the existing power order and do not offer alternatives.
The ‘dominant’ media model reflects the mass society view.
According to the mass society theory, society is industrialised and urban and people within society live independently of the state within families, they are competitive against other members of society and there is little solidarity with other people in similar situations in society.
The media are blamed for helping to create and sustain this kind of society and for manipulating the people.
The media are seen as instruments of control with a clear structure of information coming from those with power at the top of society to people below who have no power.
In mass society theory the media are controlled or run by large monopoly companies with little competition. The media organise the people as ‘masses’ - as audiences, consumers, markets or electorates.
Mass media are usually the voice of authority, the givers of opinion and instruction and there is little chance for people to ‘answer back’.
Marxism and mass media
Karl Marx saw the media as an industry like any other capitalist industry with factors of production (raw materials, technology and labour) and relations of production.
Marx said the media were likely to be large monopolies and be nationally and internationally organized to serve the interests of the ruling, capitalist classes. The media exploited those who worked for them (paying low wages and taking profits) and consumers (making excess profits).
The media worked ideologically by spreading the ideas and world views of the ruling class and denying access for ideas that opposed these views.
Theories that develop on Marx talk about the ideological effects of the media in the interests of the ruling class by legitimising the dominance of capitalism.
Louis Althusser says that the media is part of the ‘ideological state apparatus’ (in contrast to the ‘repressive state apparatus’ such as the army and police) which enables the capitalist state to survive without the need for direct violence.
Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony refers to the way culture and ideology that are everywhere in society and are openly (or not so openly) favourable to a dominant class or culture, but not in an obviously organized way. (http://www.theory.org.uk/ctr-gram.htm)
Herbert Marcuse says the media are ‘selling’ or imposing a whole social system which at the same time is both desirable and repressive. The media stimulate and then satisfy ‘false needs’ which lead to the assimilation of groups who have no real material interest in common into a ‘one dimensional society’.
Functionalist Theory of media and society