Toward a Political Economy of Culture – Capitalism and Communication in the Twenty‐First Century

Annemijn F. van Gorp (School of Information Sciences and Technology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA)

Information Technology & People

ISSN: 0959-3845

Article publication date: 1 September 2004




van Gorp, A.F. (2004), "Toward a Political Economy of Culture – Capitalism and Communication in the Twenty‐First Century", Information Technology & People, Vol. 17 No. 3, pp. 339-342.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The ever increasing reliance of economies all over the world on IT and the Internet has served as an input to many research efforts for understanding how IT and the Internet in particular have changed the way we live, work and find entertainment. Implementation of ITs on a wide scale, especially when thinking on a global level, demand us to think of the greater impacts it has on our lives. Toward a Political Economy of Culture takes an in‐depth look at how media and communication in general impact the world that we live in. Its main focus is on the political economy of media and how the media impacts our public sphere. Overall, the book is a critical account of the development of media in general and calls for a more critical look at how media and democracy interrelate. The book covers a wide range of issues related to the political economy of communication; too many to discuss in this review – it discusses economic analyses, policy and legal systems, social and political structures, feminist theories, etc.

People interested in IT and its human context, especially those people analyzing this on a societal or global level, will find this book of great value in that it makes the reader think about, and question, how IT networks, or media, empower or disempower the public. Even though the focus of this book is on media, it does relate to the field of IT as well. Especially, the newer media are also generally perceived as ITs, with the Internet the most well‐known example. These newer media are discussed in this book, besides more traditional media like film and broadcasting. The different media have a lot in common in their transformations and relation to the public sphere; they are therefore, well worth discussing. This book brings us to the basics of the interrelationship of media, public sphere and political and economic structures.

The book is comprised of 19 chapters written by many influential political economists of communication. The editors are Andrew Calabrese, Associate Professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Colin Sparks, Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Communication and Media Research Institute of the University of Westminster. Andrew Calabrese has an extensive experience in the areas of media and citizenship, and public policy shaping the media. He has published extensively, and has edited books like Information Society and Civil Society: Contemporary Perspectives on the Changing World Order (Splichal et al., 1994), and Communication, Citizenship and Social Policy (Calabrese and Burgelman, 1999). Colin Sparks also has done extensive research in the area of media and democratization, and the impact of the Internet on mass media. Among his many publications are books such as Communism, Capitalism and the Mass Media (Sparks and Reading, 1998), and Culture and Power: A Media, Culture and Society Reader (Scannell et al., 1992).

Toward a Political Economy of Culture discusses a wide variety of issues related to the role of communication in the modern world, with an emphasis on the political economy of communication and culture. It considers the historical transformations of institutions and technologies that we define as media. It addresses questions like: what is a political economy? and how does it relate to communication and culture? The ideas of many key thinkers like Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Jürgen Habermas, John Stuart Mill, and numerous others, are reviewed. As the majority of earlier work has mainly focused on the political economy of communication, this book expands on this view by looking at the political economy of communication and culture. The focus on culture, according to the editors, is an area that needs more attention in future work. They argue that “the degree to which the media constitute, define, or otherwise influence what we take to be the realm of the “cultural” in the modern world is certainly a matter for dispute. What is indisputable is that no conception of culture in the modern world is complete if it fails to account for the space occupied by “the media” – the institutional and technological means of communication and information” (p. 3).

The book consists of five parts. The first part starts by explaining what a political economy of culture is, and how it has been described before, in addition how earlier research on political economy of communication has shaped today's research agenda. This part also goes into the status of current media research in academia; a place where a great value of this book lies. The book describes the rise of communications research as an academic enterprise, and furthermore critiques the status of current research in US‐based media studies. It is argued that currently the status of media studies in general is rather poor, as a result of the lack of critically examining the position of media in society. It is argued that this lack of critical perspectives can to a great extent be accounted for by the lack of concern about political economy. This lies in the assumption of the media market to be synonymous with democracy. This in turn means that the role of capitalism is taken for granted.

To this extent the author asks: “why bother studying the political economy of communication if nothing can be changed?” (hereby pointing at the direction of general media research). This is an important question, which should also be addressed by those researchers in the field of IT who study the impacts of Internet on globalization, and how the Internet changes social structures. To these people this book is of great value in that it provides insight in to a very broad range of issues, and moreover, in that it points out underlying assumptions that are often taken for granted in research. If we want to look at how ITs are changing our global information society, we need to critically examine these issues and assumptions.

In the second part, the book examines the foundations of what we call the public sphere, and attempts to understand and explain the media industry as consisting of capitalist enterprises. Theories about the concept of public sphere are examined, where Habermas' ideas are of great importance (Habermas, 1989, 1992, 1996). Furthermore, Nicholas Garnham's work in general is of great influence on the writing of this book. Garnham has been a key person in the research tradition of political economy of communication, and has at earlier times pointed out the link between political economy of the means of communication on the one hand, and the political culture it enables on the other. Many of his ideas are explored throughout the book.

Parts three and four look at the effects, and the coming about, of media policy and regulation, and analyze the economic power that is central to the development of media markets. Particularly, part three examines the political economy of the more traditional media (film and broadcasting), while part four continues with examining the development of new media as it relates to the current globalization and rise of a global, knowledge‐based information society.

Where much of the book discusses the more traditional media, generally a subject of study in departments for media studies and communication, the treatment of newer media in part four of the book, clearly relates to the efforts of researchers in IT. Of particular interest are the chapters 12‐15. Chapter 12 discusses societal issues related to cyberspace digitization. Chapter 13 discusses the development of the Internet service provider (ISP) market, emphasizing the importance of legislation for the development of the ISP market to be consistent with the public interest, by questioning neo‐liberal idealism – a widely observed ideal in western democracies. Chapter 14 continues with issues related to the digital divide, an area that is gaining more attention these days with the growing social inequality and its relation to (lack of) access to Internet and IT networks. Chapter 15 provides us with more insight in the issues related to the development of an information society, and the prerequisite of appropriate education, infrastructure, and “info‐structure”.

Part five concludes with some issues that the authors perceive as interesting to incorporate in political economy research in the future, to broaden the boundaries of political economy. It discusses some differences and overlaps with cultural studies; thereby identifying the study of audiences as a main point of difference. Finally, feminist theories are considered with their potential contribution to the field.

To conclude, in my opinion the greatest value of this book lies in its extensive coverage of a very wide range of topics relating to the political economy of communication and culture, and the showing of underlying assumptions in the different accounts of work that are overviewed. Furthermore, the authors' arguments that too much work related to media studies these days takes the current existence of typical media and political structures for granted, which thereby neglects the impact on the public sphere and fails to question what could fundamentally be changed, is a very important contribution to the literature. This certainly deserves more attention in future research. I think it is a wonderful book for anyone interested in gaining some deeper insights in how media, or (global) IT networks, affect our world and public sphere.

Thus, overall, this book directs our attention to the importance of thinking about the vulnerabilities that arise from our increasingly global political economy, which has its origins in communication networks and increasingly relies on the Internet. I recommend this book to anyone interested in, or concerned with issues like social inequality, the digital divide, globalization and the global political economy. There is much research that needs to be done on these issues, and this book provides a very interesting account of quite a few of the many issues and theories related to this field of research. Finally, it shows us that with more critical thinking about underlying assumptions about political, economic and social structures there is an interesting way to go into the future of a global political economy.


Calabrese, A. and Burgelman, J.C. (Eds) (1999), Communication, Citizenship, and Social Policy: Rethinking the limits of the Welfare State, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD.

Habermas, J. (1989), The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, [1962], Polity, Cambridge.

Habermas, J. (1992), “Further reflections on the public sphere”, in Calhoun, C. (Ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere, MIT Press, Cambridge, pp. 42161.

Habermas, J. (1996), Between Facts and Norms, Polity, Cambridge.

Scannell, P., Schlesinger, P. and Sparks, C. (Eds) (1992), Culture and Power: A Media, Culture and Society Reader, Sage Publications, London.

Sparks, C. and Reading, A. (1998), Communism, Capitalism and the Mass Media, Sage Publications, London.

Splichal, S., Calabrese, A. and Sparks, C. (Eds) (1994), Information Society and Civil Society: Contemporary Perspectives on the Changing World Order, Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, IN.

Related articles