Stewart M. Hoover professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Colorado, USA. e-post:

Gunnar SæbøMedia, Ritual and the Cultivation of Collective Representations: A Theoretical-Historical Analysis and Critique of the «Cultivation» Paradigm in Media Studies

Oslo: Unipub 2003

Media, Ritual, and Cultivation: A Synthesis of Major Sources

Gunnar Sæbø’s ambitious project provides a comprehensive and provocative review of paradigmatic and theoretical discourses around ritual, meaning, and cultural change in the media age. Among the issues he addresses and proposes to synthesize are some that have been generally assume to be unrelated or event contradictory in their force and effect. His synthesis is, in fact, successful.

The thesis has the following major components: First, there is an exhaustive account of the theory and research program of the Hungarian-American media scholar George Gerbner. This culminates in an analysis – using Gerbner’s cultivation paradigm – of a «critical test,» press coverage of Norwegian political debates over social assistance programs. This serves a kind of evaluative test of the utility of Gerbner’s approach for analysis of media-cultural issues. The second component of the study is a critique of Gerbner’s own research program and an analysis of its rise and fall.

Sæbø sees some things in Gerbner that others have missed. His wish is to recover from Gerbner some qualities that appear to be present in his early work. What Sæbø finds attractive about Gerbner is that – unlike the dominant mass communication theorists of his generation in the US – Gerbner took a distinctly «culturalist» view of media processes. He can be read as prefiguring contemporary moves toward critical/cultural analysis in media studies, and Sæbø quite reasonably wishes to evaluate whether this prefigurement is superficial or substantive. That is, he wants to test – within the more theoretically sophisticated frameworks we are more comfortable with today – whether Gerbner might have been pointing toward approaches to media studies that might have detoured around the positivist traditions that dominated mass communication research for much of the latter half of the twentieth century, at least in the US.

Gerbner did seem to be interested in issues that are now commonplace concerns of media studies. There was a kind of semiology in Gerbner’s early work, reminiscent of Charles Sanders Peirce. He was also concerned with the whole context of production, text, and consumption. Gerbner further seemed to have a larger ideological project, intending to unlock the way that the media are foundational in social thought and cultural processes in modernity, thus they have a clear and measurable ideological function. Finally, he deployed an attractive language and set of metaphors in describing his work, including terms such as «storytelling,» «folklore,» and «narrative» with facile ease.

The third major component of Sæbø’s project is a re-assessment of Durkheim, testing the Durkheimian project as a possible source of paradigmatic resources up to the task of explaining contemporary media culture. While it is somewhat less clear what Sæbø sees in Durkheim that is particularly compelling (why not Weber, for example?) he does dig into Durkheim for some particular themes.

First, he focuses on Durkheim’s notion of representation, and of culture as collective representations. This he links to modern developments in social thought, particularly the evolution of modern social constructivism. Unlike pure positivist/empiricists, says Sæbø, Durkheim recognized that what he called «social facts,» – the concrete phenomena that are the object of sociology – can themselves be constructions. Or, to put it more clearly, along side «social facts» such as settlement patterns, class, race, and economic conditions, constructions such as consensual meanings, symbols, and mass communication also are irreducible beyond the point of their articulation, and therefore must also be seen as «social facts.» Sæbø relies to an extent on other sources for this argument as well as his own reading,

and this is clearly an arguable view of Durkheim’s sociology, one that will no doubt be argued by readers of this work.

A second element Sæbø draws from Durkheim is a nuanced sense that is present in all of Durkheim’s work, that places «the individual» and «the social» in a dialectic relationship. Consistent with other postmodern or constructivist thought, he wishes to contest the received way of reading Durkheim – the functionalist tendency to see this dialectic as having resolved into a functionalist synthesis, that stability, rather than negotiation, is the norm in individual/society relations. Sæbø finds in Durkheim support for the idea that this relationship is always in tension, always in negotiation. Stasis comes not from an achieved functional synthesis, but from a kind of ongoing conversation between an individual and her social context. Again, this is very much au courant, and again, it is a new reading of Durkheim, one that must defend itself in scholarly discourse.

A third element from Durkheim – and one that is most familiar to many of us – has to do with Durkheim’s work on religion. Sæbø sets up his analysis of Durkheim as a kind of critical appraisal.

One of the real challenges Sæbø faces in his thesis is the incommensurability of the two figures at the center of the drama – Gerbner and Durkheim. They are from different eras. They arise from different paradigmatic roots (Gerbner admits to Sæbø, in a footnote, that he is unfamiliar with Durkheim). Durkheim is a sociologist and – though he might well have rejected the label – a «social theorist.» Durkheim says almost nothing about the press or the media other than – helpfully to Sæbø – that the media are a «social fact.» Gerbner’s entire project is about media culture, on the other hand.

Sæbø’s approach to Durkheim’s Elementary Forms seems directed at making a more direct link between Gerbner and Durkheim than may be possible. The critique of Gerbner in the thesis presents itself as an analysis of Gerbner’s project as a research program. And, Sæbø finds it lacking in an absolutely fundamental way: Gerbner’s empirical work is simply irreconcilable with his theory.

Sæbø subjects Durkheim to the same empirical test. He compares Durkheim’s treatise on method, The Rules of Sociological Method, with that method’s putative expression in the Elementary Forms. Durkheim’s other, and perhaps equally important work on suicide gets relatively little treatment in Sæbø. He sees Elementary Forms as much more connected to his overall project – that of recovering a voice from Durkheim that can speak to critical issues in media studies, of which representation and hermeneutics are at the core.

Sæbø and others (and I count myself among this number) see religion as a particular kind of heuristic resource in consideration of contemporary media. Sæbø cites James Carey’s now classic treatise on ritual vs transportational theories of communication, and it is an example of this. Sæbø does not address directly what I see to be a fundamental problem with Durkheim in this regard – his idealist and essentialist approach to religion; to the sacred/profane divide, and so on. To say that religion is a fundamental form of society places religion and related issues

such as «authentic ritual» in a framework that limits their accessibility to the kind of post-modern, constructivist project Sæbø has entered upon.

Finally, Sæbø focuses a great deal of attention on the notion of ritual. This recognizes the discourse that has evolved in a minor way in the field of media studies since the publication of Carey’s generative essay. Durkheim is invoked here, but is also in a way abandoned. His formalism around ritual does not fit well with what Sæbø and other culturalist scholars (and again, I would count myself among them) wish to do with their materials. But Sæbø is quite right in at least inferring that Durkheim’s approach to ritual is passé – and for good reason. Times have changed. Late modernity is characterized by a very different religious, quasi-religious, implicit-religious, and ritualist landscape than was the case in the mid-modernity of Durkheim’s time.

Sæbø rushes ahead to embrace the newer approach to ritual advocated by Catherine Bell, that of «ritualization.» This allows him to deal with two cultural dynamics that must be addressed. First, he wishes to distinguish «ritual» from that which is «not ritual.» The closest pretender to ritual, from which it must be separated, is what he calls «routinization.» It is clear from his discussion that he considers «ritual» or «ritualization» to be that which is invested with particular meaning by adherents. This is a paradigm shift away from a formalist or essentialist approach, which focuses on the structures and forms of ritual, and toward the reception or constructive meaning-making of adherents. Bell’s notion of ritualization further problematizes the occasion of ritual (not just its form and structure) suggesting that a motive, voluble, effervescent force exists, which drives us to ritualize when it is important to do so. There is an elegance here in that the authenticity of a ritual is self-validating and self-evident.

This is a radically different way of looking at religion, and it is attractive and provocative. There is thus a lot to like about what Sæbø recovers from Durkheim. He concludes his project with a thickly-descriptive case study of the social phenomenon of the film The Titanic. It appears in part that the intention is to expand the scope of media reception studies both horizontally and vertically.

One usually expects a conclusion to provide a synthesis or resolution to the issues raised in a thesis. Sæbø does not. Instead, he presents the dialectics and contradictions he has uncovered, once again, but in a condensed and focused form. This is lodged in the context of contemporary culture and media culture, and because he reveals a bit more of his own normative commitments, wishing to be at the same time «critically realist» and «communitarian.»

This work is an ambitious one. Not only does Sæbø set out to compare and then synthesize such large and paradigmatic sources; in the process of doing so, he touches on a number of the major historical/theoretical issues facing contemporary media studies. His grasp of these literatures is impressive and substantive. The questions he puts to these literatures are sophisticated, complex, and provocative. As should be obvious from the discussion here, this work provides the basis for profound and substantive reflection on the nature of contemporary thought

about media culture, and on the nature of the theoretical and methodological roots upon which we base our work. This is an impressive work that should come to be appreciated for its creative and ambitious approach to emerging issues in media and culture.