June 27, 2011

Social Change, Popular Culture and Social Cohesion

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

As Todd Schoepflin recently blogged about, technology has dramatically altered our cultural landscape in the last few decades. Besides altering the way in which we clip_image002communicate, technological changes have also altered popular culture, which has become more and more segmented. With podcasts, YouTube, and other ways to get individualized content, we’re less likely to enjoy the same music, movies, news, and television as audiences were in decades past.

Sociologists Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, authors of Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, wrote in 1992 that televised events like the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, the Watergate hearings, and the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination created a sense of social bonding. These were events that basically everyone watched, reaffirming a sense of connection.

They argue such events create mechanical solidarity, a concept introduced by Emile Durkheim referring to smaller tribal societies where people felt connected because they shared important similarities, often tribal or religious in nature. Dayan & Katz conclude that shared media events create a sense of community nationally, and sometimes even globally.

Media Events was first published nearly twenty years ago. Do we still have national—let alone global—media events that might connect us today?

Today it is less likely to gather as large of a television audience as in the past. Looking at two very comparable events—the wedding of Charles and Diana and the wedding of William and Kate—we can see a significant drop off in viewers in the U.K. alone.

According to the BBC, 28.4 million Brits watched Charles and Diana wed in 1981, while just 24 million watched their son marry Catherine Middleton. The British population grew, albeit modestly, between 1981 and 2001 by about 4 million people, so not only was viewership down, but a smaller proportion of the public watched. And the wedding was a national holiday in the UK; many people even had the day off. Some people might have watched online, but BBC estimates suggest that online viewership was much smaller than TV viewing.

A lot has changed between 2011 and 1981 which might explain why fewer people might watch a single event like a royal wedding, the Olympics, the Oscars or a major political event. We have countless other entertainment choices today. I can remember as a young child before cable television there were basically 5 channels to choose from (the three major networks, PBS, and a local independent station or two). And if there were a major event the networks would probably all be covering the same story.

Even if there was no major event, the limited number of channels meant that more of us watched the same prime-time programs, which were then created to appeal to a wider target audience. That’s probably why variety shows predominated prime-time television for decades before the advent of cable television. If you didn’t care for one singer featured on the show in a few minutes there might be a skit or comedy act that you would enjoy.

In the afternoons and on weekends, local independent stations played reruns of old television shows in syndication. Children of the 1970 and early 1980s often watched the same shows that our parents once did—like Leave it to Beaver, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, and Green Acres. I probably watched every episode of these shows as a kid, despite the fact that almost all of them were canceled before I was born. Before the days of Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, most cartoons were recycled too, and my mother told me she enjoyed watching old episodes of Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters with me because she remembered watching them as a child too.

clip_image004In the early 1990s, cable television and VCRs allowed viewers more choices than before; with the proliferation of channels, kids now have many more viewing choices than their parents did. A Los Angeles Times television critic recently wrote about how her kids have no interest in watching classic movies on TV as she once did. She writes that YouTube does allow younger viewers to sample old programming, but “only chunks of things, hacked off limbs of films and old shows rather than the whole thing.”

It’s easy to lament change, as each generation often does. Before the advent of the Victrola in 1877, pictured at left, and radio a bit later, there was no such thing as recorded music and people could only listen to live performances. Recorded music, films, and later television all removed some of the collective nature of entertainment, as people could increasingly enjoy it in private. And as radio sets, phonographs, and vinyl became cheaper, the market for music segmented.

So our experiences of popular culture have been shifting for over a century, not just for the last decade. Has this segmentation reduced social cohesion?


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I think post-structuralist/post-structuralist philosophy already explored the dangers of this sort of "reduced social cohesion." I want to say it was Jean Baudrillard who wrote about how the speed in which we process cultural definitions as well as the plurality of meaning in these definitions cause us to live in a ungrounded chaos. This is obviously an extreme of what you're writing about but related nonetheless.

As a person who was born in 1989, I can count the number of "televised cultural events" I've experienced on my hand and honestly distrust any text that comes from one source (especially in terms of news), so you're nostalgia is hard to understand.

When it comes to old movies/media, if I want to watch Casablanca, I'll sit down and watch Casablanca. But if I want to get/understand Casablanca, I'm more likely to watch a few clips and read what others have said about the film - it's just quicker.

I would have to agree that television did bring people together a lot more back in the 80's than it does today. Although I have to say there are a few shows and events that just about everyone watches. For example, just about everyone I know watches Glee, the television show. Maybe not everyone watches this show but I know that a great portion of people do. Another show that I know just about every person in America has seen at least once is Hannah Montana. This may not be any ones favorite show but I know tons of people have seen it. Maybe people do not enjoy watching this show at all but it still brings a connection with other people because everyone has seen the same show. I know that national bonding through TV is not very popular anymore but it does still happen.

There is more variety than ever to choose from. Besides hundred's of TV station, there are now online stations to choose from to. I rarely watch TV any more, choosing streaming movies instead. But I don't watch what I do because others are watching, also. I DO bond with my family members over a show or movie, but I don't really care if I can talk about it at the water cooler or not. My friends and I've got many other interests to talk about besides TV shows.

Dear Karen Sternheimer,
In my online Sociology class we are learning a lot about television and the electronics of today and of yesterday. I have found that many people these days spend over four hours a day watching television. How is this possible? Well most homes have over 200 channels, and so much to choose from. I do agree that we are falling farther apart as a culture because many people watch so many different things on television. With such a wide selection of programs, and the frequent change of times, kids no longer want to watch what they did five years ago. I think this is quite sad because a lot of parents will find it harder and harder to relate to their kids, through the television, and a million other ways as well.

I agree that with so much to watch people don't have the same connection from watching the same programs or special events. It is sad that our culture is so focused on reality tv that they don't pay attention to actual reality. I believe that even though we don't pay as much attention to things like the royal wedding and political speeches, we still have other things that can join us and make us feel connected to our culture.

Our modern society is so concerned with impractical technologies, some have gone as far to call it a cult. While I do not agree with this statement, I do find the observation to be very interesting. As a teenager, I spend hours staring at the screen of a computer, cell phone, or iPod. I focus a lot of my attention on video games (while excelling in school). Technology provides us with a false sense of connectivity and caring, in my opinion. However, what would modern society be without it? We cannot advance with our heads stuck in the past.

I agree that with so much to watch people don't have the same connection from watching the same programs or special events. It is sad that our culture is so focused on reality tv that they don't pay attention to actual reality. I believe that even though we don't pay as much attention to things like the royal wedding and political speeches, we still have other things that can join us and make us feel connected to our culture.

This is awesome! I really started to think as I read about social changes. It also got me thinking about why some teens now want to go back to being a kid. I remember the 90's, and I know that way back there was only a few channels on tv. Life was so much simpler, wasn't it? We all watched the same things, knew the same subjects, and we could talk about things honestly that interest us. I think now, in 2012, people are all about "being yourself, being different, and doing what you want to do". That, in my opinion, is how our society has changed from then to now. It makes me wonder how we'll next change. I wonder if we'll create more variety that will corrupt us and make us all just how we say we want--different--or if things will shift into one combined thing.

Being in a sociology class that is discussing the topic of social change, I was very inclined to read your article. Technology is a main source of social change which is why I was very pleased it was mentioned in your article. You're connection of how it has altered America and going as far back in the 1900s to explain that really makes it clear.

while agreeing with Sternheimer I also must say in order for this type of modern mechanical solidarity to be true many other factors must be considered and evaluated in order to make an accurate assessment and I don’t think that this will be able to be done in light of the rapid increases we continue to make in technology every day. Not until there is a brief hiatus in the technological world will a sociologist have the time to really see the before and after affects of a growing complex nation and analyze it to its fullest.

I believe that TV has brought us together...but it also has distanced us too. It has brought us together by the family spending time together and being in the presence of each other. But the distance is that they are not communicating with each other, they are not talking about what they did or what is going on. There is also the problem that when we do communicate we talk about TV or about something that was on TV. Our communication skills to talk to people face to face is going away since we have things to communicate through, text, email, chat, etc.

In today's society, things are constantly changing. So it is pretty difficult to have common interests in music and things like that. There are so many different things that change that we our selves change sometimes. Some people tend to try to hold on to a period of time where they found themselves, but others don't stay with them.

Today, there are hundreds of channels for people to chose from. Along with all those television options, people can talk on the phone and text. This new technology allows people to talk, watch videos, or listen to music whenever they want. Pop culture can be defined as what is popular now, and things that are popular are trending on social networks like twitter and facebook or on youtube.

It is very true that technology has brought about social change. Technology I do not believe necessarily reduces social cohesion. With inventions such as Skype and Facebook people can now communicate with one another more then ever-various protests such as the ones in Egypt were organzied through Facebook. Social networks ad new technologies has brought people together. I mean sure people are now becoming more individualized given the wide access of entertainment but I do not feel it dramatically reduces social cohesion, mayble slightly but nothing more.

It was really interesting to see how you connected advances in television with social change. Usually when people talk about technology advancing, they relate it to society coming closer together and becoming more connected but what you said about all of the new choices and how much tougher it is to unite people through television is totally true. Now that people have so many choices, it is less likely that we will be watching the same thing, so in a way, we are split up into more categories than before.

I think that because of the technological advances, we have actually been able to connect with people we usually wouldn't connect with. I spend a decent amount of time playing video games and through programs like Xbox Live, I've met people who I've actually become closer with because we play video games together. It's almost silly to think about it from an outside perspective, but it certainly has happened! However, I do agree that because of all the TV shows, a lot of people can't find common ground to talk about when it come to television programs. Therefore, people are split up into more little "groups" of people who watch ceratin programs.

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