|Media and Society in 20th-century Europe: Developments and Methodologies in Diachronic Perspective|
|This paper outlines the development of approaches to the expansion of the mass media in twentieth century Europe, focussing in particular on the numerous interrelations between the history of communications and the wider history of social and political change. It is specifically conceived as part of a diachronically comparative panel on media and society since the 17th century (proposed by Prof. Frank Bösch), and is concerned above all with the methods and concepts that can best help historians and other social scientists to integrate and contextualize the history of communications within broader historical narratives.
The last two decades have witnessed an unmistakeable surge in interest in communications among historians. There have been numerous reasons for this, the most of important of which have been: first, the wave of research on the history of mass consumption; second, the wider turn towards cultural history, or the so-called ‘cultural extension’ of social and political history; and third the recognition of the immense (and rapidly evolving) influence of the mass media in contemporary society. All of these factors have encouraged an intense engagement with the history of communications, perhaps for the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries more than any other era. Simply put, any attempt to study the shifting patterns of cultural perception and expectation in this period must take stock of the role the mass media, which have played an increasingly central role in the negotiation, reproduction and dissemination of cultural values.
However, for the twentieth century much of this work has been focused rather tightly around the development of the media per se rather than their wider social and political impact. As a result, the issues raised by such research are often not integrated very well into broader frameworks of interpretation. This marks an interesting contrast with work on earlier periods, in particular on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, where scholars have long emphasized the interrelations between new reading habits, the rise of ‘bourgeois’ culture and the emergence of a new, broader ‘public’. At one level one might attribute this difference to the influence of Habermas’ work on the ‘public sphere’, which, for all its shortcomings (as scholars have noted since the early 1990s), seems to apply better to this earlier period than to subsequent eras. Despite the fact that Habermas has remained central to scholarly attempts to place communications within their wider social and political context in the twentieth century as well, recent historical research has tended to use different conceptual tools (eg. Bourdieu and ‘cultural studies’ approaches) quite fruitfully. This paper will thus consider the merits and limitations of several of these main approaches to the evolution of the media in twentieth-century Europe within the diachronically comparative setting of the panel.