Reconstructing the Political Economy of Communication for the Digital Media Age

Dwayne Winseck

Abstract


Within communication studies, the political economy of communication (PEC) approach is typically seen to be the sole preserve of Marxist scholars, with origins in the late 20th century. Such a view, however, obscures an older, trans-Atlantic political economy tradition forged by Europe and North American scholars who made communications media central objects of their analyses in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. This earlier tradition was imported into communication studies through the halfway house of sociology, mostly after the turn of the 20th century, thereby thoroughly entangling the intellectual history of communication studies with that of political economy from the beginning. Moreover, the formative years of the field were never the barren ‘administrative wasteland’ often thought. Indeed, combined with the research done beyond the field’s borders by economists, business historians, legal and regulatory scholars, etc. throughout the 20th Century, a wealth of underused resources is close-to-hand that can help us to reimagine and reconstruct what we mean by the PEC traditions today. This paper starts to recover these neglected elements, and the contributions of the institutionalist and Cultural Industries schools especially. It closes with a survey of recent PEC research and a handful of provocations that contemporary researchers might explore: (1) in an evermore internet- and mobile wireless-centric world, bandwidth is king, not content; (2) subscriber fees are now the economic base of the media not advertising, by roughly a 3:1 ratio; (3) rather than seeing media as a ‘unified system’, developments vary greatly across media: some are growing fast, others stagnating, and yet others appear to be in decline; (4) people create, consume and share a lot of media outside the market; and (5) contra neoliberal mythology, the role of the state remains vital: as regulator, a counter to market power, investor and in terms of surveillance.


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