One of the buzzwords you could not miss if you were, like me, at the International Communication Association’s 2018 Conference held between 24-28 May in Prague was ‘mediatization’. Other equally popular words or terms included ‘datafication’, ‘algorithm’, ‘fake news’, ‘big data’ and, of course, ‘AI’. In this short essay, I want to focus on ‘meditization’, and talk about why, in my view, the field’s ‘new favourite’ is not enough to understand this ‘mediated’ world. My objective, however, is not to critique the concept per se. Nor do I intend to address this issue in a systematic manner – at least not here. Partly this is because the job has already been done by other media scholars – most brilliantly, by Deacon and Stanyer (2014, 2015) and more recently, John Corner (2018). But more importantly it is because my aim in this essay is to try to approach ‘meditization’ from a sociologist’s point of view (as opposed to a media analyst’s perspective), and discuss the two pitfalls I see as potentially undercutting the notion’s theoretical usability in analysing and critiquing today’s information-, data- and media-saturated social life.
My first point is that the concept of ‘meditization’ necessarily implies a media-centric approach to the analysis of the media-society, media-economy, and media-politics relations which is hardly helpful in critiquing – not just describing and interpreting – the contemporary media scene in major Western societies. The problem with a media-centric approach is that it is likely to overlook, if not conceal, the hegemonic power relations hidden underneath the media events it sets out to analyse and understand. Substituting the specific media organisations with the broad-brush, neutralised term ‘media’ obscures the entities which exert power on media users and which should be held accountable for this power. Thus, such normalisation associated with meditization not only conceals the unequal power relations and power structure that characterise the media industry but it could also whitewash and justify the domination in the industry by neutralising it.
The Cambridge Analytical scandal serves a good example which shows how little, at least in the Western world, the ‘logic’ governing large media corporations has changed, in spite of the unrecognisable changes in the techniques and technologies the companies use to exploit and manipulate users. Therefore, although in analysing how our private, public, and social and political life is being altered by social media, by algorithm, and by big data meditization provides a useful starting point, this is accompanied by a latent danger of preventing us from seeing what is really at stake. What is really at stake, in my view, is not so much the kaleidoscopic ‘media forms’ by which millions of media users’ lives are (supposedly) transformed and through which these individuals are targeted and used, but the fundamental ‘forces’ driving such violation and exploitation. Put it another way, what is really at stake is not so much Facebook.com and Google.com as Facebook, Inc. and Google Inc., and the problem with meditization research is that it has a tendency to focus on analysing the former at the expense of critiquing the latter.
Secondly, ‘meditization’ is essentially Eurocentric. As such, the notion is less useful in accounting for the media-power dynamics in contexts where politicians, while may be argued as becoming increasingly aware of the media’s power and ‘dependent’ on ‘media logic’, confirm this, as Deacon and Stanyer (2014) observe, not by adapting to this new relation but by upgrading and reinforcing their control of the media. From this perspective, how useful meditization is in accounting for media-power dynamics and political communication in societies with distinct media systems and policies from the several Western liberal democracies is a question. And before we can resolve this question, empirically and theoretically, any generalised claim for mediatisation’s universal ‘paradigmatic’ significance for the field of media and communication studies cannot be as well-grounded and convincing as the concept’s protagonists would have liked it to be.
Having said all this, my position in this essay is not that we should bin ‘meditization’ altogether. The concept has its theoretical usefulness, and it certainly has disciplinary relevance (Corner 2018). My point, on the basis of the two observations I made above, is therefore this. Firstly, in carrying out meditization-informed empirical research we should be more sensitive to the contexts in which the notion is applied; secondly, we should never assume that ‘meditization’ as a social process can occur independently of the existing power structures and relations in society, however deeply ‘mediatized’ these structures and relations may seem nowadays.
Dr Zheng Liu is an Affiliated Researcher at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge. She researches media, culture, business and power and their interrelations in modern society. She can be reached at email@example.com and she tweets at @drzhengliu.