The Ritual Model of Communication

James Carey’s most famous work is a criticism of Communication Studies’ over-reliance on a social science view of communication. Early social science on mass media tended to rely on a model of communication that was pretty mechanistic.

For the scientifically-minded, communication was information transmitted between a sender and a receiver. The classic formulation was who said what to whom with what effect. Social scientists, skeptical of those claiming media was fundamentally reshaping society, designed studies to get at that last part about the effects. Did propaganda win wars? Could violence in films make a population more aggressive or criminal? The quantitative research they conducted found surprisingly little evidence that media had direct, powerful influence over individuals.

Over time, these findings accumulated and became known as the “Limited Effects” school of thought. Social science methods found minimal influence of media so consistently, one researcher proclaimed the field of mass communication research had been exhausted. Everyone could hang up their clipboards and go home.

But many researchers were not satisfied mass media had been fully understood. The relationship between media and society seemed more complicated and the effects more profound than quantitative research could reveal.

Offering the “ritual” approach as an alternative, Carey sought to explore new angles on the role of media in human life. His perspective is rooted in history and asks us to consider the communal aspects of communication. Perhaps media are more than information transmission. Instead of viewing humans as information receptacles, perhaps we can focus on how media brings people together, how it can bind a nation and create communities of shared belief.

As a word, communication shares roots with other words like community and communion. Its Latin origins meant both to impart and to share. While most communication and media scholars were focused on how information was imparted or “transmitted,” Carey focused on the idea of sharing. Sharing, after all, is how culture is created. Carey wanted us to examine the idea of shared culture and media’s role in it, as did a generation of cultural theorists who followed him.

Carey was skeptical that social science was able to effectively study this role of media. The transmission view of social science ignored some of the most important functions of media. Carey was a religious man, and careful readers can sense this in his writing. He sometimes speaks of communication in nearly mystical terms. Communication’s role in forming communities, he suggests, is ritualistic in a fashion . . . not unlike church.

In mainstream Christian churches, the congregation reads a common book (the Bible). Reading the Bible is a way to confirm an ordered worldview and share that with a community of belief. Very few church-goers are there for the information about Jesus. They are there not to learn new facts about the life of Jesus as much as to hear familiar stories and share in a narrative about their lives. They share faith, not information.

Carey argues that the newspaper of his time (and the news sites today) perform a similar function. In America and other Western nations, reading the news is to “subscribe” to a democratic worldview. When we think about the news, we engage in a collective enterprise and endorse shared values. Congregants become worshipers when in church. People become citizens when reading and talking about the news. What insights about media can we gain by seeing communication through the ritual lens rather than mere transmission?

Media organize social identities and new media allow new communities to emerge.

This “communion” function of media goes beyond news. Communities taking shape around a variety of cultural identities. K-Pop stans, gardening enthusiasts, comic-book collectors . . . the internet has allowed almost any identity to find a group. Media make these identities possible. That’s what Carey find so mystical about communication. It is the basis for shared culture. It is how “the miracle of social life is pulled off.”

The cultural approach advocated by Carey, British cultural theorists and others also called attention to the role of media in distributing social power. Representation, they argued, was instrumental in structuring multicultural society by portraying cultures, race and ethnicity. Often, these portrayals positioned some groups as outsiders, threats and deviants. They are positioned as “others” in contrast to a “mainstream” constructed for the viewing audience.

Scholars in the cultural studies tradition have looked at film and television as sources of knowledge about the world for audiences. Examples of work on media representation are now near as prominent as the social science tradition. Shani Orgad (2015), for example, says the “new visibility” in global media means various identities compete for social power by managing how the group is represented in media. Studies of media portrayals fill journals, populate conference panels and appear in popular news. The Media Education Foundation alone features dozens of documentaries addressing the representation of Arabs in early cinema, Black Americans in television, and women in advertising. The study of media and identity is tied to culture and, as culture changes and forms of representation multiply, identities will be created, maintained and adjusted in too many ways for cultural studies researchers to keep up.

If Carey is right, media play a significant role in shaping the shared reality we call culture. Shaping that reality, it also influences the unequal distribution of social power along class, gender and racial lines. Analysis of how symbolic processes construct these identities and hierarchies will be of enduring (if lamentable) value if we are to better understand the relationship between media and society.