Media and technology studies (MTS) is an interdisciplinary area of communication scholarship dedicated to understanding the social, cultural, and political significance of communication technologies. MTS scholarship encompasses a wide array of perspectives. Its methods of analyzing media are influenced by cultural studies, sociology, literary criticism and political science, to name just a few prominent threads.
The development of MTS has also been an international collaboration. Media theorists in Europe and Canada significantly shaped the study of media during the 20th century, and scholars from around the world have won greater visibility and influence in the field over recent decades. Today, MTS is a global academic dialogue, which is one of its most exciting qualities. As such, prospective media scholars may want to consider graduate programs abroad and in departments outside of communication that contribute to MTS’ interdisciplinary conversation.
There are many benefits to the MTS’ diversity and interdisciplinarity, but it can also generate some confusion for prospective students. Scholars and universities frequently treat MTS as a subfield of communication studies because MTS scholars apply their various disciplinary backgrounds and influences to understanding media and communication technologies. However, MTS is taught outside of communication departments, for example, in literature, film studies, information science, and science and technology studies departments. Further, it is sometimes treated as its own discipline or as an area of critical / cultural research.
This article provides an introduction to MTS that is meant to be useful to prospective communication graduate students by identifying a few of the main ideas that have defined media research over the last century. The following sections review the discipline’s historical development and highlight how this informs key contemporary approaches to the study of media technologies both in the United States and internationally.
Defining Media and Technology
To many, technology connotes novelty if not science fiction. The myth of scientific progress represents technological innovation as a natural force with its own laws, constantly on the verge of producing something new. Similarly, the term “media” is most commonly associated with the mass media technologies of the 20th and 21st centuries: newspapers, radio, television networks, social media platforms. Outside of academic research, it is uncommon to hear a theatrical production, a poem, or an academic text referred to as “media,” just as it is unusual to hear stationary, pens, or mail trucks referred to as technologies.
This is the case even though such descriptions are, in fact, accurate. In the academic literature, most definitions of technology are intentionally broad. Noted critic Langdon Winner (1990), for example, defines technology as any modern form of “practical artifice.” Anything created by humans to perform a task, in this case, rightly counts as a technology.
“Media” on the other hand, is the plural of medium. Newspapers, television broadcasts, and Facebook posts are all different communications media in the same sense that marble and oil paints are different examples of arts media. Media technologies are, therefore, any technology employed in processes of human communication.
This is important to understanding the aims of media and technology studies. By this account, roads, mail trucks, and stationary are not just technologies; they are media technologies as well. After all, trucks and roads are technologies that allow people to communicate through the mail just as much as envelopes, paper, and pens. Therefore, while some MTS research remains committed to understanding emerging technologies, research in media and technology studies often considers things that might not at first appear technological, or are rarely studied as such, as technologies. For example, some media scholars look back backward to discuss the technical nature of human communication throughout history, such as in John Durham Peters’ (2001) Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. In doing so, MTS provides a fresh perspective from which to approach the study of many different elements of culture and society.
A Brief History of Media and Technology Studies
The academic study of media dates as far back as Ancient Greece, to Plato’s infamous critique of drama, poetry, and rhetoric in The Republic. These mediated forms of communication, Plato argued, corrupted the public’s civic capabilities by appealing to their emotions instead of appealing to truth. In the later texts Poetics and Rhetoric, Plato’s student Aristotle rebuts his mentor’s arguments and defends the social and political importance of these genres of communication. Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, facilitates political decision making by allowing for the collective application of reason. Similarly, drama and poetry promote the emotional and moral education of the people.
Whatever their disagreements, both Plato and Aristotle recognize the importance of considering how different media technologies impact society, culture, and politics. Indeed, Plato’s fears over the politically and socially deleterious effects of media remain central driving concerns behind the study of media and technology today. In the 1920s, the academic study of media technologies gained new importance as communication technologies took on a more central role in global political and military conflicts.
The developments of the interWar period gave rise to two very different, but related, developments in media scholarship: the emergence of social scientific media research in North America and the UK and, in the Weimar Republic, the founding of the Frankfurt School’s critical approach to media. Both of these perspectives reiterate Plato’s critique of mediated communication discussed above; the popular support for fascism in once liberal-democratic European states generated fears of the anti-democratic effects of mass culture or mass democracy. The rise of modern media took much of the blame. After the Wars, both social scientific and critical media research came under fire for being deterministic because both argued that media caused certain behavioral or ideological effects.
Even more problematic than denying free will to media audiences was the lack of empirical evidence supporting these claims. Contemporary researchers have adapted to these problems by turning to more sophisticated quantitative approaches and adopting qualitative methods. Critical / cultural media research has also endeavored to be less deterministic by considering the active role audiences play in shaping the meaning and politics of media.
At the same time, the Platonic fears that founded media research still inflect cotemporary scholarship. After a period of optimism that the Internet might democratize media, contemporary political developments like the rise of online misinformation and far-right extremism have led many researchers back to concerns about media’s ability to corrupt society and jeopardize democratic culture.
Major Theories and Topics in Media and Technology Studies
As the limitations of early perspectives on media and technology became more apparent to mid-twentieth century researchers, media and technology studies refined and expanded its approaches in an attempt to overcome these problems. This article discusses three major types of MTS research that remain influential today: social scientific research in MTS, material perspectives in media and technology research, and critical / cultural research in media and popular culture. Each of these perspectives is unique, but they share MTS’ larger goals of understanding the social, political, and cultural importance of communications technologies.
Social Scientific Perspectives in Media and technology Studies: Social scientific research in MTS relies on data-driven research and real-world observation to evaluate the importance of media technologies. As discussed in our Introductory Guide to Mass Communication, communication scholars originally employed social scientific research to determine how new methods and modes of information dissemination were impacting the politics and culture of the public or the “masses.”
Early social scientific research contended that, when a message, such as a piece of propaganda, is disseminated to a given population, this should have a quantifiable and predictable effect on the ideas and behaviors of that population. Unfortunately, as noted above, scholars of media effects produced little empirical evidence supporting the type of large-scale media effects they had hypothesized. Some social scientific MTS researchers adapted to these early setbacks by applying quantitative research in more limited and predictable contexts. For example, the popularization of the Internet in the 1990s ushered in a new generation of quantitative research on “computer mediated communication.”
Other researchers have turned to qualitative approaches like conducting interviews with media audiences and the users of communication technologies. Some incorporate ideas from critical / cultural literature into their research as well, while others synthesize different methodologies into a “mixed methods” approach to MTS.
Material Perspectives on Media and Technology: One influential reaction to this early research has been an increased focus on the materiality of mediated communication: the technical or physical properties of communicative technologies. These perspectives on media are unique from other approaches in MTS because of their emphasis on the significance of the communication medium as opposed what is being communicated, or the information being transmitted by that medium.
Perhaps the most well-known of these approaches is the study of media systems or media ecology, which is attributed primarily to Marshall McLuhan of the Toronto School. McLuhan (1964) summarized the aims of a material approach to media studies with his famous provocation “the medium is the message.” McLuhan posed that previous generations of research focused too heavily on the content of the message being communicated, when media technologies have important sociopolitical effects beyond the informational or ideological impact of their messaging. Media systems, this perspective maintains, influence the sociopolitical significance of communication in ways that cannot be captured by changes in the content or messages that are circulated. Media technologies are not merely instruments for communication – they create new possibilities for human existence.
At the same time as the Toronto School gained influence in North America, in Europe a similar thought shift was taking place. German media studies and Actor Network Theory offer comparable perspectives on the significance of the materiality of media. These separate traditions also anticipate many of the ideas popularized in MTS by “new materialists” in the United States and Europe at the turn of the 21st century.
Like material thinkers before them, “new materialists” focus on the active role of the non-human in human communication. Drawing from critical / cultural studies and critical feminist thought, they argue that the technologies, objects, and nonhuman organisms involved in human culture have important sociopolitical effects that are not always consciously experienced by humans. Further, they have important lives of their own that deserve their own scholarly attention. This focus on the non-human leads materialist thinkers to provide some of the most radical and innovative perspectives on media and technology found in contemporary research.
Critical /Cultural Studies in Media and Popular Culture: Critical /cultural research in media and popular culture is defined by its attention to the role power plays in shaping culture and society. It also aims to challenge or help disrupt those oppressive power structures that it identifies. Critical perspectives on media and culture have their roots in Marxist scholarship on class, feminism, queer theory, and critical scholarship on race, ethnicity and colonialism.
Cultural studies scholars, perhaps most famously Stuart Hall, argue that popular media and popular culture should be explored for how they represent the world, including how they portray different cultural identities. CCS argues that popular culture is a central place where cultural and political struggles are fought within modern society. Popular culture representations, like those pertaining to class and identity politics, should be evaluated for how they support the power structures that define a given culture.
Critical thought on culture and identity contributes to media criticism partly by drawing attention to the way that media texts and other elements of popular cultural reproduce representations that normalize and justify forms of oppression based on race, cis- and heteronormativity, ableism, and the intersections between these power structures and more. Conversely, CCS scholars research ways media and popular culture may also be used by marginalized groups as a space of resistance and expression. Because of this, critical / cultural studies has proven to be one of the most vital disciplines to analyzing the sociopolitical importance of media and popular culture.
Media and Technology Studies Today
In our increasingly digital world, understanding the sociopolitical impact of communications technologies is absolutely essential for any student of communication or culture. The interdisciplinary and eclectic methodologies found in Media and Technology Studies engage with the current frontiers of technological development as well as its ancient history. For these reasons, MTS is one of the most important areas of inquiry for contemporary communication scholars interested in making sense of how technology affects culture, politics and society.
A great deal of contemporary research is interested in the novelties of digital media and Internet-based communications. Social movements following the popularization of the Internet like the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring helped produce a wave of optimism of the democratic potentiality of digital media. Unfortunately, the rise of extreme right-wing nationalist movements across the globe during has challenged these democratic potentialities and tempered utopian conceptions of the internet. As a result, many of today’s social scientific researchers debate over how social media is helpful or harmful to democratic culture, along the same lines as Plato and Aristotle debated the value of poetry and rhetoric in shaping public thought and opinion.
But contemporary scholars are not exclusively fixated on contemporary technology and its novelty. Scholars in MTS are also more interested in studying the ways in which human culture has been technological, and human communication has been mediated, since its outset. Contemporary MTS research is, therefore, not concerned with contemporary culture alone. It is also interested in exploring what the long and complex history of media and technology means for our world today.
Sources and Additional Resources
For texts cited above and other great places to start investigating Media and Technology Studies, check out the list of resources below. For an introduction to cultural studies more generally, see our Introductory Guide to Critical / Cultural Studies.
Topics in Media and Technology Studies
This article discusses scholarly efforts to understand the materiality of media technologies. It explores how scholars have understood the importance of the medium in communication, examines media as an effect of the material relations that make up society, and introduces newer generations of scholarship focused on the ways human life is influenced by the non-human.
This detailed article discusses the various social scientific methodologies that are applicable to scholarship in media and technology studies (MTS), and explores how MTS examines the ways in which communication technologies influence sociopolitical and cultural dynamics.