Understanding the Role of the Culture Industries in Creating An Emancipatory Positive Critique

Track Overview

How do cultures change? This question inspires the participatory action research guiding one of the most progressive tendencies in consumer research today, Transformative Consumer Research (TCR). Although this question fits well within the tradition of critical theory, the critical tradition historically focused on social structures and ideologies that prevented democratic social change. For example, writing in the 1940s, Herbert Marcuse (1964) is famous for his book One-Dimensional Man. This book is important because it represents a clear emphasis on the culture industries. Marcuse’s interpretation of his experience in California was that popular culture in America created the conditions for people to find comfort and identity in consumption. Ultimately, a preoccupation with acquisition diverts attention away from the passivity and alienation associated with the social conditions of the time. As a result of alienation, dissatisfaction deepens, leading to more consumption, and so on. This lack of critical consciousness creates one-dimensionality, a unified code that becomes naturalized, compelling people to conform. Two other leaders of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1947) proposed that popular culture is akin to a factory producing standardized cultural goods that are used to manipulate the mass market. Later in the critical tradition, Habermas (1985) reframes this issue asking the question, how can the lifeworld be effectively preserved from the corroding effect of the system? Although Habermas (1985) conceptualizes the system as instrumental action, he notes that one consequence is individuated uniform acts of consumption.

The culture industries of the 1940s and 1950s, which helped to shape the agenda of critical theory were quite different from the culture industries today. Post World War II consumer culture reinforced conservative occupational and gender roles forming a hegemonic consumer ideology. However, the culture industries of today, including film, television, music, art, fashion, media, gaming, architecture, advertising, publishing, and design are very different, creating opportunities for creative engagement between individuals and social structure. Thus, this track seeks to turn critical theory on its head, articulating the potential for the culture industries to become an agent for emancipatory cultural change: can the culture industries creatively find ways of preserving or reclaiming the lifeworld from the corroding effect of the system?

Track Goal

This open track of the 2017 TCR Conference seeks to assemble researchers with diverse theoretical and methodological backgrounds. Preference will be given to those academics that express an interest in critical theory and the culture industries. The overall goals are twofold:

  • First, group members will be asked to describe actual cases of how specific spheres in the culture industries have triggered positive social change. These cases can be described and expressed as the result of observation, interviews, ethnography, past research projects, literature, brief examples, or interpretation of popular media experiences. These cases will be shared with the group prior to the TCR conference. Each of the eight participants will be asked to develop three case studies.
  • Second, during the TCR conference, the 24 case studies will be grouped and categorized according to criteria generated through dialogue. It is anticipated that each category will provide insight into a set of cultural consequences set in motion by the culture industries. These consequences may provide better understanding of cultural change strategies. This is important in that it will enable the TCR community to engage the culture industries in order to remedy concrete social problems. Participants will develop two articulations for each category: corresponding literature or foundational theoretical tradition, and corresponding ideas of cultural change strategies. Dialogue during the conference will produce an outline for a conceptual article positioned for an appropriate journal such as Marketing Theory.

Tentative Schedule: Pre-Conference Activities

Initial data gathering and literature review: September 2016 – January 2017

Participants will be asked to seek out three case studies of how the culture industries have participated in a positive critique. In critical theory, a positive critique is less diagnostic and more remedial, indicating positive social change according to some criteria or foundation. At this stage in the project, collecting a wide range of cases will be the most helpful since the purpose will be to gain insight into the interplay between the culture industries and social structure. For this phase of data gathering, participants will be asked to write three one page (single spaced) examples that have the potential to be further developed in the focused case study phase.

For example, in the late 1960s, a television producer named Joan Cooney wanted to use some dimension of popular culture to address the concrete problem of poverty and illiteracy. Since every home, regardless of social class, had a television set, she reasoned that an educational show that would give children from disadvantaged homes prolearning values might have the power to change dispositions and values long after the show had ended. The initial problem was how to make the show sticky enough to trick the children into learning. Working with psychologists specializing in child development and a number of creative artists, an American tradition was born: Sesame Street (Gladwell 2002, see Chapter Three).

Focused case study development: February 2017 – June 2017

Participants will be asked to explore the theoretical foundations of their three case studies. Theoretical foundations for this project may include links to literature, theories, or philosophical traditions. This is important since it may provide ideas as to how the cases should be categorized. In addition, theoretical foundations point to a variety of ways the culture industries may impact social structure. For this phase of pre-conference activities, participants will be asked to write about the theoretical foundations for each of their three case studies. Again, we envision a page (single spaced) development. Thus, for each of the three case studies we will request a two-page write-up. The 24 complete cases will be shared with the group prior to the TCR conference.

Continuing with the example above, we can begin to link this cultural expression to theoretical traditions, helping us better understand the cultural change mechanism. For instance, since the idea began with an object that cuts across social class (i.e., the television set), class and habitus are important. In this case, habitus refers to the physical embodiment of cultural capital, deeply socialized habits and dispositions that arise from our life experiences. Here, Sesame Street became a new agent in the child’s habitus thus changing the field. Since much of Pierre Bourdieu’s practice theory observes the semi-independent role of educational and cultural resources in the expression of agency, this is an interesting explanation as to why Sesame Street worked—and it gives us insight into how other cultural expressions may engage a positive critique.

Tentative Schedule: Conference Activities

  • June 19, 2017 – The first day of consensus building through dialogue will focus on a typology that categorizes the cultural case studies. This typology will be based on criteria or a foundation emerging from dialogue. The purpose of this typology is to help the researchers understand the dialectical interplay between the culture industries and social structure—in the context of positive critique.
  • June 20, 2017 – The second day of consensus building through dialogue will focus on the outline for the conceptual article. This outline will be detailed enough so that when the group departs, we will have a clear plan for completing the article and moving it through the publication process. The article will focus on the role of the culture industries in critical theory, the potential for the culture industries to effect positive social change, an understanding of a range of social change strategies, and ideas as to how the TCR community can better engage the culture industries to remedy concrete social problems.

Please contact the corresponding track chairs for questions about this track:

Jeff B. Murray

Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas

Zafeirenia Brokalaki

Department of Culture, Media, and Creative Industries, King’s College London


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  1. Gladwell, Malcolm (2002), The Tipping Point, Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
  2. Habermas, Jurgen (1985), The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. II, Boston, Beacon Press.
  3. Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno (1947), Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  4. Marcuse, Herbert (1964), One-Dimensional Man, Boston: Beacon Press.