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Some Implications of the Public Connection Project

Our aim in this project was, in a way, very simple: to test out, by listening to people’s voices and accounts, whether the bottom line of most political science and media research is true.16 That bottom line is the assumption that, whatever their dissatisfaction from the details of politics and whatever the growing debates about the exact stuff of politics should be about, nonetheless citizens in a complex democracy such as the United Kingdom are oriented to, potentially attentive to, a world of public issues and public affairs where, in principle, politics goes on and political issues are decided. We call that basic orientation “public connection.” A linked assumption is that people’s uses of media—their media consumption—sustains that public connection, so people’s “public connection” is mediated. But what if that were not the case? Then all the efforts of politicians and other public commentators would be wasted because people would already be turned in another direction.

We had a special reason for asking this question in 2004 and 2005 because of growing uncertainties about what politics should now be about and what exactly—beyond turning up to vote—citizens should do. This uncertainty is common among academics, but our hunch was that it would be shared by citizens more generally, and that we could tap into it by giving people the space to reflect over time on what they had followed each week in the public world and how media had helped them follow it. We left it up to our diarists to define what they counted as of “public” concern. We obtained fascinating reflections from 37 diarists aged 18—69 across Britain in 2004, interviewed them before and after their diary, and then in mid-2005 commissioned a nationwide survey on the issues raised from the diary research.

You can read our wider findings elsewhere.17 Here I just want to pick out some points that seem most relevant. Our general finding was that most people in the United Kingdom do have public connection and that media help sustain it. But this was only the start of a much more complex story.

First, when we looked at our survey results—which get closer to the average population (inevitably, since if you ask someone to produce a diary, you are weighting things a little toward those who are already engaged in some sense, although not necessarily toward politics)—we found a significant minority for whom media did not work to engage them. You were more likely to be disengaged if your socioeconomic status was lower as well as more likely to lack a sense that you can affect things locally. Turning to media, disengagement was predicted both by an interest in celebrity and by a sense that media are often irrelevant to one’s life: in other words, by a paradoxical disengagement from media as well. If you were manual working class (where levels of disengagement are much higher in any case), then the more television hours you watched, the more likely you were to be disengaged, although this was not true for other social groups. This illustrates that media consumption in itself is not a route to engagement: watching large amounts of television may be a feature of disengagement, and strikingly disengagement from media as much as from politics. If media contribute to engagement—and by and large they do—it is only as part of a broader balance of consumption and activity within people’s lives.

Second, we found among our diarists that even those who are most engaged— people who both followed the news closely and were civically active—had few, if any, outlets for taking action on public issues. Indeed, although people generally had plenty of places where they could talk about public issues, it was rare to find anyone report a link between talking about an issue and taking action on it: this is symptomatic, we believe, of what political scientists have called a weak “deliberative culture” in Britain.18 This is exactly the gap between engagement and recognition that I noted earlier. This suggests a larger issue: that the lack of opportunities for citizens and media consumers to participate effectively in political decisions or policy generation is not something that better media or better engagement in media can remedy by itself. As one of our diarists, a 47-year-old senior health protection nurse from the rural Midlands, put it, “It’s all right having a duty and following things but is there a point if there’s nothing at the end of it?”

This links to a final and broader point that emerged in many forms in our study: that to assess the wider consequences and meanings of particular habits or activities (watching a TV news bulletin, reading the paper, going online, or indeed picking up a camcorder), it is not enough to study them in isolation; it is essential to find out how those habits are connected up with other habits, as part of wider practices—or perhaps are not connected up with anything else in a person’s life. In fact, it was the wider, “joined-up” practice of citizenship that, ironically, was missing in New Labour Britain as reviewed in our study. This suggests that it is the articulations of what young people do in particular projects with wider contexts to durable habits and practices in daily life that we need above all to review in assessing the effectiveness of projects where media resources are, temporarily, passed into their hands.

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