Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

5. Document analysis and semiology

5.1 Introduction
5.2 Document analysis for what?
5.3 Establishing the nature of documents and categorising them (external analysis)
5.4 Approaches to document analysis
5.5 Evidence of occurrence
5.6 Content analysis
5.7 Qualitative document analysis
5.8 Historical research

5.9 Hermeneutics
5.10 Semiology
5.11 Critical media analysis

5.11.1 Introduction: media and structure
5.11.2 Manipulation, mass society and control
5.11.3 Hegemony, ideology and the meaning of media texts
5.11.4 Examples of critical analysis of media content
5.11.5 Conclusion

5.12 Aesthetics. art criticism, art history

5.11 Critical media analysis

5.11.1 Introduction: media and structure
This section explores some approaches to analysis of media content that adopt a critical approach and that are not included in semiological analysis (Section 5.10). Positivistic approaches to media analysis are mainly take the form of content analysis (Section 5.6). Critical approaches to media analysis have elements in common with critical discourse analysis (Section 6.9) and in some respects are seen as precursors of the latter.

For example, Philip Schlesinger's (1978) study of the production of BBC News and the Glasgow Media Group's (1977, 1982) analysis of content reveal the bias in news programmes. In particular, they have assessed how industrial disputes have been portrayed. They used case studies to show how the pro-establishment bias is constructed as much by what is not shown as by what is reported. van Dijk (2015) regarded the Glasgow Media Group's Bad News series as precursors to critical discourse analysis.

In similar vein, Walby et al.'s (1983) undertook a feminist analysis of rape reporting in the press and other research exposed the jingoist and racist content of the British press using case studies to indicate the presence of racist messages (Murray, 1986; Searle, 1987; Gordon and Rosenberg, 1989). Similarly, Angela Barry (1988) showed how images of black people on television reproduce racist mythologies by portraying black people as either trouble makers, dependants or entertainers. Black people in the 1970s and 1980s were usually treated as 'a problem' by the press and much reporting focused on incidents of racial conflict or portrayed cultural difference in negative terms (Hartmann and Husband, 1974; Troyna, 1981; Braham et al., 1981, 1992).

Critical approaches to the analysis of media content are concerned with the relationship between the mass media and the existing social structure. They examine what media messages contain, how they are 'read' and how they are produced. The aim is not to look at cause and effect relationships nor to interpret the processes of production and reception of the media. Critical studies see the media as part of the wider processes of social control and as reproducing the status quo through the constant reassertion of dominant ideology.


5.11.2 Manipulation, mass society and control

Early versions of the critical approach tended to see the media as being very powerful and manipulative. The manipulative theory of the media derived from the experience in Germany in the inter-war years. The effective use of the mass media by Nazi propagandists led to a pessimistic view of the manipulative power of the media. At its simplest, the manipulative view is summed up in the hypodermic model. The media 'injected' ideas and the audience responded to them. In this approach the audience is seen as atomised and completely powerless in the face of unscrupulous propaganda.

A second, more sophisticated, version of manipulation theory can be found in the work of the Frankfurt School. They argued that the second half of the twentieth century was an era of mass society that had resulted in the loosening of traditional social ties. People lived in a bewildering world where they were bombarded by mass culture. The mass media provided a simple view of the complexities of mass society. The problem was that mass society was one-dimensional, it offered no alternative conceptualisations. The media were thus manipulative because they reproduced this one-dimensional world. The one-dimensional view of the manipulative media is similar to the 'agenda-setting' approach. The agenda-setting view disagrees with other interpretive approaches that suggest media users are free to make what they like of the content. Agenda setting argues that the situation is defined for the viewer/reader. The one-dimensional approach argues not only that the situation is defined for the reader but the definition is also part of a much broader process of social control within mass society.

A third version of the manipulative theory is the control-of-the-media view. The argument is that ownership and control of the major elements of the mass media is in the hands of conservative white men and that their views are reproduced by the media, most noticeably in the case of newspapers. These owners are committed capitalists and, although giving journalists and editors a degree of independence, expect to see their views expressed in the newspapers they own. This is achieved through the appointment of like-minded editors, or by making it clear that certain conservative principles cannot be contravened. For example, editors should ensure that they do not attack the idea of free enterprise; they should see trade unionists as the problem in industrial relations rather than employers; they should not support left-wing or revolutionary political movements; and so on.

A second way in which the media are controlled by bourgeois interests is through advertising revenue. The main advertisers are the multinational corporations and they tend to direct their large advertising budgets to newspapers and magazines that are sympathetic to them.

A third form of bourgeois control comes through the government. Rarely does this involve direct censorship. However, government ministries and other official agencies provide the media with prepared explanations of official policy and these are often uncritically included in newspapers (Miliband, 1973).


5.11.3 Hegemony, ideology and the meaning of media texts

An alternative approach to critical analysis of the media adopts Gramsci's notion of hegemony and links the mass media to ideology. The hegemonic view argues that the media do not attempt deliberately to manipulate the audience. Rather the media reassert a dominant view of the world and legitimate existing forms of social oppression, ownership of wealth, civil liberties and so on. The media are thus not seen as important in themselves, they are one element in the production and reproduction of dominant ideology.

The earliest versions of this approach saw the audience as incidental to the study of the way the media produced ideological meanings. Audiences were seen as powerless recipients of dominant ideological messages. Having received the messages the audience simply recirculated them, thus contributing to the taken-for-granted nature of the dominant ideology (Fejes, 1984).

The role of critical media analysis was thus to uncover the hidden meanings of media texts (Newcomb, 1982; Rowland and Watkins, 1984).

The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies developed the hegemonic approach and argued that the audience is not completely powerless and that recipients of the media are able to 'read' them in a variety of ways, including critical readings. However, the media operate in a hegemonic framework within which there are preferred readings (Hall, 1973). The preferred meanings are those of the dominant groups. They are ideological and derive from the social structure, particularly from class, 'race' and gender relations. The preferred meanings serve to reproduce the social structure by making dominant views appear as normal.

For example, television news takes for granted the idea that the British royal family is an admirable institution of which all Britons are proud. This does not mean that it is not possible to read something other than the preferred meaning in a media message. (You might, for example, read a news report about the royal family as the actions of a decadent and parasitic elite.) However, it requires a good deal of critical work to do this, whereas the taken-for-granted views are much easier to read because they appear obvious. Critical studies of content thus see media messages not as having direct effects, nor as open to any interpretation the receiver might put on them, but as containing a preferred meaning.


5.11.4 Examples of critical analysis of media content

An example of the critical analysis of content can be found in Philip Schlesinger, Phillip Elliott and Graham Murdock's (1983) study of the portrayal of terrorism on television, both in news and in fiction programmes. They illustrated how critical content analysis differs from conventional, quantitative, content analysis. First, critical content analysis makes no attempt to quantify content. Second, it links the content to the production and marketing of the programmes and to ideology.

They referred to statements by leading politicians to outline the 'official' perspective on terrorism. The official view is that terrorism is not legitimate political activity but illegitimate criminal activity which involves unwarranted violence and is associated with left-wing groups outside British society. Elliott et al. (1986) also identify alternative approaches that see terrorism as a necessary or legitimate last-resort response to state terrorism. They examine various journalistic and fictional programme formats to see how terrorism is dealt with. They found that the presentation of terrorism on British television was a good deal more diverse and complex than simpler assumptions about television's relation to the state and to dominant ideology predict.

However, some types of programme, such as the news and adventure series are 'closed', that is, they operate mainly or wholly within the terms of reference set by the official perspective. These programmes also tend towards a 'tight' format, that is, one in which the images, arguments and evidence offered by the programme are organised to converge upon a single preferred interpretation and where other possible conclusions are marginalised or closed-off. (The opposite of 'closed' and 'tight' are 'open' and 'loose', respectively.)

For example, they considered the action-adventure series The Professionals. Such series, they argued, are at the forefront of the battle for mass audience ratings and tend to work with images and ideological themes that are most familiar and endorsed by the widest range of potential viewers. The Professionals was, at the time, one of the most successful action-adventure series produced in Britain. Almost all the episodes featured in the top ten most popular programmes and the series had been sold in most of the major overseas markets. The action centred around Bodie and Doyle, the two top agents of CI5, a crack Criminal Intelligence unit that bears more than a passing resemblance to the SAS. According to the publicity blurb for the series:

Anarchy, acts of terror, crimes of violence - it's all grist to the mill of the formidable force who make up CI5 (TV Times Extra, 1979: 11). CI5 breaks all the rules: no uniforms, no ranks and no conscience - just results. Formed to combat the vicious tide of violence that threatens law and order, its brief is to counter-attack. And when there's a hijack, a bomb threat, a kidnap or a sniper, men from CI5 storm into action.

This highlights two key elements of the official view. First, it places terrorism firmly within a criminal rather than a political frame and defines it exclusively through the violence it entails. Second, it legitimates the state's use of violent counter-measures by arguing that exceptional threats to the social order require exceptional responses in which consideration of civil liberties, democratic accountability and due process are held in abeyance in the interests of efficiency. In practice, Bodie and Doyle can use the same dirty tricks as their opponents. However, they must be aware of the potential outcry from the public and the democratically elected representatives.

Hence, while it operates firmly within the terms of the official discourse, the programme must also work actively to head off dissent and enlist the audience's support for powerful counter-measures by underlining the exceptional nature of the terrorist threat and pointing up the irrelevance of alternative perspectives on state violence. This process of ideological mobilisation is well illustrated in the episode entitled 'Close Quarters'.

The episode opens with the assassination of a British politician at a check-in desk at London airport. He is killed by the leader of the Meyer-Helmut terrorist group using a syringe of poison. This opening incident introduces four central themes: the essential criminality of terrorism; its identification with the Left; its characterisation as an alien incursion originating outside Britain; and the absolute contrast between the legitimate pursuit of parliamentary democracy and the illegitimacy of direct action. The assassination is a direct attack on the 'British way of life'.

The audience have already been invited to see Meyer's act as essentially criminal rather than political by the very fact that it is going to be tackled by CI5, a criminal intelligence unit. This point is reinforced by the briefing that Cowley, the group commander, gives his men.

Meanwhile, Bodie, who has been excused the briefing because of an injured gun hand, spots Meyer, follows him to a 'safe house' and arrests him. But the other members of the group arrive and give chase. Bodie eludes them and eventually barricades himself in a country vicarage that the terrorist group, heavily armed, surround.

The group's utter ruthlessness is confirmed when they shoot the vicar in cold blood as he is climbing out of a window in an effort to reason with them. This incident clinches the central ideological theme of the narrative; that you cannot bargain with terrorists and that faced with their arbitrary violence, the state is justified in using similar tactics. Popular support for this response is mobilised through the common-sense response of the vicarage housekeeper and Bodie's girlfriend, Julie, who was with him when he originally spotted Meyer and is caught up in the plot. The audience is invited to see its real-life position as analogous to the women's situation within the narrative. They are innocent bystanders who are caught up in the events they do not fully understand but who can recognise the state's moral right to combat terrorism with all the weapons at its command.

Meyer : How does this concern you? You have no conception of what this fight is about. Its not your fight. Julie: You're right. I have no idea what you're fighting about. I just know it means violence and killing and someone's got to stop you.

Despite these protestations Julie still has reservations about the legitimacy of Bodie's use of violence (after he has shot two members of the group as they attempt to enter the vicarage). However, at the climax of the plot, when the chips are down, Julie overcomes her qualms. As the last member of the gang storms the room where they are hiding, Bodie is disarmed by Meyer and it is Julie who picks up the gun and shoots. The ideological circle is finally closed, around the official discourse. The Professionals, then, endorses the official view (that is, it is 'closed') and it is unambiguous with a well-rounded conclusion that does not leave the viewer with job of interpretation (that is, it is 'tight'). (Adapted from Shlesinger, Murdock, G.Murdock and Elliott (1983) and Elliott, Murdock and Schlesinger (1986)).

A second example adopts a feminist view of hegemonic control to analyse the way rape is reported in the press. It is widely argued by feminist theorists that rape is a form of patriarchal social control. Rape, and the threat of rape, serves to reinforce women's dependence on men and to restrict women's movements, activities and presentation of self. Far more women than is usually acknowledged suffer physical sexual assault. In 1980, for example, the Birmingham Rape Crisis Centre dealt with calls from 500 women, six times the number reported to the police in that period. Other studies have shown that 75% or more of rape victims do not report the attack to the police (Bains, 1989). Revelations in 2018, widely reported in the press, suggests that sexual harrassment and rape are widespread. However, the social control function of rape does not come about through individual acts but through the taken-for-granted social notions of the nature of rape and its ever-threatening presence.

In the 1970s there was a dominant notion of rape as a 'brutal attack by a male sexual psychopath unable to control his desires'. The victim is an innocent woman, 'naive or foolish enough to leave herself vulnerable to attack by being in an isolated space (socially or geographically) usually after dark or 'curfew'' (Smart and Smart, 1978). In many respects this image still inhabits the popular imagination, albeit now augmented by the date rape image of a drunk women being further drugged and assualted while helpless. That so many rapes are perpetrated by neither a stranger nor when the victim is intoxicated is too uncomfortable and undermines dominat ideology.

This image of the brutal stranger has long been challenged as inaccurate and misleading (London Rape Crisis Centre, 1984; Toner, 1982) yet it persisted and is reproduced in the way the British press reports rape (Walby et al., 1983; Britten and Fry, 1979; Marhia, 2008). In effect, the media emphasise particular aspects of rape and thus reproduce a stereotype of rape. The aspects that are singled out are those that endorse a patriarchal myth. Women are warned that it is dangerous to go out alone at night. Rape reports appear to confirm this warning. If women ignore this warning they are putting themselves at risk. If they comply with it they are perpetuating patriarchal ideology, for they are not questioning why half the population have to restrict their movements to avoid being raped. Added to this is the persistent inclusion, in the UK and elsewhere, of the raped woman being complicit by being 'flirtatious', not meaning 'no', being drunk and generally 'deserving' what happened to her (Soothill and Walby 1991; Benedict, 1992; Clark, 1992; Lees, 1995; Meyers, 1997;  Kelly, 2001; Korn and Efrat, 2004; Alat, 2006). (See CASE STUDY Press Reporting of Rape)

Other studies that adopt a critical stance use approaches to the media analysis discussed in other Sections, such as Fiske and Hartley's (1978) analysis of television police series that adopted a critical semiological approach (see Section 5.10).


5.11.5 Conclusion

The critical perspective, which covers a variety of approaches, attempts to dig beneath the surface of oppressive social structures. This approach is found in Marxism, structuralism and in most feminism and black perspectives. At the heart of this approach is the idea that knowledge is structured by existing sets of social relations. What we 'know' is dependent on the social structure we live in. Most knowledge reaffirms the oppression in that social structure, be it class oppression, gender oppression, racial oppression, sexual oppression and so on. The critical approach, in getting beneath the surface, is not just interested in meanings or in establishing the essence of social relations or practices. The critical approach sees societies as specific to a particular time and place and not as having any eternal aspects. The aim is to reveal the underlying nature of social structures and to show how oppression operates and is sustained.

So the critical perspective, in practice, is concerned with revealing underlying social relations, in their broad social and historical context, showing the impact of social structure and ideology (Harvey, 1990).


Next 5.12 Aesthetics, art criticism, art history