11COMMUNICATIO Volume 33(2) 2007 pp.11–��
© Unisa Press ISSN: Print 0250-0167�Online 1753-5379
Lucky Madikiza is a master’s student in International Communication, Department of Communication Science,
University of South Africa. E-mail:[email protected] Elirea Bornman is associate professor in the same department.
E-mail: [email protected]
International communication: shifting paradigms,
theories and foci of interest
Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman*
This article aims to be a stock-taking exercise of the development of paradigms and foci of
interest, in attempts to theorise the vast developments and far-reaching changes as well as
the impact and effects of global communication in the world of today. Attention is firstly given
to the current nature, impact and implications of global communication in the first decade
of the 21st century, as well as to a shift in emphases in the (sub)discipline of international
communication. A critical overview is then given of discourses on the free flow of information,
modernisation theory, dependency theory, the structural theory of imperialism, world system
theory, hegemony, political economy, critical theory, the public sphere, cultural studies, the
information society and globalisation. Since many of these paradigms have been borrowed or
taken over from media studies, international relations or other (sub)disciplines, attention is given
specifically to their application in theorising international communication. The article concludes
with a critical overview of the current ‘state of the art’ with regard to the body of theory in
Keywords: international relations, international communication, free flow of information,
modernisation theory, imperialism, information society, globalisation
In an age of satellite telephones, global CNN and the possibility of wireless Internet
connection almost anywhere, it is hard to imagine that there exists a spot on earth that
has not been touched by global communication (Stevenson 1992). However, global
communication in the current world order is an amorphous and vast phenomenon with
a tumultuous history, and manifold and far-reaching effects on macro, meso and micro
levels (Mowlana 1996; Tehranian n.d.; Thussu 2000).
It seems an opportune moment, at the beginning of a new millennium, to reflect not only
on the development and current state of global communication, but also on international
communication as a field of study within the discipline of communication science. �e
not only aim to provide a brief overview of recent developments and trends in global
communication, but also to reflect on attempts to theorise both the processes involved as
well as the impact of the vast developments and wide-ranging changes that characterise
global communication in our age. In this sense the article aims to represent a kind of
critical stock-taking exercise of the shifting theories, paradigms and foci of interest in
international communication. We hope that this discussion will whet the reader’s appetite
12 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
for more in-depth discourses on important issues in international communication in
which we hope to participate in follow-up articles.
GLOBAL COMMUNICATION IN THE WORLD OF TODAY
International communication as a phenomenon is probably as old as human society itself
and has occurred ever since people organised themselves into communities and began to
exchange ideas and products (Mowlana 1996; Schoonraad, Bornman & Lesame 2001).
However, the phenomenon of global communication as we know it today is essentially
the result of technological advances. It probably started with the development of
advanced transport technology such as the steam engine and the internal combustion
engine (Frederick 1993). Currently it is primarily driven by the worldwide proliferation
of advanced information and communication technologies (ICTs).
The developments that gave rise to global communication as we know it in the first decade
of the 21st century started to evolve in the period between the two world wars (Mowlana
1996). During this period global connectedness was enhanced by the development of
ICTs such as the telegraph and telephone; the laying of submarine cables between Europe
and the USA; the expansion of railroads and the development of modern navigation
with the help of newly developed radio technology. Global communication was further
promoted by the commercialisation of the radio in the USA and the development and
growth of the film industry. This period also saw the growth of major international news
agencies in Europe and the United States, as well as the establishment, integration and
transnationalisation of global institutions such as the International Telecommunication
Union, the Universal Postal Union and the League of Nations.
The period was further characterised by the hegemony of the great European powers
that used the developing communication technologies, media and international news
agencies not only to enhance their powers globally and to acquire colonies and manage
empires, but also to foster Westernisation and Europeanisation around the world.
Growing industrialisation as well as the newly developed ‘modern’ institutions associated
with the press, media and communication technologies furthermore contributed to the
spread of ideologies associated with Westernisation, modernisation and secularisation
in numerous Africa, Asian, Latin American and Arab societies.
The great world powers also started to realise the impact and importance of public
opinion and the value of propaganda (especially in times of war) as well as the potential
of the developing media (such as the radio) in this regard. The spread of contending
ideologies such as liberalism, communism, fascism and a number of Islamic movements
furthermore led to the increasing use of fast-developing media, press and communication
technologies to organise the transnational activities of revolutionary movements.
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 13
However, it was in the period after World War II that the growth in global communication
really accelerated (ibid). This acceleration was mainly driven by the continued
development and expansion of media such as television and, most importantly,
the rapid development, improvement and widespread proliferation of ICTs such as
satellites, computers and Integrated Services Digital Networks (ISDN). The global
expansion of entertainment media as an import–export industry and the concomitant
issues of copyright, intellectual property rights and privacy contributed to the spread
of Westernisation. The rise and increasing internationalisation and integration of
multinational institutions associated with the production and distribution of information
as well as the creation of international communications organisations such as the
International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium (INTELSAT) and International
Maritime Satellite Organization (INMARSAT) further contributed to the growth in
international information flows.
The rise of democracy and the attainment of independence by many former colonies
of the great European powers also led to an increase in the number of nation states
which participated in the political, cultural and socioeconomic aspects of international
communication (ibid). During this period the USA emerged as the dominant political
power and increasingly employed the media, as well as ICTs, not only for purposes of
economic and military domination, but also culturally. Of particular importance was the
Cold War period that once again served to emphasise the importance of international
political communication such as propaganda. International political and cultural
organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and the United Nations Educational
Scientific and �ultural Organisation (UNES�O) further contributed to international
debates on communication issues, while revolutionary movements around the world
mobilised global communication networks to achieve their goals.
Whereas international communication was mainly an East–West issue in the period
immediately following World War II, by the 1960s shifts in global power structures
– characterised by the growing roles of the newly independent states within Africa
and Asia – had brought the Third World to the forefront of debates on international
communication (Ayish 2001). Global communication was initially perceived as a
vehicle for establishing social change and economic growth – ‘modernisation’ in other
words – in the so-called less industrialised and developing countries of the world
(Mowlana 1996; Mowlana & Wilson 1990). Driven by their frustration with decades of
Western-oriented development models, Third World nations began to see the Western
dominance of international economic and communication systems as causing their
‘underdevelopment’. These frustrations resulted in calls for a New World Information and
Communication Order (NWICO) and the establishment of the MacBride Commission
as well as the entry of international organisations such as UNESCO into discourses on
14 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
The acceleration of international conferences; the international expansion of educational
institutions, congresses and seminars; the exchange of students between countries; the
popularisation of international travel and the expansion of international sport further
increased contact and communication between the peoples of the world (Mowlana
If global communication grew exponentially in the period after World War II, this growth
accelerated even more in the period after the Cold War (Ayish 2001). The widespread
diffusion of new technological innovations was incited by the increasingly liberalised
free-market-oriented international environment of the post-Cold War order, where the
borders between East and West had withered away. In this competitive world with its
revolving economic and communication giants, the globe has since been transformed
into a global electronic village and information has emerged as a primary commodity
The conclusion can be drawn that global communication is in a continuous state of
ferment and evolution (Mowlana 1996; Tehranian n.d.). It not only takes a prominent
place in virtually all aspects of contemporary global, national and local systems, but has
also introduced to the world formerly unknown contradictions and uncertainties, some
of which will be pointed out in the next section.
SOME CONSEQUENCES AND EFFECTS OF GLOBAL
COMMUNICATION ON THE CURRENT WORLD ORDER
The effects of developments on global communication as we know it at the start of the
21st century are manifold, diverse, wide-ranging and far reaching (Tehranian n.d.).
Economically, emerging communication networks have played a major role in the
increasing internationalisation and liberalisation of economic activities (Bornman &
Schoonraad 2001). Due to the rapid development of ICTs, geographical boundaries
and temporal disparities no longer form barriers to international trade, capital flow and
other economic activities. A global trans-border or virtual market has emerged. Global
communication networks are furthermore enabling transnational corporations (TNCs)
to conduct their activities in virtually every corner of the world. Transactions within
the emerging global market have also become increasingly dependent on international
information flows facilitated by modern I�Ts. Thus, as already mentioned, information
has become a paramount commodity and access to information – and consequently also
to modern ICTs – plays a major role in economic advancement and growth.
Politically, global communications are not only challenging the legitimacy, sovereignty
and authority of the nation state, but also have far-reaching implications for international
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 15
relations (Bornman 2003; Bornman & Schoonraad 2001; Tehranian n.d.). The borders of
nation states have become porous as the globalisation of technology has made it virtually
impossible for governments to regulate and control the trans-border flow of information
and communication. In this way global communication is increasingly undermining the
authority and legitimacy of nation states. Global communication is also empowering
marginalised and often forgotten groups and voices in the international community,
which furthermore presents a challenge to the authority of the nation states within whose
boundaries they live. The many interactive forms of global communication have also
created immense new moral spaces for exploring new and/or alternative communities
of affinity and identity. Vicinity – often presented by the nation state or region where an
individual or group lives – is consequently no longer the only viable context for identity
Global communication is furthermore increasingly changing the rules of international
relations (Tehranian n.d.). Firstly, modern ICTs are facilitating the transfer of science,
technology, information and ideas from the centres to the peripheries of power. Foreign
relations through diplomacy have been enhanced as well as undermined by global
communication. The emergence of a global civil society, presented by a multitude
of non-state actors and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) together with
intergovernmental organisations (IGOs), TNCs and transnational media corporations
(TMCs), are increasingly complicating the context of international relations and
diplomacy. TNCs are furthermore changing economic infrastructures, trade relations as
well as internal and political relationships which has implications for national security,
the conduct and deterrence of war, intelligence collection, analyses and dissemination
as well as for the conduct and deterrence of terrorism. A further complicating factor
is the resurgence and revitalisation of ethnicity that has resulted in the emergence of
international politics of identity and difference related to religious, ethnic and/or racial
fetishisms. Global media systems have introduced propaganda and public diplomacy
as important factors in international relations. Thus global communication is radically
redefining the nature of both hard and soft power in international relations.
Socially integrated global communication networks have, to a certain extent, resulted in
the realisation of McLuhan’s (1964) notion of the ‘global village’ with the emergence of,
among others, global interconnectedness, global consciousness and global cooperation
between NGOs in widely different areas such as human rights, women’s rights and
environmental protection. Social relations are no longer restricted to a particular space
or locality, but are dispersed globally and spatially as ICTs create and maintain social
relations irrespective of time and space.
Culturally, emerging patterns of global communication are creating a new global ‘Coca-
Colanised’ consumer culture of ‘commodity fetishism’ that is supported by the global
advertising and entertainment industries (Tehranian n.d., par 2). In its human dimension,
16 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
the altered social, political and economic environment has led to increased interaction
with and confrontation between one culture and another (Mowlana 1996). In doing
so, international communication is changing the nature and problems associated with
However, one of the most important consequences is probably the blurring of the
boundaries between the technological, economic, political, social and cultural
domains (Tehranian n.d.). Both traditional media (such as print, photography, film,
radio, television and video) as well as the fast-developing new information and
communication technologies (ICTs such as telephone and telegraphy, satellites and
computers) which initially developed fairly independently, are now merging into a
global digital telecommunications network. Within the economic sector, the separate
industries associated with each of these technologies are also combining through a
series of corporate mergers and alliances to serve the new multimedia environment.
Overall, global communication is one of the major factors encouraging globalism and
its discontents such as supranationalism, nationalism, regionalism and fundamentalism,
but it also plays a major role in mobilising resistance against globalism.it also plays a major role in mobilising resistance against globalism.also plays a major role in mobilising resistance against globalism.
REVISITING THE TERM ‘INTERNATIONAL’ IN INTERNATIONAL
Within this tumultuous and continuously changing landscape of global communication,
the (sub)discipline of communication science, dedicated to the phenomena related to
global communication, is commonly known as ‘international communication’. However,
from previous discussions it should be clear that the term ‘international’ no longer
reflects the full scope of global communication as we currently know it. Prominent
authors in the field, such as Mowlana (1996, 1997) and Thussu (2000), consequently
raise the question of whether the term is still appropriate.
The Collins English Dictionary (2006: 417) defines the term ‘international’ as ‘1.) of
or involving two or more nations; 2.) controlling or legislating for several nations’.
Thus the classic understanding of ‘international’ refers to that which exists, involves
or is carried across or takes place between two or more nation states. According to this
definition, the field of international communication should be understood to focus mainly
on interactions between and among nation states. International communication as a field
of study has indeed developed from the study of international relations (Mowlana 1996,
1997). Thus analyses of international communication have traditionally been associated
with inter-state and inter-governmental interactions such as diplomacy and government
propaganda, in which powerful states dictate the communication agenda (ibid).
However, vast developments in the media and ICTs during the late 20th century have
resulted in a radical expansion of the scope of international communication. Currently
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 17
communication across national borders has expanded to a large diversity of business-
to-business and people-to-people interactions on a global level. Furthermore, not
only the representatives of nation states, but also a variety of non-state actors such as
international non-governmental bodies, social movements as well as ordinary individuals
are increasingly shaping the nature of transnational communication (Mowlana 1996).
Mowlana (1997) consequently proposes a shift from the classical view of international
communication to a vision of global communication in order to reflect the full scope
of communication between nation states, institutions, groups and individuals across
national, geographical and cultural borders. The term ‘global communication’ is
also reflected in the titles of books such as Global communication in the 21st century
(Stevenson 1994) and Global communication and world politics (Tehranian 1999).
Hamelink (1994: 2) prefers to employ the term ‘world communication’, as it is more
inclusive of both state and non-state actors.
In accordance with the expanding scope of international communication, Thussu
(2000: 1) defines international communication simply as communication that occurs
across international borders. According to the Massachusetts Institute’s Center for
International Studies (MIT center), words, acts or attitudes can be defined as international
communication whenever they impinge – intentionally or unintentionally – upon the
minds of private individuals, officials or groups from other countries (in Mowlana 1996:
9). These definitions not only broaden the scope of international communication beyond
the ambit of inter-statal and inter-governmental communication, but also deviate from a
mere technological focus by acknowledging the human and social dimensions of global
communication within a complex process of manifold interchanges by means of signs
and symbols. Thanks to these definitions, international communication is depicted as
an extremely broad field involving social conditions, attitudes and institutions that have
an effect on the production and/or reception of various forms of communication among
people. Thus, international communication as a field of study recognises not only the
media and technologies through which impulses pass, but also the attitudes and social
circumstances of the sources, the predisposition of receivers, as well as the effects and
impact of the contents.
Although we fully acknowledge the expanding scope of the field, we will continue
to use the term ‘international’ when referring to the field of study – not only because
the field and related phenomena are more commonly known by this term. However,
we use the terms ‘global communication’ and ‘world communication’ interchangeably
with ‘international communication’ when referring to the multitude of processes and
phenomena related to the field.
18 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
THEORISING INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATION
There can be little doubt that a body of theory with testable propositions is essential
not only to conceptualise and explain the multiple phenomena associated with
global communication (Mowlana 1996; Stevenson 1992). In practice, international
communication has borrowed and/or adapted theories and paradigms from (sub)disci-
plines such as international relations and media studies and applies these to discourses
related to global communication. The following sections give a critical overview of the
shifting theoretical frameworks, paradigms and foci of interest:
The free flow of information
Discourses on the notion of the ‘free flow of information’ emerged during the �old
War when the international community was characterised by the bipolar division
between capitalism and socialism (Ayish 2001; Thussu 2000, 2005). In initial debates
on international communication, the free-flow principle was associated with, on the
one hand, the antipathy of Western liberalism and capitalism to state regulation and
censorship of the media, and their demands for an unrestrained flow of information
(including – according to Thussu (2000) – Western propaganda). Marxists, on the other
hand, argued for greater state regulation to control the flow of news and broadcasting
materials into their societies.
The free-flow discourse is deeply embedded in discourses on democracy (Ayish 2001).
In a democracy, the role of the mass media is believed to be to inform the electorate
on public issues, to enlarge the base of participation in the political process and to
watch over government behaviour. Proponents of a free flow of information base their
arguments on the liberal discourse of the rights of individuals to freedom of opinion and
expression. Systems of freedom of expression and information are regarded as central
tenets of democracy and preconditions for the media to promote democracy. Debates
on the freedom of information during the Cold War consequently focused largely on the
international flow of news and broadcast materials.
During the 1940s and 1950s the principles of the ‘free marketplace of ideas’ and the
‘free flow of information’ not only became central components of US foreign policy, but
were also endorsed in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration on Human
Rights and other related UNES�O declarations. However, whereas free-flow debates
were predominantly an East–West issue in the period immediately following World War
II, the 1960s saw a change in global power structures as the newly independent African
and Asian nation states entered debates on international communication (ibid).
Third World countries came to believe that Western dominance of their economic and
communication systems was to blame for their ‘underdevelopment’. They proposed
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 19
that international information systems perpetuated existing inequalities and the
dependence of the Third World on the developed North for both hardware and software
in the communication sector (Ayish 2001; Thussu 2005). Imbalances in the flow of
communication and information were furthermore believed to pose threats to their
political independence and national sovereignty, cultural values and socioeconomic
development. These allegations were supported by empirical data that indicated that
communication with the Third �orld was indeed a one-way flow from the developed
centres – unbalanced and distorted, it tended to focus on ‘negative’ instead of
‘development’ news. In his call for a New World Information and Communication Order
(NWICO), Masmoudi (1979) comments in this regard that the principle of freedom to
information became the freedom of the informing agent, and as such an instrument of
domination in the hands of those who control the media.
Scholars also note that the �est – the United States in particular – has indeed benefited
from notions such as ‘the free marketplace of ideas’ and ‘the free flow of information’,
and that these concepts evolved internationally in conjunction with global American and
Western economic expansion and served to justify this expansion (Ayish 2001; Thussu
2000, 2005). As the bulk of the world’s media resources were concentrated in the West,
the governments of Western countries and Western private enterprise had most to gain
from an absence of restrictions to communication flow. Media and communication-
related organisations used the free-flow principle to argue against trade barriers to the
international distribution of their products and services, as well as against attempts to
hinder news gathering within the territories of other countries. Western businesses, in
turn, have been benefiting from the concomitant advertising and marketing of their
products and services in foreign markets. The Western information and entertainment
industries have furthermore served to champion the Western way of life as well as
the values of capitalism and liberalism on the international stage. Thus the free-flow
principle not only helped strengthen and consolidate the influence of the �est in its
ideological battle with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In general, it has served to
spread the Western doctrine – in particular that of the United States – to the international
community and also to Third World countries.
In campaigning for greater equality and balance in news and communication flows, Third
World nations’ calls for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO)
resulted in the Brandt and MacBride Commissions and their respective reports (Ayish
2001, 2005; Preston 2005; Thussu 2005). The MacBride report in particular, entitled
Many voices, one world, published in October 1980 by UNESCO’s International
Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, generated wide-ranging debates
on transnational media flows; norms and ethics within the communication professions;
the role of communication technologies; and the social, cultural and democratic impact
of the media. The most far-reaching of the 82 recommendations of the report dealt
with the democratisation of communication. The Commission acknowledged that the
20 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
democratisation of communication is hindered by undemocratic systems of governance
(involving, among others, excessive bureaucracy) as well as by a lack of appropriate
technologies and illiteracy. In order to create a more balanced and equal international
communication environment, the Commission proposed the participation of the public
and their representatives in media management as well as the fostering of horizontal
communication and counter information. It also propagated three forms of alternative
communication: radical opposition, local or community media movements, as well
as trade unions. It furthermore coupled press freedom and the right to self-expression
with the rights to communicate and receive information, the rights to reply and make
correction, as well as the social and cultural rights of communities. A central theme of
the report – as reflected in the title – is that the media should serve social and cultural
development and contribute to cultural and social understanding. Thus the notion of
diversity is emphasised as a prerequisite for a more balanced and culturally fulfilling
international communication environment. However, the report points out that, in
order to promote dialogue between equals in which all nations and people participate,
opportunities and resources should be spread more equally.
�hilst the MacBride report was hailed by Third �orld nations as the first document to
bring world communication problems to the fore, it was denounced by Western-based
media institutions for its criticism of private media and communication ownership,
and the social problems that result from advertising. Western nations, led by the USA,
perceived the NWICO as an attempt to propagate state regulation of the media – a
notion perceived to be in conflict with liberal �estern values and the principle of the
free flow of information. The N�I�O was furthermore blamed for curtailing media
freedom and the freedom of speech while promoting the reinforcement of authoritarian
political censorship. In essence, �estern opposition to the N�I�O reflected a need to
ensure that government-controlled public media would not be promoted at the expense
of the private media sector. The USA demonstrated its opposition by withdrawing its
aid from the UNESCO-supported International Programme for the Development of
�ommunication (IPD�) culminating, finally, in its withdrawal from UNES�O itself – a
move followed by the United Kingdom a year later.
Thussu (2005) points to the fact that the emphasis on the primacy of the private
sector reflects a deeper ideological shift emanating from the US and other �estern
governments at the time. It represents a shift away from the public service-oriented
view of media and communication to an emphasis on a privatised and deregulated
industry. The free-market doctrine was fuelled by the end of the Cold War, which
fundamentally transformed the bipolar world that had dominated free flow debates for
decades into a unipolar universe dominated by the world’s only remaining superpower.
This superpower, the USA, deployed all its power and influence to champion market
solutions for the world’s communication problems. Privatisation became the new mantra
and resulted in the deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation of the broadcasting and
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 21
Although debates on the NWICO have become rather quiescent in recent years,
Ayish (2001) holds that the free flow of information remains a controversial issue in
international communication. �urrently discourses are influenced by two important
global trends, namely the worldwide proliferation of newly developing ICTs and the
worldwide democratisation of political systems in the aftermath of the demise of the
Soviet Union – a traditional supporter of the NWICO. The technodemocratic revolution
brought about by these developments has lowered the significance and validity of the
ideological underpinnings of the debate, in favour of focusing attention on information
as a central component of the world economy. Terms such as ‘informatics’ and
‘telematics’ have been developed to indicate the importance of the emerging global
order, in which information plays a central role. The shift in emphasis from the mass
media to information furthermore signifies the rising importance of economic aspects of
communication at the expense of cultural and political aspects.
The demise of the Soviet Union, the shift from state-regulated to market-oriented
policies, as well as the establishment of transnational institutions such as the World Trade
Union (WTO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) have furthermore
created a global market for information and communication. A strong communication
infrastructure has become a prerequisite for participation in the global economy, while
the dismantling of barriers to the free flow of information is perceived to be essential
for economic growth and development. Thus the free-flow doctrine has been extended
to include both the contents of communication as well as the infrastructure that enables
the flow of communication and information.
In terms of these developments, conceptions of information solely in terms of news
and broadcasting have become archaic (Ayish 2001). However, the question of the
proliferation of technologies has been introduced at NWICO and other debates on
international communication since the 1960s (ibid). Third World nations have been
concerned that, if news and broadcasting materials could have far-reaching effects on
their societies, the effects of powerful communication satellites, trans-border data flows
and digitalised and interactive computer-related communication could be even more
serious for their national sovereignty and indigenous cultures.
Even more importantly, existing imbalances and widening gaps in the proliferation
of new ICTs between them and Western developed countries could hinder social and
economic development in Third World countries (ibid). Most scholars agree that it
is quite misleading to speak about a free flow of information and the participation of
Third World countries in international communication in light of current imbalances
in telecommunications infrastructures. The governments of Third World countries
consequently have not only called for policies to guard against the uncritical transfer of
technologies and the potential negative effects of the international flow of information,
but also against the potentially adverse effects of imbalances in the spread of ICT
22 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
However, in accordance with its general approach to the free flow of information,
the West still supports a liberalised, free-market approach to the proliferation of ICTs
(ibid). This viewpoint is currently largely based on the notion of ‘market technicalism’
which views market competition as the engine for the development and proliferation of
I�Ts that will be conducive to the free flow of information and wider participation in
democratic processes and will, ultimately, also redress inequality in information flows.
Ayish (2001) points at another shift in debates on the free flow of information. The
breaking tide of democratisation in the Third World has forced governments of developing
countries to revisit their radically negative views on the free flow of information. This
is particularly true in the post-Cold War order, where the political weight of Third
World countries has decreased and they have been forced into political realism in
order to ensure that their perspectives keep the attention focused on the international
agenda. Although �estern notions of the free flow of information – and a free press in
particular – are still criticised as being over-liberal, self-centred and anti-state, Third
World governments have become more willing to tone down their opposition to the
free flow principle in return for greater �estern appreciation for their employment of
mass media for development purposes. Challenges to the liberal conceptions of free
flow are consequently no longer based on authoritarian and Marxist ideologies, but
rather on perspectives of social responsibility. This rather libertarian idea, based on the
emphasis of social needs and social responsibility, serves to justify certain restrictions
to the free flow of information. It has also shifted international debates from the radical
‘free versus controlled’ dichotomy to ‘responsible versus unrestrained’ perspectives on
the free flow of information.
Ayish (ibid) draws the conclusion that the changing nature of discourses on the free flow
of information reflects the changing nature of global politics and the global economy.
It serves to illustrate the close relationship between international relations and global
�omplementary to discourses on the benefits of the free flow of information in the years
after World War II were views on the key role of international communication in the
process of modernising and developing the Third World (Thussu 2000).
The modernisation theory emerged during a period when it was very important for the
West to bring the newly independent nations of Asia, the Middle East and Africa into
the sphere of capitalism (Ayish 2005; Thussu 2000). The paradigm is founded on the
notion that international mass communication should become the vehicle for spreading
the message of modernity, transferring Western economic and political models and
transforming and modernising traditional societies. Modernisation (or ‘development
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 23
theory’ as this pro-media bias is called) has been highly influential. Research based
on the paradigm has not only served to shape university communication programmes
and research centres, but has also been generously supported by UNESCO and other
The modernisation paradigm is based on the premise that as nations emerge from
colonialism, there would be a natural development of the previously colonised countries
along the same route or stages followed by Western countries (Thussu 2000). The
developed Western societies consequently served as models for the less developed
societies to strive for. It was widely accepted that the mass media would serve as a
bridge to a wider world and would be instrumental in spreading education, transferring
essential skills, fostering social unity, and – most importantly – creating the desire to
‘modernise’. This top-down, one-way approach to communication via the mass media
was regarded as a panacea for the transformation of the Third World. The level of
media development of a country consequently served as an indicator of general societal
development. One of the earliest exponents of the theory was Daniel Lerner (1958) who
believed that the mass media could break the hold of traditional cultures on societies
and make them aspire to a modern way of life. Similar viewpoints were held by other
important modernisation theorists such as Wilbur Schramm (1964) and Everett Rogers
(1962) with his ‘diffusion of innovations’ theory.
Major shortcomings in the modernisation theory have been pointed out (Thussu 2000).
First, measuring a country’s level of development according to its Gross National
Product (GNP) fails to recognise that the creation of wealth on its own is not sufficient
and that the welfare of a population at large depends also on the equitable distribution
of wealth and its use for the public good. It thus happened that social and economic
disparities widened in many Third World countries, despite them showing signs of
economic growth. The modernisation theory furthermore neglects to take the political,
social or cultural dimensions of development into account and fails to ask questions
such as: Development for whom? and Who would gain? The consequence was that in
many Third World countries economic and political power remained restricted to small
elites, and the media served to legitimise their power.
The media were also regarded as a neutral force, thus ignoring the fact that all media
products are shaped by social, cultural, political and economic factors. Questions
regarding whether the audience could receive the message (television penetration in
developing countries was, for instance, minimal), understand it and whether they might
respond by showing some form of resistance, were also neglected. Another major
shortcoming is the dismissive view regarding traditional cultures and the assumption
that modern and traditional lifestyles are mutually exclusive (ibid). Thus developing
countries criticised the theory for its ethnocentric Western orientation, ahistoricity
(failure to take the history and culture of local communities into account), linearity
24 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
(holding a simple linear view of development) and for advancing solutions that, in
reality, reinforce the dependency of the Third World on developed countries (Ayish
Since modernisation programmes did little to alleviate the plight of the poor in the
Third World, critics increasingly started to question the validity of the premises of the
paradigm and focused on issues which they felt had been left out, namely the relationship
between communication, power and knowledge, and the ideological role of international
organisations and institutional structures (Thussu 2000). Prominent in this regard was
the work of Latin American scholars such as Paolo Freire with his Pedagogy of the
oppressed (1974). Western scholars also began to recognise that the modernisation
paradigm needed to be reviewed. Alternative paradigms, such as that of participatory
development, have since emerged.
However, in a revised version of the modernisation paradigm, blind faith in the mass
media has been replaced by similar beliefs in the potential of ICTs to help developing
countries ‘leapfrog’ stages of development. Within this model, the dissemination of
information is often perceived to be the panacea to foster development (Castells 1998;
Thussu 2000). According to Nulens and Van Audenhove (1998) this idealistic approach
– also known as the technophilic view – assumes that ICTs have largely positive effects
on society, such as an increase in job opportunities, increased efficiency in both private
and public sectors, social harmony and the deepening of democracy. However, critics
of this view – the so-called technophobes – point to the fact that ICTs could also hold
serious negative effects for developing countries (Van Dijk 1999; Mansell & Wehn
�hereas the discourse on the assumed benefits of I�Ts is continuing, increasing
frustration among developing countries gave rise to critical paradigms regarding the
role of international communication in national development.
The dependency paradigm emerged as the most prominent theoretical framework
questioning the modernisation paradigm (Ayish 2005). The dependency theory had its
origins in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s, during a period when countries of
the Third World realised that the developmental approach to international communication
had failed to deliver (Thussu 2000). Although it is rooted in the neo-Marxist political
economy approach (see page 30), the dependency perspective represents an important
shift away from the nation state as unit of analysis, to a predominantly international level
of analysis (Servaes, Jacobson & White 1996). Thus it emphasises global structures
and interrelationships that influence Third �orld development and postulates that post-
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 25
independence dynamics keep Third World countries locked in former colonial power
structures (Ayish 2005).
For the dependistas, the world should be analysed in terms of a ‘centre’ – comprising
mainly Western countries such as the USA and Western Europe – and the ‘periphery’
which encompasses the poor countries of the world, such as those from Africa who
have recently emerged from colonialism, but remain ‘dependent’ in various ways on
the rich Western countries. The lack of development of the periphery is ascribed to
historical and current forms of colonialism and exploitation through institutions and
companies – especially transnational companies (TNCs) – in the centre. TNCs, with
the support of their respective governments, are believed to exercise control over
developing countries by determining the terms of global trade and the structure of
global markets. Development is conducted in such a way that it strengthens dominance
over countries on the periphery and maintains them in a position of dependence. Such
development attempts are typified as ‘dependent development’ or ‘the development
of underdevelopment’ (Frank in Thussu 2000: 61). In contrast, ‘true’ development is
conceived as an autonomous, self-chosen path drawing from indigenous cultures (Ayish
The dependistas argue that the domination of the periphery by the centre occurs through
a combination of power components, for example through the military, economics,
politics and culture (Servaes, Jacobson & White 1996: 34). Countries on the periphery,
for example, come to depend on Western-developed technology and investment and the
demand for media products – television programmes in particular – necessitates large
imports from centre countries. These imports serve to promote, albeit indirectly, the
Western–American lifestyle as well as Western goods and products. The result is a so-
called electronic invasion that threatens the cultures of countries on the periphery and
promotes a consumer lifestyle at the expense of community values. The term ‘cultural
imperialism’ is used in this regard to argue that international media flows of both media
hardware and software serve to strengthen dependency and hinder true development
(Ayish 2005). Closely related to cultural imperialism is the concept of ‘media imperialism’
which emphasises more specifically media inequalities between the centre and the
periphery, and how these inequalities reflect broader issues of dependency, exploitation
and hegemony especially with regard to Western-dominated international media such as
news agencies, magazines, films, radio and television (Boyd-Barrett 1977). Also related
is the concept of ‘electronic colonialism’ that refers to inequalities in ICT infrastructure
and hardware and the role of MNCs in this regard (McPhail 1981).
There are, however, also many critics of the dependency theory (Thussu 2000) who
point out that it lacks clear definitions of key terms such as ‘imperialism’ and has failed
to present empirical evidence to support the main arguments of the theory. It is also
criticised by cultural theorists in particular for neglecting the form and contents of the
26 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
media and the role of the audience. Media audiences are perceived to be passive receivers
of media contents – a type of ‘hypodermic needle’ approach. Cultural theory, in contrast,
assumes that media texts are mostly polysemic in nature and could be interpreted in
various ways by audiences who are not passive consumers, but active participants in
negotiating meaning. The cultural imperialism thesis is furthermore criticised for being
totalitarian for not taking into account how the meaning of global media contexts is
negotiated in various national and local contexts, and for ignoring local patterns of
Despite its shortcomings, the dependency perspective is nevertheless important as it
heralded the beginning of a critical tradition in international communication. Prior to
its advent, theorising and research largely focused on the preservation and promotion of
the objectives of powerful nation states, thus supporting the status quo. The dependistas
also played a prominent role in the NWICO as well as in the Non-Aligned Movement,
which made their impact felt in international fora (Servaes, Jacobson & White 1996).
With the shift from discourses in international communication to issues of privatisation
and liberalisation in the 1990s, theories of media and cultural dependency have moved
to the background. However, Boyd-Barrett (in Thussu 2000: 64) declares that the
concept of imperialism remains a useful tool to analyse the so-called ‘colonisation’ of
communication space. The notion of cultural imperialism has, indeed, moved to the
forefront again in discourses on cultural globalisation – one of the latest paradigms of
theory and research (see page 37).
Structural theory of imperialism
Galtung’s (1971) structural theory of imperialism can be regarded as an expansion
and refinement of the dependency theory. It not only offers explanations for existing
inequalities between regions, nation states and collectivities, but also emphasises the
possibility of the existence of inequalities within a particular region, nation state and/or
collectivity. Galtung points to the fact that there are elites in peripheral countries whose
interests coincide with those of elites in the centre. These ‘cores’ or ‘centres’ within
peripheral states provide a bridgehead through which the centre can enact its dominance
of the periphery. In terms of culture, values and attitudes, elites in the periphery are often
nearer to elites in the centre than to the people in their own country (Thussu 2000).
Galtung (1971) attempts to define the concept of ‘imperialism’ more precisely by
distinguishing between interaction relationships and interaction structures that result in
imperialism. He holds the reason for interaction between nation states or collectivities
as the fact that they dispose of different complementary resources which creates the
need for exchange. For example, one nation state could have the resources essential
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 27
for the production of a particular product, while another might have the factories and
skills to produce the product. Both parties are changed when resources are exchanged.
In an imperialistic relationship, a gap is created and/or widened when the exchange is
cumulatively unequal or asymmetric as regards the benefits for each party. The factors
which determine whether exchanges are equal or unequal are the nature of the value
exchange between the two parties, as well as the positive or negative consequences for
Imperialistic interaction structures are characterised by vertical and feudal forms of
interaction (Galtung 1971; Thussu 2000). The principle of vertical interaction maintains
that relationships are asymmetrical and that the flow of power is vertical from the centre
to the periphery. Feudal interaction implies that interaction is monopolised by the centre
and follows the spokes of a wheel, that is from the periphery to the centre and vice versa,
while there is little or no interaction along the rim, in other words between peripheries.
The result is that peripheries become dependent on the centre(s).
Galtung (1971) distinguishes five forms of imperialism, depending on the nature of
exchange relationships: economic, political, military, communication and cultural.
Together these forms of imperialism constitute a syndrome of imperialism and
reinforce (through various channels) the dominance of the centre over the periphery.
Communication imperialism is, among others, related to media imperialism, disparities
in the flow of news as well as inequalities in access to I�T infrastructure which ultimately
results in cultural imperialism. Information flows from the centre to the periphery and
back again. For example, regions, nation states and collectivities in the Third World
receive news from the Northern countries via transnational news agencies, but little
information from other countries in the Third World. Third World societies consequently
have little information about neighbouring countries that has not been filtered through
the media systems of the North (Thussu 2000).
Galtung’s (1971) theory of cultural imperialism bears a stark similarity to cultural
imperialism – as distinguished in dependency theory – as both hold that the political
and economic dominance of the centre over the periphery changes the value systems
of societies on the periphery (Thussu 2000). Research on media and information flows
also confirms a dependency relationship between the centre and the periphery, that is a
predominantly one-way flow of information, values, ideas, methods, skills and resources
from the North to the South.
Both imperialism and dependency theory are being criticised for focusing mainly on
the role of external forces in the social and economic development of countries on
the periphery, while neglecting the role of internal class, gender, ethnic and power
relations (Thussu 2000). Galtung responded to this criticism by doing research on the
elites of peripheral countries and found that they, indeed, benefited from the dependency
28 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
syndrome. However; although the worldwide proliferation of ICTs and the emphasis on
cultural hybridisation (rather than imperialism) have made theories of imperialism less
fashionable, Thussu notes that the structural inequalites in international communication
deem the recognition of their continued relevance in discourses on dependency and
imperialism within the field of international communication to be vital.
World system theory
World system theory is regarded as an expansion of dependency theory and imperialism
theory (Chase-Dunn & Hall 1993; Shannon 1996). However, one of the most important
contributions of the theory is the fact that – instead of focusing predominantly on
relationships between the centre and the periphery – it acknowledges the emergence of
a new social system, namely a global or world system, in the current world order.
�allerstein (in �hase-Dunn & Hall 1993: 854) defines the world system as a multicultural
network for the exchange of ‘essential goods’. The term ‘world system’ indicates the
social context in which people in the modern era live. However, not all interactions
are necessarily of a global nature. The systemic character of the world system is rather
situated in the fact that events in one part of the globe have important consequences for
events, interactions and social structures in other parts of the world. It also indicates that
– due to the worldwide proliferation of ICTs – various smaller systems are connected to
form a global system.
The reference to multicultural networks indicates that the networks connect people,
groups and societies that differ culturally, speak different languages and have different
normative institutions. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1993) furthermore recommend that the
definition not only focus on cultural groups organised in nation states, but also on smaller
units such as cultural minorities, so-called ‘stateless’ groups as well as organisations
and individuals. They consequently prefer the term ‘composite units’ to ‘societies’ or
Whereas Wallerstein initially refers to essential goods purely in terms of food and raw
materials necessary for the fulfilment of material needs, �hase-Dunn and Hall (1993)
broaden this view by including all social and other forms of interaction worldwide
that serve to uphold or change internal structures. It consequently also refers to forms
of interaction such as wars, diplomacy, intermarriages, and – most importantly – the
exchange of information. Thus economic, political, cultural and scientific forms of
interaction all form part of the world system.
World system theorists also acknowledge inequality or hierarchy – as they prefer to call
it – in the structure of interactions within the world system (Chase-Dunn & Hall 1993;
Shannon 1996). Shannon adds another level to the twofold distinction between centre
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 29
and periphery. He defines a third zone – the semi-periphery – which refers to nation
states and regions that can compete with the centre in certain aspects, but in other aspects
resemble the periphery. Brazil and Argentina are mentioned as examples of states on the
semi-periphery. The principle of hierarchy indicates political, economic and ideological
dominance between composite units that is the consequence of political dominance,
inequalities in exchange and interaction relationships and the exploitation of resources.
However, world system theorists differ from dependency and imperialism theorists
in that they do not necessarily assume that all relationships and forms of interaction
between the centre and periphery are necessarily unequal, but also make provision for
the existence of equal relationships between various levels. They furthermore point to
the possibility that dominance can also exist between units on the same level. In order
to account for inequality in a particular case, it is consequently necessary to analyse the
complexity of relationships and interactions.
The fact that world system theory acknowledges both equal and unequal relationships
makes it a useful theoretical framework for empirical research into the flow of capital,
international relationships, media contents and information in the new global order.
However, the theory can be criticised for the fact that it gives little attention to the
causes and consequences of inequality, dominance and hierarchy in the world system.
Theorising regarding the process of hegemony has had a major influence on critical
theorists as well as cultural critics (see pp. 31 and 35). The theory of hegemony is based
on the work of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), who died in prison
under the Fascist regime in Italy (Thussu 2000).
In accordance with Marxist viewpoints, society is perceived as the site of struggle
among interests through the domination of one ideology over others (Littlejohn & Foss
2005). Hegemony refers to the process of domination where one set of ideas subverts,
co-opts or dominates another. According to Gramsci (in Thussu 2000: 68), a dominant
group in society has the capacity to exercise intellectual and moral control over society
at large, with the support of a system of social alliances. Military force is not regarded
as the only or most effective force to retain power. The building of consent by means of
the ideological control of cultural production and distribution is a much more efficient
instrument in wielding power. Such a system exists when a dominant class exerts moral
and intellectual dominance over a subordinate class by means of institutions such as
schools, government institutions, religious bodies and the mass media.
In international communication, the concept of hegemony is often employed to refer to
the political, social and cultural functions of the media (Thussu 2000). The international
mass media are regarded as key players in propagating and maintaining the ideologies
30 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
of dominant forces within the global system. Even if and when the media are free from
direct governmental control, they nevertheless act as agents to legitimise the dominant
ideology. Gramsci’s ideas on hegemony are also the foundation stones of political
economy and critical theory, which are discussed in the following sections.
Thussu (2000) regards the political economy approach as an umbrella theory that
encompasses many of the other theories of international communication, such as
dependency and hegemony. In contrast to cultural analyses (see p. 35), it primarily
concerns itself with underlying structures of political and economic power.
Central to Marx’s interpretation of international communication is the question of
power which is perceived as an instrument the ruling classes use to control the masses
(Thussu 2000). According to this view, the class with the means of material production
simultaneously controls the means of mental production. In other words, the ruling class
regulates both the production and distribution of the ideas of its age.
In international communication, much of the critical research with regard to political
economy has been related to patterns of ownership and production in the media and
communications industries (ibid). These have been analysed within the overall context
of national and transnational social and economic power relations. One of the central
themes of research has been the commodification of communication hardware and
software and its impact on inequalities in access to the media and communication.
One of the important themes within the critical political economy approach in international
communication is the transition from American post-war hegemony to a global order
where world communication is dominated by transnational and multinational corporations
supported by their national governments, which are linked to and integrated in global
structures (ibid). Researchers mainly focus on corporate and state power, especially with
regard to patterns of ownership in media and communication industries worldwide. In
particular, attention is given to vertical integration (of companies controlling a specific
sector) as well as horizontal integration (across sectors as well as companies within and
outside media and communication industries).
Scholars such as Hamelink (1979, 1983, 1994) have been campaigning for information
and communication equality and have introduced human rights issues to debates on
international communication. Critics of the dominant market-based approach, on
the other hand, have been advancing the public-service approach of state-regulated
media and communications, where public interest concerns are given preference to
governmental regulatory and policy bodies at national, regional and international levels
(see Fourie 2003).
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 31
In the 21st century, Thussu (2000) and Preston (2005) have pleaded for a revival of
research into the political economy of international communication if the (sub)discipline
wants to claim relevance with regard to pressing social and political issues. In doing so,
significant contributions can also be made to the wider scene, such as international
relations in the world of today. Important themes for analysis are the role of transnational
media and communication corporations, as well as international organisations such as
the WTO and the ITU in the increasingly market-driven international environment. In
this regard Thussu (2005) mentions the extensive control that Rupert Murdoch’s News
Corporation exercises globally, over both information hardware (such as delivery systems)
and software (such as programme content). Another important topic is the influence
new ICTs, such as the Internet, have on the international communication environment.
These need to be studied against the background of the challenges presented by events
in the global order, such as the demise of the Soviet Union, the introduction of market
socialism in China and the rightward shift of the left in Europe and Third World nations.
It can therefore be predicted that the critical political economy approach will remain an
important paradigm within international communication research – it can play a vital
role in our understanding of the expansion, acceleration and consolidation of global
media and communication industries.
Critical theory is yet another theoretical tradition with its roots in Marxism. It holds
that the means of production in society – that is the economic structures – determine
the nature of society (Littlejohn & Foss 2005). Researchers at the Institute for Social
Research in Frankfurt – known as the Frankfurt School, with prominent researchers such
as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse – played a leading role in
the development of the theory. With the rise of Nazism in Germany, the scholars of the
Frankfurt School emigrated to the USA where they established the Institute for Social
Research at Columbia University. Here they devoted their attention to the impact of the
mass media and the international production of cultural goods (films, radio programmes,
music and magazines) on societies.
Within the critical tradition, mass media structures are predominantly perceived as
structures of oppression (Thussu 2000). It is argued that in capitalist societies culture
is commodified, as cultural products have assumed an exchange value that has largely
replaced their intrinsic value. Management practices, technological rationality and
organisational structures similar to those involved in the production and exchange of
commodities such as, for example, cars, are also employed in the production of cultural
products. Cultural products are furthermore sold to consumers in the marketplace just as
other commodities whose value is not determined by their intrinsic worth, but rather by
their entertainment value and ability to satisfy psychological needs. This ‘assembly-line
32 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
character’ of cultural production results in standardisation bearing an industrial stamp.
The standardisation and commodification of culture is furthermore aggravated by the
concentration of the ownership of production of cultural products in a few producers
and countries of the world.
According to cultural theorists, the resultant mediated ‘mass culture’ that thrives on
market rules of demand and supply, has various negative effects (ibid). It firstly leads
to the deterioration of the philosophical role of culture. Furthermore, it undermines the
ability of the masses to critically engage with important socio-political issues and leads
to politically passive behaviour and the subordination of the masses to the ruling elite.
It also serves to incorporate and immerse the working classes into the structures of
capitalism, thus limiting their political and economic horizons as they no longer seek to
challenge these structures.
Within international communication, critical theories have stimulated debate on the
international flow of information (ibid). Issues regarding the commodification of culture
have furthermore become central in discourses on the role of the multinational film,
television, book and music industries. The issue was also taken up in a 1982 UNESCO
report in which the organisation voiced its concern about the increasing corporisation
of cultural industries and the global spread of mainly Western cultural products. The
report concluded that these processes have led to the gradual marginalisation of cultural
messages that do not take the form of marketable commodities.
Critical theory is criticised for its emphasis on reason, and the ownership and control
of the means of cultural production as the main factors that determine the activities
of artists. Writers and artists have argued that creativity and cultural consumption can
thrive simultaneously and independently, and that the production process is not as
organised according to rigidly standardised procedures as propagated by the theorists of
the Frankfurt School (Littlejohn & Foss 2005; Thussu 2000).
The public sphere
Theories of the public sphere have been a major issue in media studies in particular
(Duvenhage 2005; Thussu 2000). The concept of a ‘public sphere’ was developed by the
German sociologist, J�rgen Habermas. As an exponent of the school of critical theorists,
he also bemoans the standardisation, massification and automisation of the masses due
to the manipulation of public discourse by bureaucratic and economic interests such as
advertising, marketing and public relations.
The central concept of this theory, the public sphere, is defined as an arena where a
community of individuals is drawn together by participating in rational–critical
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 33
debate (Duvenhage 2005; Thussu 2000). It developed from the representative public
sphere during the feudal era, to the bourgeois public sphere in the modern era. These
developments happened against the background of the developing capitalist economy
and the establishment of the bourgeois constitutional state, and reflect the changing
power relations between the monarch and his/her subjects due to the democratisation of
the state and the growth of capitalism. Society became separated from the ruler and/or
the state and the private realm was separated from the public. The public sphere became
the arena of contestation of the interests of the bourgeois civil society on the one hand,
and the state on the other hand. It is here that the rules of exchange of social goods and
ideas are debated and public opinion is formed. Habermas regards the modern public
sphere as an institutional location where the formal claims of democracy are debated.
Furthermore, participants also develop rational–critical practices through which
reasonable citizens can critically challenge the norms of the state and its monopoly on
interpretation and institutions. The press, political parties and parliament became the
main vehicles of this public discourse.
The theory furthermore gives prominence to the role of information in the public
discourse (Thussu 2000). Greater freedom of the press, the wider availability of printing
facilities and the development of new technologies that reduce the production costs
of printed material have all served to stimulate rational–critical debate. Habermas’s
idealised vision of the public sphere involves greater accessibility to information and an
open debate independent of capitalist interests and/or state apparatus – rational argument
should be the sole arbiter of any issue.
However, Habermas has identified a decline in the bourgeois public sphere due to
historical and economic developments since the 19th century. Especially in the 20th
century, the growing power of information management and the manipulation of
public opinion through public relations, lobbying and advertising firms have resulted
in contemporary debates becoming ‘faked versions’ of the true public sphere (Thussu
2000). Free and critical debate within the public sphere has also been undermined by
intervention on the part of the state and other powerful interest groups, which manipulate
public discourse and the social engineering of public opinion and cultural consumption
(Duvenage 2005). The commercialised mass media (such as radio, television and the
press) become the main instruments of manipulation due to the fact that they speak
directly to consumers and ignore and sidestep the critical rational debate within the
public sphere. Habermas identifies these changes as the ‘refeudalisation’ of the public
sphere, where the public space has become a location for power displays – similar to
those in medieval courts – rather than a space for critical debate.
Habermas also perceives refeudalisation in the commercialisation of mass media systems,
which has resulted in mass media organisations becoming monopolistic, capitalistic
institutions that promote capitalist interests only and no longer promote debate within
34 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
the public sphere (Thussu 2000). Within the market-driven economy, the main concern
of the mass media is to produce artefacts that appeal to the widest possible audience and
generate maximum advertising revenue. Mass media products are consequently diluted
to meet the lowest common denominator, such as sensationalist sex, scandals, celebrity
gossip and action adventures, thus reinforcing the public’s compulsion with constant
The concept of the public sphere has also proved to be useful in theorising the role
of communication processes in democratisation, identity-related processes and
globalisation (Bornman 2003; Thussu 2000). According to Habermas (2001), there is a
close relationship between the public sphere created by the mass media (and the national
press and public broadcasting in particular) and feelings of national consciousness and
identification within the modern, democratised nation state. He perceives national
consciousness as a modern form of social solidarity in contrast to so-called ‘pre-modern’
forms of social allegiance based on descent, culture, language and history. National
consciousness and national identification are regarded as products of new forms of
In recent years, due to the decline of the nation state, the formation of supra-national
units (such as the European Union) and increasing globalisation, the idea of the public
sphere has been expanded to find appropriate forms of political and social integration
within a changing world order. Habermas (2001) envisions the formation of a European
identity in a similar way that national consciousness has been forged in the traditional
nation state. Communication plays a central role in this vision of European integration.
Habermas regards it as necessary to create a Europe-wide public sphere embedded in a
freedom-valuing culture supported by a liberal civil society. This view involves public
communication that transcends the borders of nation states. However, rather than the
establishment of a European public broadcaster, Habermas foresees the emergence of a
European public sphere from existing national spheres opening to one another, yielding
to the interpenetration of international communication. An important step would be for
national media to cover controversial issues in other countries in order for various national
public opinions to converge on the same set of issues. Such a ‘discursive’ democracy or
identity would not be located in any single nation state or ethnic or cultural community,
but in the discursive spaces of civil society.
Habermas (1999) furthermore foresees one or other form of global political unit or
cosmopolitan government as a solution for the multitude of problems associated with
globalisation (see p. 37). He believes that, as is the case with supranational units like
the European Union, global integration requires a global political culture shared by
all world citizens. Thussu (2000) points to the fact that the globalisation of the media
and of communication has indeed given rise to a so-called global public sphere, where
issues of international importance – such as environmental degradation, human rights
and gender equality – are articulated in the global media.
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 35
Theories of the public sphere have also met with criticism (Duvenhage 2005; Thussu
2000). Firstly, they are criticised for their overridingly male, European and bourgeois
emphases. The thesis of the refeudalisation of the public sphere has also been criticised
for being one-sided and presenting an overly pessimistic view of modern society. The
mediasation of modern culture can also not be regarded as refeudalisation. In contrast,
the development of the media and ICTs has created new opportunities for the production
and diffusion of images and messages – that is information – on an international
scale. The refeudalisation theory also treats media users as passive consumers who
are manipulated by clever techniques and numbed into the acquiescent consumption
of mass media content. The emphasis on rational-critical debate and the neutralising
effects of national consciousness, as well as European and global identities, furthermore
points to the avoidance of and/or inability to deal with identity politics and concerns of
difference. The public sphere has nevertheless proved to be a useful concept to explain
and understand the effects of both national and international communication.
Cultural studies is another theoretical tradition closely related to the critical tradition
of the Frankfurt School, as well as to Gramsci’s theory of hegemony (Littlejohn &
Foss 2005; Thussu 2000). The tradition had its origins at the Centre for Contemporary
Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England, with Stuart Hall as its leading scholar.
Preston (2005) views the cultural studies approach as a reaction against the holistic
focus of structural and production-oriented analyses of political and economic power
relationships, as represented in debates regarding the MacBride report, dependency
theory, political economy and similar approaches. Instead of focusing on either the
media or the audience, cultural studies tend to focus on communication as a cultural
process. Broader issues of culture – instead of media or ICTs, institutions or power
relations – are therefore the main foci of interest.
This multidisciplinary enterprise is therefore mainly interested in the ideologies that
dominate a culture and has been focusing on cultural change on the basis of culture itself
(Rantanen 2005; Thussu 2000). It is consequently predominantly populist in nature,
in contrast to the intellectualism of the critical school. The main interests of cultural
theorists have been the textual analysis of media texts – especially television texts – as
well as ethnographic research. Of particular importance is Hall’s model of the encoding
and decoding of media messages and how these messages can be interpreted in different
ways – from accepting the dominant meaning, negotiating with the encoding message
or opposing or resisting the dominant viewpoint as embedded in the media text.
An important contribution of cultural theorists is the fact that they have created the
possibility of studying all kinds of issues and subcultures that were excluded from
earlier theories of international communication (Thussu 2000). Marginalised topics and
36 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
politics of identity and difference related to race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality have
consequently entered into the discourse. The emphasis on the marginalised, ordinary
and popular has also provided an essential balance, with theories that focus on structural
issues of power.
However, a major shortcoming of the work of cultural theorists is the fact it has an
overriding British, European and/or Western perspective (ibid). Perceptions of the
‘global’ are often based on the study of migrant populations in Western countries. The
cultural approach is also criticised from a Marxist perspective for its lack of class-
based analyses, despite its emphasis on the ‘popular’. Despite its shortcomings, the
cultural approach has grown in importance and with its new-found interest in the
‘global–popular’, cultural studies represents a fast internationalising trend in theory and
Theories of the information society
One of the most recent theoretical strands to develop, is that of the ‘information society’.
The term emerged in the 1990s to coincide with the explosive development and global
expansion of ICTs and the Internet in particular (Van Audenhove 2003; Thussu 2000).
Proponents of the idea of an information society believe that new possibilities for
the processing, storage and transmission of information have created an international
information society that will, in the end, digitally link every home, office and business
via the Internet – the network of all networks. These networks are the information
highways that represent the infrastructure of the information society.
Central to theories on the information society is the conceptualisation of information in
economic terms (Jimba 1998; Thussu 2000). Information is regarded as a commodity
that represents a key strategic resource in the international economy. The power, status
and level of development of nation states, organisations, collectivities and individuals are
largely determined by their access to and ability to control and/or dominate information
highways. Economic growth is furthermore perceived as a function of the spread of
information technologies throughout the economy and society (Van Audenhove 2003).
The growing informatisation and interconnectedness of economies have furthermore
contributed to the integration of national and regional economies, thereby resulting in
the creation of a global economy. Thus information has created both a new social and
Researchers and analysts such as Daniel Bell, Wilson Dizard, John Naisbitt and Alvin
Toffler hold that society has moved through three stages, namely the agricultural
age, the industrial age and, finally, the information age – the so-called ‘third wave’
(Straubhaar & La Rose 1997). Bell (1973) argues that the information age is not merely
characterised by the use of more information, but that a qualitatively different type of
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 37
information has become available (Thussu 2000). The trilogy The information age by the
Spanish theorist, Manuel �astells, represents a further significant input in theorising the
information society (Castells 1996, 1997, 1998). Castells uses the term ‘network society’
where information technology forms the core driver of a new information technology
paradigm, and argues that informational capitalism is increasingly operating on a global
basis through exchanges by means of electronic linkages between circuits (linking local,
regional and national information systems). These linkages bypass the authorities of
nation states and play a central role in establishing regional and supranational units.
Thus a new kind of relationship between economy, state and society is emerging.
Most proponents assume that the processes associated with the global spread of ICTs
and the creation of an information society will have positive social and economic
consequences as they will, among others, raise productivity; spread information and
promote knowledge; foster the democratisation of society; and in general enhance
quality of life (Van Audenhove 2003; Webster 1995). However, current theoretical
contributions on the information society are criticised on various accounts. They are,
among others, accused of simplistic technological determinism that tends to ignore the
social, economic and political dimensions of technological innovation.
Another contentious issue in discourses on the information society is the so-called
‘digital divide’ or the information-rich versus information-poor debates (Arunachalam
1999). Disparities between the centre and the periphery with regard to access to
ICTs (and therefore also to information highways) are believed to have far-reaching
implications for developing countries and make it more difficult for them to compete
with the developed world on various levels, and to participate in the information society.
Thus the North–South disparity remains a central focus in debates on international
communication (Hamelink 1994).
The discourse on globalisation is one of the latest – and probably most important and
wide-ranging – theoretical debates to have emerged in international communication.
According to Rantanen (2005), studies on globalisation started to emerge in the early
1900s – initially within the fields of geography and social science – from where the
concept spread to other disciplines and, among others, also to media studies and
international communication. Some theorists hold ‘globalisation’ to be the key concept
when it comes to understanding changes within human society going into the third
millennium (Thussu 2000).
Giddens (in Rantanen 2005) identifies three phases in discourses on globalisation. In
the first phase the main point of contestation was whether or not globalisation exists. In
38 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
the second phase it was no longer a question of whether or not globalisation exists, but
rather what its consequences are. Currently we are entering a third stage, where debates
address the responses necessary to counteract the negative consequences of globalisation.
However, Rantanen (2005) points to the fact that considerations of the consequences of
globalisation have already been imbedded in even the earliest conceptualisations of the
Despite its popularity, ‘globalisation’ remains a contested topic. A review of some
of the well-known general definitions reveals that theorists do indeed integrate the
phenomenon with its consequences (Rantanen 2005). For example, Giddens (1990)
refers to the intensification of social relations on a global scale and the fact that local
events are influenced by what happens in distant locations. Thompson (1995) emphasises
the growing interconnectedness of parts of the world that gives rise to complex forms
of interaction and interdependency; while for Robertson (1992) globalisation means
the intensification of an awareness of the world as a whole. The idea of complexity, as
indicated by Thompson (1995), is also emphasised by Servaes, Lie and Terzis (2000)
and Tehranian and Tehranian (1997) who distinguish vertical and horizontal dimensions
of globalisation. The horizontal dimension refers to the progressive compression of
temporal and spatial disparities culminating in the world becoming a single system. The
vertical dimension involves the apparently contradictory trends towards homogeneity,
synchronisation, integration and universalism versus the propensity for localisation,
heterogeneity, diversity and particularism (Bornman & Schoonraad 2001).
Many analysts prefer, on the other hand, to divide conceptualisations and theories
of globalisation into economic, political and cultural globalisation (Rantanen 2005).
Economic globalisation is often regarded as the driving force behind the entire
globalisation process (Waters 1995). Within a liberal context, it is interpreted as the
development and fostering of international economic integration and the spread of
global capitalism – pan-capitalism, as some commentators have labelled it (Tehranian
1999; Thussu 2000). This conception denotes a qualitative shift from a largely national
to a globalised economy where the economies of nation states are largely subordinate
to transnational processes and transactions, and markets play a key role at the expense
of nation states. The demise of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc, the shift from public
to private sector capitalism and the international trend towards liberalisation and
privatisation have all contributed to the acceptance of the capitalist market as the global
economic system (Thussu 2000).
Closely related to conceptions of economic globalisation are theories on political
globalisation that focus largely on the changing position and role of the nation state
(Bauman 1998; Waters 1995). Due to the internasionalisation of global economic
activities and other transnational processes, the authority, legitimacy and sovereignty
of the nation state are believed to be under constant threat. The borders of nation states
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest 39
have become increasingly porous, as governments are no longer able to control the flowbecome increasingly porous, as governments are no longer able to control the flowincreasingly porous, as governments are no longer able to control the flow
of capital and information across their borders. The free flow of capital and information
is furthermore progressively being exempted from the authority of the nation state,
while global forces beyond its reach and control are imposing their laws and precepts
on the planet. The nation state is furthermore being threatened by the formation of
supranational units (such as the European Union and African Union), while ideas
regarding some form of global government are frequently mentioned in order to address
the consequences of globalisation (Habermas 1999). The nation state is consequently no
longer the only viable political context for people to live in.
With regard to cultural globalisation, Bornman and Schoonraad (2001) distinguish
between globalisation on the social and cultural terrains. Social globalisation is
associated with the realisation – at least to a certain extent – of McLuhan’s (1964)
concept of the ‘global village’, in other words with the emergence of a borderless,
non-spatial community. Although McLuhan’s ideas are often criticised for being over-
idealistic (globalisation has not resulted in the disappearance of racial, cultural and
other differences, as he prophesied) the reality of social globalisation is, among others,
signified by the emergence of a ‘global consciousness’ and a global civil society which
– as mentioned before – promotes worldwide cooperation to address global issues such
as human rights, women’s rights and environmental conservation (Thussu 2000).
Cultural globalisation is often perceived as just a new version of Western cultural
imperialism, namely cultural homogenising due to the worldwide spread of the Western–
American lifestyle, values and consumer goods (ibid). A major consequence of the
cultural levelling process is perceived to be that the spaces in which local communities
can experience and live out their culture, become smaller and smaller. However,
Appadurai (1990) argues that the effects of the multitude of forces that influence cultural
globalisation are not simply homogenising, but rather they create new differences,
contradictions and counter-tendencies as they encounter the different ideologies and
cultural traditions of the world. A further consequence of these globalising forces is the
weakening of the cultural coherence of nation states – yet another factor that threatens
their authority and legitimacy. Whereas the MacBride report calls for the realisation of
one world with many voices, Ayish (2005) points out that the dominance of American/
Western culture, combined with the revitalisation of ethnicity in the globalising world,
is, in contrast, creating many worlds with only one dominant voice.
There can be little doubt that the (global) media and the worldwide spread of ICTs
have made global interconnectedness – and thus globalisation – possible (Rantanen
2005; Tehranian 1999; Thussu 2000). It is therefore rather ironic that media and
communication scholars have not been at the forefront of theorising globalisation. Most
definitions and theories are extremely vague or do not mention the role of the media
and communications at all. Media scholars furthermore tend to focus on national or
40 Lucky Madikiza & Elirea Bornman
local issues and therefore tend to miss the bigger picture of global interconnectedness
and contribute little to the academic discourse on globalisation. When globalisation
theorists do consider the role of the media and ICTs, they usually refer only to cultural
globalisation. However, Rantanen (2005) objects to the tendency to limit the role of
communication. He deems it necessary to acknowledge the role of the media and
communications in general theories of globalisation, as well as in discussions of all the
various domains – economic, political, social as well as cultural.
As already indicated, discourses and research on globalisation within international
communication have been dominated by debates within the structuralism approach.
These focus on whether the nature of the international flow of media and cultural
products can be regarded as strictly one-way traffic and therefore as �estern domination
– in other words cultural imperialism (Thussu 2000). Post-structuralists, on the other
hand, argue that counter-flow from the centre to the periphery, and between geo-
cultural regions does exist. Moreover, cultural interactions are much more complex
than proposed by imperialism and structuralist theories, with cultural flows moving in
multiple directions and creating complex outcomes with regard to both homogenisation
and heterogenisation (Hannerz 1997).
Rantanen (2005) points to some other interesting areas of theorising to highlight the role
of communication in all spheres of globalisation. The first is the role, effects and far-
reaching consequences of mediated communication on all levels of society – locally as
well as globally. Thompson (1995) points out that the development of global media and
ICT networks have not merely created new networks for the dissemination of information
across spatial boundaries, but have established new forms of action, interaction and
social relations that are different from the face-to-face interactions which characterised
human societies through the centuries. This is typified as ‘mediated interaction’, where
the term ‘mediation’ can be defined as an active process of establishing relations between
different kinds of being and consciousness that are invariably mediated (Williams 1977).
Rantanen (2005: 8) presents the following alternative definition for globalisation, which
takes into account the role of mediated communication in all domains: ‘Globalization
is a process in which worldwide economic, political, cultural and social relations have
increasingly become mediated across time and space.’
Tomlinson (1994) also emphasises the different forms of experience that characterise
globalisation. People experience the global in their everyday situated lives within the local
sphere or, as stated by Giddens (1991), the local sphere is penetrated and influenced by
distant events. Thus the nature of structures in the local sphere is not only a presentation
of what is visible on the scene, but also reflects so-called ‘distanciated’ relations. Social
relations are consequently disembedded from local contexts of interaction and stretch
across time and spatial boundaries. According to Tomlinson there is a distinct difference
between mass-mediated and non-mass-mediated experience: due to the establishment
International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest �1
of global media networks, mass-mediated experience is often global and distanciated,
whereas non-mass-mediated experiences concern the local sphere.
Rantanen (2005) draws the conclusion that globalisation changes people’s lives and
human society by introducing new forms of interaction and experience. Communication
scientists can make a unique and invaluable contribution by theorising and researching
the impact and consequences of these changes. In doing so, they should not restrict
themselves to the cultural domain, but should explore the role of (international)
communication on globalisation on all levels.
The overview presented in this article reflects the diversity of issues and foci of interest
dealt with in international communication. It furthermore not only reflects the way in
which discourses and theoretical paradigms have adapted to developments in global
politics and the global economy, or the virtual explosion in the development and
worldwide proliferation of ICTs in the last few decades.
In the end, good theory should lay the foundation for quality empirical research and
provide a basis not only for explaining global communication processes and their
effects, but also for making predictions with regard to future tendencies and proactive
policy formulation. Most of the theories, paradigms and foci of interest deal with macro
and meso issues, while little attention is given to the effects of global communication
on micro levels. There is furthermore a tendency – probably due to the influence of
media studies – to focus predominantly on cultural issues, thus neglecting the impact
of global communication in other domains. A further question to be asked is whether
the current preoccupation with information flows really creates a full understanding of
global communication in the 21st century. In this sense, a critical question for discussion
is to what extent the theoretical paradigms, as discussed in this article, really cover the
full complexity of global communication in the 21st century.
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