A review by Lynn Schofield Clark, University of Colorado
Ethnographic audience research, as anyone who has attempted such work knows, is a time-consuming, expensive, and often long-term commitment. While conventions governing analysis and writing differ across approaches, data-collection alone can be an arduous process, as participants are recruited for extended periods through either appeals to their generosity or token payments (or the subtle pressure of guilt). Nevertheless, scholars in audience research, as well as in studies of culture and society more generally, continue to strongly advocate for interpretive research based in the practices of everyday life. Thus it is cause for celebration when a fine volume such as Television and New Media Audiences arrives from an experienced and respected audience researcher like Ellen Seiter.
Television and New Media Audiences reflects upon several interrelated qualitative studies conducted or overseen by the author over a period of several years. She takes as her topic the highly relevant issue of what she terms the “’lay theories’ of media effects:” those often unspoken guidelines that inform how people view the media practices they engage in, and how they view the media consumption of others. She gives particular attention to the widespread view that television and other media have a negative effect on children. In several insightful analyses, she examines how this “lay theory” plays itself out in relation to both the gendered division of labor in the household and the expectations of social class. Seiter’s arguments are based on interviews conducted with parents of young children and preschool teachers, as well as observations she conducted at various preschools. She also occasionally references her own experiences as a parent of a young child.
The strength of the book lies in Seiter’s interviewing and analytical abilities. By introducing case studies of parents she has interviewed both formally and informally over the course of several years, in her third chapter Seiter is able to demonstrate interconnections between tensions concerning “media effects” and fears related to less-secure class positions. For instance, she contrasts a set of upper-middle-class and less affluent parents she interviewed, noting that the former were more likely to view their child’s involvement with television as “active” in choice-making, while those from less privileged positions voiced more concerns regarding the negative influences of television. She notes that in a certain sense, those parents with greater concerns about television may be right to be concerned. Yet she links this concern not to television’s power to manipulate, but to the fact that the teachers with whom children interact tend to equate television-viewing with lowered academic abilities (and hence perceptions about excessive viewing would further limit the less privileged child’s access to future opportunities).
Another important insight links criticism of television with an increased level of expectations concerning a mother’s responsibility for her children. She notes that while both fathers and mothers strongly emphasized the need for regulation of media consumption, the responsibility for this task largely fell to the mothers (and thus the fathers’ admonition contributed to the mothers’ sense of guilt at any perceived lapses of oversight). Seiter argues that “lay theories of media effects” simply extend the continued private/public distinctions that enable men who work outside the home to view home as a “haven” while women(whether employed or not) more often work constantly either with the children or performing household tasks to maintain the domestic sphere.
In the fourth chapter, Seiter turns her attention to pre-school teachers and day-care providers. Here, she again analyzes the “lay theories of media effects” with reference to class position, noting that the more expensive pre-schools and day cares she visited had stricter rules related to television viewing and use of television-related commercial products than did the more affordable options. She relates the media restrictions at the former to the largely-unspoken yet central task of inculcating taste among the more well-heeled children. This education of young children into certain tastes, including the dismissal of television as unworthy, was not something she observed in the less expensive child care situations. In those locations, there was less concern for status distinctions and hence children could talk about television without concern for adult disapproval. Of course, given what Seiter has pointed out earlier regarding the social sanctions against television-viewing, this difference in approaches does not necessarily bode well for the less privileged children. This is in part why she criticizes prior cultural studies research that has tended to celebrate viewing “pleasures” with what she feels is inadequate attention to material consequences of viewing in relation to social approbation.
The fifth chapter is the book’s weak spot, notably because it veers away from earlier discussions of class and gender in its attempt to draw lines between “secular” and what she terms “fundamentalist” preschool and day care centers. She notes an interesting tendency among these religiously-affiliated centers to emphasize concerns she did not observe in the “secular” locations, specifically those about magic or the occult, Darwinism, and sexual preference among other things. Yet these insights are clouded by several questionable assertions. One wonders, for instance, if “fundamentalist” becomes a code word for working-class conservative Protestantism, a group she then contrasts with the greater number of persons she assumes to be middle-class “secularists.” I believe it would have been more productive to compare religious day care centers situated differently with reference to class, for certainly those who self-identify as “evangelical” make up a much larger proportion of the population than fundamentalists and have throughout history blended, rather than accentuated, norms between middle class and religious identifications, even along gender lines (see Smith, 1998; Gallup and Castelli, 1989; Brasher, 1998).
While most of the book centers on beliefs and attitudes concerning television, in the next-to-last chapter she makes a strong argument for the study of new media technologies and their entrance into the home. By likening the introduction of computers into the home with television’s introduction decades earlier, Seiter is able to highlight the connections between these two technologies at both household and corporate levels. She thereby lays out an important agenda for the research into new media technologies, one to which television audience researchers can make an important contribution.
While much of this review has centered on findings and arguments, Seiter’s book offers more than this in that she develops an argument for the benefits of reflexive, in-depth and contextualized research. In her second chapter, Seiter reviews several of the studies most frequently cited as “ethnographic” in audience literature, noting that many do not meet the standards of ethnography as that method is understood in its original field of cultural anthropology. Yet much of her own analysis similarly does not rest on repeated exposure to everyday interactions among many socially networked individuals of a particular community, the “classic” approach to ethnography she advocates. Instead, she relies upon repeated interviews, some with persons she knows well through her own involvement in a parents’ support group, and others she knows less well who are preschool teachers and professional day care providers. Yet rather than raise this issue as a weakness, I see it as a strength. Seiter perhaps inadvertently enables media scholars to move away from the geographically-limited notions of “culture” as the ideal boundaries within which an ethnography must be conducted. This suggests a turn akin to that favored by cultural anthropologist Sherry Ortner (1993), who argues that in place of the former bounded approach, cultural anthropology has now moved toward two new forms of ethnography: what she terms “issues” and “documentary” ethnography. Seiter’s work qualifies as an “issue ethnography,” as it is a study of how a specific social controversy (in this case, the issue of negative effects of the media) plays itself out in various interrelated locations.In this sense, perhaps the book’s most important contribution lies in its ability to address an issue considered highly relevant to many parties concerned today with media influence, from parents and teachers to policymakers and industry leaders. It should not be surprising that Seiter’s “issues ethnography” is most convincing when she considers contextual information she has gained prior to the specific interview situation. While perhaps once we suspected that only lengthy stays in unfamiliar environments might yield ethnographic knowledge, as media audience researchers we all draw upon a store of similar personal and scholarly knowledge that informs our arguments. The demands of reflexivity within contemporary research increasingly require us to acknowledge this, as Seiter does in the current project.
In conclusion, the text’s topic, research methodology, and accessible writing style make this an excellent book for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses that address critical/cultural studies, audience research, and media use in the family, as well as courses addressing policy implications of contemporary research.
Brasher, B. (1998). Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Gallup, G. and Castelli, J. (1989). The People’s Religion: American Faith in the 1990s. New York: MacMillan.
Ortner, S. (1993). Ethnography among the Newark: The class of ‘58 of Weequahic high school.
Michigan Quarterly Review 32(3), 411-429.
Smith, C. (1998). American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.