Social Change: A Comparison Of Marshall Mcluhan And David Riesman Essay, Research Paper
The idea of sociological change is an important one. Throughout history society has made certain transitions. These transitions allowed society to become what it is today. Two important theorists who wrote about transitions in society were Marshall McLuhan and David Riesman. Though they greatly differed they also agreed on certain things. Both theorists believed that there are three distinct phases in human history. McLuhan believed that there were three distinct phases of society which he termed oral, literary and electronic. Riesman believed that there were also three phases of history which he termed tradition based, inner-directed and outer-directed.
Marshall McLuhan is best known for coining the phrase ?The Medium is the message?. He believed that society today is centred around electronic media. On the other hand David Riesman who?s most famous book is entitled ?Lonely Crowd? centred his research around characteristics of American society. What these two men have in common is that they both believed that society could be separated into three distinct phases. Riesman believed that there were three distinct character types, tradition-directed, inner-directed and other-directed. While McLuhan believed that there were three types of society which he called oral societies, written societies and electronic societies. Riesman believed the inquiries into the relationship between social structure and social character. The question central to Riesman was what type of person was being formed in the emerging capitalist societies in the developed nations. McLuhan was theorist of literature whose ideas about media and global culture stimulated discussion among social theorists.
The first stage for both centred around small communities in which everyone knew each other. McLuhan believed that society began with oral societies. These centred on local languages and community life. Knowledge was passed on orally. Memory was crucial because lack of memory led to changing traditions. Myths and polytheism are central elements of these religious societies. Tradition was crucial in these societies. Riesman had a similar concept he termed tradition-directed. This personality type is dominant in agrarian, rural societies characterized by high birth and death rates. Living in small communities the individual has to follow the strong collective values and religious traditions of the community. Both believed that there was a traditional beginning in which religion was an important central feature around which the community revolved.
Where they differed on their opinions was that McLuhan believed that communication was central to oral societies. Spoken word was responsible for creating unity within oral societies. For Riesman the tradition-directed character was guided by the strong collective more and folkways of the community (Garner, 154).
McLuhan?s second type of society was termed literate societies. These societies relied on uniformity of language and resulted in the mergence of nationalism and schooling. Communication over distance and time became possible because written histories were utilized. Individualism increase causing the decline of group life because reading is a solitary activity. For Riesman the second personality type was inner-directed. This personality type is related to the emerging urban, industrial societies characterized by rapid population growth and economic development. The inner-directed person is guided by internalized norms and values learned fro parents. This has to do with ?rugged individualism? and the ?American dream?. Both thought that this second transition concentrated around the idea of individualism.
For McLuhan the way people think and feel in societies in which oral communication is the only medium is different from the thoughts and feelings of people in societies dominated by writing. McLuhan invented the term ?Guttenberg Galaxy? to refer to the constellation of mentalities, thought patterns, and cultural forms of characteristic of societies organized around the written and printed word as the medium of communication (Garner, 407). Writing and print shape a different mentality or form of consciousness. Thought became highly linear, sequential, and analytical. For McLuhan, writing is a ?hot? medium, a medium that forces a specific interpretation on the receiver of the message. Riesman?s inner-directed character centres around industrialization. There was an intensity and ?driveness? about the inner-directed, whether they were moralistic or ruthless and greedy. They tended to adhere more to internalized values even when separated from community and family. These are entrepreneurs.
The third transition centres around present-day. The final transition according to McLuhan took society into electronic media societies. In these societies television became the symbol of a new era. People are more active than before. There is more freedom of choice. The used the term ?re-tribalization? because it was almost a return to the oral society mentality. Television brought people together. He also referred to this as the ?global village?. Thirdly Riesman wrote about the other-directed personality type. This personality type is characteristic of advanced capitalist societies that focus more on services and consumption than on production. In these societies, the mass media manipulate one?s needs to increase the level of economic consumption. Individuals tend to adjust to external pressures and demands instead of relying on an internal gyroscope, a predetermined program. The key metaphor here is the radar: other-directed people tend to change their behaviour suddenly according to their social environment.
Radio extended some of the characteristics of writing. For McLuhan, radio is a particularly ?hot? medium, that rapidly brought into existence a generation of political orators who created intense feelings in the listeners for example Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt etc. television is a ?cool? medium that allows the viewer a wide range of possibilities. He suggests that one of the ways in which television impacts society is a ?detribalisation?. This detribalisation does not mean only a re-awakening of ethnic/cultural solidarities that challenge modern nation states from within, it also means a global rebuilding of village life, an intense, communal, and concrete type of consciousness that repeats some features of oral cultures. Television creates ?the global village,? transitional identities, worldwide information flows, global gossip, and a sense of interconnectedness. For many people, this cooling system brings on a lifelong state of psychic rigor mortis, or of somnambulism, particularly observable in periods of new technology. Riesman other-directed type was more about consumption. There is conformity achieved through being sensitive to the actions and wishes of others (Garner, 157).
McLuhan talked about advertising. He thought that the product matters less as the audience participates more (411, Garner). The advertising industry is a crude attempt to extend the principles of automation to every aspect of society (Garner, 412). Photo and TV seduce us from the literate and private ?point of view? to the complex and inclusive world of the group icon (Garner, 414). Today, with TV, we are experiencing the opposite process of integrating and interrelating that is anything but innocent (Garner, 415). The other-directed are guided by peers and the media. They do not have a specific set of internalized values and goals, but only internalized mechanisms that allow them to sense and adapt to changing expectations of others.
For Riesman the other directed is also directed by peers and the media (Garner 165). There is a transition from being a competitive inner-directed to a approval oriented other-directed type (Garner, 165). The peer group becomes the measure of all things (Garner, 165).
Riesman coined the phrase ?inside-dopester? to describe other-directed who has concluded that since he can do nothing to change politics, he can only understand it (Garner, 167). He will go to great lengths to keep from looking and feeling like the uninformed outsider. Not all other-directed people are inside-do pesters, but perhaps, for the lack of a more mature model, many of them aspire to be (Garner, 168).
In conclusion although David Riesman and Marshall McLuhan had different centres to their work they carried similarities as well. McLuhan was interested in mass media. Riesman was interested in social characteristics of American Society.
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McLuhan E. and Zingrone, F.(1995). Essential McLuhan. Concord: House of Anansi Press.
McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
McLuhan, M. and Quentin F. (1967). The Medium is the Massage. New York: Bantam Books.
McLuhan, M. and Quentin F. (1968). War and Peace in the Global Village. San Francisco: Hardwired.
Riesman, D. (1961). The Lonely Crowd. The United States of America: Yale University Press.