How Mass Media Shapes Personal Identity

What is human nature?A huge part of being a human being is the ability to ask one’s self ‘Who am I?’ Certainly, we cannot know for certain that all creatures don’t ask themselves the same question, but since, as human beings, we are able to communicate the thoughts that we have within ourselves to other human beings outside of ourselves, we can be certain that a part of being human is this desire to understand who we are. While, on the surface, ‘Who am I?’ may seem to be a simple question that can be answered with a name, a profession, or a nationality; it is, in fact, a much more profound question that generates more questions than it does answers. The questions follow on the heels of one another and after the simple answers we might at first be tempted to give. These questions can start with our original answers. Why is my name …? Why am I a certain profession? How did I come to think of this profession, and thus myself, in this way? Why do I consider myself a member of this nation, state, or organization and how did I learn to think of it in this manner? These and further questions lead, inevitably to the great questions of philosophy. The questions that do not have solid and verifiable answers. Questions such as ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Where was I before I was born?’ ‘Where will I go when I die?’ and ‘Am I a part of my body or is my body simply something I am attached to at the moment?’

While it is beyond the scope of this paper (or arguably any paper) to address the deepest of these questions, I believe that it is possible to address the surface questions of how we form our identity and where the information our identities are built with comes from. Our identities are formed by the people that surround us at any point in our lives. Parents and siblings, teachers and classmates, colleagues and friends; all of these relationships aid in the building of our sense of self. These are the direct human contacts that help us determine our likes and dislikes, our passions and joys, and our endeavors towards future selves that we have, as yet, to become. Within and surrounding nearly all of these relationships, however, is another force that shapes us. It is a force which is visible and invisible, pervasive and consuming, and with us, in this modern world, from the day we are born until the day we die. This force is that of the mass media. Mass media is present during our entire waking lives in the form of books, film, music, newspapers, art, and advertisements. The influence of mass media shapes our concepts of who we are, what is important to us, and how we live our lives.

Michael Foucault addresses this influence in Text, Discourse, and Ideology.

…in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized, and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality. (Foucault, p. 50).

Foucault goes on to talk about how by creating the way we think about things, our society is able to actually limit the things we think about. Foucault refers to this as principles of exclusion within discourse. An example might be that one thinks of oneself as an ‘American’ and not a ‘North American’ and thus in the individuals thinking, the identities of both Mexican and Canadian are excluded by the simple exclusion of the word ‘North’. Thus we reach one of the many ways that the mass media is able to shape the individual identity, through the conditioning of thoughts towards thinking in a certain way. Any message which is able to achieve mass media is controlled and selected by the author(s), is arranged in a way that the author(s) feel describes their worldview (or more insidiously, arranged how they want others to view the world), and is then distributed within the population that either 1) shares that world view or 2) is likely to share that worldview in the future.

Manuel Castells in The Power of Identity provides specific examples of how the mass media shapes the individual identity. Castells looks at modern social movements as diverse as militias in the United States, Japanese doomsday cults, Al Qaeda , and WTO protestors and shows how all of these movements were able to spread and attract followers, not because of the inherent message of the groups, but more importantly because of the message in the media and how it came to be accepted as a truth in the societies represented and thus aided in the formation of the identity of individuals through mass media outlets such as Rush Limbaugh, al-Jazeera, Indy Media, and even the nightly news. Castells sums this up neatly:

…the actual conspiracy with no names (or multiple names) and with no organization (or hundreds of them) flows in the information networks, feeding paranoia, connecting anger, and maybe spilling blood. (Castells. p. 95)

Not all of the identity formed by the mass media is negative however. Purnima Mankekar shows how television in India helped to shape and empower the images of womanhood among those who watched serials on television. Mankekar demonstrates that mass media is capable of not only fostering domination of the individual but also able to bring about resistance to domination. Indian women who had a preconceived notion of their identity and watched the notions of womanhood within India on television programs reshaped their views on what it is to be a woman in India based on the message transmitted in the mass media and as a result have begun to redefine what it is to be a woman in modern India.

Jayhasinjy Jhala goes even further by examining the effects of films intended for a western audience when viewed by an Indian audience. The ethnographic films are documentaries about Yanaomamo culture that have taken place with the advent of television and mass media within that culture. Jhala and his wife showed films made for Western audiences to groups of Indian nationals and got very different reactions to the films than from Western audiences. The Indian audiences had not had the same messages broadcast to them in the building of identity as those of the West and thus had a very different reaction to the films. While this study did not necessarily demonstrate the effects of the films upon the identity of the Indian audiences, certainly they demonstrate the differences in national character that local mass media have in the way that individuals view the world in front of them.

This is important to consider because in our vast world media culture, a message that is intended for one audience often has very different reception by an audience that has constructed its identity from a different set of cultural markers. Take for example the typical action film in which the hero kills his enemies in overwhelming shows of firepower and yet to the western audience remains sympathetic. To a Western audience, the hero is justified because his innate character are understood within the tropes and markers of that society. When the same film is shown to an audience that has been conditioned by different cultural influences, the overall meaning of the film and the sympathies of the audience are often completely different.

In The Tongan Tradition of Going to the Movies, Elizabeth Hahn, looks at the very different way in which citizens of Tonga encounter western media and the effects that these differences create in the identity of the viewer as opposed to the effects which influence the identity of a viewer from the West. The Tongan experience of the cinema is a much less restrained experience than that of going to the movies in a Western country. Westerners are often annoyed by the shouts and applause that come from the audience. This difference is born of the different cultural practices of each culture. In a traditional Tongan performance, the viewer is led through the event by a narrator who personalizes the experience for the viewer while in the West, the viewer is expected to detach from the experience. Thus, it can be argued that watching a typical film for someone from the West has little to do with the identity of the individual, those in Tonga are much more likely to leave a film feeling changed by the event. A Tongan viewing may, in fact, have more to do with the identity of the individual than with the story of the film itself. This is a result of the traditional culture of the place more than differences spread through mass culture, but may, in the course of time, have a greater effect upon shaping the future Tongan identity than that of the Western viewer.

Mass media of course has become much more than just film, television, and the printed word in the past few decades. Today the mass media is also interactive because of the advent of the internet. The internet has enabled people to find communities that fit their interests and thus has made it possible for an entirely new sort of identity to be possible across the world. As an example, a person who is drawn to an obscure hobby such as collecting pencils that have the erasers chewed off, no longer has to exist in isolation. It is probable that there are more than a few such collectors in the world and that at least one of them (and probably more) are on the internet. As a result, the chewed top pencil collector can find those with similar interests and perhaps will discover that he or she shares more than a single interest in this community. The chewed off pencil community may have bulletin boards, blogs, newsgroups, or even annual get togethers. Because of the collaborative nature of the internet, such collectors will be able to form a more concrete identity within a community of such like minded individuals. The same is, of course, true for those interested in more common pursuits.

Tom Boellstoroff documents one such avenue for the creation of identity through online mass media in his Coming of Age in Second Life. Second Life is an online world where participants can create alter egos with avatars, interests, and even real world incomes. Boellstoroff did traditional anthropological fieldwork in the virtual world of Second Life. Second Life, like all forms of human interaction, creates unique forms and means of shaping the human identity.

While some see virtual worlds as marking the emergence of the post-human, through terms like homo cyber I argue that the forms of selfhood and sociality characterizing virtual worlds are profoundly human…it is in being virtual that we are human. Virtual worlds reconfigure selfhood and sociality, but this is only possible because they rework the virtuality that characterizes human beings in the actual world. (Boellsteroff 2008: 29)

Thus, we see yet another way that the inner self of the human being can be shaped by the social world of human society, even when there are no humans physically present. This would seem to answer the question as to whether the sense of self is contained within the body or the body is separate from the self. In the case of virtual worlds, the body is not present and yet the self is.

This idea though, may not be as new as the technology that creates it. Some writers have theorized that all forms of mass media are similar to Second Life in that the self that is consuming the media is able to pick and choose from among different programs, magazines, and films and thus is actually not having the sense of self created by mass media, but using mass media to nurture an already formed sense of self. Not everyone agrees with these ideas though. Many , believe that mass media tends to encourage some forms of self identity while discouraging others. David Morley argues in The Construction of the Viewer that

…the celebration of audience creativity and pleasure can all too easily collude with a system of media power which actually excludes or marginalizes most alternative or oppositional voices or perspectives.
(Morley, p. 14)

Morley’s point is well made. After all, many forms of mass media today are generally controlled by business and government. Business wants to increase profits while government wants to encourage behavior that provides more control. With these goals in mind, what is it that mass media is encouraging and discouraging in its consumers?

In looking at the mass media today, one should look critically. What are those in control of mass media trying to make us believe about ourselves? When I ask myself ‘Who am I?’, how much of the answer comes from within me and how much has come from sources outside of me? Who benefits from the conception of self that is being taught, pushed, forced upon each of us through the mass media? Are we being accidentally shaped into something different from who we are by being an unintended audience? Are we developing new ideas or just regurgitating the ideas that have been fed to us through print, video, and digital media?

Mass media plays a huge role in the development of the self in the world of today. We are exposed to ideas, people, places, and communities that can cause us to bloom or, in many cases, cause us to hide who we really are. The sense of self is yours and yours alone. No one can tell you who you are or answer any of the profound questions for you. No one except for your self.

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