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Challenging Communication Research

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Edited By Leah A. Lievrouw

Communication scholarship has not enjoyed the same kind of theoretical cohesion or ontological security as some disciplines. The field’s intellectual «roving eye» and resistance to establishing a single core body of knowledge has inspired serial rounds of soul-searching and existential doubt among communication scholars, on one hand, and celebration and intellectual adventurism, on the other. The theme of the 2013 ICA annual conference thus raised an interesting question: For a field that is perpetually in flux and «decentered», what exactly is, or should be, challenged? How, and by whom?
The chapters in this collection, chosen from among the top papers presented in London, suggest that the challenges themselves are constantly being reinvented, broken down and reorganized. The communication discipline undergoes continuous change rather than following an orderly, stepwise path toward the neat, complete accumulation of knowledge. The chapters challenge familiar approaches, notions or assumptions in communication research and scholarship and reflect on the field’s multifaceted and increasingly open character in an era of shifting social relations, formations and technologies.
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Chapter Two: Critiquing “Neoliberalism”: Three Interrogations and a Defense

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CHAPTER TWO

Critiquing “Neoliberalism”

Three Interrogations and a Defense

SEAN PHELAN1



Looked at broadly, we can identify two distinct discourses about neoliberalism2 in communication and media studies and elsewhere. The first deploys the term to enact a familiar critical narrative, where neoliberalism signifies a social order dominated by the logic of the market. This narrative has been given different inflections in communication and media research. Neoliberalism has functioned as a descriptive and explanatory category in analyses of topics such as infotainment (Thussu, 2007), media ownership (Herman & McChesney, 1997), multiculturalism (Lentin & Titley, 2011), reality television (Ouellette & Hay, 2008), political marketing (Savigny, 2008), intellectual property rights (Hesmondhalgh, 2008), and the cultural politics of voice (Couldry, 2010). Others have examined the communicative dynamics of “free market” regimes without explicitly deploying the term “neoliberalism” (Aune, 2001). More generally, the role of media and communication practices in the ideological constitution of neoliberalism is taken for granted in the wider literature (see Birch & Mykhnenko, 2010; Harvey, 2005).

Yet, the authority of neoliberalism as a critical signifier has been interrogated by a second discourse. This critique has sometimes been made by those distancing themselves from critical research traditions, in some cases defending their work against the charge of ideological complicity with neoliberalism. However, frustration with the open-ended scope of the term has also been articulated by those who retain a clear commitment to interrogating what might otherwise be...

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