Conflict Theory on Culture and Technology

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss how conflict theory views culture and technology

Conflict theorists view social structure as inherently unequal, based on power differentials related to issues like class, gender, race, and age. For a conflict theorist, culture is seen as reinforcing issues of privilege for certain groups based upon race, sex, class, and so on. Women strive for equality in a male-dominated society. Senior citizens struggle to protect their rights, their health care, and their independence from a younger generation of lawmakers. Advocacy groups such as the ACLU work to protect the rights of all races and ethnicities in the United States.

Inequalities exist within a culture’s value system. Therefore, a society’s cultural norms benefit some people but hurt others. Some norms, formal and informal, are practiced at the expense of others. Women were not allowed to vote in the United States until 1920. Gay and lesbian couples have been denied the right to marry in some states. Racism and bigotry are very much alive today. Although cultural diversity is supposedly valued in the United States, many people still frown upon interracial marriages. Same-sex marriages are banned in most states, and polygamy—common in some cultures—is unthinkable to most Americans.

At the core of conflict theory is the effect of economic production and materialism; for example, dependence on technology and education in rich nations versus a lack of technology and accessible education in poor nations. Conflict theorists believe that a society’s system of material production has an effect on the rest of culture. People who have less power also have less ability to adapt to or enact cultural change. This view contrasts with the perspective of functionalism. For example, in the U.S. culture of capitalism, we continue to strive toward the promise of the “American Dream,” which perpetuates the belief that the wealthy deserve their privileges.

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Conflict Perspective and Technology

When we take a conflict perspective, one major focus is the differential access to media and technology embodied in the digital divide. Conflict theorists also look at who controls the media, and how media promotes the norms of upper-middle-class white people in the United States while minimizing the presence of the working class, especially people of color.

Control of Media and Technology

Powerful individuals and social institutions have a great deal of influence over which forms of technology are released, when and where they are released, and what kind of media is available for our consumption, which is a form of gatekeeping. Shoemaker and Voss (2009) define gatekeeping as the sorting process by which thousands of possible messages are shaped into a mass media-appropriate form and reduced to a manageable amount. In other words, the people in charge of the media decide what the public is exposed to, which, as C. Wright Mills (1956) famously noted, is the heart of media’s power. Take a moment to think of the way “new media” evolve and replace traditional forms of hegemonic (i.e., ruling or dominant) media. With hegemonic media, a culturally diverse society can be dominated by one race, gender, or class that manipulates the media to impose its worldview as a societal norm. New media weakens the gatekeeper role in information distribution. Popular sites such as YouTube and Facebook not only allow more people to freely share information but also engage in a form of self-policing. Users are encouraged to report inappropriate behavior that moderators will then address.

In addition, some conflict theorists suggest that the way U.S. media are generated results in an unbalanced political arena. Those with the most money can buy the most media exposure, run smear campaigns against their competitors, and maximize their visual presence. Almost a year before the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the candidates––Barack Obama for the Democrats and numerous Republican contenders––had raised more than $186 million (Carmi et al. 2012). Some would say that the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Committee is a major contributing factor to our unbalanced political arena. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of outside groups, including Super Political Action Committees (SuperPACs) with undisclosed donor lists, to spend unlimited amounts of money on political ads as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidate’s campaign or specifically advocate for a candidate. This finding was predicated on the idea that spending money on political ads is itself a form of free speech, and is therefore constitutionally protected. What do you think a conflict perspective theorist would suggest about the potential for the non-rich to be heard in politics, especially when SuperPACs ensure that the richest groups have the most say?

Technological Social Control and Digital Surveillance

Social scientists take the idea of the surveillance society so seriously that there is an entire journal devoted to its study, Surveillance and Society. The panoptic surveillance envisioned by Jeremy Bentham, depicted in the form of an all-powerful, all-seeing government by George Orwell in 1984, and later analyzed by Michel Foucault (1975) is increasingly realized in the form of technology used to monitor our every move. This surveillance was imagined as a form of constant monitoring in which the observation posts are decentralized and the observed subject is never communicated with directly. In effect, the subject never knows when or if he is actually being surveilled within the panoptical environment, and therefore comes to internalize the system’s implicit social controls and to behave accordingly. Today, digital security cameras capture our movements, observers can track us through our cell phones, and police forces around the world use facial-recognition software.

Feminist Perspective

A thin female model is shown walking down the runway in New York’s fashion week.

Figure 1. What types of women are we exposed to in the media? Some would argue that the range of female images is misleadingly narrow. (Photo courtesy of Cliff1066/flickr)

Take a look at popular television shows, advertising campaigns, and online game sites. In most, women are portrayed according to a particular set of parameters and tend to have a uniform look that society recognizes as attractive. Most are thin, white or light-skinned, beautiful, and young. Why does this matter? Feminist perspective theorists believe this idealized image is crucial in creating and reinforcing stereotypes. For example, Fox and Bailenson (2009) found that online female avatars conforming to gender stereotypes enhance negative attitudes toward women, and Brasted (2010) found that media (advertising in particular) promotes gender stereotypes. Some commercial media enterprises have tried to reconcile their political commitments with their economic viability. For example, as early as 1990 the feminist magazine Ms. instituted a policy of publishing without any commercial advertising.

The gender gap in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) is no secret. A 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce Report suggested that gender stereotyping is one reason for this gap, and acknowledged a longstanding bias toward men as keepers of technological knowledge (US Department of Commerce 2011). But gender stereotypes go far beyond the use of technology. Press coverage in the news and other media reinforces stereotypes that subordinate women, often prioritizing looks over skills and knowledge, and disparaging women who defy accepted gender norms.

Recent research in new media has offered a mixed picture of its potential to equalize the status of men and women in the arenas of technology and public discourse. A European agency, the Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities for Men and Women (2010), issued a report suggesting that while there is the potential for new media forms to perpetuate gender stereotypes and gaps in technology and media access, at the same time new media could offer alternative forums for feminist groups as well as the exchange of feminist ideas. Still, the committee warned against the relatively unregulated environment of new media and the potential for antifeminist activities, from pornography to human trafficking, to flourish there.

Increasingly prominent in the discussion of new media and feminism is cyberfeminism, the Internet’s application to, and promotion of, feminism online. Research on cyberfeminism runs the gamut from the liberating use of blogs by women living in Iraq during the second Gulf War (Peirce 2011) to an investigation of the Suicide Girls web site (Magnet 2007).

Think It Over

  • Contrast a functionalist viewpoint of digital surveillance with a conflict perspective viewpoint.
  • Describe how a cyberfeminist might address the fact that powerful female politicians are often demonized in traditional media.

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glossary

cyberfeminism:
the Internet’s application to and promotion of feminism online
gatekeeping:
the sorting process by which thousands of possible messages are shaped into a mass media-appropriate form and reduced to a manageable amount
panoptic surveillance:
a form of constant monitoring in which the observation posts are decentralized and the observed subject is never communicated with directly

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