Reception, Identity, and the Global Village

Television in the Fourth World

How to Cite

Pack, S. (2000). Reception, Identity, and the Global Village: Television in the Fourth World. M/C Journal, 3(1).
Vol. 3 No. 1 (2000): Audience
Published 2000-03-01


Media scholars operating within a Marxist framework view the penetration of mass media into Fourth World cultures as a form of oppression enacting a colonialist agenda upon helpless spectators. Proponents of cultural studies, however, argue that television audiences actively and creatively construct their own meanings rather than passively absorb pre-packaged meanings imposed upon them (Ang 243).

In this article, I will posit an alternative approach. I will argue that Fourth World people are forced to ask not only "Who are 'we'?" but also "Who are 'they'?" The answer to the second question shapes and informs the answer to the first question, as Fourth World people are forced to negotiate their identity upon exposure to First World television. The result is a transformative process whereby Fourth World viewers reassign the roles of "self" and "other" in order to defend, preserve, and re- construct their own selfhood.

An Anthropology of Television

Studies on audience reception have been virtually ignored within anthropology. Spitulnik bemoans the fact that there is as yet no "anthropology of mass media" as anthropologists have largely managed to neglect the centrality of mass media in 20th-century life (293). Anthropologists in industrial countries have paid scant systematic attention to the production, distribution, and consumption of mass media in their own societies and even less to mass media in non-industrial societies (A. Lyons 432). While there are emerging wide-scale debates on the subject of anthropology and film current within the field of visual anthropology, discussions concerning anthropology and television are scarce (Weicker 273).

The glaring lack of reception studies reflects the unacknowledged assumption that all viewers process information in the same manner. Studies have shown, however, that there is an intrinsic link between culture and communication and that each culture socialises its members in its own viewing habits and interpretive strategies. Simply stated, the media do not affect all equally or in the same fashion. The dynamics of image interpretation are magnified when the producer of the image and the consumer of the image come from different cultures. Messages encoded in the First World may be aberrantly decoded wholly or partially in Fourth World countries, or they may not be fully acceptable (A. Lyons 442).

Although television attracts a tremendous amount of popular interest, serious criticism is relegated to the margins of film or communication studies if it enters into academia at all (Joyrich 21). Anthropologists are only beginning to consider the rich cultural forms of television that are so pivotal in the development of national sentiments (Abu-Lughod 493). Most TV impact studies done so far are generally limited to the First World and tend to focus on a limited target group (i.e., children) and range of effects (i.e., violence) (Kottak 11).

This is unfortunate considering television's huge cultural significance as one of the most important parts in society's mass communication. In many parts of the world, television is the most popular and ubiquitous public medium, offering a diversity and availablity unmatched by the print media (Abu-Lughod 509). Mass media, and television in particular, are forces which provide audiences with ways of seeing and interpreting the world -- ways which ultimately shape their very existence and participation within society.

Television must be viewed with a wider lens. Framed by the discourses of television, contemporary formations of identity have shifted in ways that radically alter the epistemological, aesthetic, and ideological space of cultures (Joyrich 22). Television is the site of convergence that joins the private world of the home with the larger public worlds beyond the front door (Moores 9).

The "Global Village"

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan prophesied the worldwide coalescence of human awareness into a single community that he would ultimately call the "global village". According to McLuhan, the developed world is experiencing a transformative convergence of computing and communications technology whose impact will rival that of the replacement of muscle power by machines (Wright 84).

Over 30 years later, Hillary Rodham Clinton remarked on the "frantic and fragmented" lifestyle brought about by this new technology. She echoes the African proverb (which is also the title of her bestselling book) that "it takes a village to raise a child" (13). The "village" she refers to can no longer be defined as a place on a map, or a list of people or organisations, but its essence remains the same: it is the network of values and relationships that support and affect our lives (Clinton 13). Although the American President's wife uses the concept of a "village" differently from her unwitting predecessor, the notion of interconnectedness remains the same.

The Threat of Homogenisation

Amid the social, territorial, and cultural developments of the 20th century, the landscapes of cultural identity -- "ethnoscapes" -- around the world are no longer familiar anthropological objects, insofar as groups are no longer tightly territorialised or spatially bounded (Appadurai 191). In this culture-play of diaspora, the familiar line of demarcation separating "self" from "other" has become increasingly blurred. According to Meyrowitz, the media have created new "communities across spaces of transmission, bringing together otherwise disparate grounds around the common experience of television, thereby resulting in the cultural 'homogenization of here and there'" (cited in Morley 12).

As electronic tools have proliferated, Halleck & Magnan argue, the variety of views has lessened in mainstream media: "Coca-Cola says they need not make commercials for specific national markets anymore: everyone likes the same music, understands the same images and yes, everyone drinks Coca-Cola" (155). The global popularity of American transnational culture has made it impossible to get a tabula rasa, if one ever existed. This "westernisation" of the entire world has serious repercussions for how people in non-Western countries, and the Fourth World in particular, grapple to preserve their ethnic and cultural identity amidst a whirlwind of McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Pamela Lee.

When McLuhan first coined the term "global village" in the 1960s, his view of such a world was optimistic. As years passed, however, he grew increasingly wary of the communications "implosion" (Wright 89). In The Global Village, which his friend and collaborator Bruce Powers published posthumously, the authors devote nine pages to the "satisfactions" of "Global Robotism" and 38 pages to its "dissatisfactions". They claim that the salient issue of the information age will be the need to exclude information as the average global villager will be bombarded by an onslaught of media messages.

In 1984, George Orwell warned that society would be controlled by an externally imposed oppression. In Alduous Huxley's vision, presented in Brave New World, people will come to love their oppression and to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think (Postman vii; emphasis added). In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman argues that there are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first -- the Orwellian -- culture becomes a prison, whereas in the second - - the Huxleyan -- culture becomes a burlesque:

In the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. (Postman 155)

By ushering in the Age of Television, Postman contends that America has brought the Huxleyan prophecy to fruition.

The Cultural Imperialism Thesis

Media scholars operating in a Marxist theoretical framework like Postman have deplored the consequences for cultural autonomy of the global reach of First World television programs. Electronic media can potentially color, distort, and even degrade an entire cultural world view, they argue, by presenting images of the world suited to the agenda of the media (Funkhouser & Shaw 86). This theory is generally referred to as "cultural imperialism", which Sarmela defines as

the economic, technological, and cultural hegemony of the industrialized nations which determines the direction of both economic and social progress, defines cultural values and standardizes the civilization and cultural environment throughout the world. (13)

In Make-Believe Media, Parenti portrays the media as an insidious juggernaut controlling every thought of a mass of mindless zombies. He contends that films and television programmes have propagated images and ideologies that perpetuate the "isms": imperialism, anti-communism, capitalism, racism, sexism, militarism, and vigilantism, to name but a few (2). Prolonged exposure results in the surrender of a critical capacity. In fact, consumers of mass media "become active accomplices in [their] own indoctrination" (6). This is the only thing viewers actively do, because in Parenti's estimations, media render their victims little more than passive spectators.

Herbert Schiller is perhaps most closely associated with the cultural imperialism thesis. In Mass Communications and American Empire, he claims that American television exports are part of a general effort by the American military industrial complex to subject the world to military control, electronic surveillance, and homogenised American commercial culture (cited in Tunstall 38). The export of cheap American television programs, Schiller speculates, was deliberately undertaken by American political interests in order to convert subaltern populations to American cultural and political values, thereby maintaining American political dominance and securing a market for American products (A. Lyons 441).

Schiller may get a bit carried away but the impact of television on Fourth World cultures is irrefutable. In their article, "Why Do The Indians Wear Adidas?", Arnould & Wilk describe the influence of globalisation upon subaltern cultures:

Peruvian Indians carry around small, rectangular rocks painted to look like transistor radios ... Bana tribesmen in Kako, Ethiopia pay a hefty price to look through a view-master at 'Pluto Tries to Become a Circus Dog' ... When a Swazi princess weds a Zulu king, she wears red touraco wing feathers around her forehead and a cape of windowbird feathers and oxtails. He wears a leopard skin cloak. Yet all is recorded with a Kodak movie camera, and the band plays 'The Sound of Music' ... Veiled noble Tuareg men carry swords modelled after the Crusaders' weapons and sport mirrored sunglasses with tiny hearts etched into the lenses. (748)

Every culture in which television appeared has experienced a reduction in the diversity of activities. Kent found that Navajo families without television, for example, performed a wide array of activities such as family discussions, butchering, weaving baskets and blankets, jewelry making -- which were generally absent in Navajo households with television (124). Similarly, in a rural city in Nigeria, H. Lyons discovered that the introduction of the new and highly popular evening activity, conducted largely within private family quarters, has markedly reduced evening social life by "keeping them indoors" (413). This same pattern of disrupting and monopolising leisure activity appears everywhere television penetrates Fourth World cultures.

For this reason, cultural imperialism theorists have decried the "contamination" of traditional culture by mass media, recognising a clear difference between those with access and those without (Aufderheide; Mankekur). The logical conclusion to be drawn is that Western media are fundamentally incompatible with notions of cultural autonomy and diversity.

The Active Audience

Proponents of cultural studies see the cultural imperialism thesis as problematic. In their view, cultural imperialists reduce societies penetrated by electronic media to a simple juxtaposition of two worlds: a pristine "before" and a degenerate "after". Television thus becomes a cultural and historical watershed allowing people to create a mythical past (Wilk 237). While there have certainly been changes since the introduction of television, there have always been changes. Cultural studies advocates argue that the media constitute only part of the process of actual and alleged cultural loss.

Rather than creating massive cultural homogeneity on a global scale, societies who have recently gained access to television are replacing one diversity with another (Hannerz 555). The popular perception among cultural imperialism theorists that globalisation threatens cultural identity is, according to Ang, a misnomer (252). The desire to keep national identity and culture wholesome and pristine is not only unrealistic but oblivious to the contradictions condensed in the very concept of national identity. Defining identity in static terms ignores the fact that identity is a site of struggle -- a fundamentally dynamic, complex, and unstable phenomenon.

Cultural studies scholars have responded by portraying people of the Fourth World not as passive objects to be dominated at will but as active subjects capable of making their own decisions. Katz & Liebes, for example, argue that television viewing is a negotiation process involving the story on the screen, the culture of the viewers, and the interpersonal exchanges among the viewers (101). The audience is not a "sponge" which will automatically soak in Western culture for good or evil. Rather, it picks and chooses what it likes and interprets what it chooses.

TV viewing is, first and foremost for cultural studies scholars, an active and social process. Television audiences actively and creatively construct their own meanings rather than passively absorbing pre-packaged meanings imposed upon them (Ang 243). In fact, Lembo & Tucker argue that audiences engage with television images and interpret them in accordance with their life situations, struggling to redefine meanings of media objects in ways consistent with their own cultural values (98). Viewers' active interaction with television texts turns reception into a site of struggle and not simply a site of domination.

This argument is repeated ad nauseam in cultural studies. I agree with Silverstone that there is a danger in pursuing the active audience too far (177). While cultural studies properly emphasises the significance of understanding audience decodings, it neglects the contexts and pressure that influence those interpretations (Carragee 87). More specifically, it has failed to examine how media content expresses dominant ideological meanings.

Here, I posit an alternative approach to television reception among Fourth World audiences. Television is neither homogenising, as cultural imperialism theorists advocate, nor simply a terrain for active interpretation, as proponents of cultural studies argue, but revolves around the negotiation for identity rooted in a negotiation of power relations.

Negotiation for Identity

As the world becomes increasingly mass-mediated, the study of how audiences manage contradictions between the specificities of their own lives and the imposed generalities of a homogenised mass culture becomes central (Silverstone 173). Institutions of mass cultural dissemination provide the cultural field on which fragmented identities are formed and reformed (Garnham 253). Television, in particular, plays a crucial role in the formation and maintenance of cultural and social identities.

Recent trends in anthropology reflect a growing acknowledgment of the significance of mass media to processes of identity construction (Mankekar). Viewers' interpretations are profoundly influenced by broader social discourses in which they are interpellated. In an increasingly integrated world system, there is no such thing as an independent cultural identity; rather, every identity must define and position itself in relation to the cultural frames affirmed by the world system (Ang 253). In this way, the global and local are inextricably linked in a dialectical relationship: what people watch is mediated by, and simultaneously helps illuminate, developments in their lives. More specifically, I contend that the question "Who are 'they'?" directly shapes and informs the question "Who are 'we'?"

Who Are "They"?

According to Katz & Dayan, the viewing of television is a liminal activity in which masses of people routinely -- even ritualistically -- disconnect themselves from their everyday concerns, enter into a protected "time out", and allow themselves to be transported symbolically elsewhere (305). This liminal phase exists between the real world and an imaginary world or what Funkhouser & Shaw term "real experience" and "synthetic experience" (80).

Until the advent of electronic media, for most people actual experience was limited to events within reality. But with the emergence of the "global village", people gain access to an information environment of unreal and synthetic events -- an experience akin to "viewing life through a one-way mirror" (Funkhouser & Shaw 79) As Postman writes: "there is no more disturbing consequence of the electronic and graphic revolution than this: that the world as given to us through television seems natural, not bizarre" (79).

Horton & Wohl argue that media and media performers deliberately create an illusion which they call a "para-social relationship" -- the implicit agreement between performer and viewer of an interpersonal relationship (33). The pattern and structure of the television medium breeds a comfort and familiarity which foster a close, social relationship between the viewer and viewed. Caughey calls the intimate involvement with large numbers of unmet media figures through media consumption "synthetic social relations" (33). Despite the lack of actual contact, viewers tend to feel strongly about media figures.

The question "Who are 'they'"? consists of an individual's "real social world" -- the people with whom he or she actually interacts -- and "artificial social world" -- all beings known through the media (usually numbering several times more "persons"). The television viewer becomes familiar with a throng of other beings with whom he or she never engages in actual contact. In the developed world, people devote considerably more time to artificial rather than real relationships. At the time of Caughey's writing, mass media consumption occupied 50% of leisure time (Caughey 73). With the advent of the Internet, I estimate that figure to be much higher today.

The situation is different, however, for Fourth World viewers. While direct interaction can correct or disprove media stereotypes for American viewers, this is less likely for Fourth World viewers who are more apt to believe what they see on television because they generally lack any frame of reference to think otherwise. Because they rarely, if ever, come into actual physical contact with the types of people represented on the screen, their experience is limited to synthetic representations. If television consumption determines how one perceives the world and, in particular, how one views "others", this power is amplified for Fourth World audiences.

Who Are "We"?

Notions of "who are 'they'"? directly shape and inform an understanding of "who are 'we'?" because of the tendency to apply what viewers see on screen to their own personal experiences. In his article "Fiction as Truth: Viewer Use of Fiction Films as Data About the 'Real' World", Custen investigated the ways viewers in peer groups discussed a feature film after its screening and found that events or objects within the cinematic frame are discussed in terms of their congruence not with the auteur's world, but with the extra-cinematic world of the viewer (29). In other words, the fictive material is used as data or evidence in discourses concerning the world outside the film frame.

The real social world and the artificial social world seem to overlap. The verbal responses to the film are constructed using data from the "real life" of viewers rather than the fictive world defined by the film and filmmaker. Custen's findings indicate that viewers tend to discuss how the film is meaningful to them in some real life context by employing markers from their own lives: "viewers organize the symbolic world in terms that are 'common' to them through a selection process that holds the film up to a mirror of their shared, familiar realities" (35). In this way, "who are 'they'?" mirrors "who are 'we'?"

This phenomenon is not limited to film, as it is also evident in Reid's study of the television viewing habits of black women in London. Reid found that criticisms voiced about the portrayal of blacks on British television revolved around how far such representations were from their own experiences. As an example, the black women largely disparaged The Cosby Show for depicting an idealised and thus unrealistic portrayal of blacks while similarly condemning documentaries because they reinforced negative images of blacks.

Likewise, Seiter et al. discovered that soap opera viewers tended to permit the fiction of the shows to spill over into their real lives and social worlds (235). All of the informants in one study felt so connected to the characters on the shows that they viewed the soaps as relevant to their own social reality. As one informant stated: "they [the soap operas] do set moral standards" (Seiter et al. 236). The relationship is, in fact, reciprocal: viewers evaluate the characters according to their own values while, at the same time, learning values from the characters. In other words, "Who are 'they'?" informs "Who are 'we'?" and vice versa.

Despite the recognition that the characters are fictional, all informants treated the characters as social beings. Viewers in these studies interacted with media figures because they are part of the same social world. What if the characters are a part of a different social world, as in the case of Fourth World viewers?

Negotiation of Power Relations

Identity formation is embedded in the negotiation of perceived power relations. Most audience studies ignore the fact that discourses of individual viewers and those of television have different levels of power (Carragee 92). The capacity of viewers to negotiate meanings does not match the power of a centralised storytelling institution such as television. For Fourth World viewers watching First World television, the answer to "Who are 'they'?" is always more powerful than the answer to "Who are 'we'?"

Idealising the "Self"

When the Fourth World ("other") views the First World ("self") through the medium of television, it is exposed to a strange world most know very little about. Initially, Fourth World viewers are overwhelmed by the disparity of the two worlds and struck by what they do not have in comparison. Television generally provides Fourth World viewers with an elaborately extended sense of "otherness". As a result, the admiration of the represented First World "selfhood", and the concomitant inadequacy of their own "otherness", are magnified.

For example, in "The 'Other' as Viewer", Adra records and describes the initial audience reactions to television in a small rural community in Yemen. What happens when Western filmic representations are shown to people whose assumptions about human nature, intentionality, and the nature of society are almost exactly opposite to those in the West? (Adra 263). Predictably, perceptions of the nature of the world outside Yemen altered radically. Before television, they were justly proud of their civilisation. However, after seeing images ranging from skyscrapers and factories to blenders and the daily operation of a bank, some began to question the adequacy of their own lifestyle (Adra 260).

Disparaging the "Other"

After this initial phase of idealisation, envy evolves into disparagement as Fourth World peoples are forced to assert their own identity. Kuehnast describes this phenomenon as "the export of prejudice", by which she refers to the dissemination of a dominant ideology which results in the perpetuation of myths, prejudices, or limited understandings about other peoples (184). In Kuehnast's estimation, the "export of prejudice" results when the "self" views the "other". I contend that this also happens when the "other" views the "self".

The "export of prejudice" is essentially another name for ethnocentrism, which Segall et al. define as "the view of things in which one's own group and customs are unconsciously used as the standard for all judgments, as the center of everything, with all other peoples and customs scaled and rated accordingly" (9-10). I agree with Crawford that television "is intrinsically ethnocentric" because, as a mass audience medium, it must always try to relate "their" societies to "ours" (75).

Among television audiences, ethnocentrism usually takes the form of a "love/hate" relationship with media figures. In Seiter et al.'s soap opera study, for example, the relationship between viewer and character typically oscillated between hostility and admiration (237). In the case of Erica Kane, a popular soap opera villain, one of the informants envied her but (or as a result) also felt the need to disparage her (Seiter et al. 238). Perhaps fuelled by the recognition of gaping class differences between the extravagant lifestyles of the characters and the more domestic lifestyles of most of the informants, viewers put the characters "down" so they could feel "up".

The export of prejudice goes hand in hand with the import of pride. Many members of the Benin audiences in Nigeria, for example, criticise the lack of filial piety displayed by children on American television (H. Lyons). This strong opposition is predictable in a society that prides itself on having retained more reliable family values than the perceived norm in Europe or North America (H. Lyong 419). The Benin audience highlights the negatives of the television representation in relation to their own positives. This interpretation is based on ethnocentrism.

Transformative Process

Viewers can rearrange the textual encodings of ideology without necessarily articulating an oppositional ideological stance (Lembo & Tucker 111). The homogeneity of television is never complete because people interpret what they see in ways different from, and often opposed to, the ideological encoding preferred by élites (Fiske 61). The Fourth World audience rearranges the textual encodings in television by reconstructing its sense of "self" and "other".

In dialogism, the very capacity to have consciousness is based on otherness (Holquist 18). "Self" can never be a self-sufficient construct but is dialogic, or defined in relation, to the "other":

I get my self from the other; it is only from the other's categories that will let me be an object for my own perception ... In order to forge a self, I must do so from outside. In other words, I author myself. (Bahktin cited in Hoquist 28; emphasis added)

Dialogism argues that all meaning is relative in that it is the result of a relation between two bodies occupying simultaneous but different space. Reality is always experienced from a particular position.

Thus, I contend that the Fourth World television audience undertakes a transformative process whereby it reassigns the roles from the "other" viewing the "self" to the "self" viewing the "other". After initially idealising the First World, Fourth World viewers embark on the process of "otherising" the First World through an export of prejudice and import of pride. "Otherising" is not negative, as is commonly perceived. In fact, in the context of Fourth World viewers of First World television, it is necessary for self-defence, self-preservation, and self-construction.


Depending on who you ask, awareness of the outside world through television can lead to anything from enlightenment to damnation. But above all, images on the electronic box radically transform not only an understanding of the outside world but also the way Fourth World peoples define themselves and their relationship to each other. By presenting subaltern audiences with an objectified "other", television prompts the emergence of an objectified "self".

People who are heavily exposed to the media use it as their main raw material for perceiving and understanding the outside world. In this way, television determines how Fourth World peoples see and interact with others. In Brazil, for example, television trains villagers in national norms and teaches them how to deal with non-Brazilians (Kottak). As a facilitator of social interaction, television plays an integrative role in creating a pan-Brazilian identity. Thus, television also determines how Fourth World peoples see themselves.

The intimate awareness of otherness, presented by television images, has led Fourth World peoples to create a new concept of culture. In Fourth World cultures after television, people talk about "culture" in ways that were not possible before its arrival (Wilk 240). "Who are 'we'?" would not have been asked, or asked in the same way, were it not for the "Who are 'they'?" necessitated by the introduction of television. Paradoxically, contrary to most fears, television actually serves to create rather than destroy a national identity by forcing Fourth World peoples to re-define themselves.

Author Biography

Sam Pack