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From entertainment to citizenshipPolitics and popular culture$

John Street, Sanna Inthorn, and Martin Scott

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780719085383

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719085383.001.0001

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(p.135) 10 Conclusion
From entertainment to citizenship

John Street

Sanna Inthorn

Martin Scott

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reflects on the implications of this research for academic debate, education policy and media production. It stresses the importance of taking seriously young people’s cultural tastes for research that wants to understand the nuanced ways in which citizen engagement can happen. It suggests that media and cultural studies are subjects that policy makers and schools should take seriously for their potential to connect young people with issues of public concern. It argues that media producers can help boost this potential of popular culture by showing a world of politics where young people can make a positive difference.

Keywords:   Education policy, Media studies, Cultural studies, Politics in the media

We began this research, as we explained in the Introduction, because we wanted to explore a question that we felt had been neglected. When and how does popular culture contribute to citizenship? As we noted, much has been written and said about the part played by news and current affairs media in political engagement, but much less about the contribution made by entertainment. It is true that research has moved beyond the stand-off between those who see all forms of popular entertainment as harmful to citizenship, and those who see it as an unalloyed benefit. But it has not, as yet, established a detailed understanding of the relationship, at least not of a qualitative kind. We hope that in the preceding pages we have made some contribution to this. In what follows, we want to take up the implications of our research. Like others who have benefited from public funding, we are increasingly required to account for how it is used. In this spirit, we give an indication, for different constituencies, of the possible consequences of our arguments and our findings.

With our research we hope to inform the work of four sets of academic and non-academic users: researchers with an interest in the role of popular culture for citizen engagement, schools, politicians, and the producers of popular culture. We begin with the academic community.

Researching popular culture

Our contribution to existing research on popular culture and citizenship is threefold. Firstly, to understand the ways in which young people engage with politics, popular culture needs to be taken seriously as an object of study. Much has been said and continues to be said about the role news media can play in politically engaging or, as the case might be, disengaging, citizens. Much more needs to and can be said about the (p.136) role other genres and cultural forms can play. We are, we think, in good company here. Writers like Liesbet van Zoonen, Stephen Coleman, Jeffrey Jones, Joke Hermes and Cindy Stello have all demonstrated that news media are not the only resource for citizen engagement. We also need to look at, for example, satirical talk shows, soap operas, video games and popular music, because these forms of culture are central to citizens’ everyday lives, not just as sources of entertainment and escape, but as knowledge and understanding, identity and affect.

Our second contribution to this field is to say that we need to start comparing different cultural genres and forms, and to tease out what it is about a particular text that might be linked to citizenship. We compared television, popular music and video games. While these cultural forms do not represent the whole repertoire of our respondents’ cultural likes, they nevertheless allow a comparative perspective. The idea of moving away from a focus on news genres and analysing a sample that might be a more accurate reflection of young people’s cultural likes is of course easier to develop at theoretical level than it is to realise in practice. The young people who participated in our study were fickle cultural omnivores. Their cultural preferences were diverse and fast changing. For us, as researchers, this meant that we could not identify a genre or a text of which we could say with confidence that it was central to the everyday lives and likes of young people in the UK today. We could only identify patterns of cultural likes and dislikes in the very broadest sense. What this analysis did allow us to do, however, is to show that there are several points of engagement in a cultural text, which all have the potential to connect a young person to political issues. We ranged from politics in the traditional sense of the word, to the politics of identity, and on to the politics of ethics and emotions. We discussed the explicitly political and the proto-political. We argued that a young person can connect with politics at a rational, deliberative level, but also at the level of emotions. We also suggested that there are differences in the ways in which media forms engage the audience in the creation of meaning. We cannot assume that one cultural text is like any other. This was particularly revealed in our comparison of television and popular music. Our respondents were at times quite cynical about the extent to which television genres such as soap operas have anything to say about the ‘real world’. In contrast, they talked about popular music as a cultural form that more easily taps into their emotions, reminds them of their own personal experiences and ‘hits their heart’, as one of our respondents said.

Our research was a first attempt at comparing different cultural forms (p.137) and exploring whether such a comparison might produce insights that are of relevance to the discussion of citizen engagement. Further research needs to be done to understand more comprehensively what it is about, for example, popular music and specific songs that hits the heart more than, say, a soap opera.

Our third contribution to current debates about citizenship and popular culture is to say that research needs to take more seriously the role of emotions and pleasure for citizen engagement. We suggested that ‘being a citizen’ means having a sense of one’s place in the world and a sense of one’s relationship with sources of power and groups of interest. We think that there is more than one way of making these connections. Being a citizen can mean encountering and then calmly and rationally evaluating factual information. This is the cognitive and evaluative dimension of citizenship. Being a citizen can also mean having a sense of belonging to wider collective interests. It can mean having a sense of shared interests and shared values. This is the affinitive dimension of citizenship. It is possible to imagine that all these dimensions, the cognitive and evaluative, but also the affinitive, are experienced and expressed in a purely rational and distanced manner. Indeed we would argue that, traditionally at least, literature on citizenship and political engagement has preferred to imagine citizenship in this way. In this study we argue that being a citizen can mean being a rational thinker and cool ‘assessor’ of factual information. However, we think that there is more to citizenship than this. Being a citizen can also mean feeling close to others on an emotional level. Citizen engagement can be motivated by feelings of love, but also anger and hate. This is the affective dimension of citizenship.

We do not think that emotions get in the way of political engagement. They are an important dimension of what it means to be a citizen. Popular culture connects young people at an emotional level with communities of interest. It is often because they care about others that our respondents invest in discussions about collective values and relations of power. We found that popular culture offers not only cognitive and evaluative, but affinitive and affective points of engagement. Making such connections is, of course, not the only pleasure young people derive from popular culture. It is important not to forget that popular culture is also about fun and challenging cultural conventions and expectations. Young people are not always the serious, deeply caring and reflective ideal citizens of political mythology. Popular culture in many ways allows young people to rebel against this ideal. Popular culture also offers fun and distraction. Yet this does not mean that the (p.138) element of fun in popular culture somehow threatens the ‘serious’ contribution it can make to citizen engagement. The two are connected, and we think that our respondents clearly demonstrated that young people are in no danger of getting lost in the fun and distraction that popular culture offers. Our respondents were engaged young people. Just because they sometimes want to jump around to a Britney Spears song does not mean that popular culture forms a barrier to their ability to engage in politics.

Citizenship education and media and cultural studies in schools

The young people we spoke to professed little interest in formal politics; indeed, they felt marginalised from a world that did not welcome their interests or modes of communication. They felt that masculinity and maturity were essential to the realisation of political authority. They indicated that people with considerable success in business might be able to get their voices heard, but were not optimistic about their own chances to be listened to. They suggested that politicians do not genuinely care about the issues that concern teenagers in their everyday lives. In this sense, we suspect our respondents showed a fairly accurate understanding of the social structures that govern British politics today. It is here that we think citizenship education can make a difference to how young people perceive their chances of contributing and maybe even changing the world of formal politics.

At the time of writing, the future of citizenship education in the UK is uncertain. As part of a national curriculum review, the British government is considering whether citizenship should remain statutory for high school students. We think that citizenship studies ought to remain a central element of the national curriculum. It is crucial that young people have a sense of their place in the world, and have an opportunity to explore the values that govern the relationship between members of society, and the institutions of government and state that influence their everyday lives. Moreover, it is important for them to discuss and learn more about their own political efficacy. It seems to us that young people need more confidence in their own ability to make their voices heard and to impact on government politics. They need to be inspired and recognise that politics is for them. They also need to feel they have the resources it takes to make governments listen. Moreover, they need to feel entitled to do so and should not be intimidated by a culture that privileges masculinity, maturity and capitalist success. Citizenship studies can help to inspire young people with confidence and provide (p.139) them with the necessary resources they need to make a difference. We are not the first to say this (see, for example, the Economic and Social Research Council’s ‘Youth, Citizenship and Social Change’ programme from 2002), and we will not be the last.

Citizenship education may be even more necessary now than it was when we started our research. A couple of years after we carried out our fieldwork, the UK saw several examples of young people trying to make their voices heard. In 2010 students organised mass protests over tuition fees and young people were among the protesters who, inspired by Occupy Wall Street, set up camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, to show their anger at bankers and politicians over the global economic crisis. We would be inclined to agree with those who, observing the protests over fees, suggest that participants were engaging in a ‘democracy of the streets’ (Thornton 2010). Fifty thousand people were said to have participated in the protest over tuition fees (Huffington Post 2011). In the same year, several inner cities across England saw an outbreak of social unrest. Up to 15,000 people are believed to have taken part, with the majority of those aged under 24 (Riots Communities and Victims Panel 2011: 26). It has been argued that a lack of trust in the political class and a perceived lack of moral leadership by politicians was a significant factor behind the riots (Birch and Allen 2012).

Public reactions to these examples of political engagement were not always positive, not least because participants were prepared to break the law to make their opinions and feelings heard, including not only rioters, but also a small number of participants in the student protests. A few vented their anger by attacking, for example, a war memorial and members of the royal family. Some observers considered attacks on such symbols of the nation particularly ‘uncivic’. Protesters were described as ‘yobs’ and ‘thugs’ (Harris 2010; Tart 2010). Looking at these events from within the context of our own research we would argue that the rioters and protesters of 2010 and 2011 have more in common with our research participants than might be supposed. Our research participants may not share the same socioeconomic background as many of the rioters, but they are all young people who would like to have their voices heard, but don’t really know how. They have little trust in political leaders and struggle to gain mainstream acceptance for their way of ‘doing politics’. Our findings suggest that analysis of popular culture can be an interesting and valuable tool for citizenship education and a ‘way into politics’ for young people.

Our research also suggests that analysis of popular culture can be an interesting and valuable tool for this kind of citizenship education. Our (p.140) respondents may profess little interest in formal politics, and may be uninterested in talking about it, but they did discuss political issues in relation to popular culture with confidence and ease. Popular culture is central to young people’s lives and having knowledge of a range of cultural texts is important for their social interaction. They have recognised popular culture as important and ‘for them’. What they might struggle with at times is making the connection that we have made in our research, which is that between talk about popular culture and citizen engagement. It was interesting for us to observe that our respondents were cautious about exploring the contribution their conversations about television, popular music and video games could make to politics (much more cautious than we were).

It is here, we think, that media and cultural studies as a subject can make a valuable contribution. Media studies is taught at both GCSE and A-level in UK schools. Yet it is frequently under attack. Dismissed as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject it has been criticised for making little contribution to the national economy or the public good. It is considered as an easy option, not as demanding as traditional core subjects such as English or mathematics. Similarly, media studies is a well established, but equally maligned subject at British universities. Cultural studies, its close ‘ally’, is disappearing from most departments, with the closure of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 2002 a key point in its gradual decline. In What’s Become of Cultural Studies? Graeme Turner (2012) notes that one of the problems with cultural studies has been its refusal of disciplinary straitjackets. Cultural studies celebrates interdisciplinarity. From its beginnings, it has embraced a range of methodologies and research interests. While one of its greatest strengths, this celebration of flexibility has also been one of its greatest challenges. Cultural studies re-energised other disciplines by making popular culture an object of research, yet it struggled to gain institutional recognition precisely because it did not manage, or refused to conform to, the conventions of a discipline. Cultural studies failed to securely establish itself as a discipline with a clear intellectual development and research methods. For its students this has meant that they often have an impressive knowledge of a range of cultural issues, but not all that much of a sense of what cultural studies as a discipline might be.

We would agree with Turner and argue that media and cultural studies should be a politically engaged intellectual practice. A central thread running through cultural studies and media studies for that matter is an interest in the public good. It is one of its defining principles (p.141) and it is this principle that we think can and should inform media and cultural studies in the UK. It is what should inspire students in schools and at university. It is also, we think, the reason why media studies, as a subject at GCSE and A-level, is an important partner to citizenship studies. If students get to learn the intellectual history, methods and principles of media and cultural studies, they have the opportunity to look at their cultural likes with fresh eyes. They gain the skills necessary to see that a comedy like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air can be about politics. Moreover, they gain the cultural awareness necessary to ask whether by dismissing this programme as ‘just a comedy’, they themselves might reinforce a set of cultural hierarchies that marginalises young people like themselves. Together, media studies and citizenship studies can help young people reflect on their views on these hierarchies and provide them with the tools they need to effectively challenge or sustain them.

Politics and policy

To politicians we would say: consider securing a place not only for citizenship studies, but also media studies in school curricula. Consider securing funding streams for media and cultural studies in higher education. Yet to politicians we would also say, reflect on how you communicate with young citizens. Our respondents were deeply suspicious of politicians’ motives. They described them as people who pursue a particular policy because ‘it is their job’. They thought politicians were boring, but also argumentative, bossy and not like ordinary citizens.

Our respondents told us several things which we think are important for politicians who want to engage with young citizens and who want to get them interested in politics. Politicians need to come across as genuine and as people who care about an issue. Young people are not averse to the idea that politics can be passionate and emotional. They like to know if someone’s personal experience has informed their political views. Politicians who might be willing to reveal a little bit about themselves, who explain why something matters to them, might not gain ‘legend’ status like Kanye West, but they might improve their chances of being trusted and listened to. Of course, what politicians also need to keep in mind is that young people are looking for genuine feelings and experiences. Politicians who pretend they are someone they are not, have no chance of being respected by young people like our respondents. If you are a politician, it is not necessary to pretend you have the latest and much talked about album on your playlist. There (p.142) is no need to pretend you can rap or play air guitar. All young people want is to know who you are and why what you do matters to you and them. To politicians we would also suggest that it might be time to help legitimise alternative performances of authority and power. The display of emotions, giggling and a youthful demeanour should have a place in politics. Formal politics is important. However, the performance of importance is something that can be off-putting to a young person who is making the first tentative steps towards engagement in formal politics.

There are also further policy implications. This has to do with the place of popular culture in public service broadcasting. Recent years have seen an increasing anxiety about media plurality, particularly as media is globalised and deregulated. The focus of the plurality debate has been on political diversity, on the range of different views that are available. This is clearly important. But typically, this notion of plurality has focused on news and current affairs media. We would argue that entertainment media need to be viewed in a similar light, for them to be reviewed in terms of their contribution to media plurality, and by implication the democratic health of popular communication. The discussions we heard about how the judges behaved on talent shows were just a microcosm of a more general public conversation about how people are and should be treated. The regulation of communications has a place to play in enabling such conversations and in setting standards for public life more generally. Such thoughts have implications, too, for the cultural industries more generally.

Representing politics

Last but not least, of those who produce popular culture we would ask that politics and citizen engagement get represented in a diverse and nuanced way. We spent much time in this book arguing that popular culture offers many opportunities to engage with identity politics. We suggested that our respondents use popular culture to position themselves as members of regional and national communities, and explored how they sought out representations of issues that were relevant to their age group. We highlighted how some of these young people used popular culture to maintain and express a connection with their diasporic homeland. Identity politics features prominently in popular culture.

We are less sure if popular culture provides equally ample opportunity to engage with formal politics. We think there might be a connection (p.143) between the representation of governments and political actors in popular culture and our respondents’ rather pessimistic views of their own political efficacy and politicians’ motives. We do not want to argue that popular culture should misrepresent formal politics. What we do argue, however, is that the potential popular culture can make to democracy could be increased if there were more opportunities to encounter representations of active citizens who make policy suggestions and who seek to contribute to formal politics. It would be useful to see examples of the role citizens and young citizens in particular can play to address issues of public concern.

Moreover, it would be good to see examples of such civic engagement addressing issues that concern young people. The examples of civically engaged people need not be limited to the age group of first-time voters, the age group we focused on in our research. In several European countries, including the UK, there is a discussion of whether the voting age should be lowered from 18 to 16. In 2004, the Electoral Commission in the UK recommended that the minimum age for all levels of voting at UK public elections should remain at 18 years (Electoral Commission 2004) and some have argued that young people are politically less mature than older people (e.g. Chan and Clayton 2006). Yet the discussion is ongoing.

In 2010, for example, the think tank Demos suggested that lowering the voting age would be an important measure to engage a large section of the British population who find themselves disenfranchised from politics (BBC 2010). In 2014, 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland will have opportunity to show whether they feel ready and interested enough to participate in a national election, as the Scottish government recently announced its intention to lower the voting age to 16 (Bloxham 2011). While some public commentators suspect that the Scottish government endorsed this plan in an attempt to boost the number of nationalist voters (ibid.) the move nevertheless represents an important, and some might say long overdue, shift in the political landscape. The UK Youth Parliament in its 2011/12 manifesto argues that ‘16 and 17 year-olds are long overdue the right to vote in public elections in the UK’ (UK Youth Parliament 2011: 6). Its members also suggest that ‘the place of citizenship education in the curriculum should be radically overhauled through a youth-led UK-wide review’ (UK Youth Parliament 2011: 2). It recommends that the review should ‘explore the meaning and scope of “citizenship” along the following lines. … Young people should be taught the basics of democracy and their rights and roles in society through an impartial political education’ (ibid.).

(p.144) We think that citizenship education in schools, but also popular culture, can help meet this challenge by exploring what it means to be a citizen and showing examples of how citizens, including young citizens, go about making a difference in the world. News media in the US and the UK routinely represent or evoke citizens (Lewis et al. 2005). Public opinion is represented in opinion polls and ‘vox pops’, and in journalists’ often vague hints at widely shared public sentiment, or by reference to what ‘some people might think’ (ibid.). Yet it seems that there are rarely examples of citizens proposing a course of action. The public predominantly appears reacting to politics, rather than actively contributing to it. We think that if news media fail to step up to the mark, other genres and cultural forms might be able to help. Our research has shown that a wide range of television genres, popular music and video games represent political issues and are a resource young people use for citizen engagement. By representing a wide concept of ‘the citizen’ and citizen engagement, by offering opportunities to encounter citizens who seek to make a difference, popular culture might just be able to increase its potential to re-energise politics and civic engagement.