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The media’s influence as an agent of socialisation is becoming increasingly more powerful than that of the family and the school.” Discuss the validity of the statement with reference to the Caribbean.

 

         Society as we know it, is a product of the many periods and variations of the human condition. Over history Man had sought to gain a grasp of himself and his surroundings. As such he has created and developed many fields of study to address these desires.  Of the many disciplinary strides, Sociology seems to provide the best explanation of Man himself and Man in his natural setting—society. Sociologists attempt to offer a comprehensive explanation for the existence and operation of society, all with the hope that man will use it for future improvement. In their extended analysis they have concluded that society is a division of distinct groups held together by the cohesive element culture.

So culture is the unifying agent in society, but what exactly is it? As defined by Clyde Kluckhohn (1951), it ‘refers to the distinctive way of life of a group, their designs for living.’ Culture entails standards of dress, speech, what we have in our tea, how we drink our tea, even if we drink tea at all, (these are often summed up in the terms norms and values). In essence it is a mass determinant of the behaviour people in a given society should and will exhibit. It would seem that once there exists a culture then inherently a society also exists, not so. Culture is only an entity. It cannot act and therefore it must be used by the residents of society. However, people are not born knowing the culture of their society, instead they must learn and internalise it, so much that they are unconscious of its everyday usage. This all takes place via socialisation, the process by which, through social interaction, people learn the culture of their society.

Considering that socialisation is the way through which we gain knowledge of our culture and culture is the cement for society, then empirically socialisation is the key to the existence of society, or at the very least the existence of social order (Haralambos & Holborn, 1995).  While socialisation is essential for society as a whole, it is also vital for the individual [members]. It is understood that socialisation is the process through which we, as people, become human beings. Full appreciation can only be achieved when take a close look at children who have been deprived of the process. Case in point Anna, a little girl whose grandfather locked her away for years. Her solitary incarceration rendered the muscles in her legs inactive and her reactive capacities to light and sound were deadened. She could express no emotion except a temper when restrained and had no control over her bodily functions. Yet, when she was rescued and placed in constant interaction—being taught how to behave according to the norms of the society—despite some setbacks, she made striking improvements. She was able to exhibit limited self-care and speak with what limited communicative skills she could develop.  Even though she improved, she had gone too long without socialisation, and died soon after her discovery (Hamachek, 1978).

In view of how important socialisation is, who does society hold responsible for its undertaking? The Peer Group, Family, Churches / Religion, School and the Media are all agents that help to shape people into human beings. Charles Horton Cooley divided the aforementioned into two categories: Primary and Secondary Agents of Socialisation. He stated that Primary groups have a more intimate setting allowing the individuals to express himself without restriction. This would include the Peer Group and the Family. On the other hand Secondary Groups are organised to teach the individual how to act in formal settings and so they to have a more structured feel. These would included the Church / Religion, School and the Mass media (O’Donnell, 1992).

The Peer Group usually consists of schoolmates and neighbours, who have the same interests, are of the same age and social position. Its principal benefit is that it allows the child to socialise himself, as he is free of adult supervision and can test the social dos and don’ts on their own. For Emile Durkheim, Religion as an agent of socialisation, seeks to ‘reinforce the collective unity or social solidarity of a group’ (O’Donnell, 1992, p. 400). As Talcott Parsons argues the Church / Religion achieves this feat because it is an agent created by the cultural structure and as such offers a belief system which reflects it (Haralambos & Holborn, 1995).

However, long before the Peer Group and the Church become instrumental in socialising society’s members, there are the Family and the School. The family is the foremost agent of socialisation and is held in the highest regard. Parsons[1] contends that it is the first social structure that new members of society are exposed to, and as such, it bears the responsibility of ‘imprint…the values of the old.’ during those crucial years of learning  “and thereby guaranteeing social order (Poster, 1978, p.79). The family is the arena that first teaches the child communicative skills (be it language or gestures), appropriate behaviour (whether via direct sanctions or by simply observing family members’ behaviours) and general knowledge about the society at large. This is achieved when parents and / or siblings engage in one-on-one interaction with the child over an extended period. The first few years of life are when the family is best able to exercise its hegemonic influence, after which the child is then exposed to the school and the family must then share its authority.

J.H. Spring claims the school is best at Anticipatory socialisation—teaching the skills necessary for competence in future social roles (as cited in Davies 1976). Nevertheless it is a leading agent in complete individual moulding, second only to the family, since it ‘transmits…beliefs, values and evaluations which have to do with broad aspects of social structural relationships’ (Davies, 1976, p. 50). The school passes on the value of competition via grade allocation, the value of cooperation through group work, the social hierarchy by streaming, the value of punctuality through the rigid time schedule of the school day and all other moral standards by means of the subtle undertones teachers used during lessons that. It even is a large contributor of gender socialisation by steering girls toward more housekeeping oriented vocation and boys to physically oriented activities (Macionis & Plummer, 1997). Pierre Bourdieu (1966) maintains that the educational system is one of ‘the most effective means of perpetuating the existing social pattern’ (p.32). His thought can easily be understood when one analyses Wilbur Brookover’s examples of how heavily the culture penetrates the educational system. He noted that in western societies that place high values on technological progress, the school promotes such values by emphasising the subjects that will best facilitate these changes. On the other hand, in Asian cultures that support acceptance of one’s hardships, the school endorses the value of submission to one’s position. Bearing in mind that the average person spends most of his youth in some form of educational institution, the impact of the school cannot be denied.

During the twentieth (20th) century, the rapid development of varied means to communicate has made the Mass Media a force in the process of socialisation. Mass Media, as defined by Macionis and Plummer (1997), are distant forms of communication that target large audiences. As such they encompass the press, radio, books, magazines, television, CDs and the films. Of these, television is the most powerful. It is in well over 90 per cent of homes, in many of which it holds a prize location and is considered the nth member of the family. Wright (1986) notes that one difference between the media and other traditional agents of socialisation is that it lacks face-to-face interaction. Nonetheless, observational and other forms of social learning are powerful tools the media uses to clear this hurdle (Signorielli, 1991). As such sociologists have seriously begun to examine how it impacts our lives.

Functionalists put forward the notion that the media operates as an integrative force. It does so by keeping us constantly abreast of the developments in our society and by enforcing the application of social norms, for example dramatising deviance in order to reaffirm the public’s moral sense of right and wrong. Interestingly though in an unfunctionalistic style they do admit that the media can be of negative stimulus in creating ‘superficiality’ (Macionis & Plummer, 1997, pp. 587). However, others go further arguing that the media’s negative influence runs much deeper than producing mere showiness.

American studies show that children spend similar amounts of time viewing programming, as the do in school. Furthermore, Dorr revealed that by age 65 the average individual has spent over 13% of his life watching television (as cited in Signorielli, 1986). Thirteen per cent is distressing when one bears in mind that the television is only one of the many forms of media we are exposed to daily. Given our extensive media consumption, sociologists once championed the magic bullet theory, which stated we simple did as the media directed, displaying little resistance to whatever we may have been exposed to. This explanation was far too simple, and has long since been rejected.

In today’s society, where parents are increasingly pressured to work longer and harder, the television has become a way to keep children occupied and quite while mommy and daddy squeeze in those extra hours of office work. Using Albert Bandura’s Observational Learning theory as their model, psychologists and sociologists hypothesise that children observe and imitate the behaviours of television characters in much the same way they would those of parents and siblings (Lefkowits & Huesman, 1980). This becomes extremely dangerous if the behavioural cues are not accompanied by special instructions—which sadly is often the case. In situations like these the media has the potential to undermine the values of the family, school and society at large.

So exactly how does this (media influence) translate into the Caribbean reality?  Tapio Varis[2] in 1984 indicated the Caribbean importation of media content was at a “low of 76% in Jamaica and a high of 95% in Montserrat,” enough for Rex Nettleford to refer to it as the North American cultural invasion of the Caribbean (Brown, 1995, p. 57). Hilary Brown’s study in Jamaica and Lynette Lashley’s study in Trinidad and Tobago, both attempt to examine how the onslaught of American culture has affected the Caribbean youth.       

Brown’s study “America media impact on Jamaican Youth” conducted between October 1992 and January 1993, sampled 952 Jamaican adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 years of both sexes, from seventeen (17) school stratified by type, in three (3) distinctive kinds of areas characterised by the degree they were exposed to American culture. With regards to medium availability, radio was the most widespread with a popularity of 99 per cent followed closely by newspaper, television and magazines with 96, 93 and 88 per cents respectively. Brown (1995) found that the further up the socio-economic ladder the subjects placed, the more knowledgeable of American culture they tended to be, as well as were far more likely to place high on the consumerism index. These findings lend themselves to the interpretation that the more one is exposed to, and becomes more knowledgeable of America culture, the more he is likely to adopt the materialistic values of the north, which run counter to the traditionally humanistic values of the Caribbean. With these findings in mind, it is evident the flood of North American Mass Media is socialising the Jamaican youth to reject their own cultural standards for values completely foreign to their society.

More alarming than Brown’s results, were Lashley’s in her study “Television and The Americanisation of Trinbagonian Youth.” Lashley chose a sample of six schools that could best represent the different ethnic and socio-economic groups, types of schools, gender and geographic regions in Trinidad and Tobago. She found the television has become a dominant part of the young Trinbagonian’s life with 89% viewing television daily and at the very least one to two hours per day. Of the three stations (TTT, AVM 4 and CCN 6), AVM 4 and CCN 6 were clearly the young audience’s favourite with both receiving 87 per cent favourable responses. This is in sharp contrast to the TTT’s—who has more local oriented programming than the others—dismal 40 per cent favourable responses. Even more disturbing was that 40 per cent were absolutely satisfied with the dearth of local programming and another 5% were indifferent. Lashley’s data makes apparent that American television had impacted the vernacular of the Trinabonian youth. Now slang such as “whatever” can be heard at every other turn. It has affect the way they dress, as now the young wait to don the latest fashions from North America and slavishly become walking billboard advertisements for the fashion designers. Teacher and students have even arrived at some consensus that the media from the north has much to do with the surge of negative behaviour now being exhibited in schools. Finally, Lashley summed that the youth of Trinidad and Tobago had an overwhelming preference for American programming, and by extension the American culture.

Countering the above findings, studies in the early 1980s and 1990s argue that the reality as presented on American Television, or even in music—as is the case with ‘Gansta Rap’—is too far removed from the Caribbean reality to have any real impact. W. H. Read even go as far as saying “a generation of West Indians have grow up on the tradition of Hollywood westerns, but …remain West Indians and not duplicates of John Wayne” (Hosien, 1976, p.11). Nevertheless, while this may have been a valid argument at the time it was posited, given the high levels of American media consumption and its obvious manifestations in regional speech, dress and behaviour, Read certainly cannot be quoted with much conviction today.

         Still the question remains why the sudden surge in media influence? I believe that the Mass media has not become dominant simple because it is more ever-present, but because the eroded Caribbean family and the increasing powerlessness of the school have not been able to sufficiently socialise our children let alone counter the seductiveness of the media. The Parsonian family that is believed to best carry out the function of socialisation is that of the nuclear unit where mother and father are married with children and the mother preferable, stays home to take care of and give emotional support to the children. The 1971 research by Herman and Hermione Mackenzie showed that the Parsonian model (then referred to as the “Christian Family”) comprised less than 50% of the Jamaican families and this was a time when any other family type was still taboo. Even then evidence was beginning to surface that the nuclear family was waning on its socialisation responsibilities, as wives were increasingly employed outside the home and other members of the family were also seeking companionship outside of the family realm, hence reducing the likelihood of sufficient parental socialisation of children. Considering today’s Caribbean situation, where the single parent (usually the mother) family has become the norm rather than the exception, when that lone parent is out trying to tying to make ends meet and has little time to spare for children, it is the television, books, radio, internet, CDs and magazines that occupies the precious time with the child, and in turn socialises him. Even in situations where the family is ‘intact,’ traditional Caribbean childrearing practices—particularly in the lower socio-economic classes—such as minimal conversation between parent /guardian and child, forces the child to seek their information elsewhere. This is usually the peer group and the media (Evans and Davies, 1997).

    With regards to the school, as mentioned before it passes on society’s values,

usually though the unofficial curriculum. This includes sports, clubs and societies whose goal is to improve the talents and character of the child. In Jamaica with the exception of sports, extracurricular activities have experienced a downturn in participation. The school now concentrates on examination results, losing some of the authority it once held as an effective socialising agent (Evans and Davies, 1997). Now the institution has become a place that passes on dry academic knowledge and a point in which the peer group can gather and confer about the past days events in popular culture.

In conclusion, given the evidence produced by Nettleford, Brown and Lashley, the Caribbean youth is certainly falling victim to the deluge of media content coming from the outside of the Caribbean, mainly from the North. The American media now seems to determine how we speak, dress and for better or worse behave. In light of these developments it would be safe to say that the media’s influence as an agent of socialisation is becoming increasingly more powerful than that of the family and the school, not because the media is excessively forceful but because the traditional agents of socialisation are doing a poor job.

         Nonetheless the family as the base unit of society and the school as its extension, will always be more important than the media (party because of the one-on-one quality interaction they afford). If the current trend of media domination continues unchecked either by the family, the school or any other traditional agent of socialisation, then the existence of society is in grave danger.


References

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Inequalities. Reprinted in S.J. Eggleston (ed) 1974, 34—46.135—7

Brookover, W. B. (1975). Sociology of education. Illinois: Dorsey Press.

Brown, H. (1995). American media impact on Jamaican youth: The cultural

dependency thesis. In H. S. Dunn (Ed.), Globalisation, communications and

Caribbean identity. (pp. 56—82). Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers.

Davies, B. (1976). Social control and education. London: Methuen & Company Ltd.

Evans, H., & Davies, R. (1997). Overview of issues in childhood socialisation in the

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Lefkowitz, M. M., & Huesmann, L. R. (1980). Concomitants of television violence

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[1] When Parson speaks of the family he exclusively referred to the Nuclear Family.

[2] Varis’ figures provided in Brown (1995) are from the mid-80s, long before the explosion of satellite dishes and cable television in the Caribbean. No doubt these percentages have since dramatically increased.