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					From entertainment to citizenship? A comparative study of the political uses of popular
culture by first-time voters

John Street and Sanna Inthorn, University of East Anglia

Case for support
This project investigates the extent to which first-time voters use popular culture to articulate
political attitudes and values, especially in relation to ideas of citizenship. It does so through
a comparative study of different forms of popular culture – television, music and videogames.
Rather than treating popular culture as a single entity, this project allows us to discern the
particular ways in which different forms of culture are used differently in the articulation of
political attitudes and values. We believe that the results generated by this project will have
important implications for public policy, particularly in relation to the work of organisations
like the BBC and Ofcom, but also in the teaching of citizenship in schools. This proposal
builds on previous ESRC projects conducted by the applicants, one of which examined the
role of the news media in political participation (Inthorn – R000223665) and the other the role
of popular music in political action (Street - RES155250031).

Background: Robert Putnam’s (2000) claims about the deleterious effects on civic
engagement of television generally, and television entertainment in particular, forms the
background to this project. Putnam argues not only that television ‘steals’ time that might
otherwise be used in the performance of civic duties, but that the specific form of popular
television entertainment promotes individualistic and fatalistic attitudes that also work against
civic engagement. Putnam is not alone in making such claims (see, for example, Postman,
1985, and Gitlin, 2002), but his claims have tended to dominate discussion of the relationship
between political engagement and popular entertainment.
         Putnam’s pessimistic view has spawned a more optimistic counter-view. This
approach argues that, rather than damaging civic engagement, popular culture promotes it
(see, for example, van Zoonen, 2005, and Jones, 2005).
         Between these optimistic and pessimistic general claims are to be found writers who
remain sceptical of the sweeping generalisations of either side. Instead, their focus has been
upon the detailed evidence for the various underlying claims. So it is that Pippa Norris (2000)
has challenged Putnam’s claims about the effect of television on political knowledge and
engagement, while Stephen Coleman (2007) has explored more comprehensively the presence
of, and responses to, politics in popular television, suggesting that Putnam’s generalisations
about entertainment’s form (and its effects) cannot be sustained, at least in the UK context.
Other writers (Besley, 2006; Hooghe, 2002) have questioned Putnam’s claims about time-
displacement and about entertainment’s form and effects. This work refined questions about
the role of popular entertainment in shaping attitudes to civic engagement. Hooghe (2002), for
example, supports Putnam’s claim that there is a time-displacement effect, but goes on to
support Norris’s suggestion that there is a marked difference between the effect of news and
entertainment television. Besley (2006) has further developed this line of argument by relating
entertainment effects to the general political attitudes of the viewer. But as Besley points out
(2006: 57), while his research leads us to see an ‘entertainment effect’ on civic engagement, it
fails to answer a crucial question: ‘what is it about entertainment television that short-circuits
individuals’ willingness or ability to act like other individuals with similar levels of expressed
values?’
         Besley suggests that the way forward is to look more closely at the content and
interpretation of entertainment television. This is the challenge taken up by this project. We
want to examine in detail how popular culture and politics are connected in the lived


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experience of fans, and indeed whether the connection operates in the same way for different
cultural forms.

This project links to another important background development. Much of the Putnam-
inspired debate about television’s effects works from within a particular model of
communication and effect. Citizens are seen as rational actors who acquire ‘political
knowledge’ from the ‘messages’ transmitted by a given mass medium. While this model is
clearly valuable and important to accounting for aspects of political life, it is vulnerable to a
number of criticisms. We single out two here. Firstly, the model’s underlying notion of
‘communication’ ignores the interpretative activities of the audience, and hence risks missing
the ranging of meanings which may be derived (Corner,1995; Thompson, 1988). Secondly,
the model neglects the ‘irrational’ in civic engagement; or rather, fails to take account of the
role of emotion in political action. We are referring here to writers (eg Bennett, 2001, and
Goodwin et al., 2001) who focus upon the need to account for how engagement with politics
has to be ‘energised’, and how this energy can be generated through responses to forms of
popular culture. To explore the political role of popular culture (whether that proves to be
positive or negative) without reference to the passions and pleasures it arouses would seem to
exclude its defining features.
        In short, the intellectual background to this project lies, first, in the need to look more
closely at how popular entertainment represents ideas of citizenship; and secondly, in the need
to incorporate an understanding of the interpretative and emotional reception of
entertainment, and the extent to which this operates to sustain or undermine civic values.

Aims and objectives: This project is designed to advance understanding of the relationship
between popular entertainment and civic engagement in a number of ways. First, it seeks to
refine our understanding of popular entertainment’s possible political role by comparing
forms of entertainment. Existing literature on the possible political role of popular
entertainment is dominated by television. This conventional focus on television makes sense
because of the central role the medium plays in citizens’ everyday lives. Nearly nine in ten
adult viewers in the United Kingdom watch television every day of the week with nearly a
quarter of viewers watching it for two to three hours a day (National Statistics 2006). Yet
video games and popular music are not far behind in the extent to which they dominate
everyday culture. It is estimated that on average consumers between the ages of 6-35 spend 12
hours a week playing computer games (elspa, 2006:8) and in the second quarter of 2005 alone
have bought more than 5.5m online music tracks (Gibson, 2005). Claims for the political
nature of popular music form part of what might almost be described as a conventional
wisdom (see Eyerman & Jamison, 1998, and Mattern, 1998), but to date there is no
substantial empirical evidence in which to ground these claims. Similarly, while the potential
of digital games as stimuli for learning and development of social roles has been recognised
(see McFarlane et al 2002: 13 and Gee 2003), there is no large scale study available which
asks whether video games have the potential to stimulate political learning and which
compare this particular medium with other forms of popular culture.
    Our study makes an important contribution to current research by working with a varied
set of data, which reflects more closely the consumption patterns of young citizens. Secondly,
following Besley (2006) and Coleman (2007), we wish to look closely at the ways in which,
within these forms, citizenship is articulated. Thirdly, following Bennett (2001) and Corner
(1995) and others, we are concerned to see how audiences articulate ideas of citizenship (or
disengagement) in relation to them. And finally, following Hooghe (2002), we concentrate
our study upon a particular cohort, first-time voters, in part because they represent the focus



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for much of the public policy debate about the role of entertainment in civic engagement. Our
research questions are as follows:
    1. How are ideas of citizenship represented in different forms of entertainment?
    2. How do first-time voters articulate attitudes to citizenship in their use of different
        forms of entertainment?
    3. Do different forms of entertainment vary in their capacity to ‘energise’ these attitudes?
    Previous research has been constrained by a narrow definition of political participation
and a top-down research method which ‘inhibits the understanding of how people participate
and also why they do not’ (O’Toole et al. 2003: 45-46). Using one’s vote, or writing to the
local MP, for example, might be considered political by political theorists, but not by young
voters, who see ‘politics’ happen in their everyday experience of the education system, for
example. Following Buckingham (1999), in our project we will therefore work with a broad
concept of the political and define the political as the individual’s relationships with sources
of power and social groupings at local, national and international level. It is this definition
that will guide our analysis of media texts in the second stage of the research process. While
we believe this definition to be useful for the analysis of media texts, we are aware that it
might need to be adapted for our audience research. Young voters might have a different
practical meaning than our initial theoretical definition may grasp. A pilot study will establish
the extent to which we will need to rework our concept of citizenship prior to our audience
research.

Sample and Methodology: Different forms of media contain different narratives about
politics and provide different resources for citizens to use in the construction of political
reality. These vary with a number of factors: the political economy of production and
distribution; narrative conventions and form; authorship, audience expectations; and qualities
resident within mediums themselves, including the features of how a medium “speaks”(Jones
2006: 374-375). In order to trace such differences within the forms of popular entertainment,
we compare the content of, and audience responses to, television, popular music and video
games. Further, by comparing genres within each form, we will be able to account for
differences within each form and the ways in which audiences engage with them. There are
three stages to our research project:
    1. Identification of sample (media texts) via questionnaires
    2. Analysis of media texts
    3. Audience research

Our dataset and previous research: The required data for our project to date is not publicly
available. Previous research available through the Economic and Social Data Service offers
research related to our own, such as Buckinghams’s study on the development of television
literacy (1989), Blumler’s work on political communication and the young voter (1974), or
Devine’s study on democracy and participation in Britain (1925-2003), but does not cover the
same breadth of media forms and does not complement media analysis with audience
research.

Analysis of media texts: This stage of the research allows us to answer our first research
question (How are ideas of citizenship represented in different forms of entertainment?). Our
answer will be generated by media/ cultural studies approaches, which highlight the political
meaning of a media text by exploring the ideological subject positions it offers within the
context of existing social and political struggles (Kellner 1995: 62). The point of this analysis
is not to offer a definitive political ‘reading’ of popular cultural texts, but rather to identify the
ways in which political ideas appear to be articulated in particular examples. Following


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Buckingham’s (1999) recommendations for the analysis of how media texts enable audiences
to construct and define their relationship with the public sphere, we will analyse media
content, mode of address and the representation of young voters’ relationship to the (broadly
defined) domain of politics. The following questions are posed (see Buckingham 1999: 175):
     How does the media text position audiences in relation to the sources of power in
       society?
     How does the media text position audiences in relation to particular social groupings?
     How does the media text enable audiences to conceive of the relations between the
       ‘personal’ and the ‘political’?
     How does the media text invite audiences to make sense of the local, national and
       international arena, and to make connections with their own experiences?

More specifically, in order to address these questions, the analysis of television text will focus
on mode of address, narrative, character and genre (see Fiske 1987, and Geraghty 1991).
Video games will be analysed with a focus on the scenarios, narratives and characters, as well
as the levels of social interaction offered by a particular game (see Sze-Fai-Shiu 2006 and
McMahan 2003: 74). The analysis of popular music will not be confined to lyrical content,
but will take account of modes of address, genre and various aspects of sound, image and
performance (following DeNora, 2000; Frith, 1996; Tagg and Clarida, 2003; Middleton,
2003).
        A central element of these analyses is the comparison of different media forms and
their capacity to ‘energise’ political attitudes. The results of this will inform the next part of
our project, in which we explore the ways in which first-time voters articulate attitudes to
citizenship in their use of different forms of entertainment.

Identification of sample: The selection of a research sample ultimately imposes limitations
on the extent to which this study will be able to speak about entertainment media in general.
Yet by selecting mainstream forms of culture, we will be able to produce findings about
widely available media texts, which citizens encounter regularly in their everyday lives. We
do not wish to limit our research findings by selecting a sample of media content based on our
own idea of potentially political content. Therefore, when it comes to choosing the media
texts that are to represent television, video games and music in our sample, we will be guided
by our research subjects.

Specification of dataset (media texts): In the first week of the study, a questionnaire will be
distributed to all year 13 pupils of three local comprehensive schools in Norwich, in order to
establish the popularity of particular programmes, games and artists among the population of
pupils from which we will select our focus groups. Guided by the quantitative results of these
findings, we will identify the most popular genres within each medium and the most
frequently consumed programmes/games/artists within each genres. The breakdown of our
sample is as follows:
     Television: We will select the four most popular television. As it is likely that these
        television programmes are series or serials, we will limit our sample to episodes
        broadcast in the first six months of our study period. This will allow us to discuss
        recent examples with our focus groups, while keeping the sample to a manageable
        size.
     Popular music: We will include all the music produced by the four most popular
        artists.
     Video games: We will select the four most popular games.



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Audience research: This part of the study allows us to answer our two other research
questions (how do first-time voters articulate attitudes to citizenship in their use of different
forms of entertainment? do different forms of entertainment vary in their capacity to
‘energise’ these attitudes?) In the first instance we will conduct semi-structured group
interviews in order to establish how young voters express a sense of political identity in their
discussion of particular media texts. Extracts from television programmes, games and popular
music, identified by us as ‘political’ in the second stage of our project, will be used to
stimulate discussion
        We are aware that what might interest us from the perspective of academic research
might not be what excites young citizens. Indeed any apparent discrepancies in the perception
of what is political will, in itself, be a very valuable finding for future research. Therefore, it is
important that we do not limit our examples to the ones we have identified as appearing to
express political ideas, but allow ample opportunity for our interviewees to talk about all the
elements they appreciate about a particular media text and media form. This reflexive and
flexible approach allows us to avoid imposing a too narrow definition of what is political and
what elements of a media text are of particular relevance to audiences. Further, the group
setting will help provide contextual details and familiarise us with idioms employed by the
research sample (O’Toole et al 2003: 56).
        In line with the aim to understand political engagement in the broadest of terms,
central to this part of the analysis is our interest not only in serious and calmly articulated
opinions, but also in ‘irrational’ forms of civic engagement. The group dynamics will help us
take account of, for example, the role of laughter as a form of political criticism and
engagement (Jenkins 1994). In particular, we will be interested in laughter which appears to
be a response to the overturning of social norms and hierarchies of authority (Matthews 2000:
26).
         In order to allow us to discuss young voters’ discourse in relation to media content,
this qualitative analysis follows the same guiding questions we used for our analysis of media
content:
     How do audiences express a sense of their relationship with sources of power in
        society?
     How do audiences position their own identities in relation to particular social
        groupings?
     How do audiences express a sense of the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ when discussing
        media texts?
     How do audiences make sense of the local, national and international arena, and do
        they make connections with their own experiences?

We want to investigate how our respondents see politics happen in the public and private
sphere. So we will explore the way political and civic values are articulated in relationships
between individuals, in the relationship between individuals and public organisations as well
as wider social collectivities. To take games as an example, the possibility to go on a crime
spree in Grand Theft Auto, to play through World War 2 combat situations in Call of Duty, or
play against the backdrop of a story of invasion in the magical world of Final Fantasy XII, are
all suitable examples from which to initiate a discussion about audiences’ attitudes towards
the representation of governmental power, social norms and the responsibility of the
individual in social and political systems. Yet equally, the challenge to look after a household
and find a job, as Sims players are invited to play through, is ‘political’, as it is a situation
which invites awareness of social responsibilities and the management of scarce resources.
         The second strand of this part of the study will take the form of individual interviews
in which we will be able to further explore the dominant themes generated in the group


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interviews (O’Toole et al. 2003: 58). Central to these interviews are autobiographical
discussion which will provide contextual information necessary to allow comparison between
respondents (ibid.). We will conduct separate interviews/group interviews for each media
form with the same group of pupils.

Specification of dataset (audience research): As recommended by Tang and Davis (1995),
the optimum size of our focus groups will be worked out through a pilot test, in which we will
test the clarity and number of our questions, as well as the time required to discuss an
example, including opportunities for interviewees to respond to each others’ comments. Yet
as this study is exploratory and its main objective to obtain the maximum amount of
information, we envision that we will need to run more groups with a smaller size of no more
than six participants. We plan to run three focus groups of six students in each of the three
schools. We will aim to make these groups as diverse as possible, in terms of gender, class
and ethnicity. In order to sustain our participants’ interest, individual sessions will not be
longer than 1 hour. In total, our focus group sample will include 54 pupils and cover a total
interview time of 9 hours. Focus groups will be complemented by follow-up interviews with
individual students. These interviews to be no longer than 30 minutes in length and produce a
maximum of 27 hours of total interview time.
         Because the research is based at the University of East Anglia, the choice of
interviewees from schools in Norwich means that the logistics of planning and carrying out
the interview stage of this project will be manageable. However, we are aware that the
demographics of the local population means that our research results will probably not shed
too much light on the ways in which in particular ethnic and regional identities might impact
on the ways in which entertainment media stimulate civic identities. We intend for this project
to be the starting point of future research and hope to eventually build on the experiences
gained in a wider, national study.

Access: We have already obtained in principle cooperation from one large, local
comprehensive school.

Deposit of dataset: We will be able to make the following copies of the following datasets
available:
    Digital recordings of focus group study and interviews
    Electronic copies of log books which record the various stages of media analysis and
       audience research.
    Copies of the sample of television programmes, music tracks and video games.

Expected Outputs
Schools: We are offering to involve schools in all aspects of the research so as to help support
the citizenship aspects of the curriculum, as well as the study of sociology, media and
psychology. In addition, we are offering a presentation on our research findings to parents.
Academic Community: We are planning to present our findings at two national conferences,
for example those held by the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association and
the Political Studies Association, as well as an international conference. We will publish at
least 3 journal articles and run a website that will make our results available to a wider
audience.
Academic Community and Industry: We will run a workshop (or similar) for interested
user groups (eg DCMS, Electoral Commission, BBC and Ofcom).




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