Hegemony

The Italian Marxist Gramsci created the concept of cultural hegemony. Although Gramsci died while Louis Althusser was still a student, his influence was felt later because his Selections from the Prison Notebooks were not translated until 1971. 'Hegemony' in this case means the success of the dominant classes in presenting their definition of reality, their view of the world, in such a way that it is accepted by other classes as 'common sense'. The general 'consensus' is that it is the only sensible way of seeing the world. Any groups who present an alternative view are therefore marginalized:

"the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as 'domination' and as 'intellectual and moral leadership'" and "The 'normal' exercise of hegemony on the now classical terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterized by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent." Gramsci (1971) p.215 in Storey (1994)

In Gramsci's view, however, there is not in any sense a single dominant class, but, rather, a shifting and unstable alliance of different social classes. The earlier notion of a dominant ideology is replaced by the idea of a field of dominant discourses, unstable and temporary. From this point of view, the media are seen as the place of competition between competing social forces rather than simply as a channel for the dominant ideology. According to Gramsci's view there are on the one hand the dominant classes who seek to contain and incorporate all thought and behaviour within the terms and limits they set in accordance with their interests. On the other hand there are the dominated or subordinate classes who attempt to maintain and to further the validity and effectiveness of their own definitions of reality. There is therefore a continuing struggle for dominance between the definitions of reality (or ideologies) which serve the interests of the ruling classes and those which are held by other groups in society. Culture, according to this view, is seen as the product of a much more vigorous struggle than is suggested in, for example, Althusser's view of ideology. Cultural domination arises from a complex play of negotiations, alignments and realignments within society:

...the fact of hegemony presupposes that account be taken of the interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium should be formed. Gramsci (1971) p.216 in Storey (1994)

Domination is not simply imposed from above, but has to be won through the subordinated groups' spontaneous consent to the cultural domination which they believe will serve their interests because it is 'common sense'. In this sense,

"Culture for both [Gramsci and Freud] is an amalgam of coercive and consensual mechanisms for reconciling human subjects to their unwelcome fate as labouring animals in oppressive conditions." Eagleton (1991) pp. 179-180.

As Ien Ang summarizes Gramsci's importance,

"The Gramscian concept of hegemony is mostly used to indicate the cultural leadership of the dominant classes in the production of generalized meanings, of 'spontaneous' consent to the prevailing arrangement of social relations - a process, however, that is never finished because hegemony can never be complete." Ang (1996)

Fiske similarly emphasizes that hegemony is never complete:

"Hegemony is a constant struggle against a multitude of resistances to ideological domination, and any balance of forces that it achieves is always precarious, always in need of re-achievement. Hegemony's 'victories' are never final, and any society will evidence numerous points where subordinate groups have resisted the total domination that is hegemony's aim, and have withheld their consent to the system." Fiske (1987) p. 41

The dominant classes use mass culture in their response to this struggle by constructing these other groups into target markets and consumers who are addressed by the culture and advertising industries according to their 'demographic' characteristics their social class, their disposable income, their age, sex and so on.

Adapted from the CMSS web site—no URL available (they shouldn't be so dependent on frames). If someone recognizes this entry/web site, please send me the URL.

For more on this topic, see CB's Glossary (password required).

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