Culture Industry

Culture industry is a term which performs both a descriptive and conceptual function. It also has a history. Since the term was coined by Horkheimer and Adorno in their 1947 essay ‘‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,’’ both what the term designates and its theoretical implications have undergone a number of shifts.

In its original Frankfurt School usage the term was a polemical intervention into the mass society/mass culture debate and a development of the Marxist theory of Ideology. On the one hand, the term culture referred to the super structure – the social realm of meaning construction and circulation where symbolic forms of all types were produced and distributed – and to the German Idealist tradition of culture (or art) as a realm of freedom from material constraint and interests. Its linkage to the term industry (in the singular), on the other hand, was intended polemically to indicate the destruction of the relative autonomy of the superstructure and of the emancipatory possibilities of art by the economic dynamics of the base. The culture industry thus primarily referred to the industrialization and commodification of the process of symbolic production and circulation in toto. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the ideological domination of capital ism, and thus the suppression of revolutionary possibilities, was effected not by the overt con tent of cultural production, but by the deep structure of the cultural forms and the alienated relations between both producer (artist) and cultural work and between producers and audiences that the system of capitalist industrial cultural production produced. In this period this approach was counterposed to the wide spread sociopolitical concern with propaganda as a key element in the construction and maintenance of authoritarian regimes (fascism and Stalinism).

The use of the term industry referred (drawing on Marx) to the domination of the cultural realm by competitive and increasingly monopolistic corporations driven by the search for profit through the exchange of cultural commodities, thus necessarily alienating. It also referred (drawing on Weber) to a process of organizational rationalization, whereby cultural production and consumption were increasingly planned, thus suppressing cultural and political alternatives. Importantly, this approach placed the analysis of advertising and marketing at the center of a general process the purpose and effect of which was to hold the audience in thrall (the new opiate of the people). This rationalization took place not just within the process of production, but within the cultural form. Cultural products were standardized and produced ‘‘pseudo individuality’’ in consumption.

Importantly, this vision and theoretical analysis were starkly opposed to Walter Benjamin’s (1970) view of media technologies as emancipatory advances which shifted the relation between audience and art work from one of worship (‘‘aura’’) to one of education and rational inquiry.

Through the 1950s and 1960s the term culture industry and its accompanying theoretical approach was largely forgotten in favor of a pluralist analysis of the mass media and their power (or lack of it). It was dismissed as the nostalgic and elitist response of exiled German intellectuals to US popular culture. The term reappeared, more usually in the form of cultural industries, in the late 1960s with the revival of theoretical Marxism and the New Left. It now drew on three developments: (1) the revival of a political economy of communications which returned to a serious analysis of the economics of the mass media in contrast to the ideological analysis of media content; (2) the turn to cultural studies, which shifted the emphasis in the wider analysis of and opposition to capitalist consumerist hegemony from economic to cultural structures and processes; (3) the revival of the Frankfurt School analysis of capitalism and its social and cultural effects in the form of a utopian, countercultural, anti consumerist critique of capitalism as the society of the spectacle (deBord 1995) symbolized by the May 1968 events in France and by Marcuse’s role as a guru of the US New Left (Marcuse 1991).

Now the use of the term signaled a shift away from a focus on the mass media, under stood as the print publishing and broadcasting industries, and the overwhelming focus on the direct political effects of those media, to a focus on popular entertainment and, in particular, linked to a heightened sociological interest in youth culture, to a concern with the music and film industries.

It is important to note that in this new usage the cultural industries were no longer assumed to be alienated and repressive. On the contrary, the term could now be used positively in a critique of the elitist implications of established public policies for the support of art and media (Garnham 1990). It was thus associated with a widespread positive evaluation, both within economics and cultural studies, of consumer ism, and the discovery of the ‘‘empowered’’ consumer and audience.

At the same time the use of the term signaled a refusal to follow the ‘‘cultural turn’’ in rejecting economic determination. Those analyzing the cultural industries now drew not only on Marxist economics, but on developments in mainstream industrial and information economics, to make much more detailed and nuanced analyses of the economic structure and dynamics of the cultural industries than that of the Frankfurt School. The cultural industries were now analyzed in terms of the special nature of their products and markets. Indeed, the term industries in the plural was now used to indicate the existence of important economic differences between these industries. Stress was now placed on the particular nature of symbolic or immaterial products and services and the difficulties in commodifying them. Rejecting Frankfurt School notions of rationalization and planning, this new analysis emphasized the exceptionally risky and irrational nature of the production and distribution process stemming from the need for constant pro duct innovation and the inherent uncertainty of demand. This created a ‘‘hit and flop’’ economy where a few super profitable, but inherently unpredictable, hits paid for the high percentage of losers. A distinction was drawn between the high sunk costs of production (so called first copy costs and more akin to R&D in classical material goods producing industries) and the low costs of reproduction and distribution which resulted in increased returns to scale and thus a powerful drive towards audience maximization and both sectoral and cross sectoral concentration of ownership and control. The structure and dynamics of the cultural sector were explained as the response of management under conditions of intercapitalist competition to these problems of realization.

On this basis the French school (Miege 1989; Flichy 1991) distinguished subsectors of the cultural industries (les industries de l’imaginaire) nature of their products, their relations of production, their relation to their markets, and their relation to the underlying technologies of distribution and appropriation. These subsectors were, first, editorial (of which book publishing and records were the classic cases) where control over a catalog of products – and thus the ability to spread the investment risk – was strategically crucial. Here, production of the cultural products remained artisanal, was outsourced, and the key workforce was managed and subordinated through contract and intellectual property rights. The second subsector regarded flow (i.e., broadcasting in its various forms) where customer loyalty to a constantly replenished service and series of channels required control over distribution and the centralized planning of content production – and thus also the employment of content producers as wage workers in large industrial organizations. Here the commodity being sold was audiences to advertisers and a major share of value added was extracted not by the content producers but by the producers of consumer electronics (e.g., TV and radio sets, video recorders, DVD players, etc).

The cultural industries approach now developed in three distinct although not necessarily incompatible directions, and in so doing largely lost its original link to Marxism. First, the focus on distribution and the industries’ links with the consumer electronics sector led to a focus on the impact of developments in ICTs (information and communication technologies) and related policy issues. Here the central argument was over the extent to which developments in the communication and cultural sectors were technologically determined and whether technological development was or was not broadly emancipatory (de Sola Pool 1984).

Secondly, the focus on the industrial economics of information led to a merger with the broader post Fordist analysis of the development of the capitalist economy, which saw the economy in general satisfying immaterial (and therefore cultural), rather than material, needs (Lash & Urry 1994). Here the distinction between cultural industries and other economic sectors is increasingly brought into question. These two developments have led to the absorption of the cultural industries analysis into a broader information sector, information economy, information society analysis.

Thirdly, the term cultural industries has given way to a range of terms such as entertainment industry, information sector, knowledge industries and, in particular, creative industries. Here, linked to a more general analysis of the knowledge economy (Castells 1999), itself a development of the concepts of the post industrial and service economies, the center of analysis is immateriality, the percentage of value added attributable to ‘‘knowledge,’’ the dependency on intellectual property. In particular, the role and formation of ‘‘knowledge’’ or ‘‘creative’’ workers becomes a matter of central concern. This development is largely policy driven. On the one hand, it is based on an argument that the cultural sector is a key growth sector globally and thus, as a response to deindustrialization, nations need to foster their ‘‘creative industries’’ in order to get a share of this market and the profits and export earnings that flow from it. On the other hand, ‘‘knowledge’’ creation generally is a condition for success in the new information economy and thus comparative advantage stems from creating conditions – educational, legal, and fiscal – to foster this creativity.

Analysis of and debates surrounding the cultural industries relate to two other important topics: the public sphere and intellectuals. Habermas’s original formulation of his public sphere thesis stems directly from Adorno’s analysis of the culture industries. It is the creation of the culture industries that destroys the public sphere as an arena for free discussion and deliberation upon which democracy is founded. Thus an analysis of the structure and dynamics of these industries is central to an understanding of the history and future possibilities of the public sphere.

Central to the culture industries tradition has been a concern with the socioeconomic position and role of cultural workers and the extent to which, as intellectuals, they can continue to exer cise an autonomous and critical role in the development of knowledge and culture. The shift to a focus on creative industries and the information society places this concern with the relations of cultural production center stage.


  1. Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M. (1997) Dialectic of Enlightenment. Verso, London.
  2. Benjamin, W. (1970) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In: Illuminations. Fontana, London.
  3. Castells, M. (1999) The Rise of Network Society. Blackwell, Oxford.
  4. DeBord, G. (1995) The Society of the Spectacle. Zone Books, New York.
  5. De Sola Pool, I. (1984) Technologies of Freedom. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  6. Flichy, P. (1991). Les Industries de l’imaginaire. PUG, Grenoble.
  7. Garnham, N. (1990) Capitalism and Communication. Sage, London.
  8. Lash, S. & Urry, J. (1994) Economies of Signs and Space. Sage, London.
  9. Marcuse, H. (1991 [1965]) One Dimensional Man. Beacon Press, Boston.
  10. Miege, B. (1989) The Capitalization of Cultural Production. International General, New York.

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