Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tarde: Theory of Communication in Mass Culture

Tarde's contribution to crowd psychology involved a theory of communication in mass culture. Crowds, he declared, cannot do without a master. Effective leaders create the mass in their own image; they have authentic and strong convictions; they are intransigent and monomaniacal; and they are motivated by a desire to achieve prestige, the will to be famous. Because they are mentally impoverished and physically enfeebled, the crowd looks to the leader as a savior. In describing the dynamics of initation between leader and followers, Tarde was actually sketching out a theory of narcissism, in which the leader is idealized. The crowd's admiration for the leader is actually only a split-off way of admiring itself, for they attribute their most precious and highly valued characteristics, ambitions, and ideals to the leader, including a view of their pure or grandiose self. Mass society accelerates the development of the individual's need to love, obey, imitate, and admire a superior being. This makes collectivities receptive to suggestion. Tarde astutely understood that submission is first learned and experienced in early family life, where the father and parents serve as prefigurations of the leader.
Tarde also depicted the ways in which mass communication serves to discipline the masses. The reader of a newspaper, he observed, becomes an excited or obedient automaton. Mass communication rarely attempts to educate or inform, but rather constitutes a subtle form of mental domination. For tarde, this form of manipulation resembled drug dependency. Modern man is not only prey to passing fashions, but he is easily fascinated by the large-scale, intensified, emotional effects of sophisticated techniques of communication.Today's media, whether the press, television, video, or radio, dangerously threaten to incite and pacify the population, making serious contestation and political opposition extremely difficult. By inference, those who control the means of communication can exercise a hegemonic influence over how contemporary man thinks, feels, and acts. Tarde wrote that industrial man was social in his readiness to suggestion, conformity, and somnambulistic states; modern crowds live as if suspended in a waking dream.


  1. Ni, thanks for this good description of Tarde's work. How do you feel about his perspective on media and communication since you are in the journalism field? I'm really intrigued by the seciton that notes how mass communication is rarely used to inform and educate. I'm sure most of us would and do argue that the "mental domination" aspect seems very accurate, but I wonder how journalists feel about that observation/accusation. Do you think journalists would admit to exercising "hegemonic influence" over how we think and act? I do kind of feel like we are "suspended in a waking dream" some of the time.. but now that election season is over for a while and I'm no longer watching CNN (I was a few times a week back in Oct-Nov) I find it refreshing to hear about real, local news, etc.

  2. Ni -

    Thanks for taking on Tarde as your sociologist. I probably wouldn't have read anything by him otherwise. His view of leadership, power, followers and the media are quite scary, but ring true. When I worked in the media many years ago, I would have argued that his statements were untrue, but now that I have some perspective, I have to agree.

  3. Tarde's contribution is very vital to the current knowledge and information society. I realise how multinational corporations have dominated mass media. We are highly influenced by what the powerful present to us e.g the advertisements which drive people into endless consumption. Multinational corporations control information and manipulate us to an extent that we are highly disempowered to confront them or act otherwise. Lack of information is too disempowering.

  4. Mass media has more and more power. According to other authors like Adorno, mass media responds to the capitalist regimen and its interests. In addition, the connections between different levels of society are represented by media. As Tarde pointed out, mass media establish control and power by its psychological influence in the society. According to Braudillar, mass media offers possibilities to people to be part of others and to be part of what Foucault has called panopticon.
    Nice job!