Political Economy of Communication and Media

Political economy examines how power and economics are related, and how they influence mass media, social, political, and economic structuration. The tradition of political economy developed alongside the great capitalist revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In reaction to the social and commercial transformation created by capitalism early political economists looked to understand social change and historical transformation (Mosco, 2014). To most effectively understand the relations of power and how they play into social and historical transformation, political economists assess the totality of social relations that make up all areas of economic, political, social, and cultural life. Political economy has consistently aimed to build unity of the political and economic, understanding that the two have a reciprocal influence on each other and the public sphere. The political economic approach understands the integration of capitalism into societies’ social and economic structure. To understand the change occurring, the paradigm looks to how industry operates and how these operations effect the social relations. By understanding the forces of social and historical change political economists are able to intervene and address the problems which arise in a capitalistic world.

Political economy looks to pair its research with social intervention, with the goal of producing positive social and moral change. This combination of research and application is called social praxis. Political economists are united under the view that the division between research and action is artificial and must be overturned. Praxis is a demonstration of political economies’ commitment to a moral philosophy. Different approaches to political economy favor different moral philosophical standpoints. Political economy research always has a moral imperative, and intervention behind it. Unilaterally, political economy has an interest in values that help create social behavior and the moral principles that guide the efforts to change it.

Theorists such as John Stuart Mills and Adam Smith began researching the causation of social and historical change in reaction to the capitalist driven industrialization of labor. Smith and Mills examined the economic transformation from agriculture labor to commercial manufacturing. Karl Marx examined the class dynamic within capitalism to explain historical change. These classical political economists all demonstrated concerns for history, the social totality, moral philosophy and praxis, but they fundamentally differed on the characterization of intervention. This schism motivated the evolution of classical political economics. Orthodox economics developed under the influence of Adam Smith and his followers, outlining the structuration of the free market and its ideologies. Orthodox economics neglected classic political economy’s concern for the dynamics of history and social change and focused solely on the production, distribution, and consumption of resources. Additionally, it grew to neglect classical principles such as praxis, social totality, and moral philosophy. From orthodox economics was birthed the science of economics, or simply economics. Economics conceptualizes the market through mathematics and statistics. Just as orthodox economics developed into economics under the influence of Smith, classical political economics transformed into contemporary economics, following a Marxist ideology. Contemporary economics is geared towards extending democracy in all aspects of social life. Its moral philosophy motivates the approach to promote democracy in all spheres of life.

To analyze the politics and economics of media institutions, contemporary political economics study three social processes: commodification, spatialization, and structuration. Commodification is a process of exchange. Goods and services are transformed into profitable values which can be exchanged in the marketplace (Mosco, 2014). Food’s ability to satisfy hunger gives it value in the market, so when it is sold the food is commodified. Understanding how these goods are being commodified gives an entry point to understanding the behavior of communication institutions. Spatialization looks at how institutions overcome constraints of time and space in social life (Mosco,

Visual example of horizontal and vertical integration

2014). The evolution of communication technologies means the concept of time and labor, and how companies uses these commodities, are constantly being reworked. Since these constraints are constantly in flux, it is crucial to understand these changes. Corporations extend their control of space and time by integrating with other industries. Horizontal integration occurs when a company purchases another company in the same media operation, giving them more control over the market. Horizontal control monopolizes the profits. A company vertically integrates when it extends its control over the process of production. Vertical integration awards the newspaper company with the profits from every waypoint of production. The last basic tenet of contemporary political economics is structuration. Through structuration of governmental, social, and economic institutions create persistent inequalities in communications systems as a means to keep power over the laboring classes. Political economy looks at the how the structuration of class and institutions incorporate ideologies of agency, social process, and social practice into society.

As the world economy continually becomes more intricate and globalized, the field is adapting to the constant growth of the media markets and transnational corporate integration. The current trends of study show a globalization of political economy research. Rapidly over the last two decades, political economy has established a concentration on international research (Mosco, 2014). The process of global expansion has made the work of political economists more necessary. The integration of the global political economy and its media systems creates a web of strategic partnerships which influence a myriad of social relations across the globe. The ability to structurally assess transnational business conglomerates grows ever more imperative as business grows larger and gains influence to cover up exploitive and undemocratic behavior. Inequities are created in a global economy because there is no positive moral philosophy to capitalism, transnational integration monopolizes power to the hegemonic regimes, and the complex structures of these corporations shroud these inequities. The political economy paradigm is the antithesis to modern capitalism. The paradigm acts on solving modern inequities with a moral imperative and a dedication to understanding the social totality of situations.

Political economy possesses the ability to structurally assess the technologically and organizationally intricate companies such as Uber. A political economic approach to Uber would first look at the structure of Uber and asks ‘what agencies are necessary for Uber to exist?’ The key agencies involved in any and every Uber ride is the rider, the Uber app, the car, and the driver. Uber is commodifying the service of ‘catching a ride’, also commodifying the rider, as they are constituted by their bank account. Uber also sells the idea of a smooth, cashless transaction, which is less awkward and cumbersome than public transit.

The display and screen of the Uber App. One press gets the user a ride.

To address the idea of spatialization a theorist would look at the algorithms and technologies inside the Uber or how geocaching works. Continuing examining space and time, there must be an understanding of Uber’s time surge pricing and how it plans these surges around metropolitan time-geography. The last step is understanding Uber’s structuration. How does Uber’s structure discriminate against those without credit cards? How does the structuration of Uber hurt the quality of public transit? How can Uber say that it isn’t a transportation company that employs drivers and therefore should not be subjected to the regulations of that industry or employers in general? The analysis looks to see how Uber manifests itself in the world and through this understanding augment or better the everyday existence of Uber.

Online dating sites can also be examined through a political economy lens. The question is what is being commodified inside the business of online dating. Of course, users commodify the idea of ‘finding love’ by paying for accounts, but the personal

Evan 3
A online dating profile, with bountiful information for advertisers.

information of the user is truly being commodified. Looking at the corporate integration of online dating sites, it is apparent that over half of the most popular online dating sites are owned by the same company. These corporations make a large portion of their profit from selling their user’s personal information to advertising companies. The structuration of the online dating profile are gender binary, excluding gender fluidity or other identifications. Intersectionality can not be achieved inside the current structure because the categorized sections of dating profiles make it easier for advertisers to distribute and use.



Laughey, D. (2007). In Key Themes in Media Theory. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.

Mosco, V. (2014). The Political Economic Theory and Research: Conceptual Foundations and Current Trends. The Handbook of Theory and Mass Communications, 1, 37-54.

Image Attributions: “ok cupid scam account” by Carl Lender, 2016, CC by 2.0; “An UBER application is shown as cars drive by in Washington, DC” by Andrew Caballero, 2015, CC by 2.0; “Vertical versus Horizontal approach” by Universal Mobile, 2009, CC by 2.0

Article by Evan Gaines

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