On Social Tyranny

          Since the birth of democratic forms of government, long have critics been concerned with majority power over minorities and individuals.  Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps expressed the concept best with the phrase “tyranny of the majority” (Tocqueville, Reeve, & Spencer, 1839, p. 280), describing how the majority can influence an electoral process to the detriment of minority participants and individual liberty.  In Mill’s (2003) work, On Liberty, he notes that the majority rule in the electoral process is not the only issue, but that democracies must also guard against the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion or feeling” (p. 91) or the tendency and ability of society to impose its cultural norms on all constituents through non-civil means.  Mill warns that failure to conform to societal pressures can result in imposed limits on the ability of minorities to fully participate in society (Mill, et al., 2003).  We see Mill’s cause for concern in contemporary American society, as debate rages on same-sex marriage, and many states are limiting the rights of LGBT community and the individuals therein from participating in marriage, the societal convention that recognizes a relationship and confers certain rights and obligations upon those in the relationship.  In the case of same-sex marriages, the majority is creating public policy that limits minorities from participating fully in American society.  While we continue to face the majority rule issue in contemporary U.S. politics, public and special interest groups offer a way for minority groups to promote social change via a wide range of activities designed to influence the political process.

Despite the protections of law afforded all citizens on the United States, significant evidence of the effects of social tyranny permeate American society.  According to the latest U.S. Census data, 56% of the U.S. population consider themselves non-Hispanic whites, while 16% consider themselves Hispanics and 12% consider themselves black (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010a).  And yet, according to a Congressional Research Service report, the U.S. Congress is overwhelmingly made up of whites, with nearly 84% reported as white, 5% as Hispanic, and 8% as black (U.S. Congress & Manning, 2011).  There is a clear gap between the ethnic makeup of the U.S. population, and those who represent the population in the political process; but critics might argue that minorities are treated fairly by their elected representatives.

Unfortunately, the evidence would seemingly indicate that whites maintain a consistent economic advantage over Hispanics and blacks, with median household incomes 43% higher than Hispanics and 67% higher than blacks (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010b).  Additionally, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 25% of Hispanics and 25% of blacks were living below poverty level in 2009, with only 9% of whites in the same category (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010b).  Census data also shows that Hispanics and blacks are far more likely to lack health insurance than their white counterparts (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010b).  Finally, a recent Pew Research Center report found that whites had more than eighteen times the household wealth than that of Hispanic households and more than twenty times the household wealth than that of black households (Kochhar, Fry, & Taylor, 2011).  The evidence would appear to support the notion that minorities continue to suffer under a form of social tyranny that prevents them from participating fully in the benefits of American society and if not for the gains of previous decades of collective action, the situation might well be far worse.

Collective action is an often, successful method for a special interest groups or public interest groups to influence the larger majority and change the dynamics of social tyranny.  Special interest groups can be considered those, “which have a narrow social base, concentrate on limited issues, and, benefit mainly their own members” (Etzioni, 1985, p. 171), while public interest groups “have a broad social base which have a broad social base, address a wide range of issues, and balance members’ interests with a strong commitment to the commonweal” (Etzioni, 1985, p. 171).  Olsen described the logic supporting the effectiveness of collective action to allow a small group to influence a larger group in economic terms, where the benefits of action are concentrated, while the costs are diffused (1971).   Interest groups attempt to influence politics by organizing individuals with common interests, informing the public and elected officials, organizing electoral competition, organizing government, and linking the state and local politics with national politics (“Interest Groups,” 2011).  Collective action in the form of public or special interest groups have long been a force for change in public policy, with well-known examples of dramatic social change witnessed during the civil rights movement and the more recent Arab Spring.

Increasingly, political minorities are using collective action to form both special and public interest groups, to influence public policy in order to benefit as full participants in American society.  Collective action is a fundamental construct of our democratic system that allows minority groups to advance their aims in the face of significant resistance from the majority that has a vested, interest in maintaining the status quo.


Etzioni, A. (1985). Special Interest Groups Versus Constituency Representation. Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, 8, 171-195.

. Interest Groups. (2011). Texas Politics  Retrieved August 5, 2011, from http://texaspolitics.laits.utexas.edu/5_printable.html

Kochhar, R., Fry, R., & Taylor, P. (2011). Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics Pew Social & Demographic Trends. Washington DC: Pew Research Center.

Mill, J. S., Bentham, J., Austin, J., & Warnock, M. (2003). Utilitarianism ; and, On liberty : including Mill’s Essay on Bentham’ and selections from the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Olson, M. (1971). The logic of collective action; public goods and the theory of groups. Cambridge, Mass.,: Harvard University Press.

Tocqueville, A. d., Reeve, H., & Spencer, J. C. (1839). Democracy in America (3rd American ed.). New York: G. Adlard.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2010a). 2010 National Population by Race. In c2010br-02.pdf (Ed.). Washington DC: U.S Census Bureau.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2010b). Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009. In p60-238.pdf (Ed.). Washington DC: U.S Census Bureau.

U.S. Congress, & Manning, J. (2011). Membership of the 112th Congress: A Profile. (0160537177). Washington: U.S. G.P.O. : For sale by the U.S. G.P.O., Supt. of Docs., Congressional Sales Office Retrieved from http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/R41647.pdf.


New Media, New Perspectives

Image from : Patrick Hoesly

In an era characterized by technologies that enabled one-to-one and one-to-many communication, media studies have been dominated by the relationship between producers and consumers of information, focusing on the effects of media.  Digital media, whose communication paradigm includes one-to-one and one-to-many, also includes many-to-many communication, forcing those involved in media studies to reconsider commonly held beliefs and theoretical frameworks in light of the new technology (Quinn, 2011).  Which theoretical approaches are most useful to cultivate in accounting for the fundamental changes brought about by new media, and conversely, which theoretical approaches may no longer be relevant?  In order to account for the fundamental changes that have occurred and are likely to occur, it is useful to consider the media ecology to understand the how changes in the media technology may alter society as a new equilibrium is achieved.  Already, the introduction of digital media has wrought unanticipated changes in the ecology and had a surprising impact on the world.

The introduction of many-to-many relationships in media is based on the internet; ubiquitous, global, social, and cheap, digital media allows consumers to also be producers and share information in ways not possible in the era of broadcast (Shirky, 2009).   Additionally, the number of possible interactions in the network is the number of participants squared; meaning the number of interactions will larger than ever before in human history (Shirky, 2009).  Symbolic interactionism states that meaning is created as a process negotiated through interaction between people (Nelson, 1998).  As the number of interactions grows, what new meaning will be created and what possible impacts can it have on society?

Photograph: Magharebia / Creative Commons

Consider the recent Arab Spring, where millions of people across many countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa, organized, protested, in most cases created significant social change, both intended and unintended.  “It all started with a desperate Tunisian shopkeeper who set himself on fire, which activated a transnational network of citizens exhausted by authoritarian rule. Within weeks, digitally-enabled protesters in Tunisia tossed out their dictator” (Nelson, 1998, p. 1).   Suddenly, people throughout the region were sharing their discontent and inspiration via social media, and in the process, circumventing traditional state-sponsored media entirely.  What new meaning did the image of the shopkeeper convey and how did it galvanize a country and ultimately an entire region?  A recent report from the Dubai School of Government found “empirical evidence suggesting that the growth of social media in the region and the shift in usage trends have played a critical role in mobilization, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change” (Dubai School of Government, 2011, p. 24).  The democratization of media ultimately led to the democratization of some countries long known for autocratic rule.

When viewed through a lens of media ecology, it appears that in certain autocracies, like Egypt and Tunisia, digital media has given people a capability to circumvent traditional broadcast media, ultimately becoming an agent of social change. What new equilibrium will come about as governments grapple with digital media?  Will governments embrace social media to develop a more participatory political process or perhaps seek new media technologies that allow them to control or shape the new flow of meaning?  Of course, both are already occurring in different parts of the world.  Shirkey described President Obama using social media to mobilize his base of supporters and engage them in the political process during his campaign and described China’s wholesale shutdown of Twitter on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in an attempt to control the risk of digital media.   It is clear that both governments and mainstream media will seek ways to tap into the vast flows of meaning that span the network interactions in an attempt to either harness, subvert, or control digital media in an effort to maintain their gatekeeper role.

Image: curiouslee via Creative Commons

Given that digital media has begun to erode the power of traditional media gatekeepers, what of the gatekeeper theory, associated theories like agenda-setting, framing, and semantics and their relevance for the future?  Some suggest the internet has rendered gatekeeping passé (Williams & Carpini, 2000), however, gatekeeping will likely remain relevant as along as mainstream media are part of the media ecology, albeit with less significance given that information flows freely.  Additionally, gatekeeping will likely remain relevant in media-savvy countries like China that maintain tight control of all media.

It is clear that digital media will be a revolution in media unlike any the world has seen.  Perhaps generations from now, media historians will discuss digital media as more revolutionary than even the printing press.  Those in media studies have an unparalleled opportunity to rethink existing media theory in light of the changes taking place all over the world as society comes to terms with the new technology.  Many existing perspectives, like media ecology and symbolic interactionism, will continue to provide useful insights to media scholars, while others, like gatekeeping may become less germane.


Dubai School of Government. (2011). Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter Arab Social Media Report (Vol. 1, pp. 1-30). Dubai: Dubai School of Government.

Nelson, L. D. (1998). Herbert Blumer’s Symbolic Interactionsm  Retrieved July 23, 2011, from http://www.colorado.edu/communication/meta-discourses/Papers/App_Papers/Nelson.htm

Quinn, S. (2011). Module 2: theoretical perspectives and challenges of digital communication, from http://csuglobal.blackboard.com/courses/1/FALL11A-8-COM305-1/content/_320329_1/dir_xid-44757_2/com305_2.html

Shirky, C. (Producer). (2009, July 23, 2011). How Social Media Can Make History. Talks. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cellphones_twitter_facebook_can_make_history.html

Williams, B. A., & Carpini, M. X. D. (2000). Unchained reaction: the collapse of media gatekeeping and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Journalism, 1(1), 61-85.

Globalization and Multi-National Corporations: The Erosion of Democracy

Image: Steve Kaiser

Globalization is the increasing integration and management of the world economy as a whole and governed by institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.  The goal of these organizations is ostensibly to open new markets and promote the economic growth of all member nations, however critics argue that these organizations purpose is more insidious; that they seek to exploit least developed countries for the sake of multi-national corporations and the continued growth of developed economies.  Additionally, there is concern over loss of national sovereignty because of participation in the WTO, as its agreements and decisions are binding for member nations; this is especially challenging in democratic nations, where individual freedom and liberty are considered a god given right.  The effects of globalization and the boundless power of multi-national corporations can be considered to attempt to regulate flows of labor and to erode the ability of democratic national institutions to self-govern.

The WTO’s stated goal “is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business” (World Trade Organization, 2011b).  To do this, the WTO seeks to encourage free and open trade and has developed a set of basic principles and agreements to govern the trade of goods, services, and intellectual property (World Trade Organization, 2011a).  However, free trade has not worked equally for citizens of WTO member nations.  While free trade agreements have opened markets and promoted trade, “these global institutions, however, have been much more reluctant to implement policies that provide protections for workers or for the environment” (Hodson & Sullivan, 2008, p. 203).  Additionally, critics point to corporate abuses by large, powerful, multi-nationals under the guise of WTO agreements, such as Monsanto’s attempt to own the intellectual property for seed genetics and Bechtel’s attempt to privatize and profit from Bolivian water rights in an action directed by the World Bank and the Bolivian government (Achbar & Abbott, 2003).  The WTO could be considered a more legitimate organization should it adopt a stance that considers the entirety of the system, including people, rather than singular focus on helping business prosper.

The distinct focus on helping businesses has led the WTO into discussions on immigration as part of the General Agreement on Trade Services, or GATS, whose goal it is to eliminate barriers erected by local or national governments to service providers entering their markets.  Under that definition, the U.S. H1-B Visa limit could be construed as an unfair trade barrier and that was the stance taken by the Indian government (Anderson, 2005).  To what extent is the WTO an organization that can legitimately dictate U.S. immigration law to regulate the flow of labor across national borders?

Legitimacy is at the heart of the multi-national corporation and globalization debate. To what extent should an organization whose stated goal is to help producers conduct business, be allowed to govern?  According to Pascal Lamy, Director general of the WTO, the goal of the WTO is and should be global governance, because five years at the WTO has taught him that “when it comes to international action, States are often incoherent” (2011).  Lamy believes that in order to address global challenges, “pragmatic solutions need to be found now to enhance global governance and better address the problems that our world is facing” (2011) and outlines an EU like structure for global governance.  Given the protests in Seattle and around the world, it appears that many do not agree.  In a show of solidarity against the WTO, people from all walks of life protested; citizens concerned with loss of rights, workers concerned with fair trade, environmentalists protesting corporate abuses, and citizens of developing countries, all disenfranchised by the closed door proceedings of the WTO (Friedberg & Rowley, 2000).  It appears that many do not wish to be governed by an organization that lacks accountability to the people it purports to govern.

The trend towards globalization is characterized by the regulation and management of the world economy as a single, coherent, integrated system; and over the course of the last 50 years, much progress has been made to create institutions to govern the global economy.  Large multi-national corporations are the primary beneficiaries of a globalized economy, given the power their size, amount of capital, and market control provides.  The combined coercive power of the global trade and finance institutions and large multinational corporations over nations and individuals has eroded national sovereignty and alienated citizenry, because of their avowed loyalty is to profit rather than people.  In the United States, the government derives “their just powers from the consent of the governed” (United States, 1776), contrary to what DG Lamy and multi-national corporate shareholders may believe.


 Achbar, M., & Abbott, J. (Writers). (2003). The Corporation [Film]. In Big Picture Media Corporation (Producer). Canada.

Anderson, S. (2005). U.S. Immigration Policy on the Table at the WTO. Global Politician, 1. Retrieved from Global Politician website: http://www.globalpolitician.com/21446-immigration

Friedberg, J., & Rowley, R. (Writers). (2000). This Is What Democracy Looks Like [Video]. In Big Noise Films & Independent Media Center (Producer).

Hodson, R., & Sullivan, T. A. (2008). The social organization of work (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Lamy, P. (2011, 19 February 2011). [Pragmatic solutions need to be found now to enhance global governance].

Soubbotina, T. P. (2004). Beyond economic growth : an introduction to sustainable development (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

United States. (1776). In Congress, July 4, 1776, a declaration by the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled. Philadelphia: Printed by John Dunlap.

World Trade Organization. (2011a). The case for open trade  Retrieved June 24, 2011, from http://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/whatis_e/tif_e/fact3_e.htm

World Trade Organization. (2011b). What is the WTO?  Retrieved June 24, 2011, from http://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/whatis_e/whatis_e.htm