The Formation of Swedish Media Studies 1960-1980

Together with my two colleagues Mats Hyvönen and Per Vesterlund, I am currently writing an article about the formation of Swedish media studies during the 1960s and 1970s. The piece is a continuation of the book we published last year, Mass Media Problems. The Formation of Media Studies [Massmedieproblem. Mediestudiets formering] where we argued that Swedish media studies departed from, and emerged within a rather diffuse borderland between the media industry, national cultural politics as well as academia. Our idea is to have it published in the journal Media History – presently the article starts like this:

In spring 1962, a study was published that attracted a great deal of attention in the Swedish daily press. It bore the title, Swedish Popular Press 1931-1961 [Svensk Populärpress 1931-1961] and was written by Göran Albinsson. His book doesn’t come across as a particularly unusual press historical study today. Through measurements of press and magazine circulation, size and content, and by analysing prices and the financial results of publishers—related to the socio-economic status of Swedish readership—Albinsson was able to show how reading weekly press and magazines had gradually increased over the thirty-year period studied. The last two years (1960 and 1961), however, showed a marked downturn, which Albinsson attributed to the expansion of Swedish television. Studies using a similar methodology had been done before, primarily in the U.S; Albinsson referred, for example, to NBC’s published television measurements. He also alluded in more general terms to “American surveys of mass media’s ability to influence opinions, values and behaviour”. J. T. Klapper’s recently published, The Effects of Mass Communications (1960) was, in addition, singled out as a “highly exhaustive summary”.

Today, it might seem somewhat odd that Albinsson’s study was commissioned by Åhlén & Åkerlund, the biggest publisher of weekly magazines in Sweden at the time. But just as it appeared increasingly important to study mass media, it seemed natural that media companies themselves would be responsible for studies of their own business. Hence, the circumstance was not subjected to any special criticism in reviews of Albinsson’s book—and there were, indeed, many of them. The lavish attention around his study can be perceived as part of an increasing interest in Sweden during the early 1960s around mass media issues. Debates raged more or less constantly within the public sphere. Journalists, writers and academics attacked or (occasionally) praised the content of media and regularly commented on matters of form. Especially, the significance of television was intensely discussed in Sweden at the time, and mostly in negative terms: falling cinema attendance, decline of newspaper circulation and fewer books being read—everything could be blamed on TV. In one such opinion piece about the media, author Arnold Rörling, for example, stated in 1961: “The weekly press is one of the links in a dangerous chain—the shackle of the mass media. But the phrase ‘mass medium’ is already so overused that it means nothing to us. We hear it spoken, but it produces no associations in us—least of all any warnings of danger.”

The interesting point about Rörling’s article does not concern himself—a relatively well-known writer in Sweden at the time, who published a fine essay on objectionable mass culture. This was a common journalistic theme. What is realy striking with Rörling’s argumentation, was on the one hand that the term mass medium in 1961 was so widely used that an ordinary Swedish cultural commentator (as Rörling) could express genuine ennui about it. On the other hand, he also described different media’s symbiotic dependence on each other, a kind of media convergence, as an entirely reasonable idea to be held in mind already in 1961. Indeed, the various mass media in Sweden were so closely linked that they were best captured in the most striking of agrarian metaphors, the shackle that tethered cattle (i.e society, citizens or audiences) in a manner that was as unbreakable as it was painful.

In Sweden the term ‘mass media’ had by 1960 established itself as a buzzword in public discussions. Looking back, the reasons seem obvious: never before had so many platforms, based on so many different media technologies competed for people’s time and attention. There was consequently a need for a common language that described the shifting media landscape of the archetypal Social Democratic welfare state, as well as for novel methods by which media phenomena could be studied. Around 1960, the politics of the emerging media society in Sweden tended to fixate on the formative functions of communication. If (old media) as art, film or literature could function as instruments for changing the opinions and attitudes of individuals and groups, it was the job of the new mass media (especially television) to convey these instruments (on a national scale) in a fair and effective way. According to the discourse at the time, mass media had the task of providing citizens with the knowledge they needed. But the mass media could also provoke and create opinion, and influence the whole of society. The monopoly of public service broadcast media, press subsidies and film policy were some of the issues around which uncertainty about the new media landscape prevailed.

By and large, however, the history of media research remains to be written. Naturally, over the years in Sweden—as in other countries—a few national (more or less nostalgic) retrospectives have been published, almost always written from an intra-academic, media and communication studies perspective. The anthology, The history of media and communication research: Contested memories (2008) is one example. Compared to other humanistic and social science disciplines, old ways of studying media has gained scarce attention. This is somewhat surprising, since the history of media research has a number of socio-political implications. Understanding media, in short, meant understanding society. The consolidation of media research in Sweden during the 1960s and 70s, for example, was hence far from an intra-academic endeavour. On the contrary, to reduce the formation of media studies to a question of the emergence of media and communication studies (or film studies for that matter) is to miss the point. The central question regarding the formation of Swedish media studies between 1960 and 1980 is not about how university research disciplines were established, but rather how a changing media landscape prompted a broad social and discursive activity, within government and politics, the media industry and the public sphere—as well as at universities.

In fact, from a media historical perspective, it is as relevant to consider research (and debates) around the media as part of media’s national history as it is to perceive such studies as solely belonging to academic history. This article, hence, has a meta perspective regarding the formation of media studies in Sweden. With its focus on tangential and overlapping fields, institutions and players, it seeks to complicate and problematize the development of media research, as well as situating the study of media within a broader Swedish media history. The fact that media inquires were often commissioned by a number of institutions (outside of universities)—ministries, archives, defence forces, media companies and opinion pollsters—falls in line with such an approach. The rapid development of mass media, and research about the same media, were simply different sides of the same coin. In addition, since the media was constantly discussed within the public sphere by the nation’s intelligentsia, what emerges is a truly complex media history, in which academia was sometimes even marginalised. Then again, the question remains what media research at the time defined as its objects of study—that is, as media—and what was defined as research. In Sweden during the 1960s and 1970s, there were many different interpretations. And almost as many answers.