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This review appeared in Volume 10(3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Critical Representations

by Stephen Harold Riggins

Representing 'Race': Ideology, Identity and the Media. Robert Ferguson London: Co-published by Arnold Press and Oxford University Press, 1998. 301 pages. ISBN: 0-340-69238-3.

Electronic Media and Indigenous Peoples: A Voice of Our Own? Donald R. Browne. Ames, Iowa: Iowa University Press, 1996. 288 pages. ISBN: O-8138-2316-1.

The field of communication studies might be subdivided into three domains of inquiry: the study of media production, textual information, and audience reception. Representing 'Race' by Robert Ferguson is an informative contribution to the first of these topics; Donald Browne's meticulous Electronic Media and Indigenous Peoples, to the second. Although these books might seem unrelated, there is a link in that ethnic minority journalism is partly a reaction to the racism of mainstream media. In reviewing these two books my theoretical concern will be with how they relate to one blind spot in their enterprise, stereotypes of "us" and "them."

Ferguson identifies himself as a "white middle-aged male educator who grew up in a small country town in the south of England" (p. 6). The originality of his book Representing 'Race' lies in his case studies which are quite diverse in terms of genre. They include investigations of racism in television talk shows, cinema, documentaries, children's television, print and broadcast news. He considers the basic theme to be the necessity of grounding the study of racism in a sophisticated theory of ideology. The first three chapters are thorough critical summaries of the literature on ideology and representation in which Ferguson is less concerned about originality than systematically building on past research. He traces a familiar path (Marx, Gramsci, Marcuse, and Althusser), concluding that in his estimation Stuart Hall is the most relevant contemporary theorist. Ferguson is not willing to conceptualize commonsense as an incorrect understanding of class interests. He agrees with Hall's rejection of conspiracy theories in which elites are assumed to successfully manipulate the public via mass media. Hegemony operates by "hailing" subjects via mass-mediated discourses that are inevitably full of tension and contradictions particularly for asubject as sensitive as minority representation. Thus social order is "not a natural state of affairs" (p. 36). Nonetheless, in line with a number of contemporary researchers, Ferguson views the creative role of readers or viewers as constrained by the objective content of texts.

Skipping for the moment chapter four on Oprah Winfrey, the fifth chapter examines popular Hollywood films that are both educational and entertaining, such as Malcolm X and Schindler's List. Ferguson's preoccupations include the simplification of the political opinions and personal lives of heros through the tension between realism and beautifying. In the next chapter on tabloids and broadsheets he looks into how racism and Otherness in general are reflected in news stories, including sports and war. His impression is that change in media representation of race in the past years has been relatively superficial, a position shared by other researchers who apply critical discourse analysis to print media more extensively and systematically than is done in this book.

Chapter six deals with normality and includes one of the highlights of the volume, Ferguson's self-analysis of the public reaction to his critique of the popular British program for children Blue Peter. A chapter on television news, current affairs, and documentary concludes that such programs are "more likely to work to an agenda which is liberally tormented but shy of overt anti-racist positioning" (p. 196). He argues that although children need to be sheltered from realistic scenes of violence, the tendency of children's programs on history to emphasize the good in traumatic events inevitably glorifies dominant groups. Next is a chapter on the "unpopular popular," films that deal with disturbing conditions in a less entertaining manner than is characteristic of Hollywood genres. They may challenge standard representations of race but at some level still imply an identity with dominant groups and do not suggest in a convincing manner that social change is a practical possibility. The concluding case studies are about representations of the nation in Australia and Israel.

The chapter on the Oprah Winfrey Show stands out in the volume because of the thoroughness of the analysis. It is also a good illustration of Ferguson's general approach to media studies. The theoretical relevance of Winfrey lies in her inconsistent position with respect to race and class.Racially, Winfrey is in the position of a minority; but given her financial success, a member of the economically privileged. More rhetorically, Ferguson writes: "Oprah Winfrey is in the impossible position of trying to maintain her credibility as an African American while defending the hopes and aspirations of entrepreneurial capitalism against the onslaught of the dispossessed and the disillusioned" (p. 86).

Ferguson notes that the generic characteristics of television talk shows, the carnivalesque atmosphere of two or more antagonists and audience participation, fragment the discussion of any topic. Such shows are a "confused and vituperative montage" of arguments and counter-arguments. In this episode the montage is a construction of four competing topics: the injustices of poverty, racial discrimination, looting, and police violence. One of the analyst's interests is in ascertaining which topic prevails. The frame introduced by Winfrey (or by the show's producers) is the question: why are Black people so angry? The question is one that is likely to be posed by whites since the answer would already be known to a majority of Black viewers. Prominent labels in the lexical strategies that reveal tension within the micro-dimensions of encounters are the terms brother and sister, which may be used cynically, insultingly, or as an appeal for solidarity.

The program seems to function primarily as a cathartic release that grants some symbolic recognition to the speakers' perspectives even if they must shout to be heard. Emotionally sympathetic, Winfrey is on several occasions unable to control the direction of the talk. But not much should be made of this given the influence of editing, pre-recorded interviews, commercial breaks, the framing effects of opening and concluding remarks, and audience identification with one of the stars of daytime television. The multiracial nature of the United States (Blacks and Hispanics participated in the looting; Korean-Americans and Euro-Americans were victimized) tends to be reduced to one dimension, Black versus White.

But the most constrained discourse of all is that of class which is nearly absent from the program. From Gamson's (1998) research on talk shows we know that they foster some tolerance of "sexual deviants." Ferguson argues that this episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show did not emphasizetolerance with respect to looting because the protection of property is such a crucial and shared value in capitalist society. Another possibility, citing Gamson again, is that one of Winfrey's discursive strategies is to present herself as a victim. This would not be convincing in terms of class, although it would be for race. That her audience tends to be more middle class than comparable shows is also not insignificant. At the end of the show, and admitting her own intellectual limitations, Winfrey says that viewers should be "willing in [their] own selves to make a difference." Characteristically, it is a kind of plastic speech which can be stretched to mean practically anything to anyone.

The strength of this chapter is Ferguson's concentration on one single episode of a television show. But this is also its weakness. The analysis would benefit from more awareness of talk shows as a genre, specifically a feminine genre; and how Oprah Winfrey situates herself and the program within the spectrum of other talk shows. Gamson compares her style of uniting the personal and the taboo with the talking cure of psychotherapy. Ferguson's methodological approach might be questioned on several grounds. More numerical measures of the prominence of themes, such as counting seconds, or the level of studio audience participation might help give a sense of how targeted audiences are likely to understand the program. Ferguson unnecessarily influences readers' critical distance by his tendency to convey his own opinions about textual meanings at the beginning of chapters rather than in the conclusions. He also tends to paraphrase instead of providing the verbatim dialogues that would be the object of study in critical discourse analysis. This is a particular danger in analyzing popular culture because it is so ephemeral that many readers will not have seen a specific film or television show or they may have kept only vague memories. Quoting conversations more extensively would give readers the information allowing them to ascertain more objectively if they agreed with the analyst. It is indicative of these methodological weaknesses that when the research of Teun Van Dijk is mentioned, his methodology is called content analysis rather than critical discourse analysis. Normally, the two would be contrasted as opposites because of the much closer look at lexical and rhetorical strategies encouraged in critical discourse analysis.

Several generalizations about the portrayal of minorities in mainstream mass media have been documented by extensive research in the social sciences, but it is not possible to say with certainty that the Oprah Winfrey Show is consistent with all of these findings given that there are at least two minorities in this episode: (1) Minority groups are more likely to be denigrated than appreciated or exoticized. (2) Attention is given to minorities when they create social problems for the majority. (3) Minority groups are perceived as homogeneous categories. (4) Preferred labels for minority groups, such as foreigners, tend to be vague. (5) Articles about minorities are relatively superficial. (6) Majority-group journalists tend to empathize less with members of minority groups. The last generalization is not applicable to the Oprah Winfrey Show. Otherwise, I suspect the show supports the rest of the conclusions.

Donald Browne is a Professor in the department of Speech-Communication at the University of Minnesota. Like Ferguson (and the reviewer), he is a white academic. His book Electronic Media and Indigenous People is undoubtedly the definitive book on this subject for the 1980s and mid-90s. It has great practical value for any minority journalist, whether working in electronic or print media, because of the way Browne presents the diversity of organizational and programming choices that are currently practiced. Although he does not write about minority journalism in the broadest sense but about indigenous-minority journalism, it is clear from other studies that the similarities shared by all types of minority journalism are more evident than the differences. The fact that indigenous minorities operate in a somewhat different political climate because their claims for resources are more likely to be honored than those of recent immigrants does not seem to have a great impact on programming or organizational structure. Browne's research is rather non-theoretical probably because he is interested in representing the experiences of practicing journalists who are not greatly concerned about general theories of communication and ideology. He mentions in passing, though, that his work is influenced by cultural dependency theory (e.g., Rita Cruise O'Brien, Peter Golding, James Curran).

Chapter two offers a brief but detailed history of indigenous broadcasting. From its inception in the 1920s radio broadcasting, which is relatively cheap, could have been organized to serve local indigenous communities. This was not done anywhere in the world because of xenophobia and nationalism. For all practical purposes, indigenous electronic broadcasting began in the 1960s; most of the stations Browne studies are less than ten years old. The real heart of his book is in chapters three and four which set forth with exceptional clarity the diversity of choices that confront minority broadcasters. Without trying to be exhaustive, they include decisions about which language or dialect should be used; the role of speakers who are less than fluent in the minority language; whether professionalism should be defined differently than it is by mainstream broadcasters; where the balance should be set between education and entertainment; how best to appeal to a diversity of audience tastes and ages; and finally, choices about financing and regulation. Chapter five is a close look at Maori broadcasting in New Zealand. Chapter six concentrates on questions of language use. Chapter seven addresses the political content in programming.

One might anticipate that indigenous-minority media would be radically different from commercial mainstream media. This is rarely true, however. After visiting broadcast enterprises in three dozen countries, Browne (p. 206) concludes that "they tend, on the whole, to be quite conservative." In my own research (Riggins 1992) I also concluded that there is a lot of inadvertent assimilationism in ethnic-minority newspapers. This is not the stated goal of journalists and it would be cut back, if they had more professional resources. Indigenous journalists borrow commercial genres in a relatively uncritical way; dominant perspectives are over-represented. Nonetheless, Browne is not pessimistic about the future prospects of minority broadcasting. He claims in the last chapter on the future of minority broadcasting: "The future... looks cautiously bright. Put another way, the media have matured to the point where they will lose their foothold only if indigenous peoples themselves neglect or abuse them" (P. 243).

It is unfortunate that the concept of stereotype, by whatever name it is called, has nearly vanishedfrom recent research in communication and cultural studies. The term is not listed in either Ferguson's or Browne's index. Browne does explain why indigenous-minority journalists do not try hard to change the negative stereotypes that majority groups have formed of them (p. 65). It is their perception that shaping the public opinion of the majority is nearly impossible and that it would entail a financial burden on organizations which are already underfunded. They also believe that their broadcasting stations should be oriented to their own group, not the majority. This often includes broadcasting in their own endangered languages which the majority does not understand. Lastly, indigenous-minority journalists may reject the parroting of commercial genres required to reach the majority.

Rather than relegating stereotype to the history of the social sciences is it not possible to theoretically reformulate the concept to give it new relevance for contemporary research? The most abstract stereotypes are "us" and "them." The question that needs to be asked is how us and them are going to be experienced in the near future in an increasingly multicultural and global society characterized by mass migration, hybridity, and mimicry, but nonetheless dominated by American mass media. My argument is that in an approaching era of "ungrounded empires," us and them will become more unstable than they appear to be in Ferguson's book. Researchers have reached a saturation point in writing about the organizational structure of minority media. Researchers who follow in Browne's footsteps are likely to focus on the content of minority media and will thus also need to reformulate stereotyped notions of us and them.

In the 1970s it was assumed that stereotypes were inevitably pejorative. They were supposed to be opinions about geographically or psychologically distant groups, minorities or the oppressed. They were simplistic and one-dimensional categories. Stereotypes had no basis in fact, were rigid and resistant to change; and they determined behavior (Perkins 1979). Research in the 1980s and 90s has modified all of these assumptions, although they seem to remain part of the conceptual apparatus conveyed in undergraduate sociology courses. Psychoanalytically inspired scholars such as Homi Bhabha now argue that emotional ambivalence is a characteristic of stereotypes in thatthey embody both derision and desire. The term stereotype should not be used to imply that the public has no freedom of choice when stereotyped thinking comes into play. The semiotician Robert Hodge (1998) notes that while stereotypes strengthen solidarity and encourage conformity, they are also a characteristic of the language of resistance; stereotypes are used by conservatives as well as by revolutionaries. Stereotypes are considered to be apparently true and really false in that they conceal the causes of difference. Since the self is defined according to a variety of characteristics, not just one, the politics of one stereotype cannot easily be analyzed in isolation from the others. It is assumed today that minorities are powerful enough to resist and subvert ideological forces that do not serve their group interests. Finally, scholars are writing that stereotypes are an effect of the discourse process itself and the linguistic repertoires people use rather than being cognitive structures in their own right. This is consistent with trying to discover the prejudice hidden behind tolerant appearances.

In order to develop and maintain a shared identity group members must learn to articulate not only what they have in common but also how they differ from other groups. Thus the "Other" refers to all people the self perceives as mildly or radically different, exotic, or foreign. It should be conceptualized as a range of positions within systems of difference. Those who fervently distinguish between self and Other rarely realize the illusory nature of the opposition. The two are so intertwined that in order to stop talking about them, one must stop talking about us.

Most social scientists would agree that there is a dialectical interaction occurring between majority and minority, but the theoretical implications of this idea remain in an embryonic stage. If there is a self and Others in the psychic life of both majority and minority, it is insufficient to gather information only about the majority's Others, the most frequent topic of research for understandable political reasons. This point of view should be balanced by examining ethnic-minority media in order to understand the rhetorical strategies of self-representation used by a minority group as well as the way its members perceive powerful outsiders. Certainly anecdotal evidence of minority autostereotypes and Others have appeared in print, but they tend to beautobiographies, literature, or history.

Stuart Hall (1994: 392) writes that identity should be understood "as a 'production' which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside representation." Hall introduces the concept "play of difference" as a way of representing the dual consciousness characteristic of minority groups. Dependent economically and/or culturally on a dominant majority, minority-group members are exposed to much information about the majority's Others. Intermingled with the celebratory and defiant discourses of the minority self are likely to be lingering elements of shame and ambivalence.

The constant switching of positions which characterizes the construction of the social self might be conceptualized using the notion of chiasmus, which means to order in the shape of the letter X. In linguistics and rhetoric chiasmus or inverted symmetry refers to a two-part structure in which the second part repeats the first but in reverse order: ab-ba. A frequently quoted literary example is from Macbeth: "Fair is foul and foul is fair." The metaphor of chiasmus helps to keep in mind the idea that dual consciousness results in each self being self-skeptical. Consequently, the self-Other dialogue should not be conceptualized from the minority's perspective as a simple binary opposition, but in terms of four unstable positions: the minority self and Other, and the majority self and Other. Members of a minority group highly assimilated into a majority group could assume any of the four positions, depending on the situation. Although he does not explore the issue, Ralf Norman (1986) in his study of the nineteenth-century British author Samuel Butler suggests that chiasmatic thinking may be more common in some groups than in others. I suggest that it is most typical of members of minority groups well integrated into their own community but at the same time acculturated by a majority population.

Norman coined the term "chiasticism" to designate a particular way of experiencing and conceptualizing oppositions. He claims that chiasmatic thinking consists of five principles: (1) dualism, (2) antithesis, (3) inversion, (4) negativity, and (5) a longing for an elusive balance. Chiasticists tend to think in strict dualistic terms; the middle has no substance. This requiresnoticing only the differences between categories, ignoring the way categories may overlap or allow for intermediary terms or even substantially resemble each other. Chiasticists may, nonetheless, voice longings for a union of opposites, but conclude that this is impossible. If categories are perceived as reversible, they must be seen as equally plausible although different. According to Norman, in situations in which the two categories are not equally likely to happen this imbalance is not taken into account by the chiasticist. Denial is likely to lead to a preference for the weaker side in social controversies and to changing sides when it appears that the loser is about to become the winner.

The autobiographical writings of the Mexican-American Richard Rodriguez, who is a working journalist in print and broadcast media, convey better than most sociology the negotiated quality of chiasmatic ethnicity. His books can be read as points of entry into the inconsistencies, paradoxes, and fuzzy logic characteristic of popular discourses on ethnic and national identities. Although many genuine differences between ethnic groups have faded due to modernization and globalization, insiders and outsiders still insist on constructing and displaying plays of difference. Rodriguez rejects the Euro-American system of labels for himself; however, his substitutions are equally simplistic. He seems to have restricted Mexicans to dark-skinned, Catholic pessimists; Euro-Americans (which he calls Californians) to light-skinned, Protestant optimists. Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father conveys a pervasive sense of nostalgia for a lost traditional past and an awareness that the Euro-American public is uncomfortable with overlapping ethnic categories. Whether Rodriguez himself accepts or rejects the union of opposites is debatable.

In Days of Obligation Rodriguez highlights his ambiguities towards Mexico. The introduction opens with the author vomiting in a Mexican village that resembles the places where his parents grew up. He admits that his knowledge of Spanish, actually his own first language at home in California, suffers in comparison to the ability of the sophisticated Mexicans he meets to speak English. Due to his "American fear of Mexico," he cancels a trip to Mexico City three times and when he finally goes to Tijuana he spends every night at a hotel across the border in San Diego.

While Rodriguez is not as ambivalent about California, he finds the optimism of California unconvincing. He sees the human costs of social and geographic mobility, the misunderstanding between generations. His Mexican parents live in a California home "with four telephones, three televisions, and several empty bedrooms" (p. xvii). Optimism also seems to require a kind of historical amnesia in contrast to his cultivation of the past. Rodriguez recounts at least three systems of self and Other. In his terms they are: (1) Californian and Mexican, (2) European and Indian, (3) Rodriguez as a middle-aged man and as a boy. But Rodriguez is Californian and Mexican; European and Indian; in the realm of the imagination, simultaneously boy and man. His location in these dichotomies constantly shifts, depending on the situation:

America has long imaged itself clean, crew-cut, ingenious. We are an odorless, colorless, accentless, orderly people, put upon and vulnerable to the foreign. Aliens are carriers of chaos -- Mexicans are obviously carriers of chaos -- their backs are broken with bundles of it: gray air, brown water, papacy, leprosy, crime, diarrhea, white powders, and a language full of newts and cicadas.

Mexico does not say it publicly but Mexico perceived America as sterile, as sterilizing, as barren as the nose of a missile. "Don't drink the water in Los Angeles," goes the joke, "it will clear you out like a scalpel." Because Americans are barren by choice, Americans are perceived by Mexico as having relinquished gravity. Within the porticos of the great churches of Mexico are signs reminding visitors to behave with dignity. The signs are in English (p. 91).

The moment Rodriguez embraces one self, he recounts in unflattering terms how that self appears in the eyes of the Other. In that sense it could be said that a chiasmatic system of self and Other revolves around negativity. Each time Rodriguez offers an opinion one expects the next sentence to begin with: but, on the other hand, nonetheless, or however. He is habitually, programmatically inconsistent. Like a number of postmodern authors, he sees hybridity as the defining characteristic of postmodernity. This places third-world countries such as Mexico at the center of world eventsrather than at the periphery.

How should one deal with all these inconsistencies and irreconcilable, shifting labels and facets of self and Other? The solution -- at least to Rodriguez -- is "irresolution," not some hidden, half-forgotten connection that is socially imposed. This would be consistent with the opinion of researchers who believe that in the postmodern world ethnic identity is losing its territorial base and becoming increasingly fluid. In a multicultural world of ethnic options the once-powerful nation state is just the central point in a postnational network of diasporas.

Is this an idiosyncratic psychological phenomenon, a pathological form like schizophrenia or paranoia or is it a form of thinking that is conditioned by dominant discourses of exclusion with their skewed values and contradictions? If the latter is correct, then the minority self oscillates between two or more constraining discourses of representation which can only be negated. Irony alone can provide an escape from this form of perpetual double-bind.


Gamson, J. (1998) Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hall, S. (1994) "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." In P. Williams and L. Chrisman (Eds.) Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 392-403.

Hodge, R. (1998) "Stereotype." In P. Bouissac (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Semiotics and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 596-598.

Norman, R. (1986) Samuel Butler and the Meaning of Chiasmus. London: Macmillan.

Perkins, T. (1979) "Rethinking Stereotypes." In M. Barrett et al. (Eds.) Ideology and Cultural Production. New York: St. Martin's Press, 135-159.

Riggins, S. (Ed.) (1992) Ethnic Minority Media: An International Perspective. Sage: Newbury Park, CA.

Rodriguez, R. (1992) Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father. New York:Penguin.

Stephen Harold Riggins (sriggins@morgan.ucs.mun.ca) is Associate Professor of Sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's. He is the editor of The Language and Politics of Exclusion: Others in Discourse (Sage, 1997), The Socialness of Things: Essays on the Socio-semiotics of Objects (Mouton de Gruyter, 1994), Ethnic Minority Media: An International Perspective (Sage, 1992), and Beyond Goffman: Studies on Communication, Institution and Social Interaction (Mouton de Gruyter 1990).

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