The culture industry past, present and future

Last week in my discussion sections for Contemporary Sociological Theory we covered Horkheimer and Adorno’s concept of the ‘culture industry.’  In a nutshell, as far back as 1944 these two had serious concerns about the growth of mass communications. They were particularly worried about our shift away from recreational activities that involved active participation (like playing music or talking on the telephone) to things that required only a passive absorption of programming created by an increasingly centralized industry (such as film and radio).

Here’s how we worked through the concept…

First, we tackled the big questions:

  1. What is the historical context in which Horkheimer and Adorno wrote?
  2. Why were Horkheimer and Adorno surprised by the events of their times?
  3. What is the question driving their work?
  4. How do Horkheimer and Adorno answer this question?

To help the students answer these questions, I showed this video of Disneyland’s “Carousel of Progress” Act as it was shown from 1967-1973 (thanks for the suggestion Bernie Zaleha!).  This exhibit took place well after Horkheimer and Adorno published their critique, but I still found it helpful in visualizing an approximation of the historical moment in which Horkheimer and Adorno wrote.

After we answered the four questions above to our satisfaction, I showed this clip from the movie Wall-E. Each week a handful of my students are responsible for submitting media items for use in class, and I thought this one was particularly effective at illustrating a futuristic take on the culture industry.

Next, students divided into small groups to find quotes from the reading that illustrated content from both videos.  They spent 10 or 15 minutes on this task, and then we discussed their quotes together as a larger group.  Finally, we discussed whether or not Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of the culture industry is still relevant today.

All in all, I had a lot of fun. And usually if I’m having a good time, there’s a decent chance my students are too. : )

Teaching classical sociological theory through the media

Each quarter I try structuring my classes differently so that I can experiment with a variety of teaching styles. This quarter I worked as a teaching assistant for my department’s “Classical Sociological Theory” class, which covers changes in European and U.S society that occurred during and after the Industrial Revolution.  I required each student to sign up for one week in which to turn in a relevant media piece and an accompanying one-page essay.  Here are the instructions I gave them:

Each of you are responsible for finding a news article, short video, cartoon, photo collection or other piece of media relevant to our readings once during the quarter. Your assignment is to select a media piece (10 min. max) that will help the rest of the students relate what we are reading about to current events, or help them understand one of the week’s theories better in its historical context.  E-mail me a link to this item the Friday before discussion section, along with a one page type-written paper describing how you suggest using the item in class and what its strengths and limitations are for understanding the relevant theory. 

I really liked this assignment.  I designed it primarily to give me ideas to use as a starting place for what to do in class each week, but it has educational value for the students too.  Each week I had between 5-8 one-page papers to skim for ideas.  I didn’t always end up using something that the students suggested, but they always got my mind moving in the right direction.

Sometimes I organized the entire class around one or more media pieces, and other times they played much more marginal roles.  I used them in a variety of ways:

  • showed the media piece and asked the students to identify which theory it best illustrated
  • showed the media piece and asked the students what a particular theorist would think of the events depicted
  • prepared an ungraded quiz in which the students first watched a series of media clips, then individually responded to written questions that asked them to identify which theory the clips best illustrate
  • played the clips while the students came into class or while I took attendance to set the tone for class
  • showed clips to give students a sense of the historical context in which a particular theorist lived

When everything works well, the media pieces help make theory less abstract and more memorable, help students relate to theory by showing its relevance to current events, and test the boundaries of student understanding of theory by asking them to apply it in a new context and identify what parts of the theory fit and what don’t.

Next time I use this approach, I’d like to spend more time discussing the limitations of using the theory in question to interpret the media piece.  I expect this would help the students understand the theories in a more nuanced way, but I often ran out of time to do it.

Mini media library

Here are my favorite pieces. Some of these were submitted by students, some I found myself, and some are from other teaching assistants and faculty.  I did not use all of them in class.





  • Mechanical society: Baraka clip

The enlightenment and the counter-enlightenment