We know much about how news media contribute to political knowledge and engagement, but much less about the role played by entertainment media. ‘From Entertainment to Citizenship' was an Economic and Social Research Council project (RES-000-22-2700) that investigated the ways in which first-time voters used popular culture to articulate political attitudes and values, especially in relation to ideas of citizenship. It revealed that news and current affairs were not the only sources of political knowledge, and that entertainment may be both a form of political education and engagement. Where researchers like Robert Putman have suggested that entertainment television tends to be correlated with civic disengagement, we suggest that the opposite may be the case. To this extent, our findings accord with those researchers, such as Liesbet van Zoonen, who see analogies between fan communities and citizen involvement in politics. An external reviewer of the final ESRC report of the project reported that it was good to see ‘that popular culture is taken seriously, but not in an abstract way, rather as an empirical set of practices and in its own terms'. Another commended us on ‘the combination of sophisticated theory and empirical study.'
Rather than treating popular culture as a single entity, the project revealed how different forms of culture are used differently to make sense of politics and to respond to it. This was established through a comparative study of a number of forms of popular culture: television, music and videogames. Textual analysis was combined with interviews and focus groups in schools in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.
Our project advanced understanding in three ways: firstly, unlike previous research we did not limit our research to an analysis of television, but compared television with video games and popular music. Secondly, we ask what it was about a particular medium's mode of address and ways of storytelling that engaged audiences. Thirdly, our project took seriously the 'irrational' in civic engagement and acknowledged the role of emotions in political action.
One of the themes that emerged in the research was the attitude of young people to ‘celebrity politics'. They were quite sceptical of the motives and relevance of figures like Bono and Bob Geldof, but on the other hand they were prepared to countenance the Top Gear presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, become prime minister. As one of our respondents said: ‘The country would be so much better. I don't know if you get the Sun on the Saturday, but he always has his little page in there and it's just great, all the things he says are true.' What some young people say about politics and popular culture:
‘I learn a lot more from One Tree Hill than sometimes what I learn from the news'. (Katrina, year 13)
‘I would listen to more politics in a song than if a politician was talking. If they made up a rap about what the issues were I would listen to it, instead of them just talking. I think in some ways it's just easier to understand'. (Thomas, year 13)
‘You are more drawn to musicians who appear passionate about something. It is kind of someone to look up to because they are giving you their view on things when sometimes it is really hard to form your own view on things because you've got so much information coming in from everywhere.' (Sam, year 12)
'The only access we have to politics is the grown up programmes like the news and stuff, you don't understand everything on there like what every party believes and all that kind of stuff'. (Paul, year 12)
J. Street, S. Inthorn and M. Scott, From Entertainment to Citizenship: politics and popular culture, Manchester University Press, forthcoming in 2013
S. Inthorn, J. Street, and M. Scott (2012), ‘Popular culture as a resource for political engagement', Cultural Sociology, available online early
J. Street, S. Inthorn & M. Scott (2012) ‘Playing at Politics: popular culture as political engagement', Parliamentary Affairs, 65(2), 338-358
M. Scott, J. Street and S. Inthorn (2011) ‘From entertainment to citizenship: a comparative study of the political uses of popular culture', International Journal of Cultural Studies, 14(5), 499-514
S. Inthorn and J. Street (2010) ‘Simon Cowell for Prime Minister: Young citizens' attitudes toward celebrity politics', Media, Culture and Society, 33(3), 479-490
J. Street and S. Inthorn (2010) ‘"You're an American rapper, so what do you know?" The political uses of British and US popular culture by first-time voters in the UK', New Political Science, 32(4), 2010, pp. 471-484
Both Sanna Inthorn and John Street have appeared on BBC R4's Thinking Allowed on 25/30 May 2011 and 12/17 October 2011. In addition, the research has been discussed by: Associated Press, Huffington Post, CTV News, Boston Herald, Radio Sheffield, The Independent, Radio Norfolk, Swedish Radio and NPR in the US.
Further details of the research can be found on the ESRC website or from a brochure that summarises the key findings. This is available online or as a hard copy from Professor John Street, Political, Social and International Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ or firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have any comments or queries please email Professor John Street or Dr Sanna Inthorn, or write to them at: Political, Social and International Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ