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Communication and Race: A Structural Approach (1998)

Gandy, Oscar H. Jr. Communication and Race: A Structural Approach. London: Arnold, 1998.

Reviewed by Brian Shoesmith, School of Communications and Multimedia, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia.

This book is an attempt to achieve a comprehensive survey of the current state of race and the media. The book comprises six chapters and includes an extensive bibliography. Chapter One outlines Gandy's position on race and communication where he declares his politics and theoretical disposition. Chapter Two is a lengthy account of social constructivism and how it applies to race studies. Chapter Three discusses the media system and its inability to deal adequately with race. Chapter Four covers theories of reflection and representation more than adequately, while Chapter Five covers cultural reproduction theory with some insight linking to notions of social transformation. The final chapter, "A critical research agenda," allows Gandy to tie all of the disparate themes together and present his case for a new critical agenda that constructs a new epistemology of race. The media will play a crucial role in this process, though transnational media is not dealt with specifically.

The role of the media is critical, it has been well argued, for framing thinking about race relations. Gandy would agree with this observation and sets out to prove it. This is an American textbook and it covers exhaustively every possible way of thinking about the issue of race and its complex and fraught relationship with the media. But as an American text it is framed very much within the American discourse of race where Afro-American concerns are paramount although Latino and Chicano and Native American issues do get a mention. In my view race and communication is a transcultural, global issue, and while Gandy mentions Afro-Caribbean concerns in the United Kingdom, Maori issues, and Australian Aboriginal matters, the African presence in Europe is neglected. In short, the book is rooted in American discourse, which is a disappointment given the importance of its subject. A greater emphasis on the transnational dimensions of this global problem would have produced a more rounded account. One imagines the text is based on Gandy's teaching course on the topic and one can have every confidence in using it as a text once the American bias is established. However, undergraduates will need some nursing through the book as it assumes readers are familiar with orthodox sociological theory.

What makes the book interesting, though, at another level, is the manner in which Gandy nails his colors to the mast. He is an unabashed social constructivist, drawing heavily upon Habermas and post-structuralism, and he says that cultural studies writing "seems to actively avoid talking about the politics of culture, and when it does, it tends to defer to the rule of the market" (p. 14). I have some sympathy with this view. However, later he states categorically, "I reject the label of cultural studies because I have come to associate it so closely with the anti-intellectual strain of radical post-modernist thinking that opposes the pursuit of theoretical knowledge, that denies the possibility as well as the utility of generalization, and characterizes political action as meaningless" (p. 17).

The problem, as I see it, is that Gandy draws upon many of those who have canonical status in cultural studies, such as Stuart Hall, Ien Ang, and Dave Morley, to make the more interesting points in his account. In short, he wants to have his cake and eat it too. But again I find myself ambivalent towards Gandy's argument. If I understand him correctly he is making a case against the extreme cultural relevance that seems to characterize some cultural studies and that clearly has no place in race studies, but a hard-edged exclusion of cultural studies is no solution to the problems troubling Gandy. It compounds, it seems to me, his dilemma.

Gandy is very good at demolishing the myths about race as a biological category and social classification, showing clearly how it is constructed through discourse. He also shows convincingly that race and ethnicity should not be conflated. The problem is simply that despite all of the political work, the academic research, the enquiries and polemics, little has changed. This is cause for concern, hence Gandy's insistence that we don't lose the politics of race in some postmodern relativism. This is in my view an admirable aim, as racial minorities are invariably disadvantaged by lack of economic power and through social fragmentation. Gandy identifies the reasons for this in the contemporary world almost in passing. As he points out, race is an unstable category, giving rise to ontological instability, and in a period of social transformation such as we have witnessed in the past generation, this gives rise to confusion.

Two final points: Like all such works Communication and Race has both strengths and weaknesses. Gandy's strengths are his rigor and diligence. Few books on this topic have the breadth and depth of analysis demonstrated here. He also demonstrates at a number of points a healthy skepticism towards psychological accounts of racism. The weaknesses are a willingness to accept without question the notion of the stereotype and the rejection of cultural studies discussed above. Communication and Race was published a few years back, yet it remains an important and relevant book. 

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