Antonio Gramsci’s theory of Hegemony in explaining the ideological role of television.

In layman’s terms: people are sheep.


Karl Marx believed that once the subordinate classes recognised their oppression they would eventually raise up against the ruling class, however Antonio Gramsci a classical Marxist viewed this process differently; he believed that society was not only determined by the economy, as Marx did but also by thoughts and feelings as well, “man is not ruled by force alone, but also by ideas.” (Bates, 1975, p. 351)


Gramsci developed the concept of Hegemony in order to explain why revolution from the subordinate classes did not happen very often. One of his ideas was that the dominant classes used the modes of production, such as the media, to broadcast their ideologies to the subordinate classes and therefore normalised them. Society can see the dominant ideology simply as ‘common sense’ and consent to this ideology with the belief that it will, in some sense, benefit them. Storey explains, “Hegemony is maintained (and must be continually maintained: it is an on-going process) by dominant groups and classes ‘negotiating’ with, and making concessions to, subordinate groups and classes.” (Storey, 2009, pp. 124-125)
“The media also divert people’s attention from the exploitation and inequality characteristic of capitalist society by glorifying and encouraging consumption”. (Murdock, Golding cited in J. Fulcher and J.Scott;, 2011, p. 353)


If you want to control the subordinate classes you give them a range of things in order to satisfy their resistance. The media have a heavy influence on the views and opinions of society. People can be manipulated into accepting their own oppression and inequality as ’normal, natural, an inevitable fact of life’. Television and the media is controlled by the capitalist elite within society, they have access to the means of production, which the subordinate classes are obscured from. Advertising Is a method of distraction, if people want material items to consume, they will feel satisfied once this has been achieved and thus will be happy, Gramsci argues that is part of the elitist ideology and by providing a means and need for consumption revolution can be avoided.


Michael O’Shaughnessy states that “in contributing to the establishment of Hegemony, ‘popular culture’ (television)does contradictory things: it wins the support of the people while maintaining the power of the dominant groups and the oppression of the people. Herein lies the fascination and central contradiction of ‘popular culture’ and television in their ability to do both these things at once, gratifying the people and contributing to their enslavement.” (Michael O’Shaughnessy cited in Goodwin and Whannel, 1990, p. 90)


Deal or No deal is an example of how contemporary television is relevant to the theory of Hegemony; it has a very strong ideology contained within the game, it offers the subordinate classes’ entertainment and pleasure whilst satisfying their need for revolution against the dominant classes. The banker represents the dominant classes and the objective is to ‘beat the banker’ as Noel Edmonds would say. The reward being a cash prize which when asked is often geared towards contributing to trivial desires, such as a holiday or paying off student debts. It emphasis’ how important luck is, subordinate classes see this in their own lives, they have just been unlucky, that dominant classes have just been lucky to be where they are, you can’t revolt against luck. When someone beats the banker, it provides pleasure for the viewing audience and other contestants, triumphant in victory and humble in defeat. It makes the subordinate classes feel as if something important has been achieved. Once the programme has ended the underclasses feel fulfilled that someone has challenged the banker, regardless of wither they have won or lost, and the notion of revolution and need for resistance is forgotten., by giving voice to the subordinate classes situation they are satisfied and refrain from taking any form of action. Another example of Hegemony in Television can be seen in police dramas and the crime genre, shows such as The Bill and Crime stoppers. The ideology of dominant classes is expressed by showing the subordinate classes what is right and what is wrong, it voices that those who commit a crime will be caught and will be punished. Often when we see these storylines unfold the criminal is from the subordinate classes and the victim is often from the ruling classes, subconsciously suggesting that the ruling classes are incapable of petty crime.“Using the ideal world-pattern, they also depict the rules to which every member of society has to abide, as long as s/he does not want to belong to the world of crime.” (Pinseler, 2007, p. 4)


Hegemony characterizes social relations as a series of struggles for power, this struggle is constantly shifting and the dominant classes are constantly changing, for example if we look at the journey of, Judith Keppel now best known for her part in the bbc2 quiz show The Eggheads. Judith first appeared on the well-known, international show Who Wants to be a Millionaire and was the first person to win the million pound jackpot in the UK. If we consider Gramsci’s theory of Hegemony, the subordinate classes would be supporting Judith; they would want her to win, although she is a member of the upper-class society, simply for proof that the system could be beaten. However when Judith first appeared on The Eggheads, she became the system, a member of the dominant class who the underdogs needed to overthrow in order to win. Thus emphasising that Hegemony is never fully complete and is a constant struggle for dominance, this struggle means that classes are constantly competing for power and are using the media and television especially as their battle ground.


Hegemony’s usefulness with regard to explaining the role of ideology in television can be questioned, the theory evidently points out that ideology does exist within the text in a variety of ways. Advertising sparks consumerism, and consuming provides satisfaction. Escapist programs provide the subordinate classes with aspirational values instead of jealousy and give them something to ‘strive towards.’ Certain genres express and maintain social order while others give the audience revolution which rather than fuel the need to revolt satisfies this need. However Hegemony seems to assume that all audience members are passive, and does not consider how an audience member who is active will react to the ideology within the programs. It also does not consider television consumption and the way in which people watch TV, it could simply be background noise and not religiously watched.


My point is that people use the media as a form of escapism, they believe in small victories and would rather sit on the sofa than seek revolution from their lesser state within society. People have become numb to what they watch and the lines between reality and fiction are often blurred. What people cease to understand is that those who control the media control the content which we as a society view. The majority of what we view provides our need for escapism from the very reality in which we live, so quite frankly, the majority of the human race bare a considerable resemblance to sheep.


Bates, T. (1975). Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony. Journal of the History of Ideas , 351-366.
Femia, J. V. (1987). Gramsci’s Political Thought: Hegemony, Conciousness, and the Revolutionary Process. Oxford University Press.
Fiske, J. (1987). Television Culture. Routledge.
j.Hoffman. (1984). The Gramscian Challenge: Coercion and Consent in Marxist Political Theory. Basil Blackwell.
Michael O’Shaughnessy cited in Goodwin and Whannel. (1990). Box Pop: Popular Television and Hegemony.Routledge.
Murdock, Golding cited in J. Fulcher and J.Scott;. (2011). Sociology. Oxford University Press.
Pinseler, J. (2007). Power and Hegemony in Reality Crime Programmes. On the Relevance of a Cultural Studies Approach for Analysing Media, 4.

Bronagh Doherty


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