Cultural Influence of the Internet. The World Wide Web as an Institution of Symbolic Violence as Conceptualize by Pierre Bourdieu

Piotr Pawlak


My adoption of the term ‘mass recipient’ clearly indicates that under this analysis I will perceive the World Wide Web as a mass medium. Nowadays, there seems to be nothing striking about approaching the Internet on equal terms with the television, radio and press. Nevertheless, in my presentation I would like to point out several key features, which make this mass medium global. I mean its scope, the fastness of information delivery and the uninterrupted continuity of ‘operation’.

When discussing the Internet in the context of Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of ‘symbolic violence’, I also wish to draw particular attention to its technical aspects. The application of technical solutions has given the World Wide Web its shape and specificity. Consequently, a unique manner of information storage and accessibility was created. The features delineated in my work seem to assign the characteristics of Bourdieu’s institution of symbolic violence to the new medium. Such a perception of the global computer network challenges the generally accepted theoretical model of Internet communication. Furthermore, it sheds new light on the issue of the real independence of individual users as well as the entire virtual communities. The subject I wish to elaborate on also triggers a discussion over the Web 2.0.

I opted for adoption of Bourdieu’s ideas owing to their universality. The system of terms and premises pioneered by this French sociologist and culture researcher can serve as an excellent tool for various analyses of social and cultural relations, in particular domination-related relations. Bearing in mind the problems, which are the focal point of my work, what is especially interesting is Bourdieu’s description of the process of symbolic culture imbuing into the social awareness. To his mind, it is dependent on the class structure and economic relations system. My underlying thesis is that the new medium is an example of an institutionalized form of symbolic violence.

What seems to be an essential feature of symbolic violence is its institutionalization. This means that it is disseminated through institutions established or adjusted for this end. My first task will be to illustrate that the Web can be comprehended as an institution. The Internet is under an immense influence of a system of regulations adopted by special institutions, which aim at its shaping. Since the advent of the Web, American institutions have been managing its particular aspects. Currently, international entities, which directly originate from the American government bodies, play the role (such as W3C or ICANN). What is more, in majority of cases, American specialists sit in their supervisory bodies. Furthermore, the entire institutional aspects of the Internet have been under the incessant leverage of large corporations and are in the hub of various relations with the American government. There is a powerful lobby behind the US ICT sector and it exerts pressure on the state information security policy. Hence, this, together with the pertinent legislation, translate into the present image of the whole Web (due to the fact the US has the highest number of servers, computers and Web users and Internet service providers in the world). What goes irrevocably hand in hand with the issue is the heavy monopolization of the ICT sector. This issue will also be elaborated herein.

The Internet-based symbolic violence aims at recreation of a defined structure of powers (between classes or groups), and therefore at instituting a particular ‘habitus’, which is particularly appreciated by the dominating groups in power. In order to specify the modern dominating classes or groups (operating worldwide) Bourdieu writes about, I will refer to the concept of cultural imperialism by Herbert Shiller. It presupposes that the US is in the center of the global economic system and the global international corporations represent the most fundamental organizational entities of today’s capitalism. The core of the Shiller system, which is based on the values attributed to the North American culture, through the institution of symbolic violence, that is the mass media (in this particular case this is the Internet), reproduces this arbitrary culture in places within its reach. In the aftermath of the process implementation, the classes subject to the symbolic violence, meaning the Internet users worldwide in this case, are engaged in the shaping of reality perception mechanisms, which goes in league with the interests and values of the arbitrary culture which is in the system’s center.

In order to attempt to present the workings of the Internet (which serves as the tool for the operation of the said symbolic violence) on its users, I refer to the ‘cultivation theory’ by George Gerbner. This is one of the best evidenced and the best developed theories, which interpret the long-term and indirect impact of the media, chiefly the television, on its recipients. As the Internet, as a mass medium is immensely popular, it seems to be the exclusive medium, which can compete with the television in terms of users’ attention absorption and time consumption. What is also worth considering is whether the Internet recipient (user) is in fact so different from the recipient (user) of traditional media. Can we, in reference to the Internet users, really discuss a new communication model, where the communication control power shifts from the sender to the recipient?

To my mind, such a train of conclusions is well-justified if we take into consideration the characteristic technical Internet features. Nevertheless, the possibilities behind this unrestricted, multilateral communication are in practice purely theoretical. The mass Internet users use the popular communication ‘centers’ (information, entertainment, post, auction services, etc.) in a manner similar to watching television programs. Yet, the commercial centers constantly battle over the mass recipients. In the context of the ‘symbolic violence’ the Internet users, in majority of cases, are merely consumers, who can to a small extent and only theoretically mark their presence in the Web and shape its workings. They are the recipients of a medium and of all it has to offer.