chapter  6
16 Pages

Celebrity politics, symbolic communication and media capital in the political field

This chapter looks at the symbolic and cultural forms of communication between politicians and their publics. In complex, mass-mediated democracies, parties increasingly adopt the promotional qualities of brands, and politicians, likewise, the qualities of celebrities. Like brands and celebrities, parties and politicians must communicate with, and appeal to, large groups of consumercitizens on a symbolic and psychological, as well as rational level. Politicians thus gain professional status, in part, according to how consumer-citizens actively respond to public representations of themselves. Consequently, the elevation of individual political actors to positions of power is increasingly linked to their ability to generate a positive public profile via mass media (see Chapter 3). These links, between media, individual celebrity, and symbolic power, have

been explored across many research terrains. These variously focus on the innate, charismatic qualities of individual leaders, the requirements of the popular media, the professional manufacture of public personas, and the cognitions and behaviours of semi-engaged citizens. This chapter attempts to develop an alternative means of investigating this phenomenon. It draws on the work of Pierre Bourdieu to develop the concept of ‘media capital’ and explores its application in the political field. Bourdieu provided a series of analytical tools with which to observe individuals, their movement within ‘fields’ and wider society, and their accumulation and deployment of cultural as well as economic resources. However, he never investigated the political and media fields using these research tools and did not himself develop the concept of media capital. The first part of this chapter therefore engages with Bourdieu’s writing and

attempts to adapt several of his key terms to the topic. Building on this, the second part identifies four forms or components of media capital and the means of their accumulation: ‘individualised’ and ‘institutionalised’, ‘internal’ and ‘external’ to a field. The final part looks at media forms of capital in terms of their loss, volatility and longer-term influences on political fields. As this speculates, the increasing orientation of political actors towards accumulating unstable forms of media capital, in place of other forms of capital, has had a destabilising

effect on the field of politics itself. The second and third parts draw on interview material with UK politicians and journalists to illustrate the discussion.