“Theory is the difference between science and story-telling” – he says, provoking my interest early on in the conversation. Theory is itself a story that needs to be understood as part of the process of making ideas work. Science tends to pretend that it’s not telling a story, it’s an objective fact, but we need to bring science and story-telling into closer contact in order to understand the process of making evidence meaningful. He also makes a comparison between evidence and children:
Evidence is like children. It involves waste, manipulation, time, control, nurture and it points to the future but it’s easily destroyed. Children are like evidence – they are both real and textual, social and mediated, both cultural and political. So, we should care for text and meanings as we care for children and that’s what cultural science is for.
We talk about his interests and theoretical inspirations, and John conveys vividly his passion for exploring children as an audience type for popular media with a focus on what media organisations and text imagine children to be (children as textual effects). He is also interested in what researchers imagine children to use media for – how children join society and enter social groups through media. John is critical of how public policy tends to focus on the protection and correction of children in a way that reduces children to “the effects of control culture”, while what could be more interesting is to think of children as cultural creators and innovators.
While discussing the current debates around children’s media use, John Hartley makes interesting connections to the work of Juri Lotman and Claude Lévi–Strauss. He is influenced by Lotman’s idea of the semio-sphere as a precondition of speaking any language and the notion that communication occurs when two languages come together. Hence, the importance of looking at meaning, language, culture and whole systems and to ask what role children play in such systems of reproduction of language and culture. The work of the French structuralist Lévi-Strauss offers the interesting conceptualisation of the taboo – a sign of which is when something is both undervalued and overvalued. The idea of the taboo can be applied to understanding children’s media use. Children, he argues, are at the same time undervalued (because they are not included in policy-making or curriculum development) and overvalued (as they are overrepresented in psychological studies of the effects of television and protectionist approaches).
So the task at present, as John Hartley sees it, is to close the gap between two different approaches. The first is the scientific approach which is often characterised by individualistic features and a strong emphasis on children’s media behaviour, sometimes leaving out other important aspects of children’s lives or how children are part of the (re-)creation of culture. The second approach is that of humanities which understand children from the perspective of writing fiction, plays, drama, songs– creativity that they might enjoy. Our job as theorists is to open up these understanding of children, to contest them and to question how they operate.
One of the lessons from the work I have been doing on children’s activism is that there has to be serious attention to what it is that they are trying to say… which is “change the system” and I agree with that.
Watch the full vlog with John Hartley
Video: CO:RE theories vlog series - an interview with John Hartley.
If you are experiencing issues with the video player, please watch the video here on our YouTube channel.
Or listen to the interview as a podcast
Podcast: series "theory calling" with John Hartley.
John Hartley is John Curtin Distinguished Emeritus Professor at Curtin University (Australia) and Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He was Head of the School of Journalism at Cardiff University, Dean of Creative Industries at QUT, and an ARC Federation Fellow. He was awarded the Order of Australia (AM) in 2009, and has been an elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, the International Communication Association and Learned Society of Wales.
John Hartley has written many books on culture, media and communication. He co-authored the first book-length treatment of television from a cultural point of view (Reading Television, with John Fiske, 1978/2003). Since then, his publications have focused on the role of commercial and entertainment media in forming publics, and the types of citizenship practised through pop culture. This, in turn, led to a focus on ‘consumer-created’ content, DIY culture and digital story-telling.
More recently, Hartley has turned to disciplinary issues, seeking to integrate scientific and humanities approaches to culture in the context of evolutionary complex systems and current planetary crises. As part of these efforts, he was founding editor of the International Journal of Cultural Studies (1998-2019), and Cultural Science Journal (2008-2020).
Buckingham, D. and H.S. Jensen (2012) ‘Beyond “media panics”: reconceptualising public debates about children and media’. Journal of Children and Media 6(4): 413-29.
Hartley, J (2021) Children of media – worldbuilders for justice. LSE: Parenting for a Digital Future
Hartley, J (2020) Children of Media – Worldbuilders: Culture, deme formation and children’s class consciousness in the global-digital semiosphere. Media@LSE Working Paper Series. London: LSE
Hartley, J. (2020) How We Use Stories and Why that Matters: Cultural Science in Action. New York: Bloomsbury
Hartley, J., I. Ibrus and M. Ojamaa (2020) On the Digital Semiosphere: Culture, Media and Science for the Anthropocene. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
Lotman, Y. (1990) Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. London: I.B. Tauris.