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Other research product . 2021

Harold Innis’s Concept of Bias: its intellectual origins and misused

Comor, Edward;
Open Access
Published: 22 Jan 2021
Publisher: Scholarship@Western
Country: Canada

Harold Innis is one of the foundational theorists of media and communications studies. In the mid-20th century, he developed his concept of media bias (also called the bias of communication). It remains Innis’s most cited concept, but it is also significantly misunderstood. For example, since his death in 1952, bias has often been applied in ways that are akin to a form of technological or media determinism. This has been an ongoing problem despite the fact that Innis developed his concept as a means of compelling analysts to reject such mechanistic formulations. Indeed, his goal was to promote more self-reflective modes of scholarship and, by extension, a recognition that such intellectual capacities—which he believed were essential for civilization’s survival—would be lost if they were not recognized and defended. More generally, Innis contextualized his work regarding media bias in terms of interrelated historical conditions involving political economic dynamics. Through his application of the concept to over 4000 years of history, he sought to provide his contemporaries with the reflective perspective needed to comprehend the underpinnings of modern biases that stressed present-mindedness and spatial control to the neglect of creativity and duration. Bias was derived from Innis’s studies on Canadian economic development involving the exploitation of its resources (an approach to history called the staples thesis). Several of the insights he garnered in those studies need to be recognized if we are to fully understand his subsequent communications research. Also, tracing the origins of his concept of bias enables us to fully assess the nature of Innis’s supposed media determinism. Typical uses of bias today focus on the spatial or temporal orientations that many assume are compelled through the use of a specific medium or set of media technologies. This misreading, inspired mainly by Marshall McLuhan’s representations of Innis, has led to assumptions regarding Innis’s determinism and a general neglect of the complexity of his original work. To repeat, Innis developed bias in order to redress the mechanistic and unreflective thinking of his day and always conceptualized it in terms of factors that are salient to the place and time being examined. Moreover, he applied bias alongside now largely forgotten concepts ranging from unused capacity to classic power–knowledge dialectics. Lastly, he situated the development and implications of a particular medium in relation to both old and new media (not just technologies, but organizations and institutions also). In sum, to comprehend Innis’s concept of bias, its intellectual and political underpinnings need to be acknowledged, the political economic dynamics of its development and application understood, and the implications of McLuhan’s influence recognized.


Harold Innis, bias of communication, media bias, space–time dialectics, power–knowledge dialectics, monopolization of knowledge, capacity, political economy, staples thesis, Marshall McLuhan, Communication Technology and New Media, Critical and Cultural Studies

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