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The Relations between Media Use and Collective Identity in East and West Berlin in the 1990ies. A Biographical Approach

Our study is developed in the context of the BMBF joint project (German Federal Ministry of Education and Research) “The media heritage of the GDR”, where GDR-related media, media practices and memories are analyzed in an interdisciplinary approach.

Our project is starting from the observation that even 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are still significant differences in the way people in East and West Germany are using and evaluating available media. For instance, up until today public service broadcasters achieve higher rates of approval in the western parts of Germany. People in the east find the provided information to be less trustworthy and have a higher tendency to believe that the state is interfering in media coverage (Infratest Dimap 2020). Leading national media, for instance Der Spiegel or Süddeutsche Zeitung, produced in West-Germany under West-German lead, have failed to gain substantial foothold in East Germany. Media usage in Berlin is exemplary for these differences. Regional newspapers founded in GDR and in West Berlin before 1989 still reach either mainly the western part of the city or the eastern.

Most researchers have characterized East German media behaviour as divergent from the West German norm. Some were trying to explain those differences with a lack of information processing skills which would originate from GDR media system. Others hinted at inhibited social career opportunities after reunification (Jandura/Meyen 2010).

Unlike earlier studies, our approach follows the idea that a comparative approach to West and East Germans might generate another understanding of differences but perhaps also commonalities. Moreover, we develop a broad cognitive interest which integrates different explanations and, at the same time, goes beyond by focusing on a so far widely neglected issue: the connection between media usage and collective (or social) identity (Wegener 2008; Abrams/Giles 2007; Mares/Cantor 1992). We assume that the differences in the media usage have something to do with how people perceive their social identity regarding East/West. Therefore, our research question is: Which patterns of media usage and motives related to the social category of East and West German have developed, changed and were maintained after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German reunification in Berlin?

A biographical approach based on a combination of social theory, identity theory and approaches to media usage enables us to go beyond established explanations. This approach considers the interrelation of life and media usage and transcends the alleged threshold of 1989/90. Although we focus on the time afterwards, the course of live, backgrounds and experiences before 1989/90 are considered by us to be important (although not the only) sources to understand media perception and habits in the 1990s and today. Our framework pays specific attention to which consequences the restructuring of the Berlin media landscape after 1989/90 had for people’s perception that newspaper or programme belonged to themselves and to everyday life. The eastern part was affected hard by privatization and restructuring of the press, by the folding-up of GDR broadcasting, by West German leadership in editorial rooms. However, also West Berlin media changed their appearances which could have influenced ties to and the significance of specific media.

Unlike existing research, which exclusively focused on East Germans and thereby reproduced the narrative of “abnorm” media usage and attitudes, we take into account social contexts, ideas and needs on both sides of the former Berlin Wall. Building on the identity theory of Anthony Giddens (1991) we especially regard the processes in the aftermath of German reunification to be challenging for the identities of Berliners coming from GDR. But with Gidden’s view on globalization, deindustrialization and other metaprocesses, this time period also raised issues for West-Berliners, perhaps less quickly, perhaps less profound.

Methodologically, we are working with long biographical interviews, because we claim – in accordance with proponents of a biographical perspective in communication research (Meyen 2003; Hackl 2001; Mikos 1994) – that the identity as well as the way people use and evaluate media can only be understood with regard to people’s course of life and daily living conditions.

Our undertaking is relevant: We know that media discourses affect the pictures we have in our heads of ourselves as well as of our and other groups. Therefore, our results will allow us to conclude what role the media have played in the (re-)construction of divisions that characterize people from the Federal Republic of Germany and from GDR until today.



Abrams, Jessica R.; Giles, Howard (2007). Ethnic Identity Gratifications Selection and Avoidance by African Americans: A Group Vitality and Social Identity Gratifications Perspective, Media Psychology, 9, 115-134.