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What is Social About Communication?

Updated on January 9, 2017


Communication is a skill and a process inherent to social beings. Finnegan (2002) indicates that humans need to interact with their environment for satisfying needs, facing challenges and profiting from opportunities. The outcomes of their experiences are recorded and transmitted as history by the groups of people using sign language, oral traditions, songs, writing, pictorial art and artifacts among many others. Societies through time have been organized around a type of authority or elite that looked for means to govern the people; mass communication was used to glue early societies. For example theater or religious ceremonies.

The Roman theatre in Aspendos. Turkey,
The Roman theatre in Aspendos. Turkey,

This description of communication as an interactive process and a cultural expression are still relevant today, but the technological advances have changed the concepts of audience, media producer, formats, objectives and ultimately culture. (McQuail, 2010). The importance of the study of mass communication today is salient as the understanding of the relationship among media producers, technology, and the audience would shed light on the impact of such interaction on cultures. It is in this way that studying mass communication theories enable critics to assess the benefits and challenges that such advances bring to humanity. There are several mass communication theories. They attempt to embark in the understanding of the communication process from different perspectives; they usually focus on some aspects of such process and therefore different theories can be complementary to each other in the attempt to explain a specific issue.

Society and the Mass Media Theories

There are several of these theories, and only some will be used to develop the topic. To begin with, as indicated by Baran and Davis (2012), there are microscopic and macroscopic theories. The former deals with the relation of the media and the audience in the everyday life, in the now and in the mundane aspects while the latter deals with the study of the larger effect that the media has and might have in the social order of communities.

For instance, Political Economy theory adopts a macroscopic approach. This theory is a concerned with the use of the mass media by the socio-economic elites to their benefit. For example, the cell phones are powerful tools to serve the elites to control and make profits. Engine searchers gather information about the users, can track the websites they visit and their interests, all of these to be processed for the benefit of advertisers that target the correct audiences for their products. What seems to be free for the users is not, as indicated by Bolaños and Viera (2014). These authors indicate that the audience is the commodity that is sold to the sellers of goods and services, authorities, politicians, or, in just one word, everyone who needs to communicate with the audience” Bolaño (2000) cited in Bolaño and Viera (2014). The president Barack Obama run his 2008 presidential campaign with the use of the internet as a medium to communicate with the public. Today the newly elected president of USA is famous for his Twits!

Monteiro (2008) cited in Bolaños and Viera (2014) states that “The migration of major trade companies, media, and entertainment to the Internet transformed the international network into another Culture Industry and social commoditization vehicle.” The internet just has made easier to access the broad social network and the cell phones made the audience portable. Advertisers can send text messages to the public informing what are the best buys of the day as the user enters the shops, they can influence them on what to buy, what to watch, what to listen.

Our cellphones make us a portable audience.
Our cellphones make us a portable audience.

The political economy theorists pay close attention to the manners the elites seek to keep power and profit-making by oligopoly and monopoly.These two mechanisms enable them to dimish the competition coming from players that threat their intended hegemony. It is a concern of political economists how the “financial corporates dominate the global economy” (Lawrence, 2017). The mass communication media is a vehicle that nowadays helps financial corporates to capture the autonomy of the states, obstructing the making of regulations that would play against their interests as expressed by Lawrence (2017).

Rupert Murdoch emporium is an example of the concentration of power in the mass media communication industry. They own 120 papers in five countries, Fox Channel in the USA and Fox International Channel operating across Latin America, Europe, South Africa and Asia. They also own the book publisher powerhouse Harper Collins, a movie studio and a Satelital TV station (Wikipedia, 2017). Political economists will research, for example, who Rupert Murdoch represents, what are the profits made and to whom they belong, what advertisers receive the information about the audience, what TV shows are presented in prime time and so forth.

Fox US channel supported Donald Trump in the past elections in the USA. A political economist would engage in the analyses of what is the likely outcome of the relationship between these two influential tycoons in the political arena. Kehoe (2016) indicates that “Fox News and The New York Post, both vigorous supporters of the Trump campaign, are likely to attain better access to the 45th president than almost any other media outlet. Tellingly, it was Mr Murdoch's The Wall Street Journal which was granted the first post-election interview with Mr Trump”. Given that their relationship proves beneficial for both, they will reinforce each other in their global enterprises.

Another macroscopic theory is the Cultural Imperialism theory. These theorists have a mostly negative outlook at the impact that globalization has on the different cultures. It is applied mostly to the study of the effects that the American culture has on other cultures, but nowadays it is also applied to study the influence of the global north to the global south. O’Sullivan et al (1994) define cultural imperialism as the study of the negative impact that one culture has over another as it challenges, displaces, dominates and invades its space. These theorists study for example the effect that the movies from Hollywood have on the world as these movies often promote American culture while stereotyping people from other parts of the world. However, other cultural theorists consider this outlook to be too pessimistic. They indicate that it is assumed that the recipients from other cultures are passive and can not engage critically with the foreign culture. McQuail (2010) states that it might also occur an interchange of cultures, transculturization, and hybridization, where both cultures interact with each other.

This last point brings us to one of the theories that adopt a microscopic approach. the Uses and Gratifications theory explains how the audience has the ability to decide what media to consume and how is going to use it for its purposes. This theory assumes that the audience is active but as stated by McQuail (2010) the level of agency can vary from stronger to weaker, or in other words some audiences are more influenceable that others depending on the context and situation of the audience. For example, today it is almost impossible to rescind from using cell phones. They bring connectivity to people, services, information on the go to everyone. However, people can decide how to use those tools. McQuail (2010) mentions four types of uses and gratifications in a broad sense:

- Entertainment

- Validation and Self-identification

- Socialization

- Surveillance (Seeking for the surrounding happenings and environment)

The cell phones are very portable devices that work as very small and yet powerful computers for the everyday tasks, from watching videos for fun and relaxation (Entertainment) to using them as a GPS to navigate a city while driving (Surveillance). The users can chat using social platform media about current issues or even interact face to face while commenting the same on-line news that both are reading from different sources (socialization and surveillance). Reading about things that are related to the concerns of a reader can be used as a way of validation and self-identification, which can also be experienced by following the steps of the trends advertised by the youth role models.

The choice is ours,  isn't it?
The choice is ours, isn't it?


Mass communication theories describe, explain and seek to influence the way communication happens. Communication is a complex process, it is not static, is always in the flux as societies change. The changes occur fast today, in part, because we live in a highly interconnected world. Audiences and media producers influence each other in order to keep a balance between profit-making for corporations and the fulfillment of the needs of the public. In other words, if the media producers understand the different uses that the audience is giving to the media, they would start catering to those needs. Once the producers start following trends, they can even create new necessities. The understanding of the audience's culture can also modify how the global corporations approach the different audiences in an attempt to make the public less active, easier to influence and make a presence in the market with more opportunities to succeed. So the Uses and Gratifications theory presents a public that loses or gains agency in terms of how the information, services, products are presented by the producers. If the latter understands the culture of their target, they will encounter less resistance to their goods. However, the will still enter the market with the power to interact from a different culture point of view, which could be positive or less positive according to the circumstances.

Reference List

Baran, S. J., & Davis, D. K. (2012). Mass communication theory: Foundations, ferment, and future. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth Pub. Co

Bolaños, C. Vieira, E. (2015). The Political Economy of the Internet: Social Networking Sites and a Reply to Fuchs. Television & New Media Vol. 16(1) 52–61. London. SAGE publications.

Finnegan, Ruth H (2002). Communicating: The Multiple Modes of Human Interconnection. London: Routledge.

Kehoe, J. President Donald Trump is Good News for Rupert Murdoch. Financial Review. Retrieved from

Lawrence, P. (2017, January). Corporate Power, the State and the Postcapitalist Future. The Thinker, 8-15.

McQuail, D. (2010). McQuail's mass communication theory. London: Sage Publications.

Rupert Murdoch. (n.d) In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 09, 2017


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