The Evolution of Mass Communication Theory
The purpose of this study is to examine the evolution of theory and approaches in the field of mass communication in the United States during the 20th century. The field of mass communication is one that is relatively new to the field of academia. From its roots in psychology and sociology, the study of mass communication has flourished into an acknowledged field of study. Authors Stanley Baran and Dennis Davis have organized the 20th century of mass communication study into four eras: mass society, limited effects, critical/cultural studies, and meaning-making.
Throughout the 20th century, most research studies regarding mass communication have either employed a macroscopic or microscopic method of research. A macroscopic lens considers media effects on society, and attempts to measure the effects on a grand scale. On the other hand, a microscopic lens examines media effects among individuals or smaller audiences. There have been several instances in which the emphasized lens under which mass communication was studied was a reaction against the previously embraced lens in the previous era. For instance, one of the primary reasons for the rise of the limited effects era was that it served as an answer to the mass society era, in which media was analyzed at a macroscopic level. During the limited-effects era, there were academics and researchers who believed that analyzing media at a microscopic level accurately measured media effects. It should be noted that both macroscopic and microscopic methods of examining media have jointly existed throughout much of the 20th century, but the emphasis of one over the other during particular periods of time is the central focus of this paper. As organized by authors Baran and Davis, the four eras of mass communication study have been shaped in part by reactionary responses towards previous eras, shifting emphasis between macroscopic and microscopic manners of studying mass communication.
What is Theory? How is it different from an Approach?
A theory or collection of theories seek(s) to describe, explain or predict relationships between constructs or concepts in a systematic and organized manner. The approach in which most theories are created is out of an inductive process. This procedure usually includes a specific observation made by a researcher, who may test it in a research study and see if the observation may be generalized to the public, a particular group or activity. Conversely, it is usually thought that the process of deduction is focused on theory testing. This may help determine whether or not a theory can successfully explain, describe or predict a relationship between constructs. Theory helps drive and organize academic research. Ultimately, it helps make further progress towards understanding latent or esoteric relationships among constructs.
Defining theory, however, is often a difficult exercise, as there are many different interpretations of what theory is. For instance, according to John Bowers and John Courtright (1984), “Theories…are sets of statements asserting relationships among classes of variables.” Conversely, Kenneth Bailey’s (1982) description is that theory consists of “explanations and predictions of social phenomena…relating the subject of interest….to some other phenomena.” Lastly, Charles Berger (2005) believed that “A theory consists of a set of interrelated propositions that stipulate relationships among theoretical constructs and an account of the mechanism or mechanisms that explain the relationships stipulated in the propositions.” Baran and Davis offer four specialized definitions of mass communication theory: postpositivist, hermeneutic, critical and normative. Each one wields a different epistemology, or manner in which knowledge is created and described. Postpositivist theories are established on the idea that knowledge may be garnered through observation and empiricism. Hermeneutic theories are founded on the notion that knowledge may be understood as trying to explain the reasons behind particular behaviors by looking at texts or actions from people. Critical theories are founded on the idea that knowledge should be used to make political changes. Lastly, normative theories are rooted in the attempts by academics and researchers to set a standard by which media models should work. All of these areas have a distinct interpretation of what knowledge is and therefore theories from these areas are influenced by these perspectives. Depending on what area of mass communication a researcher is interested investigating in, his or her interest will inform what theory is used from which specialized area of mass communication (Baran and Davis, 2012).
An approach, however, is different from a theory. According to Norman Lewis (2012), this may be defined as an “orientation or paradigm to help organize research towards theory.” For instance, the notion of uses-and-gratifications (which will be delved into further later on this paper) can be construed as a collection of ideas that observe that an active audience will use media with a certain expectation of gratification (Baran and Davis, 2012). Since this is an observation, and not really describing a phenomena, uses-and-gratifications should be interpreted as an approach. It should be stated, however, that it is ultimately up to the researcher to decide which definitions of theory and approaches he or she will accept (Baran and Davis, 2012).
What Makes Good Theory?
The plethora of theories as well as models and typologies create inherent complexities in the formation and scrutinization of what a good theory is. Some scholars may believe that what makes a theory adequate is simply a question of how emblematic it is of the area of knowledge it derives from. If a theory is a type of postpositivist theory, it may be evaluated on its ability to explicate a relationship at a microscopic level, as well as its testability, defined as how well it can be tested in empirical experiments. The assessment of a good hermeneutic theory may rely on what values it holds or how well it defines a particular social situation. The potency of a critical theory may rest on how well it appraises current society as well as how it may help liberate people in society from institutions that wield great power and influence over them. Lastly, the strength of a normative theory would depend on how well it allows an academic community to analyze a particular media system (Baran and Davis, 2012).
Despite these differences, there are certain desirable characteristics that transcend these differences that may allow one to quickly discern whether a particular theory is strong. The efficacy of a theory may be demonstrated by how parsimonious it is. Theories that are short in description can be digested by most academics from nearly any discipline, which may allow for interdisciplinary studies to manifest. Additionally, simply-constructed theories may allow researchers to test them against a host of constructs, providing opportunities to test complex relationships. They also allow researchers to erect intricate typologies and models that may consist of multiple theories in order to explain multifaceted relationships between constructs. As Karl Popper rightly states, a theory must be falsifiable, characterized as the ability to be proven false (Bird, 2011; Baran and Davis, 2012). In order to ensure this, it is essential that a good theory has the capacity to be proven in multiple settings or contexts. Thus, theory must possess at least a modicum of risk, as its goal is to push the boundaries of knowledge. Lastly, theory must propel and propagate knowledge. It should be able to build upon the existing body of knowledge within a field, like mass communication (Baran and Davis, 2012).
The First Era of Mass Communication: Mass Society and Mass Culture
During the late 19th century, many people were moving to cities throughout the United States. People who were living in rural communities began moving into cities with swelling populations. The demands for labor and the lure of exciting lives in cities attracted scores of people to them. Immigrants primarily from Europe began to emigrate over, seeking new opportunities and lives for themselves. However, many of those who settled into cities quickly found them to be dirty, perilous and a haven for crime. The citizens who remained in rural communities castigated the public and private institutions within the cities, believing that they supported vices and other reprehensible types of behavior. This in turn affected the way in which mass communication was viewed, as scholars began considering the effects large societies had on citizens living in them. In the field of mass communication, the harmful effects of large newspapers, run by wealthy barons, onto citizens briefly became the focal point of the discipline (Baran and Davis, 2012).
Mass society theory considers how media can undermine society. The theory postulates that media can manipulate the masses and indoctrinate people to think a particular way. Living in large cities, citizens may shed their individuality and join homogenous mass societies. During the late 19th and early 20th century, this argument was partially rooted in urban expansion and the irreversible decline of the agrarian society. Newspaper capitalists believed that media could help bring to light much of the malaise that was in cities, such as sanitation and crime issues. Media could uncover societal issues and bring them to the forefront of discussion. Some citizens, however, contended that the sale of media invariably led to distorted news, since the main goal of these newspaper barons was to earn a profit, which sometimes became more important that accurately informing readers. It was believed by some citizens that newspapers had an obligation to accurately inform the public. (Baran and Davis, 2012).
Rooted in sociological theory and experimentation, two theorists during this time helped organize collections of ideas as well as theories that would serve as the foundation for mass communication theory. One theorist of mass society was a German sociologist named Ferdinand Tonnies. He considered the lifestyle differences between those in industrial cities and those in rural locations. He believed that folk communities consolidated relationships in stronger communities. Conversely, he believed that urban citizens did not enjoy the same personal fulfillment as enjoyed in rural societies. They found modern industrial societies chaotic, dangerous, and bereft of meaningful human relationships. This laid the foundational work against mass media, as some would later accuse it of dissolving the bonds between humans and perpetuating moral ambiguity, such as exploitation of sex on television and manipulation of the truth in news stories (Baran and Davis, 2012).
Another influential sociologist during this time was Emile Durkheim. Sharing a similarly bifurcated outlook of rural and urban lifestyles, Durkheim instead believed that it was modern citizens that were more fortunate than their rural counterparts. In this, he believed that there were two types of solidarity. Since those in rural communities were part of a greater entity, they were bound to certain social roles. For instance, most were identified by their parents’ work, and would carve an identity from the job they inherited. Durkheim called this mechanical solidarity, as these people were mere “cogs” in a greater communal machine. Conversely, Durkheim felt that modern cities were more organic in nature. Urban areas were more nimble and ready for change. People were able to specialize and have interdependence, providing them with more fulfillment and control over their lives. Many of the theories that were produced during this era are macroscopic in nature, and may be known as grand social theories, defined as which are defined as theories that attempt to encompass society rather than a subset (Baran and Davis, 2012). These theories are indicative of the type of methodologies used by researchers such as Tonnies and Durkheim, who were eager to scrutinize the effects of media onto citizens from a macroscopic viewpoint.
Second Era: Limited-Effects Theories
During the 1940s and the 1950s, the United States experienced a tumultuous war, but soon after enjoyed an epoch of national peace. World War II lasted for nearly six years, consuming many resources and sacrifices from citizens and soldiers. Despite the Korean War and growing threat of communism, citizens were able to enjoy domestic life due to several factors. First, the rate of homes purchased in the suburbs increased, and many war veterans were able to attend college through the G.I. Bill. Additionally, the costs of technological devices such as televisions and cars dramatically decreased, allowing families enjoy modern advancements. Leisure time was widely enjoyed by many families, as they could travel by car to destinations far from home. Even in cities that had been plagued by poverty and crime, new health code regulations and government agencies served to improve the quality of life and living conditions.
The notion that media could subvert culture, morals and the overall well-being of society would not embraced by all researchers and academics. The advent of propaganda and its seemingly influential power over people became the focal point of research for many, who were interested in explaining how Nazi Germany could have manifested. Despite studies regarding the Nuremberg Trials as well as the volumes of propaganda engender by World War II, many remained skeptical regarding media’s true impact upon people. Led by researchers such as Paul Lazarsfeld, a group of social scientists would engage in a series of experiments that would find that media wasn’t as influential as had been argued by previous researchers and academics. In fact, it was even posited that people had a greater influence over others than the media did. This collective school of thought came to be known as the limited-effects perspective, which stated that media had negligible or, at best, limited effects on those who consumed it. Spurred by reaction against the mass society viewpoint, which tried to measure media’s total effect on society, this movement chose instead to analyze media from the standpoint of what could be measured. In the eyes of the researchers behind the limited-effects movement, this meant settling on individuals and smaller samples of audiences that could be counted and measured (Baran and Davis, 2012).
Rooted in psychological theory and methods, there were two men who were instrumental in the rise of limited-effects theory. Paul Lazarsfeld and Carl Hovland were trained in psychology and were strong researchers who were able to secure funding from both universities and private organizations. Using empiricist methods, they departed from the macroscopic methods employed by Durkheim and Tonnies to examine media effects on consumers. Applying empirical research methods to the study of propaganda and media influences on people, these men found it difficult to prove that media had a significant impact on its consumers. Additionally, since empirical methods of science were relatively new in the social sciences, they were typically accepted by those who funded or read the studies, as they were deemed to be more scientific than other methods. This evolved into a trend, which displaced other methods of research, such as cultural studies. Additionally, limited-effects theory was widely embraced by the private sector, which was dually interested in learning the behaviors of audiences but also assuring audiences that media was benign and not a threat to their well-being (Baran and Davis, 2012).
Acknowledging that it was difficult to scientifically research mass audiences, empirical scientists opted to explore theory building and modeling that could explain certain types of phenomena among groups of people. For instance, as referred to by Robert Merton, middle-range theories were born out of the need for theories that could accurately explain particular phases of society and that could be proven based on empirical data (Baran and Davis, 2012).
Lazarsfeld conducted myriad experiments regarding how influential mass media was during election campaigns, and several crucial frameworks were born out of this work. He used survey methodology to explore how media shaped and influenced how voters chose candidates. He found that the choices of most voters were predicated on party affiliations and expected demographic information, such as where they lived as well as the amount of household income earned. These factors seemed to play a stronger role regarding how voters chose candidates rather than the influence that media was purported to impress upon the masses. Lazarsfeld realized that, instead, people were gaining information from others that they believed were experts. He identified these people as opinion leaders who served as gatekeepers – filtering out content and screening information for what was salient and tailored to their own viewpoints and then sharing their own beliefs with those who were interested in them. Eventually, this type of model developed into what is now known as two-step flow theory, which is defined as the notion of ideas being disseminated from the media, passing through a gatekeeper or opinion leader, and then onto those who subscribe to the opinion leaders’ thoughts and orthodoxies. Ultimately, limited-effects theory contended that people already held strong beliefs and only considered messages from the media that would reinforce those beliefs. Otherwise known as cognitive consistency, this theory states that people have internal predilections towards messages and beliefs that they agree with. Media are capable of very little manipulation, and instead help inform and further calcify already-established beliefs (Baran and Davis, 2012).
Third Era: The Rise of Cultural and Critical Studies
As the 1950s ended, political radicalism and disconnection from social mores spread throughout the United States. A counterculture rose and demanded recognition and change from the conservative political agenda of the 1950s. These radicals were interested in racial and gender equality, as well as the end of war around the world. The Vietnam War dominated televised news programs during dinner time, which depicted dead soldiers and citizens in body bags in Vietnam. These images of war violence on television became dessert for many American families. By the early 1960s, the widely-embraced methods of empiricism that mimicked the physical sciences were questioned by a new generation of scientists. Skeptical of findings that were funded by private organizations or media organizations such as NBC and CBS, these scientists became interested in revisiting how media influenced others equally on both macroscopic and microscopic levels. This was a new adjustment from previous eras, as this era acknowledged the usefulness of both outlooks. Still, to some extent, there was more emphasis placed on studying media on the macroscopic level, as researchers and academics reacted to the limited-effects era as having a myopic outlook on media. These researchers and academics believed that limited-effects researchers were missing a lot of information by not analyzing media on the macroscopic level (Baran and Davis, 2012).
Some academics and researchers chose to delve into the effects of media violence, which were studied at the microscopic level. One approach, known as sublimation or catharsis, posits that viewers who consumed television programs with violence would feel less inclined to act violently, in effect vicariously living through the characters and actions exhibited in a television program. Another theory that was created during this era is known as social learning and imitation, which tries to explicate why people would perform particular behaviors. Out of this, a theory germinated that is known as social cognitive theory, which was applied in particular to children and how their consumption of television influenced their behaviors with particular emphasis placed on aggression and violence. Albert Bandura, a major proponent of this theory, showed through experimental studies that children who viewed cartoons in which characters were rewarded for their aggressive behavior were more inclined to act aggressively when they played with others (Baran and Davis, 2012).
Researchers and academics who contributed to cultural studies did not typically use empirical methods of science to analyze media effects on society. Instead, they studied this phenomenon through subjective observations on a macroscopic level. One tenet of cultural studies looks at hegemonic culture and its effects on the masses. Hegemonic culture may be defined as the culture that is impressed upon society by those who dominate social institutions. It is viewed that white, middle-aged males are the dominant leaders throughout the United States, and therefore media is a reflection of these leaders’ orthodoxies. According to this theory, hegemonic culture is led by leaders that use media as a political tool to reinforce perceptions of dominance and to dissuade those who have minority viewpoints from becoming vociferous. During this time period, it once again became popular to consider grand social theories. These academics and researchers were interested in trying to look at media again from a topographical standpoint in order to see media effects on the entire society (Baran and Davis, 2012).
The Fourth Era: The Rise of Contemporary Mass Communication Theory
During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States was able to avoid the extreme political unrest that had dominated the country’s attention during the 1960s and 1970s. With the Civil Rights movements and Vietnam War ending, the country began to focus on other advancements. Technologies such as video games and cable television were introduced to the public. Audiences were becoming thinner and thinner for television programs, as the availability and expansion of entertainment and media options fractured audiences. Exiting out of an era dominated by those who were engaged in cultural studies, academics began to become more intrigued with audiences analysis. Some of these researchers and academics felt that those who were engaged in cultural studies were not employing any scientific measurements. As a result, during this era, there was a greater emphasis placed on studying media on a microscopic level, though macroscopic studies continued to be carried out (Baran and Davis, 2012).
The revisit of audience studies became the focal point of numerous academic and research investigations. There was a de-emphasis on studying media organizations, the senders and creators of information, and instead a shift back towards studying the receivers, which had been pursued to some extent during the limited-effects era. Since macroscopic and microscopic methods were firmly established by this point, academics set out to explore audiences either macroscopically or microscopically. However, this time there was more emphasis on microscopic methods of research. Research studies began looking at how people engage with media, as well as what their expectations were. This branch of research came to be known as active-audience theories (Baran and Davis, 2012).
An approach, known as uses-and gratifications, attempts to explain how people use media and how they seek gratification from those particular uses. Several elements of this model include acknowledgments that audiences are active, audiences initiate gratification from media, media are in competition with other resources of pleasure, audiences are actively aware of their media interests and opinions regarding the detrimental effects of media on audiences should be held in abeyance (Katz, Blumler & Gurevitch, 1974). This approach acknowledges that audiences are self-aware, capable of describing their own preferences as well as trying to depart from the study of the negative effects of media and instead exploring how people use media (Baran and Davis, 2012).
Another branch of audience analysis, known as information-processing theory, delves into the inner-workings of the minds of the audiences. Rooted in cognitive psychology and studied at a microscopic level, this theory looks at how people absorb and synthesize information, using machine analogies to describe these complex processes. It compares humans to “bio computers,” in which we have limited capacities to store and process knowledge. Daily, humans process volumes of information, but are only able to store very little of it in long-term memory, which may be compared to a computer’s hard drive. Thus, this theory notes that humans have evolved as information avoiders, capable of filtering out information that has no relevance to our lives. The utility of this theory for audience analysis is to understand the myriad distractions and other points of information people are consuming while also consuming media. Simply watching a television show invites other external influences that people may digest, such as lighting in the room, temperature, as well as overall ambience. These critical factors shape audiences’ capacities to be engaged in media as well as help media organizations understand how audiences perceive and consume media content (Baran and Davis, 2012).
The last element of analyzing the manner in which audiences consume media is ultimately what meaning they derive from it, known as meaning-making. This theory considers how we reflect from media and consider our reality and how we interact with it. Under the umbrella of meaning-making exists one theory is known as symbolic interactionism, which looks at how people imbue meaning to symbols. It theorizes that symbols allow humans to transcend space and time as well as recall memories, images and textures by looking at symbols. Meaning-making as well as audience analysis continues to help inform researchers and academics alike in how to analyze audiences and understand the audiences’ expectations of media use (Baran and Davis, 2012).
The evolution of mass communication, theories and approaches have been influenced by the reactionary measures of academics and researchers against previous eras’ emphasis of one research lens over the other. However, over time, both microscopic and macroscopic lenses have come to exist together at the forefront of mass communication study, as researchers and academics today continue to employ both methods. The question remains, however, whether we are still in a fourth era. Some researchers have argued that the study of mass communication has entered into a fifth era, which is deemed as the “prosumer era” (Ritzer & Jurgenson, 2010). This acknowledges the audience as the producer, creator and consumer of media content. This creates an audience of “prosumers.” If we are to acknowledge that, indeed, the study of mass communication exists in a fifth era of research, then there are several things to note. First, prosumer is being studied at macroscopic and microscopic levels. This may indicate that macroscopic studies, such as qualitative studies, are building traction within the academic community and are becoming more acceptable to use along with quantitative methods of inquiry. Additionally, it will be interesting to see if the timbre of the academic studies regarding media-centric theories changes. Some academics and researchers believe that mass communication may need theories in order to fully explore and explain what prosumer is. However, as this paper has demonstrated, academics and researchers sometimes don’t know what theories they need (or exist) at all times. Rather, it is a glacial process that requires tremendous dedication and creativity. If we need theory to explore this fifth era, it will manifest as studies are carried out. However, if there are few theories that are borne out of this era, it could be argued perhaps no new theories were necessary. On the other hand, it could also expose flaws in our own methodologies, and force us to rethink how to approach the study of prosumers.
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