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