This list was created in 2008 to help both my research and some writings I did with Brenda Dervin. If you find this useful, I also suggest checking out other work I did from that time period on conceptualizing audiences.

1) THEORY NAME: Diffusion of innovation

TENETS: Distribution of innovative media products into society and culture through various agents in society, possibly resulting in widespread incorporation by all members of that society and culture; each individual has choice as to whether or not to adopt the innovation. 

In diffusion theory, media are assumed to be one of the primary vehicles by which new and changed products, opinions, ideas, information, and technologies are introduced into society.  The impact of the media is primarily from the role they play in creating awareness and spreading information.   The rate at which new introductions into society spread follows a diffusion curve, with some introductions spreading faster and some slower but all exhibiting the S-curve pattern of spread — slow at first, then a steep rise in adoption, then a leveling off.  Different “innovations” vary in their diffusion rates depending on such characteristics as complexity.  Rates of adoption also vary across societies depending on such characteristics as degree of industrialization.  Audience members also vary falling into sub-groups of innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards with audience adoption rates predicted by such factors as education and past experience.  For some introductions (e.g. the telephone, use of toothpaste), the diffusion rate reaches virtually 100%.  For others (e.g. the fax machine, political news), diffusion never reaches completion.  First used to predict the diffusion of agricultural innovations into rural societies, diffusion theory has been widely applied to the diffusion of all manner of products, information, news, ideas, and technology.  Much recent work has emphasized the rate of diffusion of the new technologies into myriad social and community contexts, the diffusion of marketing information, and the diffusion of health information.  Innovators and early adopters have been shown to be more highly attentive to media information.  They, in turn, impact opinion leaders who in turn impact others.  This process of the mass media impacting some persons and these persons in turn impacting others has become known as the “two step flow hypothesis.”

The most common methods of studying diffusion involve primarily surveys supplemented with some field experiments, in-depth interviewing, and ethnography.  The primary method — the survey — generally has focused on comparing and contrasting the the rates at which the media and information diffuse into different social groups and contexts.  A typical study might focus on adoptors and non-adoptors to determine their differences; or the impact of an especially designed soap opera for promoting family planning in a rural non-developed country. 

  • Methods include field experiments, interviews, surveys and ethnographies
  • “The most common approach to diffusion studies has been survey methodologies, which make it possible to compare and contrast the basic availability and accessibility of either media or information in different social groups and contexts.  National statistical abstracts as well as continuous market studies are among the sources of evidence, which also lend themselves to ‘secondary analyses’ that extract additional patterns and use from existing datasets.” (Jensen, 2002, p. 141) — less focus on interpretive aspects of social processes
  • “Diffusion of innovation theory predicts the media as well as interpersonal contacts provide information and influence opinion and judgment.  Studying how innovation occurs, E. M. Rogers (1962) argued that it consists of three stages: invention, diffusion (or communication), and consequences.  Diffusion means that an idea spreads from a point of origin to others and eventually achieves general or limited acceptance. … Innovation diffusion research has attempted to explain the variables that influence how and why users adopt a new information medium, such as the Internet.  Adoption of a new medium depends on adopters’ information needs, which medium adopters prefer, availability of the medium, and familiarity with it.” (Heath & Byrant, 2000, p. 166)
  • “Diffusion theory assigns a very limited role to mass media.  Media mainly create awareness of new innovations.  Only the early adopters are directly influenced by media content.  Other adopt innovations only after being influenced by other people.” (Baran, 1999, p. 162)
  • “Rogers and other diffusion researchers have identified five separate innovation-adoption categories into which people in a society will fall.  These are termed innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.” (Bryant & Thompson, 2002, p. 114)
  • “In this process, the media w4ere found to be important especially in the first stage of information and awareness (followed by stages of persuasion, decision or adoption, and confirmation).  Importantly, personal contacts and concrete experience could be shown to replace technological media as the main vehicles of diffusion in later stages.” (Jensen, 2002, p. 140).


  • Studies included diffusion of the news, health communication, media technology, marketing campaigns
  • Methods include field experiments, interviews, surveys and ethnographies
  • “The most common approach to diffusion studies has been survey methodologies, which make it possible to compare and contrast the basic availability and accessibility of either media or information in different social groups and contexts.  National statistical abstracts as well as continuous market studies are among the sources of evidence, which also lend themselves to ‘secondary analyses’ that extract additional patterns and use from existing datasets.” (Jensen, 2002, p. 141) — less focus on interpretive aspects of social processes

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Everett Rogers (1962)


  • Atkins, Jeffres & Neuendorf (1998) survey of internet adopters and nonadopters to determine characteristics that impact diffusion/adoption
  • Rogers, Vaughan, Swalehe, Rao, Svenkerud, & Sood (1999) studied Tanzanian radio soap opera Twende na Wakati (Let’s Go with the Times) as promoting family planning through field experiment / survey

2) THEORY NAME: Uses and gratifications

TENETS: Individuals encounter, accidentally or purposively, media products that are actively used to satisfy some need or desire important to their life at the time of use; the media product functions in the person’s life to the extent that the application gratifies the individual’s need or desire.  The application to the person’s life and the gratification resulting from the application is the impact.

  • Katz (1959) on it’s not “what media do to people” but “what people do with the media” that should be focused on for research
  • Basic formulation from Katz et al (1974): “(1) the social and psychological origins of (2) needs, which generate (3) expectations of (4) the mass media or other sources which lead to (5) differential patterns of media exposure (or engagement in other activities), resulting in (6) need gratifications and (7) other consequences, perhaps mostly unintended ones.” (p. 20)
  • “A reformulated version of the basic proposition would put more emphasis on certain key linkages: between social background and experience and expectations from media; between expected satisfactions and those obtained from media, with consequences for continued use.  A new statement might now read: (1) Personal social circumstances and psychological dispositions together influence both (2) general habits of media use and also (3) beliefs and expectations about the benefits offered by media, which shape (4) specific acts of media choice and consumption, followed by (5) assessments of the value of the experience (with consequences for further media use) and, possibly, (6) applications of benefits acquired in other areas of experience and social activity.  There is still an implied logical sequence which looks conscious and rational, expressed in this way, but it is much less mechanistic or dependent on functionalist assumptions than the earlier version.” (McQuail, 1987, p. 235)
  • Difference between gratification sought — what hope to get out of media use — and gratification obtained — or the actual gratification received from use
  • Common gratifications identified include: Escapism/diversion, Personal relationships/companionship, Personal identity, Surveillance — although others are “found” for specific media products, such as competition, mood management, solitude

SUBSUMES: mood management, selective exposure, expectancy-value

RESEARCH APPROACH: Survey questionnaires or interviews to determine gratification sought/obtained sets

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Elihu Katz, Denis McQuail, Jay G. Blumler, Karl Rosengren, Phillip Palmgreen, Sven Windahl


  • McQuail, Blumler & Brown (1972) interview/questionnaire to unpack why use of a show was called escapist by the viewers — one of first U&G empirical studies
  • Massey (1995) qualitative analysis of media diaries to analyze gratifications and uses as centered around a local natural disaster
  • Sherry, Lucas, Greenberg & Lachlan (2006) focus group and questionnaire of gratifications for video game players

3) THEORY NAME: Media systems dependency

TENETS: People turn to the media in times of stress and crisis.  This use can become a dependency on, and even an addiction to, particular kinds of media content and particular sources of information.  The resulting constraining of inputs is assumed to impact behavior.  While individual sets up this pattern based on choice of what media to attend to, making them active agents in the process, the theory assumes such agency disappears over time.

  • Attempted by Alan Rubin & Sven Windahl (1986) to combine with uses and gratifications to make “uses and dependency model of mass communication”
  • “…has at its heart a tripartite system in which media, audience and society are seen to have dependency relationships with each other. … Each of these system components (i.e., media, audience, and society) is seen as depending on the other components in the system by drawing on resources in order to satisfy goals. … MSD theorists see media systems as taking on an increasingly important role as industrialization and urbanization have decreased the influence of interpersonal social networks. … In such a social setting, the media control many informational resources through their capacity to create, process, and disseminate information to audiences on a national or even global scale.  Because the media control these critical informational resources, individuals develop dependency relationships around the need for understanding (of self and other), orientation (regarding action and interaction), and play (in both solitary and social settings).” (Miller, 2002, p. 247)
  • More macroscopic implications than uses & gratifications — “That is, MSD proposes that individuals are not always powerful actors in the satisfaction of their needs because the dependencies of other organizational and societal entities may come into play.” (Miller, 2002, p. 248)
  • “It assumes that individuals in modern society become increasingly dependent upon mass media as a source of news and information.  The level of the dependency relationship and the strength of the media effects hinge on the stability or instability of the society and the degree of societal importance placed upon mass media s an information source.”  (Jensen, 2002, p. 11)
  • “In it is simplest terms, media system dependency theory assumes that the more a person depends on having his or her needs gratified by media use, the more important will be the role that media play in the person’s life and, therefore, the more influence those media will have on that person.”  (Baran, 1999, p. 307)
  • “Effects occur, not because all-powerful media or omnipotent sources will that occurrence, but because the media operate in a given way in a given social system to meet given audience wants and needs.” (Baran, 1999, p. 307-308)

RELATED APPROACH: uses and dependency

RESEARCH APPROACH:  focused primarily on the audience-media dependencies, the antecedents and the consequences, usually with surveys (questionnaires & interviews) of people on their media use in times of crisis, although other behaviors have been studied

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Sandra Ball-Rokeach, Melvin DeFleur


  • Grant, Guthrie & Ball-Rokeach (1991) surveyed people on their dependency on TV shopping networks, their relationships with TV hosts, and impact on their buying behavior
  • Lowrey (2004) surveyed individuals on their use of media during 9/11 to determine extent to which dependency on a media predicted use of that media and resultant behavioral impact from such dependency

4) THEORY NAME: Medium theory

TENETS: Adopting a specific media technology changes the unfolding of human civilization by shifting interaction with reality and each other.  The structure and format of the media influences the content of the media, and the degree and kind of participation expected of the individual — some media require more involvement from consciousness and senses than others.  Impact occurs on how individuals interact with media technology and content, as well as with each other.  Over time this would shift the entire public’s internal and external behaviors.

  • “This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 7)
  • “What we are considering here, however, are the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes.  For the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 8)
  • “As for the impact of mass media, apparently they do not produce effect in the sense that most behavioral scientists understand this concept.  Since the medium is the message, as an operational or practical fact, content — what is communicated — is consigned to limbo.  The medium itself provides the message in terms of its sheer technology. … Human society can anticipate a brave new world in which our nervous systems will become extended so completely into the electronic technology that, ultimately, man will simply transfer his consciousness to the computer.” (Steinberg, 1970, p. 44)
  • “What are the relatively fixed features of each means of communicating and how do these features make the medium physically, psychologically, and socially different from other media and from face-to-face interaction?” (Meyrowitz, 1994, p. 50)
  • “The most central of these assumptions is that changes in communication technology inevitably produce profound changes in both culture and social order.” (Baran, 1999, p. 285, italics in original)
  • “hot media” fills one sense with much information, while “cool media” does not provide so much information, leaving the person to fill in the gaps
  • “Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.  Naturally, therefore, a hot medium like radio has very different effects on the user from a cool medium like the telephone.” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 23)
  • branch of theory often referred to as “technological determinism”

RELATED APPROACH: media ecology

RESEARCH APPROACH: Historical, anthropological, critical/cultural, economical analysis of the role of the media in a society/cultural

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Joshua Meyrowitz, Harold Innis


  • Meyrowitz (1985) analyzed the impact of television on society and culture, blurring traditional distinctions between people and allowing new social interactions
  • MacDougall (2005) analyzed the structural features of news blogs for the significances of blogs and bloggings in personal, political, and social contexts

5) THEORY NAME: Displacement

TENETS: When people incorporate the media into their lives to a certain extent, the use of the media displaces the time that could be spent in other activities, ranging from physical recreation to social interaction. 

  • “For a number of years, researchers have been concerned about the possibility that the large quantity of time spent with media (primarily television) was serving to displace time that would ordinarily be spent in other important activities.  This general idea has become known as the displacement hypothesis.  The basic notion is that people have a limited amount of time in their daily routines that can be allocated to different activities. .. Depending upon what those other activities might be, there could be reason for concern.” (Sparks, 2002, p. 64)
  • Concern is mostly over physical activities (i.e. exercise), social interaction (i.e. relationships) and academic success, with accompanying psychological (cognitive & affective) factors (i.e. civility, fantasy, collectivism, etc)
  • More of a medium theory, specifying exactly why engaging with a particular media technology impacts individuals, although research has looked at engaging with specific content
  • Theorized to require a certain amount of time spent with media until effects are observable — known as the threshold effect

RESEARCH APPROACH: field research via observations and survey methods (questionnaire & interviewing) as well as field experiments (measurement of impact of introduction of media)

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Diana Mutz, Robert Putnam


  • Williams & Handford (1986) observed that the introduction of television to Canadian towns reduced participation in community activities
  • Robinson et al (2000) surveyed internet users about their social interactions and found no significant differences depending on how much time is spent online

6) THEORY NAME: Knowledge gap

TENETS: Media contents and technologies are organized in ways that create conditions that some subsets of society have less access to the media than other subsets.  Over time, those who have less access have less ability to gain information from media content and are thus removed from the primary discussions in society because they cannot access the information needed to participate.  They are said to be in gap.

  • “Compared to diffusion research, which, to a degree, has examined inequalities in the availability of different media, research on ‘knowledge gaps’ has stressed the extent to which such inequalities may be cumulated, over time and in conjunction with other forms of social inequality.  Furthermore, this tradition has emphasized that the point may not be the material availability of the technologies, but their discursive accessibility — their perceived relevance as resources for civic life and daily living.” (Jensen, 2002, p. 148)
  • “In response to that premise, the knowledge-gap hypothesis asserts that the flow of information in society via the media tends to widen, rather than close, the gaps between the information-rich and information-poor (Tichenor et al, 1970).” (Jensen, 2002, p. 149)
  • “Through the years, research has revealed that better-educated people usually hold jobs of higher status than less-educated people, and they tend to be better informed about current events knowledge related through the news media, whether print or broadcast.  This phenomenon is called the knowledge gap hypothesis (Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, 1970), which posits basically that the information rich keep getting richer and the information poor never catch up.” (Bryant & Thompson, 2002, p. 240). 
  • “There are two aspects to the knowledge gap hypothesis, one concerning the general distribution of aggregate information in society between social classes, the other relating to specific subjects or topics on which some are better informed than others.  As to the first ‘gap’, it is likely to have roots in fundamental social inequalities which the media alone cannot modify.  As to the second, there are many possibilities for opening and closing gaps and it is likely that the media do close some and open others.” (McQuail, 1987, p. 277)

RELATED APPROACJ: digital divide

RESEARCH APPROACH: tends to be surveys (questionnaires and interviews) to determine extent of knowledge on some topic in relation to type of media used and factors that would impact access to media — often implied in political and health communication studies

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Phillip J. Tichenor, George Donohue


  • Tichenor, Olien & Donohue (1987) surveyed newspaper users on their knowledge of an issue depending on if they read the metro paper versus the local paper, as these papers differed in their coverage of the topic
  • Eveland & Scheufele (2000) analyzed secondary survey data to determine interaction of education level and media use on gaps in political participation

7) THEORY NAME: Cultivation

TENETS: Media content present portraits of the nature of reality that cultivate in heavy media users world views that see real life as being similar to media representations.  Hence, for example, heavy television viewers will be more likely to see the world as scary, known as the “mean world syndrome”, and this is particularly true if the media representations resonate or coincide with the individual’s real life experiences.

  • “This approach looks at the way that extensive repeated exposure to media (especially television) over time gradually shapes our view of the world and our social reality.” (Harris, 2004, p. 28)
  • “The key assumption of the cultivation hypothesis is that television has taken on such a central place in modern American culture that it constitutes a ‘symbolic environment’ in and of itself.  As such, it competes with, distorts, and, to a degree, substitutes the reality of personal experience, as informed by other media and interpersonal sources as well.” (Jensen, 2002, p. 150-1)
  • “Television is also described as the ‘cultural arm of the established industrial order [which] serves primarily to maintain, stabilize and reinforce rather than to alter, threaten or weaken conventional beliefs and behaviours’ (Gross, 1977, p. 180).” (McQuail, 1994, p. 364)
  • “The central hypothesis of the research was that viewing television gradually leads to the adoption of beliefs about the nature of the social world which conform to the stereotyped, distorted and very selective view of reality as portrayed in a systematic way in television fiction and news.”  (McQuail, 1994, p. 365)
  • “The concept of mainstreaming assumes that dominant sets of attitudes, beliefs, values, and practices exist within cultures. … These patterns result in a ‘mainstream’ set of attitudes, beliefs and values that are repetitively presented on television.  Heavy television viewers tend to cultivate similar mainstream views.” (Bryant & Thompson, 2002, p. 103)
  • “Resonance occurs when real-world events support the distorted image of reality shown on television.  Whenever direct experience is in agreement with the message from television, the messages are reinforced — they resonate — and the cultivation effect is amplified.” (Bryant & Thompson, 2002, p. 104)

RESEARCH APPROACH: surveys of frequency of media use tied to some content analysis to determine extent to which portrayals of reality exist, where topics range from sex, violence, stereotypes, to attitudes on health, environment, etc.

  • “In terms of methodology, cultivation research usually compares frequent (‘heavy’) and infrequent (‘light’) viewers of television through correlational methods.  A typical study finds that the world view of heavy viewers is more like the world as presented on television.”  (Harris, 2004, p. 29)
  • “First-order cultivation effects refer to the effects of television on statistical descriptions about the world, whereas second-order cultivation effects refer to effects on beliefs about the general nature of the world.” (Miller, 2002, p. 273-4)
  • “When it comes to the contributions of media to long-term and unplanned social change (or stability), it has proven considerably more difficult to conceptualize and operationalize ‘effects’.” (Jensen, 2002, p. 148)

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: George Gerbner, Nancy Signoriella


  • Morgan & Rothschild (1983) surveyed adolescents on how heavier media use was related to more endorsement of activities stereotyped for one or the other gender
  • Rössler & Brosius (2001) experimental analysis of heavy exposure to day time talk shows as impacting specific types of acceptance of certain deviant behaviors, indicating importance of genre for cultivation effects

8) THEORY NAME: Spiral of silence

TENETS: Media content displays positions on topics as majority versus minority views; the individuals who see themselves as holding minority views become unwilling to express these views openly, thereby constraining public opinion formation.

  • “Noelle-Neumann sees the spiral of silence theory as an all-encompassing theory of public opinion that connects disparate processes of social psychology, interpersonal communication, and mass media.”  (Miller, 2002, p. 264)
  • “Table 15.1 Assumptions of Spiral of Silence Theory:  Society threatens deviant individuals with isolation.  Individuals experience fear of isolation continuously.  This fear of isolation causes individuals to try to assess the climate of opinion at all times.  The results of this assessment affect behavior in public, especially the open expression or concealment of opinions.  Taken together, the preceding four assumptions are considered responsible for the formation, defense, and alteration of public opinion.  Source: From Noelle-Neumann (1991).” (Miller, 2002, p. 265)
  • “In brief, the theory proposes that, in order to avoid isolation on important public issues (like political party support), many people are guided by what they think to be the dominant or declining opinions in their environment.  People tend to conceal their views if they feel they are in a minority and are more willing to express them if they think they are dominant.  The result is that those views which are perceived to be dominant gain even more ground and alternatives retreat still further.” (McQuail, 1994, p. 362)
  • “This can be regarded as a form of agenda-setting but one that is focused on macro-level rather than micro-level consequences.” (Baran, 2000, p. 303)
  • “The media, because of a variety of factors, tend to present one (or at most two) sides of an issue to the exclusion of others, which further encourages those people to keep quiet and makes it even tougher for the media to uncover and register that opposing viewpoint.” (Baran, 2000, p. 303)
  • “If various viewpoints about agenda items are ignored, marginalized, or trivialized by media reports, then people will be reluctant to talk about them.  As time passes those viewpoints will cease to be heard in public and therefore cannot affect political decision-making.” (Baran, 2000, p. 304)


  • Complicated to study all aspects of theory in one study — “Instead, scholars have tended to test subportions of the theory…assessing whether individuals really do make assessments about prevailing public opinion, whether the media are indeed inaccurate in many portrayals, and, especially, whether perceptions about pervailing and future public opinion influence an individual’s willingness to express an opinion on a particular topic. … The majority of research efforts…have looked at the central thesis of the theory: the effect of perceptions of public support on willingness to express an opinion.” (Miller, 2002, p. 266-7)
  • Studies often consist of surveys to measure perceptions of public opinions and willingness to speak out — measured in the field or in a lab after exposure to an experimental manipulation of media content

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann


  • Noelle-Neumann (1977) discussed survey results of field manipulation to test various measurements for use in studying the theoretical assumptions of spiral of silence
  • Eveland, McLeod & Signorielli (1995) surveyed attitudes regarding the 1991 Gulf War found that perception of public opinion related to the amount & type of support for the war from the individual
  • Hwang, Schmierbach, Paek, Gil de Zuniga, Shah (2006) examined spiral of silence in the era of the internet, finding that political dissenters of the Iraqi War were more likely to turn to the internet

9) THEORY NAME: Agenda setting

TENETS: Media content set agendas of attention.  Media content provides structured information, or frames, of how to understand reality.  These frames determine how reality is understood.  Structuring of media content to selectively focus on specific messages, or frames, providing a guide on “what to think about”.

  • McCombs & Shaw quoted Bernard Cohen (1963) this line that became synonymous with the theory: “Perhaps this hypothesize agenda-setting function of the mass media is most succinctly stated by Cohen, who noted that the press ‘may not be successful in telling its readers what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” (McCombs & Shaw, 1972, p. 154 / Cohen, 1963, p. 13)
  • “The research tradition which emphasizes that the media set an agenda for public debate and decision-making, especially within politics, has focused not on discrete unites of information, as transmitted and recalled, but on ‘issues’ — those configurations of information that are associated with the activities of particular social institutions, such as parties and parliaments.” (Jensen, 2002, p. 145)
  • “One way that an agenda can be set is through the use of framing… The way a problem is described selects or highlights certain aspects of its reality and neglects or downplays others.  This will affect how people respond to it.” (Harris, 2004, p. 35)
  • Historical trajectory going back before Cohen’s remark to Walter Lippmann and Paul Lazarsfeld
  • “After two decades of downplaying the influence of newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, the field was disenfranchised with this limited-effects approach.  Agenda-setting theory boasted two attractive features: It reaffirmed the power of the press while still maintaining that individuals were free to choose.’ (Griffin, 1997, p. 377)
  • “In social judgment terms, McCombs and Shaw didn’t claim that the media alter the recipients’ latitudes of acceptance or change their anchored opinions.  The authors predicted, however, that the press and television cause audience ego-involvement in the issue to rise and fall in response to media emphasis.” (Griffin, 1997, p. 377)
  • “The broad-scope definition of agenda setting involves the consideration of three related agendas: the media agenda, the public agenda, and the policy agenda.  The media agenda is the set of topics addressed by media sources (e.g., newspapers, television, radio).  The public agenda is the set of topics that members of the public believe is important.  Finally the policy agenda represents issues that decision-makers (.e.g., legislators and those who influence the legislative process) believe are particularly salient.” (Miller, 2002, p. 258)
  • On the relation of framing to this theory: “Framing calls ‘attention to some aspects of reality while obscuring other elements, which might lead audience to have different reactions.’  McCombs sees the media’s role in framing issues for the public as a whole new dimension of agenda-setting research.  The first dimension … has to do with the media’s transmission of issue salience.  The second dimension has to do with how media frames create meaning.” (Griffin, 1997, p. 384)
    • MY NOTES: Shifting from “what to think about” to “how to think about it” which is the same as saying “what to think”?

RESEARCH APPROACH: Surveys of actual opinions on topics covered in the media, matched with media content — or experimental manipulation of media content with surveys on reactions to the manipulation

  • “The evidence…collected consists of data showing a correspondence between the order of importance given in the media to ‘issues’ and the order of significance attached to the same issues by the public and the politicians. …such evidence is insufficient to show a causal connection between the various issue ‘agendas’.  For that we need a combination of: content analysis of party programmes; evidence of opinion change over time in a given section of the public (preferably with panel data); a content analysis showing media attention to different issues in the relevant period; and some indication of relevant media use by the public concerned.” (McQuail, 1987, p. 275)

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Maxwell E. McCombs, Donald L. Shaw


  • McCombs & Shaw (1972) matched what voter’s saw as the main issues in a campaign with the content of the media, and what news reports said were the main issues — correlational only
  • Iyengar & Kinder (1987) experimental manipulation of news content found that people later listed as most important the issue covered in the media they were shown
  • Schoenbach, de Waal & Lauf (2005) surveyed about the addition of internet news to people’s exposure to print news on how widens the issues in the public’s agenda — but online news did this only for higher SES individuals, whereas print did it for both

10) THEORY NAME: Social cognitive

TENETS: Media content provides models of possible external behaviors that, if shown by the media as being rewarded for the behavior, will be more likely to be imitated by the individuals in their real lives.

  • AKA “observational learning” or “modeling theory” — the importance of seeing the model being rewarded or punished in determining if the observed behavior is modeled
  • “Bandura’s original studies found that, under certain circumstances, children can learn aggressive behavior on television.  If aggressive behavior is attended to, cognitively retained, and perceived as beneficial, it increases the probability that the children may model this behavior at a future time.” (Heath & Bryant, 2000, p. 351)
  • “There are several components to the social learning process…  An individual must first be exposed to and attend to an event or the behavior of an individual, either directly or symbolically via television or other media.  Events or behavior that are simple, distinctive, elicit positive feelings, and are observed repeatedly are most likely to be modeled. Several characteristics of the observer may also influence attention…” (Heath & Bryant, 2000, p. 351)
  • “Bandura asserts that through observing television models, viewers come to learn behaviors that are appropriate; that is, which behaviors will be rewarded and which will be punished.  In this way, viewers seek to attain rewards and therefore want to imitate these media models.”  (Wartella, Olivarez & Jennings, 2002, p. 401)
  • “This process of vicarious learning through observation of models, in real life or the media, involves 1) noticing/attending to the modeled behavior… 2) coding the behavior in memory visually or verbally, 3) enacting the behavior, and 3) motivation, that is, evaluating the consequences…” (MacBeth, 2004, p. 202)
  • Adds into social learning theory with characteristics of the observer: capacity to mentally process the information; capacity to mentally retain the information; capacity to enact the behavior; motivation to perform the behavior. (Heath & Bryant, 2000, p. 351)
    • “In short, the emphasis in social cognitive learning theory is on explaining the processes involved in the imitation of behavior observed in real life or through media use.” (MacBeth, 2004, p. 202)
  • based on a “triadic reciprocal causation”, a convergence of the external structure and internal agency — “In this transactional view of self and society, personal factors in the form of cognitive, affective, and biological events; behavioral patterns; and environmental events all operate as interacting determinants that influence each other bidirectionally.  Social cognitive theory is founded in an agentic perspective… People are self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting, and self-regulating, not just reactive organisms shaped and shepherded by environmental events or inner forces.” (Bandura, 2002, p. 121)
  • brings in symbolization and metacognitive capability of humans to the social learning structure, focusing on the former’s vicarious learning by adding in self-regulatory and self-reflective processes, which includes self-efficacy and identification with the model — observations are attended to and retained by people because they become symbols — also more cognition or reflection placed on the motivation aspect, where individual develops outcome expectations that engaging in same rewarded behavior will result in reward, and these expectations may vary from person to person — overall, addition of cognition to social learning makes social learning a far more complex theory
  • “The effect of modeling is enhanced through the observation of rewards and punishments meted out to the model, by the identification of audience members with the model, and by the extent to which audience members have self-efficacy about the behaviors being modeled.” (Miller, 2002, p. 242)
  • “First, someone must first be exposed to the media example and attend to it.  Second, he or she must be capable of symbolically encoding and remembering the observed events, including both constructing the representation and cognitively and enactively rehearsing it.  Third, the person must be able to translate the symbolic conceptions into appropriate action.  Finally, motivational processes develop by internal or external reinforcement (reward) for performing the behavior.” (Harris, 2004, p. 28)

SUBSUMES: social learning

RESEARCH APPROACH:  Tends to rely on experiments, with most focus being on children — the classic “bobo doll” experiment — but requires self report in order to measure the cognitive mediators of self-efficacy, identification, outcome expectancies and other self-regulation/self-reflection concepts — also surveys that infer modeling based on reports of behavior and exposure to rewarded models of that behavior

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Neal Miller & John Dollard (1941), Albert Bandura (1963)


  • Bandura, Ross & Ross (1963) classic study of imitation of aggressive model in experiment setting
  • Collins et al (2004) surveyed adolescents on their media use and sexual behavior, found links between sex behavior and media content coded to positively reinforce such behavior
  • Maibach & Flora (1993) conducted an experiment manipulating video on AIDS prevention, finding that exposure to modeling and presenting risk reduction information and encouraging reflection/identification on material led to later higher self-efficacy and more prevention behaviors
  • LaRose, Lin & Eastin (2003) surveyed internet users with a scale to measure deficiency in self-regulation, found correlation between media use to alleviate depression leading to more deficient self-regulation and Internet use appearing to be more addiction
  • Ward & Friedman (2006) conducted an experiment, showing adolescents clips of no sexual content to some form of stereotypical sexual content, as well as surveying their average media consumption and engagement, finding that identification with attractive sexualized characters and overall exposure to sexual scripts increased sexual behaviors that were similar to those shown in the media

11) THEORY NAME: Excitation transfer

TENETS: Media products incite emotions and physiological responses that can be transferred to non-media situations or objects in real life if the individual is not consciously aware of what led to the response.

  • Original focus mostly only how exposure to erotic material can enhance aggressive tendencies.
  • from Zillmann & Bryant (1984, p. 116) as quoted in Bryant & Thompson (2002, p. 203): “[E]xposure to erotica fosters increased sympathetic activity as an accompaniment to more specific genital responses…and that, after sexual stimulation, residues of the slowly dissipating nonspecfic sympathetic activity enter into unrelated affective states and potentially intensify them.  If the subsequent state is one of annoyance and anger, residual sympathetic excitation from sexual arousal thus is likely to intensify these experiences and to energize the hostile and aggressive actions incited by them.”
  • Focus on the affective reaction to media content, and how affective response bleeds over to impact other behaviors for a short term before the excitation dissipates — focus on the issue of arousal: “Arousal is not necessarily positive or negative, and it does not define any particular direction for subsequent behavior.” (Miller, 2002, p. 251)
  • Quoting Zillmann (1991, o. 116-117) in Miller (2002, p. 251): “‘A person who is still aroused from something that happened a while ago, whatever it may have been, and who is now confronted with a situation that causes him or her to respond emotionally, should experience this emotion more intensely and also behave more intensely than he or she would without the presence of residual arousal from the earlier arousing experience.”
  • “In his theory of excitation transfer, Zillmann (1991) advanced the notion that the arousal-inducing properties of media violence were very important for understanding the intensity of emotional reactions that occur immediately after viewing.  For example, when viewers became angry after exposure to a highly arousing violent depiction, this arousal could subsequently transfer to the anger and intensify it — making aggressive behavior more likely.  Similarly, the arousal could also intensify a positive emotion that might occur subsequent to viewing.” (Sparks & Sparks, 2002, p. 279) — in Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research
  • “Although we use labels like ‘fear,’ ‘anger,’ ‘sex,’ ‘humor,’ and ‘love’ to describe these emotional states, the physiological response is the same no matter what kind of TV program elicited the response.  It’s easy to get out emotional wires crossed when the show is over.  Zillmann says that the heightened state of arousal takes a while to dissipate, and the leftover excitation can amplify any mood we happen to be feeling.” (Griffin, 1997, p. 374)

RESEARCH APPROACH: tends to be experiments, to manipulate exposure to some excitation/arousal inducing content, with possibility of measuring actual physiological responses, and measure of behavior to infer how arousal “spilled over” to behavior

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Dolf Zillmann, Bryant Jennings


  • Zillmann (1971) in an experiment showed violent or erotic scenes and found aggression to increase after both, more so with erotic scenes theorized to be more arousing
  • Oliver (1994) in an experiment showed scenes from horror movies that were manipulated on whether or not sex was portrayed, finding that men who saw sex portrayed enjoyed the film more and found it more frightening

12) THEORY NAME: Priming

TENETS: Media content present scripts for how humans should behave and how situations should be dealt with.  These scripts become frameworks that audience members use to cope with similar situations in their own lives.  Media content activate cognitive schema and behavior scripts in individual minds.  Once activated, these scripts trigger (i.e. “prime”) memories and connections that in turn trigger the likelihood of particular behaviors.

  • “Priming can be defined as the effects of a particular prior context on the retrieval and interpretation of information… In essence, this cognitive process suggests that if a specific stimulus is frequently accessed or prominent in an individual’s cognitive structure [schema – insert], it will serve as a way of interpreting ambiguous stimuli. … That is, when the media accord a great deal of space and time to certain issues, these issues become particularly accessible and prominent in an indvidiual’s cognitive structure [schema – insert].  These primed topics will then be considered especially important for individuals… Furthermore, because humans have limited information-processing capabilities, these primed topics will serve as a way of analyzing other — particularly ambiguous — information…” (Miller, 2002, p. 263)
    • “The term schema…is used to refer to a cognitive model or prototype, which could be relatively simple…or complex… the term script is used to refer to sequentially organized events…” (MacBeth, 2004, p. 202)
  • “Priming is ‘a psychological process whereby media emphasis on particular issues not only increases the salience of those issues, but it activates in people’s memories previously acquired information about those issues.’” (Griffin, 1997, p. 383, quoting McCombs & Bell (???)
  • “Priming occurs when exposure to mediated communication activates related thoughts that have been stored in the mind of an audience member.  Media message content triggers concepts, thoughts, learnings, or knowledge acquired in the past that are related to the message content.  In this way, message content is connected, associated, or reinforced by related thoughts and concepts that it brings to mind.  For a certain period of time after viewing such content, a person is more likely to have thoughts about the content, related thoughts, or memories.  In some instances, the related thoughts or memories become permanently associated with the message content…” (Bryant & Thompson, 2002, p. 88)
  • “Berkowitz suggests that when people watch television violence, it activates or ‘primes’ other semantically related thoughts that may influence how the person responds to the violence on TV… ‘prime’ other aggressive thoughts, evaluations and even behaviors such that violence-viewers report a greater willingness to use violence in interpersonal situations.” (Wartella, Olivarez & Jennings, 2002, p. 402)

SUBSUMES: schema theory

RESEARCH APPROACH: typical approach is experimental, where people are exposed to content created to prime a certain mental model, or schema, and then measure what is primed (cognitions, affects, and behaviors)

  • often treated as the psychological process to explain agenda setting, but also applied to media violence studies as media content is seen to have aggressive cues that can prime behavior in ambiguous situations

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Leonard Berkowitz (1984), Shanto Iyengar & Donald Kinder (1987)


  • Berkowitz (1973) experimentally manipulated comic book content — violent versus neutral — and found children who read the violent books had more aggressive thoughts immediately afterward
  • Valentino (1999) experimentally manipulated crime news stories along racial categories, and found that priming race as an evaluator impacted how evaluated President Clinton
  • Kim, Scheufele & Shanahan (2002) content analyzed papers for the frames used to discuss an issue, then surveyed readers (divided into no to high exposure groups) and found the reader’s evaluators for this issue to match the frame used in the paper

13) THEORY NAME: Critical Theory

TENETS: Media content serves to reproduce oppressive class positions and divisions.  Individuals and collectives do not rebel against such oppressive conditions because they are not provided with media content that provides an alternative view of reality.

  • Originating with the Frankfurt School’s critical approach, as arising from Marxism, to mass media and popular culture on how media is used to perpetuated categorization and oppression of people by class — keeping the downtrodden as such without their realization of it
  • Focuses on critique, alienation, power, praxis, control, ideology — media as reflecting reality to creating reality
  • Other forms of domination from media content exists that enforces certain ways of categorizing people along gender (feminist theory), sexual orientation (queer theory), and ethnic (race theory) differences.
    • “Feminist scholars begin with the claim that gender is among the most important defining features of social life.  Gender influences the way we behave, the way we think, and the way we feel in a manner that is often invisible to us.  Further, feminists claim that society has been socially constructed in patriarchal (i.e., male-dominated) ways.  This patriarchal nature of society can be seen in all areas of life.” (Miller, 2002, p. 71)
    • Major feminist approaches: liberal, Marxist, radical, psychoanalytic, contemporary socialist, existential, postmodern, cultural (Milller, 2002, Table 5.2, p. 73)
  • “[Adorno] claimed that mass media reproductions of high culture were inferior and diverted people from seeking out (and paying for) the ‘real thing’.  If bad substitutes for high culture were readily available, he believed, too many people would settle for them and fail to support better forms of culture.” (Baran, 1999, p. 223)
  • Early critical theory: “…the mass media were largely interpreted by social critics as weapons in the hands of the ruling (capitalist) class, employed either to control and guide the masses by propaganda or to narcotize and divert them from effective opposition by escapist fantasies and consumerist dreams.” (McQuail, 2002, p. 8)
  • Later critical theory: “Criticism of the media focused on their subservience and service to the established ‘authorities’, on their stifling conformity, and on their centralization and regulation, as much by public bureaucracy as by capitalist owners.” (McQuail, 2002, p. 9)
  • “A critical theory raises questions and provides alternative ways of interpreting the social role of mass media.  For example, some critical theorists argue that media in general sustain the status quo — even, perhaps especially, when that status quo is under stress or breaking down.  Critical theory often provides complex explanations for this tendency of the media to consistently do so.  For example, some critical theorists identify constraints on media practitioners that limit their ability to challenge established authority.  They charge that few incentives exist to encourage media professionals to overcome those constraints and that media practitioners consistently fail to even acknowledge them.” (Baran, 1999, p. 217)
  • “Even when mass media are not seen as the source of specific problems, they are criticized for aggravating or preventing problems from being identified or addressed and solved.  For example, a theorist might argue that content production practices of media practitioners either cause or perpetuate specific problems.  A common theme in critical theories of media is that content production is so constrained that it inevitably reinforces the status quo and undermines useful efforts for constructive social change.” (Baran, 1999, p. 217)
  • “One key theme these scholars had derived from traditional Marxism was the causal claim that a massification of culture and fetishization of commodities produced the decline of individual critical thinking.  By the late 1920s, several of them incorporated Freudian psychological theory into their original Marxist explanations of social organization. … This model of the effects of entertainment implies a power theory of media in relation to audiences.  It assumes that circumstances create an intent in individuals, or at least a desire, to react aggressively to their situation, but they lose their intent or desire in compensatory satiation through entertainment.  Popular culture, movies, sports — all these substitutes for useful social action — divert people from critical thinking that otherwise would allow them to see through these illusions.” (Staiger, 2005, p. 29)
  • “Some [critical] perspectives look for sources of alienation and oppression within specific societal structures.  For example, theorists from the Frankfurt School look consistently to economic [our political economy] and class [our critical theory], and feminists look consistently to the patriarchal nature of society [again, our critical theory].  These theorists take largely structuralist approaches in their theorizing.” (Miller, 2002, p. 72)
  • “The culture industry, by producing a culture marked by ‘standardization, stereotype, conservatism, mendacity, manipulated consumer goods’, has depoliticized the working class, limited their horizon to political and economic goals that could be realized within the oppressive and exploitative framework of capitalist society.” (Storey, 1993, p. 102)
  • “The function of the culture industry is therefore, ultimately, to organize leisure time in the same way as industrialization has organized work time.” (Storey, 1993, p. 105)

SUBSUMES: structural Marxism, Althusserian, Foucauldian

OVERLAPS: audience reception, social constructivism, psychoanalysis

RESEARCH APPROACH: focus on text analysis (semiotics, critical discourse analysis) to determine the ideological and discursive message encoded in the features of the media product

  • “[Christian] Metz’s theory of cinema as a semiotic system fits within the reinforcement model of effects.  People interpret films as they do because they already have learned cultural codes to understand what is presented to them.  Faced with a filmic text, an individual will automatically convert the information.  As a self-declared Marxist, Metz does not usually discuss the variable ideologies of texts because he assumes most mainstream films duplicate dominant ideologies.” (Staiger, 2005, p. 63)

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Lisbet van Zoonen, Walter Benjamin 


  • Adorno (1936) discussion of jazz as an oppressive music genre
  • Lazar (2000) used critical discourse analysis to examine the portrayals of gender in Chinese advertisements, concluding the portrayals were more supportive of a conservative construction of gender roles
  • Westerfelhaus & Lacroix (2006) analyzed the portrayals of gays on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” as supporting rather than challenging heteronormative ideology

14) THEORY NAME: Psychoanalysis


  • “Psychoanalysis, as a theory of human psychology, describes the ways in which the small human being comes to develop a specific personality and sexual identity within the larger network of social relations called culture.  It takes as its object the mechanisms of the unconscious — resistance, repression, sexuality, and the Oedipus complex — and seeks to analyze the fundamental structures of desire that underlie all human activity.” (Flitterman-Lewis, 1992, p. 204)
  • Media impacts operating through regression, identification, fantasy & wish-fulfillment thru repression of ego/superego, suturing/subjectification, linking to consumption
  • Freudian: Media products trigger repressed desires held by individuals in the unconsciousness.  It is assumed that media contents and technologies are deliberately manipulated by media producers with the goal of structuring these potential impacts into their products.
    • Keywords: repression, intrapsychic conflict, id/ego/superego, dreams & fantasies, sex, wish fulfillment, fetish
    • “Sigmund Freud, who discovered and theorized the unconscious, believed that human life is dominated by the need to repress our tendencies toward the gratification of basic desires and drives (the “pleasure principle”) in favor of delayed and more socially acceptable means of gratification (the “reality principle”).” (Flitterman-Lewis, 1992, p. 204)
  • Lacanian: Media content represents societal and cultural norms as to what is considered proper behavior to become a successful gendered and sexed member of that society or culture. 
    • restructuring Freudian psychoanalysis “through Saussurean structuralism and the intervention of Louis Althusser and structural Marxism… Lacan rereads Freud’ story of the development of the child into a sexed and gendered subject through experiences of viewing one’s self in a reflective surface (the ‘mirror’ stage) and seeing the social differences between males and females articulated through the signifier of the phallus (the ‘symbolic’ stage).  The mirror stage develops an individual’s ability to identify with others (a misrecognition that self and other are the same, but crucial in civilization’s maintenance).  The symbolic stage generates meaning-making, since (binary) difference is now seen and understood as consequential.  Thus, all individuals are socially constructed into subjects to ‘fit’ into the social world.  This proposition assumes power differentials, and the theory falls within a conflict sociological perspective.” (Straiger, 2005, p. 63-4)
    • post-structuralist psychoanalysis — “According to Lacan, we are born into a condition of ‘lack’, and subsequently spend the rest of our lives trying to overcome this condition. … The result is an endless quest in search of an imagined moment of plentitude. … We console ourselves with a series of substitutes for a substitute.” (Storey, 1993, p. 88)
    • “In other words, our sense of self and our sense of otherness are both composed from the language we speak and the cultural repertoire we encounter in our everyday existence.  …without language we would have no sense of self, and yet within language our sense of self is always slipping away — fragile and threatening to fragment.”  (Storey, 1993, p. 90)
    • Keywords: castration anxiety, mirror stage, the Imaginary, the Symbolic, the Real, desire, drives, jouissance, the gaze

SUBSUMES: spectatorship

OVERLAPS: symbolic interactionism, social constructivism, Foucauldian discourse


  • Freudian: Text analysis of advertising as influencing buying habits, and film influencing involvement
  • Lacanian: Text analysis, often from approaches seeking to understanding differences and oppression of categories
  • “More than any other form, the cinema is capable of actually reproducing or approximating the structure and logic of dreams and the unconscious.  From Freud, we know that fantasy refers to the fulfillment of a wish by means of the production of an imaginary scene in which the subject-dreamer, whether depicted as present or not, is the protagonist.” (Flitterman-Lewis, 1992, p. 211)

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Christian Metz, Laura Mulvey


  • Richards (1998) analyzed the film Basic Instinct for its representation of women as dangerous using Freud’s discussion of the Medusa monster as symbolic for castration anxiety
  • Kehl (2005) analyzed advertisements for their fetishization of commodities, illustrating and provoking unconscious desires, from both Lacanian and Freudian perspectives

15) THEORY NAME: Political economy

TENETS: Society studied through its discourses and organization of media institutions, which impacts media products, and implied impact on people.  Economic imperatives of media producers influences how media products are created and engaged with.

  • “A critical theory raises questions and provides alternative ways of interpreting the social role of mass media.  For example, some critical theorists argue that media in general sustain the status quo — even, perhaps especially, when that status quo is under stress or breaking down.  Critical theory often provides complex explanations for this tendency of the media to consistently do so.  For example, some critical theorists identify constraints on media practitioners that limit their ability to challenge established authority.  They charge that few incentives exist to encourage media professionals to overcome those constraints and that media practitioners consistently fail to even acknowledge them.” (Baran, 1999, p. 217)
  • Political economy as a neomarxist theory (Baran, 1999), an extension of the work started by Frankfurt school, but with a focus on institutional analysis where critical theory is more focused on text analysis
  • “Political economy theorists study elite control of economic institutions such as banks and stock markets and then try to show how this control affects many other social institutions, including the mass media… In certain respects, political economists accept the classic Marxist assumption that the base dominates the superstructure.  They investigate the means of production by looking at economic institutions, then expect to find that these institutions will shape media to suit their interests and purposes.  For example, political economists have examined how economic constraints limit or bias the forms of mass culture that are produced and distributed through the media.  These economists are less concerned with investigating how mass culture influences specific groups or subcultures and are more concerned with understanding how the processes of content production and distribution are constrained.”  (Baran, 1999, p. 227)
  • “[Political economy theory] is, even so, a materialist theory, and its basic premise is that between them the economics of the media and the economic base of social power largely account for the main features of mass media development and the essential character of mass media systems and their content.” (McQuail, 2002, p. 9) — thereby accounting for the slew of effects that result from the introduction of media products into a system
  • “Although some work in communication studies draws on institutional analysis, a radical, critical, or Marxian political economy is likely the tradition that is represented when one refers to ‘the political economy of communication.’” (Wasko, 2004, p. 310)
  • “[Smythe] argued that the central purpose of applying political economy to communication was to evaluate the effects of communication agencies in terms of the policies by which they are organized and operated or, in other words, to study the structure and policies of communication institutions in their societal settings.”  (Wasko, 2004, p. 311)
  • “Political-economy theory is an old label that has been revived to identify a socially critical approach which focuses primarily on the relation between the economic structure and dynamics of media industries and the ideological content of media.  It directs research attention to the empirical analysis of the structure of ownership and control of media and to the way media market forces operate.  From this point of view, the media institution has to be considered as part of the economic system with close links to the political system.” (McQuail, 1994, p. 82)
  • “While the approach centres on media activity as an economic process leading to the commodity (the media product or content), there is a variant of the political-economic approach which suggest that media really produce media audiences, in the sense that they deliver audience attention to advertisers and shape the behavior of media publics in certain distinctive ways (Smythe, 1977).” (McQuail, 1994, p. 82-3)
  • Smythe argued in 1977 that “audience-as-commodity” was more important than the media content, which Murdock (1978) rebuked by arguing audiences only matter in advertisement-dependent media systems (Wasko, 2004)

SUBSUMES: media economics

OVERLAPS: critical theory, audience reception

RESEARCH APPROACH: institutional analysis of political and economic arrangements/relationships and their impact on media production, the media product (technology or content), the distribution/marketing of the media product, and the relationship with or concept of the media users/audience

  • Several key areas studied (Wasko, 2004): commodification/commercialization, diversification, horizontal & vertical integration, synergy, market concentration, corporate structure & ownership, globalization & cultural imperialism, media-state relations, resistance/opposition

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Graham Murdock (linked to Frankfurt), Dallas Smythe (not linked to Frankfurt), Janet Wasko, Vincent Mosco, Ben Bagdikian


  • Murdock & Golding (1999) performed a historical and discourse analysis to understand communication technology convergences as market driven in Europe, with impact to public communications and on lower income consumers
  • Machin & van Leeuwen (2004) tested assumptions of globalization — glocalization, or transnational companies adjusting to local cultures — showing that while media content may be local, media structure is standard and Western

16) THEORY NAME: Audience reception

TENETS: Domination from media content exists, but is made complex through concept of hegemony.  Media normalization of elite’s perspective reproduces existing power structures through active consensus of individuals. 

  • Arising from British cultural studies, combination of Gramsci’s hegemony (Hall) and literary hermeneutics (Williams), and focused largely on Hall’s encoding/decoding model
  • “Most British cultural studies theories discussed in this chapter can be labeled neomarxist.  They deviate from class Marxist theory in at least one important respect — they focus on the superstructure issues of ideology and culture rather than on the base.” (Baran, 1999, p. 221)
    • MY NOTES: shares with critical theory the desire to understand how the few control the many, where ideological control is hegemonic, but Hall’s addition provides route to seeing agency for resistance to the domination of the minority
    • “Other theorists in the critical school (deriving more from the post-structuralist school) look for more complex and interwoven systems of meaning that can alienate individuals in society.  Cultural theorists are examples of this scholarly direction.” (Miller, 2002, p. 72-3)
  • “This theory has attempted to trace historic elite domination over culture, to criticize the social consequences of this domination, and to demonstrate how it continues to be exercised over specific minority groups or subcultures.  British cultural studies criticizes and contrasts elite notions of culture, including high culture, with popular, everyday forms practiced by minorities.  The superiority of all forms of elite culture including high culture is challenged and compared with useful, valuable forms of popular culture.” (Baran, 1999, p. 224)
  • “…Hall argued that mass media in liberal democracies can best be understood as a pluralistic public forum in which various forces struggle to shape popular notions about social reality.  In this forum, new concepts of social reality are negotiated and new boundary lines between various social worlds are drawn.  Unlike traditional Marxists, Hall did not argue that elites can maintain complete control over this forum.  In his view, elites don’t need that power to advance their interests.  The culture expressed in this forum is not a mere superficial reflection of the superstructure but is instead a dynamic creation of opposing groups.  Elites, however, do retain many advantages in the struggle to define social reality.  Counter-elite groups must work hard to overcome them.” (Baran, 1999, p. 225-6)
  • “…critical theory focused on the struggle over media meanings, not only in the textual practices but also in the encounter between ‘reader’ and ‘text’ at the point of reception.  New critical theory favoured the view that all meaning has to be negotiated and that any ‘text’ is open to multiple and even opposed readings, depending on the circumstances and perception of the ‘reader’.” (McQuail, 2002, p. 9)
  • “In laying out his views about decoding, Hall proposed an approach to audience research that has come to be known as reception studies or reception analysis.  A central feature of this approach is its focus on how various types of audience members make sense of the specific forms of content. … To make sense of a text — to read a text — you have to be able to interpret the signs and their structure. … Hall argued that most texts can be read in several ways but that there is generally a preferred or dominant reading that the producers of a message intend when they create a message.  As a critical theorist, Hall assumed that most popular media content will have a preferred reading that reinforces the status quo.  But in addition to this dominant reading, it is possible for audience members to make alternate interpretations.  They might disagree with or misinterpret some aspects of a message and come up with an alternative or negotiated meaning that differs from the preferred reading in important ways.  And in some cases audiences might develop interpretations that are in direct opposition to a dominant reading.  In that case, they are said to engage in oppositional decoding.” (Baran, 1999, p. 262)

SUBSUMES: Gramscian neo-Marxism, cultural studies

OVERLAPS: critical theory, social constructivism

KEYWORDS: hegemony, resistance

RESEARCH APPROACH: focus groups and interviews of readings of texts analyzed then for type of reading, often associated with some sociodemographic category, with different approaches focusing on different categorizations (feminism, queer, race, class, etc)

  • “[Reception studies researchers] stress their effort to combine macroscopic encoding research with microscope decoding studies.”  (Baran, 1999, p. 263)
  • “Cultural studies theorists tend to ignore the larger social and political context in which media operate.  These theorists focus instead on how popular culture content is consumed by individuals and groups.  Their research has led them to become increasingly skeptical about the power of elites to promote hegemonic forms of culture.” (Baran, 1999, p. 228-229)

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, David Morley


  • Morley (1980) in focus groups studied different classes and subculture’s decoding of a BBC series, Nationwide
  • Radway (1984) in focus groups studied women’s reasons for reading romances as struggles/negotiations with patriarchal structures
  • Katz & Liebes (1990) in interviews studied readings of Dallas by people from different countries/cultures around the world

17) THEORY NAME: Symbolic interactionism

TENETS: Media content provide information that constructs either a symbolic generalized “other” or specific human models against which individuals compare themselves in order to understand themselves as social beings.

  • “Each of us learns many different social roles through interaction with others.  Our actions are being subtly ‘conditioned’ by others while we are affecting their actions.  The goal is not to manipulate or dominate each other but rather to create and sustain a productive social unite — a group that provides its members with certain rewards in return for their willingness to take on specific roles.  We learn social roles through interaction, through experiences in daily life situations.  Over time, we internalize the rules inherent in the situations and structure our actions accordingly.  Only in rare cases do we consciously reflect on and analyze our actions. … Once internalized, these roles provide us with a powerful means of controlling our actions.  In time, our identity becomes bound up with them — we feel good about ourselves because we play certain roles that are respected by others.” (Baran, 1999, p. 231-2)
  • Because humans are symbolizing animals, symbols can transcend time and space, so socialization does not just occur within face-to-face interaction — the symbols can come to us through the media
  • “In other words, symbols mediate and structure all our experience because they structure our ability to perceive and interpret what goes on around us.  Thus, symbolic interactionism posits that our actions in response to symbols are mediated (or controlled) largely by those same symbols.” (Baran, 1999, p. 233)
  • We exist in a sociocultural environment populated with artificial/cultural/social symbols whose meanings we have agreed upon — our experience of our self, society and each other are mediated through these symbols (which inhabit media products as well, thus making them media of relaying symbols) — the extent to which we accept the social identites created for us as a part of our self will determine the extent to which that sociocultural environment and its symbols can impact our behavior [my notes based on Baran’s accounting of later symbolic interactionist explanations]
    • MY NOTES: Ultimate impact would be socialization via acceptance of social symbols or construction of resistant identity — focus on the individual as replicating reality
  • “Blumler starts with the premise that humans act toward people or things on the basis of the meanings they assign to those people or things. … Blumler’s second premise is that meaning arises out of the social interaction that people have with each other.  In other words, meaning is not inherent in objects; it’s not preexistent in a state of nature.  Meanings is negotiated through the use of language; hence the term symbolic interactionism. … Blumler’s third premise is that an individual’s interpretation of symbols is modified by his or her own thought processes.  Symbolic interactionists describe thinking as an inner conversation.  Mead called this inner dialogue minding.”  (Griffin, 1997, p. 84-6)
  • “The ‘I” is the spontaneous driving force that fosters all that is novel, unpredictable, and unorganized in the self. .. The ‘me’ is viewed as an object — the image of self seen in the looking-glass of other people’s reactions. …combine all these looking-glass selves and end up with a composite picture he called the generalized other. The term is a synonym for our ‘me.’ Our generalized other is the sum total of responses and expectations that we pick up from the people around us.” (Griffin, 1997, p. 88-89)

SUBSUMES: phenomenology (?)

OVERLAPS: psychoanalysis, social constructionism

RESEARCH APPROACH: reception studies or text analyses that focus on the theory’s tenets on situation, identity, interaction and perception of self vs other

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: George Herbert Mead (general concept), Herbert Blumler (coined the name), Don Faules & Dennis Alexander (1978), Michael Solomon (1983), Norman Denzin

  • “Although Mead first articulated his ideas in the 1930s, not until the 1970s and 1980s did mass communication researchers give serious attention to symbolic interaction.” (Baran, 1999, p. 234)


  • Fernback (2007) interviewed people regarding their experiences with online social interaction and how from such interaction perceptions of “community” arise
  • Armstrong (1999) content analyzed Nike advertisements for features that symbolic interactionism would predict as increasing the marketing’s effectiveness

18) THEORY NAME: Social constructionism (constructivism)

TENETS: Media content provides information as to the reality of some society or culture, and this information may or may not match the individual’s perception of that society or culture.  Whether or not the media’s portrayal of reality becomes reality depends upon the actions of the individuals.

  • “When social construction of reality is applied to mass communication it implies an active audience.  Audience members don’t just passively take in and store bits of information in mental filing cabinets, they actively process this information, reshape it, and store only what serves culturally defined needs.  Active audience members use the media’s symbols to define their environments and the things in it, but those definitions have little value unless they are shared by others.” (Baran, 1999, p. 237)
  • “Schutz argued that we can conduct our lives with little effort or thought because we have developed stocks of social knowledge that we use to quickly make sense of what goes on around us and then structure our actions.  One of the most important forms of knowledge that we possess is typifications.  Typifications enable us to quickly classify objects and actions that we observe and then structure our own actions in response.  But typifications operate to some extent like stereotypes — though they make it easy to interpret our experiences, they also distort and bias these experiences.” (Baran, 1999, p. 238)
  • “Berger and Luckmann developed Schutz’s notion of typifications into what they refer to as typification schemes, collections of meanings we have assigned to some phenomenon, that come from our social stock of knowledge to pattern our interaction with our environments and the things and people in it.  A bit more simply, we, as a people, through interaction with our environment, construct a ‘natural backdrop’ for the development of ‘typification schemes required for the major routines of everyday life, not only the typification of others…but typifications of all sorts of events and experiences, both social and natural’ (1966, p. 43).  Of course, what media theorists and practitioners, especially advertisers and marketing professionals, now understand is that whoever has the greatest influences over a culture’s definition of its symbols and signs also control the construction of the typification schemes that individuals use to pattern their interactions with their various social worlds.” (Baran, 1999, p. 230-240)
    • MY NOTES: SCR more concerned the construction (either reproduction or transformation) of society/culture, as preexistent to the media and relayed through the media — focus on groups as replicating reality
  • “Still, it is not merely that people perceive reality in a particular way, their perception has consequences for their sense of self, relations with others, their mode of conduct and a whole range of other social practices.  In these social interactions people produce, reproduce and adjust definitions of reality… Reality is not merely something that exists ‘out there’, but it is also (re)constructed by the social and sense-making activities of human beings.” (van Zoonen, 2002, p. 55)

SUBSUMES: Social semiotics, pragmatist, structuration

  • Seeking a middle ground between deterministic theories and assertions of audience activity
  • Jensen (1995, p. 68-69) as quoted in Baran (1999, p. 341) “Increasingly, mass media serve to structure a day in the life of Western, urbanized societies, as they represent institutions in the political, economic and cultural spheres of society as continuous points of reference for everyday routines. … In each case, mass media contribute to the process of semiosis which sustains the everyday of individuals and reproduces the institutions of the social collective.” 
  • “A central argument in Jensen’s theory is that much of everyday life is devoted to semiosis — the process of interpreting and using signs.  Our ability to do this is based on our knowledge of semiotics (sign systems) that we have gained from past interpersonal and mass communication.  Whenever we interpret sign systems during the course of daily life, this is a situated activity — it occurs in specific social environments and these environments help to shape and are shaped by our interpretation of signs.  This mutual shaping is reflexive.  … The existence of these signs systems encourages certain actions and discourages others.  If situations are sufficiently ambiguous, we might need to create new signs of apply existing signs in creative ways in order to interpret what is going on.  But once these signs are created, they become the structure that determines future action.” (Baran, 1999, p. 342)
  • Jensen (1995, p. 61-62) as quoted in Baran (1999, p. 342) “…societies come before media as generators of meaning.  Meaning flows from existing social institutions and everyday contexts, via media professionals and audiences, to the mass media, not vice versa.  For most people, most of the time, mass communication is hardly the factor determining their personal or social orientation and action.  Meaning is ascribed to the discourses and practices of mass communication with reference to the social contexts which they represent and address.  In sum, the center of mass communication, and of mass communication research, lies outside the mass media as such — within the discourses, practices, and institutions in whose reproduction the media participate.”
  • “Meaning is generated within human communities and then flows through media.  Media participate in reproducing social practices and institutions, but they don’t determine or control these practices or institutions.” (Baran, 1999, p. 342)
  • Closely aligned with pragmatist theory: “Communication theory examining who participates in transforming communication into action, in which sectors and institutions of society, with what basis in everyday life, by what form of consensus concerning criteria and procedures, and with what consequences for the structure of society.” (Baran, 1999, p. 342)
  • “To properly understand the role and power of mass media, researchers need to understand how media facilitate and bias the “reproduction” of discourses, practices, and institutions.” (Baran, 1999, p. 342)

RELATED APPROACHES: psychoanalysis, symbolic interactionism

RESEARCH APPROACH: currently being applied in many studies or theorizations of the internet and other interactive media, on how people use the media to network to how producers use the media to engage dialogically with these active users

THEORISTS/RESEARCHERS: Alfred Schutz, Peter Berger & Thomas Luckmann, Karl Bruhn Jensen, Anthony Giddens


  • Jewkes (2002) used structuration theory in her analysis of prisoners’ media use in how media enabled prisoners to cope with the structural boundaries of the system
  • Bakardjieva & Smith (2001) used social constructionism as a basis for talking to people about their everyday internet activities and what it meant for the social shaping of this medium


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