Com 314: Mass Communication Theory

Updated:  08 October, 2003



Additional Resources: Baran and Davis, Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur

Updated: 10/08/2003


Some of these theories are called Theories of Selective Influence.  We'll use the limited effects term because that's the one used in our text book.

Several events took place in the 1920s and 1930s that changed mass media theory.

It's also important to note that before World War II there was no unified field of communication studies.  It was all done in sociology, psychology or some related field.  There were lots of people working independently on similar things.

Then when the "War of the Worlds" was broadcast and the panic ensued, that became a focus of research and some new questions emerged.  The classic research, published in 1940 (Cantril, Gaudet, and Herzog, 1940) had some very interesting results:

How could that answer be determined?  Through the use of scientific methods.  Two key men were leaders in that movement: Paul Lazarsfeld and Carl Hoveland.  Lazarsfeld began using survey research to ask those questions. Hoveland developed and refined new techniques of rsearch.  They found little or no influence of media in many of the projects they conducted.  As a result of their work and the events listed above and the work of others, the old paradigm was questioned.  The idea that it was common sense  (deductive logic: generalize that if it affects some, it affects all in the same way)  that media affected every body the same way at the same time was seriously questioned.

Some key concepts:

Induction: working from documented specifics to general application.  In mass com theory, it means using empirical research data as the basis for com theory development. 

Middle-Range Theory:  Theories constructed from such empirical data, which, because of sample selection and appropriate research design have application/generalizability to the general public.  (Rooted in the desire to justify social science by using accepted physical scientific methodology.)

Paradigm: a theoretical perspective; may be the dominant --or most accepted-- paradigm or a new or developing paradigm.

Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolution in 1970 (2nd ed. University of Chicago Press) in which he held that science only makes real advances when old ways of explaining things are challenged.  It is only through those challenges that new ways of thinking are considered, tested, and either accepted or denied.  Either way, the knowledge and understanding in the scientific field is expanded significantly.

As a result of those developments, a paradigmatic shift took place.

On the macro level, a key theory developed explaining the role of media institutions in societies:

Individual Differences/Limited Effects theories are PSYCHOLOGICAL theories at their roots.

We're taking these a little out of order according to your textbook because I want to look at the "macro" theories together.   Functionalism, like the mass society theories, examines impact on large groups and on people who make up those large groups.  

The perspective of Functionalism is slightly different as well.  Mass society theories saw media as a "mass manipulator" that could be and was primarily a negative force that required control by responsible entities.  Functionalism didn't cast media as negative, and in fact backed away from "good" and "bad" value judgments. It also relied on empirical research to evaluate whether the functional activity served the purpose for which it was intended...

Functional Analysis or Functionalism: 

Be sure you refer back to chapter 3 and Baran and Davis' discussion of the rise and decline of various media forms and industries.  Notice that while the technologies and modes of delivery change, the social need met by those industries remains.  It is the need that is stable, the means to meet it may change.

Be sure you have done your reading in this chapter (Chapter 7) concerning this and other limited effects theories.

Also, be sure you understand the concept of paradigm and who Thomas Kuhn was and how he thought paradigms were formed.

Robert Merton and Middle Range Theories:

Merton used his background in anthropology and sociology to develop the Functional Analysis Theory.

Functional displacement: "When the functions of an existing medium are replaced by a newer technology, the older medium finds news functions." (Baran and Davis, p. 45)  

One of the best examples of this are the functions served by radio in the 1930s and 1940s and how those functions were taken over by television.  Drama and comedy programs for entertainment were the primary staple for radio in those years, and radio was the primary means of news delivery as well, though newspapers were still read widely and visual news was obtained through the newsreel at motion picture theatres.  When television became widely adopted by the public in the early 50s, radio lost its dramatic and comedic audience and had to reinvent itself.  It went from its most profitable year ever in 1949 to being virtually penniless by 1952. As the stars and the programs went to TV, radio had to find a new audience and modern radio formats, primarily music formats, were formed.  Similarly, when TV news took off, newsreels disappeared as did the photo news magazines like Life and Look.

Functionalism is NOT an individual effects theory.  It is an institutional effects theory, dealing with the MACRO level of the society or social system as a whole.  While Uses and Gratifications Theory addresses individual actions and effects, Functionalism looks at a much bigger picture.

Functionalism is concerned social systems and the stability necessary to preserve them. Functionalism is part of the limited effects paradigm, and it was very popular in the 1950s and 1960s.  

The Basics of Functional Analysis:

One of the primary assumptions is that media appeal to the masses and the masses want the kind of content they get, and so media continue to provide that for them.  (Does that sound familiar?)  That happens because of the structural functional paradigm.

So What Is a Function?  

It is important to remember that while FUNCTIONALISM is a MACRO-LEVEL theory, the term "FUNCTION" can be applied to individual actions, events or effects.  So a function can operate at the MICRO level as well.

Pattern of Actions/Phenomenon:

If you're going analyze this, you have to identify what it is.  What constitutes "watching a program"? Is it being in the room? Is it giving undivided attention to the program?  Can you work on the computer and watch TV and still be watching TV?  Or what is the difference between "high taste" and "low taste" content?  Is Fear  Factor low taste? Why?  Is Jeopardy ?  If not, why not?  They're both game shows?  Contestants may be humiliated if they don't win.... What about Wheel of Fortune? Let's make a Deal?  What are the boundaries? 

You also have to identify HOW the pattern of action works to provide a benefit and IDENTIFY the benefit.

Let me give you a personal example. When my boys were little I used to carry a wooden spoon in my jean's hip pocket.  The boys seemed to behave better when the spoon was "handy" because they knew it meant Mom was ready to mean what she said and back it up NO MATTER WHERE we were. The boys better behavior was the reason the spoon was in my pocket. In our social system, appropriate behavior is required.  It's also necessary not to have your kids screaming, fighting, or running off when you're trying to write a check for their new pair of sneakers. I also wanted to socialize my kids properly so I wouldn't be embarrassed, and even more importantly, so that they would know how to lead happy, productive lives. 

The boys' improved behavior was function of my attitude which was represented by the spoon.  It met my need to fulfill my role, to be social acceptable, and to establish permanent behavior patters expected in our family social system.

Some other examples of functional symbols:.  What are their functions? Each of the examples below have several. How many can you name?

Social System(s):

To understand how the function works, you have to understand the social, cultural, or personal system in which it works or exists. What are the BOUNDARIES of the system?

This is particularly significant today as we consider the industry trend of media consolidation. Within the conglomerate company of a Time-Warner, for example, you have numerous TV stations, radio stations, AOL, CNN, cable companies, production companies, etc.  A set of actions which might be good for an individual radio station might not be good for the cable company or the corporation as a whole.  It might be functional for the radio division to eliminate local news from their programming, in order to simplify program schedules and reduce costs among hundreds of stations.  On the other hand, the small-market station which provided the sole local news coverage for a town of a few thousand people my lose listeners because it no longer offers something the townspeople couldn't get anywhere else.

In fact, the FCC is going "on the road" beginning in October of 2003 to investigate just HOW local electronic media outlets are serving the 'public interest, convenience, and necessity" of the local communities to which they are licensed.  What is functional for the media corporation may not be functional for the local community.

External conditions can also effect the social system.  The social system of radio was deeply impacted by the development of a new social system, television.  War, economic conditions, the moral/cultural norms of the "bigger" society in which a smaller social system works -- any of these can affect what "works" or does not.

Media will also relate to each other in different ways , depending on the culture in which the mass com system works.  So what is FUNCTIONAL could be very different from one culture to the next.

Functions deal with those things that PROMOTE THE STABILITY OF THE CULTURE or Social System.

If the set of actions leads to a negative outcome, it is said to be DYSfunctional.  It's important to remember:  Functions are morally neutral.  So whether a pattern of action is said to be functional or dysfunctional has nothing to do with whether what was done is GOOD or BAD. 

In Lasswell's initial discussion of Functionalism, he established THREE FUNCTIONS OF THE MEDIA, sometimes called Three Activities of the Media.    Notice that they are broken down by WHO/WHAT part of society they impact. 

Later, additional theorists added two additional functions to the original three.

Research and decision-making based on functionalism, is loaded with complications.  The biggest complication is that what is functional for one part of society may not be functional for another.  I may think Fear Factor is dysfunctional for society and for me, but the people who participate in the show my find it functional even if they lose.  In their social system they may have a more secure place, more respect, more attention because they were on TV. (Why else would they agree to eat spiders?)

This leads to another problem.  Because of variable functionality of any media phenomenon, it's really hard to draw conclusions about the role of media-related activities in the culture. If we eliminate the "bad" effects, we may also eliminate some "good" ones.  How do you  know and who gets to decide?

While functional analysis makes a lot of common sense on some levels, another problem is that functionalism inherently supports the status quo.  If "functional" = preserving the stability of the social system, that = preserving the status quo.  As long as things aren't falling apart, the system must be in balance, even if there are dysfunctional things going on.  It's a pretty low standard....  So as if violent television only affects some children some of the time, then most children aren't effect most of the time, so the violent program must be acceptable..... Nothing changes. Nothing gets better.  Baran and Davis do a good job explaining how this works and how "convenient" it is for network programmers then and now.

When we get to the MICRO-level theories which deal with impact of media on individuals, we find more emphasis on psychological roots of communication theory.Therefore it's is important to realize how psychology changed during this period:

Thus the "nature vs. nurture" debate was begun.  The complication was that if we learn our behaviors and all of things around us that teach us are individualized and different, then WE and our BEHAVIORS will be individualized and different.  If, on the other hand, we behave because of instinct, then we should all be behaving pretty much the same.

Some early LEARNING THEORIES were developed by Edward Thorndike, B.F.Skinner, (conditioning, reinforcement) and Pavlov (conditioning via extraneous stimulus) contributed to the discussion.

MOTIVATION THEORY also added to the perspective:

Research that examined the role of attitude in media response was widely conducted and accepted because

Because of the concern about propaganda, there was real need seen to figure out how to fight it in order to protect citizens and military personnel.  With so many people enlisting in the military, there are an easily accessible sample population on which to do research.

This was important for mass communications because of two assumptions:

These assumptions are the basis for the limited effects or individual differences theories that dominated mass media research up through the mid 1960s.

Basics of the individual differences theories:  Individual differences in the psychological or cognitive make-up of audience members are key factors in shaping their attention to the media as well as their behavior toward the issues and objects discussed here.

As a result of work in this theoretical perspective, focus has been on the importance of psychographic and demographic market segmentation research. 

DISCUSSION: Why would this be true?   See Les Brown, Television: The Business Behind the Box. pp. 285-287 for good explanation from television history.


This one is more of a sociological theory because it deals with larger groups.  It was developing at the same time as some of the others, but it still focuses on differences based on differences in the key unit which is the group.

It holds that modern societies are characterized by

Social categories assumes that there are different groups within a society with distinct characteristics and members of those groups or social categories will react to media messages in similar ways.

Research methodology: samples, surveys, participant observation of subcultures; empirical analysis of data


This theory was developing at the same time.  We don't need to address it here, but  note that the POWER has shifted from the media message to the audience member/receiver.  That is a significant change in the paradigmatic perspective of the time.  It was actually revolutionary at the time, and a logical outcome of the progression of limited effects or individual differences research and theory.


Harrold Lasswell turns up again in our study of theory.  He laid the groundwork for communication research and  the beginnings of mass communication theory.  He took the Bullet Theory and elaborated it into a selective influences social categories type of theory which he called the theory of Social Relationships which asks a key question:  "Who says what to whom with what effect?"   While the "group" was a part of the relationship, the theory focused on individuals and used empirical methods to try to answer those questions.

This is the basic model of communication:

This was the first time people thought about the process as encoding and decoding messages.  Individual differences and social differentiation apply to the TO WHOM aspect, but those two theories don't answer all the questions posed in the Lazarsfeld questions.


In May, 1940, paul Lazarsfeld with colleagues Berelson and Gaudet explored media impact on voters during an election campaign: This was the most elaborate field study ever conducted and became known as the Erie County studies.

Limited Effects Theories...

So you see how Lazarsfeld's work laid the groundwork for theories which expected little direct media effects.  As a group, these theories have certain concepts in common:

Considering the political climate of the early forties, concerns about propaganda effectiveness and the development of new research techniques, the scene was set for that paradigm shift to kick into high gear.

Carl Hoveland and experimental research

Hoveland was a psychologist who headed experimental section of the research branch of the Army's Information and Education Division.   Their mission was to make sure that the programs the army used in the war effort were successful.  They worked with film directors such as Frank Capra and others as well as other media.   Jordan Braverman has written an outstanding book about the media during World War II that explores this subject. It's called To Hasten the Homecoming: How Americans Fought World War II through the Media.  You may not find Hoveland's work discussed in this book, but you'll see some of the efforts that came as a result of it and the work of others at the time....

The problem was, many of the films that were designed to improve morale, etc., didn't really have that measurable an effect.  They helped people understand the situation better, but didn't really make significant changes in motivation or attitude, and that was what they were designed to do.  The only attitudes that were changed at all were the very specific ones which were targeted.  


This theory rose after World War II in order to assess how people received information. It was assumed that a well-informed electorate was necessary for the preservation of a democratic-republic, especially in the Cold War environment.  The primary means of investigation was through survey research. 

The theory identified some key concepts:


Very relevant to this.  People accept new ideas via media very much the same way they accept technical innovations.  Everett Rogers was the chief investigator in this area of research.  It's primary focus was on helping the development in third world countries. How do you encourage people to have their children vaccinate? To plant crops more efficiently? To adopt better sanitation practices? Or, in a more developed society, to switch to High Definition Television, send e-mail in stead of letters, use virus protection on your computer or even to USE a computer.  Rogers found that there were clear steps in the process:

Think about how your family has adopted the use of cell phones or personal computers.  You probably have some early adopters, some opinion leaders and some late adopters in your family with regard to those technologies.  You yourself may be an early adopter in one kind of innovation but a late adopter in another.....

The role of media in this process is to create awareness of the innovation and focus on the early adopters and opinion leaders who make a successful adoption of the innovation.  Roger's Information Diffusion theory has been used for the last 40 years by the state department and other U.S. agencies and organizations in their work to improve conditions in less developed nations.

The theory may put too much emphasis or power with the message however.  It says very little about the nature of the people to whom the innovation is targeted and if they even want it.  Not every innovation works the same in every culture and your text offers some clear examples of some that didn't. (see p. 170)


If we're all so different, how is it that we perceive and use media messages?  (Back to clearly psychological theories)


Developed by Harold Mendelson in the 1960s, this is sort of a "so what's the big deal?" theory.  He argued that people needed to relax, reduce stress, even to escape the concerns of daily life.  TV provided a way to do that.   Critics of television and other media were just trying to create jobs for themselves and exaggerating the significance of long-term effects of media.  To put it bluntly, if we weren't watching TV we'd be doing something else just as useless.....  


This theory returned focus to the role of citizen and Lazarsfeld's original work.  It and the much of the research that followed seemed to indicate that ordinary people weren't as tuned in to critical civic issues as the founders had hope they would be when our governmental system was established.  As a result, things worked better here if change came slowly.  It took time to get people to adopt worthy innovations and the old libertarian ideas that people left alone would come up with the right choices, answers and developments didn't seem to hold much water any more.  If media wasn't working to improve the level of citizenship in the nation, why worry about it?  Let it entertain us and don't worry about it.  What we have is a society that allows the elites to run the big stuff and diverse ordinary folks with their own interests.  It's working, so don't fuss about it. 

These ideas weren't particularly well-received. They were seen as a betrayal to the ideals and sacrifices of the founding fathers and a cop-out which offered no direction for future policy or research.  Others criticized it as an excuse for the power elite to go on running things for their own benefit without worrying about the disadvantaged situations of minorities and others.

Baran and Davis outline some key assumptions/conclusions of limited effects theories:

Weakness are also identified:

It's important to remember that all of these theories are progressive steps in our understanding of media impact on individuals and cultures. There are valuable insights, but none of them hold all the answers.  They are building blocks to our understanding as social scientists and as citizens.

Additional Resource:

McQuail, Dennis.  Mass Communication Theory, 3rd. Ed. 1994  Sage: Thousand Oaks.

Copyright, 2003

Dr. Janet McMullen