Mass Communication Theory: Definitions and Eras

What is Mass Communication?

Mass Communication is “when a source, typically an organization, employs a technology as a medium to communicate with a large audience“. Questions: If you send an email to a “mailing list,” or if you write a note in your blog or facebook, does mass communication occure here? Or if a marketing company sends you a “customized” email, is it a mass communication process?

Most theories will be discussed in the book (“Mass Communication Theory: Foundation, Ferment and Future”, Baran: 2010) were developed before the modern communication revolutions (the internet, etc). New communication technologies enable us to communicate differently from the mass communication “era”. We need to think of mediated communication as existing on a continuum between interpersonal communication and mass communication on the other end.

Today, the number and variety of mass communication theories have steadily increased. More or less independent body of knowledge from the social science and humanities literature, developed by scholars from social sciences (sociology, psychology) and humanities (philosophy, literary analysis). Some theories are grand, some are “small” and specific.

There are 4 major categories in Mass Communication Theory:

  • Postpositivism
    • Positivism: Knowledge can be gained only through empirical, observable, measurable phenomena (physics, chemistry, etc.). Do you think it will be applicable to study a society? Why?
    • Postpositivism: based on empirical observation guided by scientific method, but recognizing the complexity of human behavior. Goals: explanation, prediction and control. Case study: Indonesian political marketing
  • Hermeneutic theory
    • Study of understanding, especially through the systematic interpretation of action or texts. Began as the study or interpretation of the Bible and sacred texts. Goals: To understand how and why a behavior occurs in the social world.
  • Critical theory
    • Theory seeking emancipation and change  in a dominant social order. Starting from the assumption that some aspects of the social world are deeply flawed and in need of transformation. Goals: Transformation of the society. Example: Karl Marx.
  • Normative theory
    • Theory explaining how a media system should operate in order to conform to or realize a set of ideal social values. Goals: to set an ideal standard against which the operation of a given media system can be judged. Commonly used by theoriests interested in press role in democracy.

Four Eras of Media Theory

Theories will be discussed chronologically, so you have a broad and historically grounded perspective on media. It does not mean that theories developed in orderly, chronologically stable way. Also, older theories are not completely obsolete. Newer theories, as radical as it look, for the most part are updated version of old ideas. Notes: These theories were developed in the Western culture context. Are they applicable in non-Western cultures? This is a big question.

  1. The Era of Mass Society and Mass Culture Theory. Begun at the 2nd half of the 19th century. Mass society theory: Perspective on Western, industrial society that attributess an influential but often negative role to media. Media was feared because it was regarded as a threat to the traditional social order. The audience was considered as a passive target of media. Will be discussed later: Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft (Tonnies); mechanical and organic solidarity (Durkheim); propaganda theory; magic bullet theories; normative theories of media; social responsibility theory; etc.
  2. The Emergence of a Scientific Perspective. Starting in 1940s, especially by Paul Lazarsfeld who fled from Nazi Germany to the US. The use of scientific approach, carefully designed field experiment and measurement, to observe media influence on society. “Media were not as powerful as previously imagined” Thus, the effect of media towards the audience is limited. “People had numerous ways of resisting media influence and were influenced by many competing factors”. “Media seemed to reinforce existing social trends and strenghthen rather that threaten the status quo”. We will discuss the studies by Lazarsfeld, Hovland, etc.
  3. The Era of Limited Effects. By the mid-1960, the debate between mass society and limited effects was over, in which the latter gained more support. The empirical research findings confirmed the latter view. Since no “big problem” in media, Berelson (1959) declared the field communication research to be dead. During the 1960s and into the 1970s, the limited effects paradigm dominated American mass communication research. We will discuss: information flow theory, diffusion theory, phenomenistic theory, etc.
  4. The Era of Cultural Criticism. Mass society notions continued to flourish in Europe. Both left wing and right wing concerns about the power of media, learning from the trauma of the WW II. During the 1960s, neomarxist in Britain developed a school of social theory widely referred to as British cultural studiesNeomarxist: Social theorists asserting that media enable dominant social elites to maintain power. In North America, there was an attempt ot create an “american culture studies” (Innis and McLuhan, for example).

The Emergence of Moderate Effects; The limited effects paradigm have undergone a transformation, due to the pressure of cultural studies and new comm technology. The idea of active audience that uses media content to create meaningful experience. Acknowledges that media effects can occur over longer period of time (while limited effect was unable to understand the media role in cultural changes).

The diversity of theory in mass communication

So you’ll find many theories in mass comm. No single theory could explain all aspects of mass comm. There will not be a “final theory” in mass comm. Macroscopic theory and microcospic theory. It is difficult to implement scientific method to social phenomena. There are four reasons why it is difficult to implement scientific method to social phenomena:

  • Most of the significant and interesting forms of human behavior are quite difficult to measure
  • Human behavior is exceedingly complex
  • Humans have goals and are self-reflexive
  • The simple notion of causality is sometimes troubling when it is applied to ourselves

Conclusion: The situation is complicated because social science itself is somewhat schizophrenic—it is many different things to many different people. However, theories need to be developed to understand the phenomenon, albeit partially.

For further readings:


PS: Thanks to Mr. Putut Widjanarko for the lectures.