Media Effects
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Media Effects

Advances in Theory and Research

Mary Beth Oliver, Arthur A. Raney, Jennings Bryant, Mary Beth Oliver, Arthur A. Raney, Jennings Bryant

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eBook - ePub

Media Effects

Advances in Theory and Research

Mary Beth Oliver, Arthur A. Raney, Jennings Bryant, Mary Beth Oliver, Arthur A. Raney, Jennings Bryant

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About This Book

Now in its fourth edition, Media Effects again features essays from some of the finest scholars in the field and serves as a comprehensive reference volume for scholars, teachers, and students.

This edition contains both new and updated content that reflects our media-saturated environments, including chapters on social media, video games, mobile communication, and virtual technologies. In recognition of the multitude of research trajectories within media effects, this edition also includes new chapters on narratives, positive media, the self and identity, media selection, and cross-cultural media effects. As scholarship in media effects continues to evolve and expand, Media Effects serves as a benchmark of theory and research for the current and future generations of scholars.

The book is ideal for scholars and for undergraduate and graduate courses in media effects, media psychology, media theory, psychology, sociology, political science, and related disciplines.

Chapter 16 of this book is freely available as a downloadable Open Access PDF at under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives (CC-BY-NC-ND) 4.0 license.

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A History of Media Effects Research Traditions

Peter Vorderer, David W. Park, and Sarah Lutz
Media effects research has been both praised and criticized for its role in a discipline called communication, communication studies, or even communication science. In fact, despite the rapid growth of the field and its seemingly constant differentiation, numerous influential volumes have been dedicated exclusively to media effects over the past 60 some years (e.g., Bryant & Oliver, 2009; Bryant & Zillmann, 1986; Nabi & Oliver, 2009; Perse, 2001; Schramm, 1954; Sparks, 2002). As much as the shaping of communication studies as a field was an outcome of media effects research, communication studies was of course not its only patron. Other and older disciplines like sociology, political science, or psychology also played important roles in the early theorizing and testing of hypotheses about the effects media technologies and messages may have on their users, and they still do.
In this chapter, initially we will focus on what communication originally meant across academia. Building on this, we will be able to differentiate between a few disciplinary traditions in communication studies and point to what may now be called the two official narratives of the history of media effects research. We will highlight the most important historical phases in communication research and will refer briefly to the often lamented (and sometimes also demanded) dichotomy between the social science and the humanities approach as it is manifested in our field. We will then refer to media effects in a more narrow sense, picking up on how its history has often been described and systematized along the lines of strong, weak, moderate, and negotiated effects. In order to summarize the most important theories of media effects research, we will refer to Kepplinger’s (2008) distinction between what he called learning theories and cognitive theories, and, subsequently, reconstruct the history of these theories and models by deriving them from their underlying epistemology. We will close this section by pointing to more recent theoretical developments, which are characterized by an attempt to differentiate and to integrate various components of the media-effects process. The final section will then lead us to the question of whether media effects still exist in today’s media-saturated world, and, if so, what sort of effects remain in a world of ubiquitous media use. This, in turn, will bring us back to the roots of the field, in which communication was conceived as something significantly broader than what today is often meant when we talk about the uses and effects of media.

Five Models of Communication (and Then Four More)

Communication studies does not belong solely to scholars who identify with the field of communication. Even in the mid- to late-1900s, numerous and disparate intellectual traditions laid some claim to the study of communication, and the study of media effects must take its place within this broad spectrum of inquiry. In his pursuit of an inclusive means by which to sort out the tangle of ideas that have been applied to questions of communication, Peters (1999) took an historical perspective. More specifically, he turned to the 1920s, where he found an abundance of perspectives on communication that remain with us today. The first of these—and one that is particularly relevant to the study of media effects—is the understanding of communication as “something like the dispersion of persuasive symbols in order to manage mass opinion” (Peters, 1999, p. 11). In this understanding, communication was put into the context of other elements of modernity, including urbanization, industrialization, and rationalization. From such figures as Walter Lippmann, Edward Bernays, and Harold Lasswell came the idea that communication could be “conceived of as the power to bind a far-flung populace together for good or ill” (Peters, 1999, p. 12). This idea itself has proven quite powerful and undergirds much of the thinking concerning media effects today.
Though it is of particular importance for an understanding of media effects, this was by no means the only way communication was understood in the early 20th century. A second school of thought took communication to be “the means to purge semantic dissonance and thereby open a path to more rational social relations” (Peters, 1999, p. 12). The idea here, shared by Charles Kay Ogden and Ivor Armstrong Richards, is that communication breakdown on the macro- and micro-scales could be avoided through a careful consideration of how language comes to carry significance, an embrace of close semantic analysis that would “provide a medium of communication for the needs of modern scientific men and women” (Peters, 1999, p. 13).
This could be contrasted with a third model from the 1920s, which took communication to be an “insurmountable barrier” (Peters, 1999, p. 14). These barrier thinkers gave us a vision of communication in which language, gesture, and images all conspire to reinforce a condition of solipsism, where the pretense of mutuality and connection merely masks a situation wherein individuals simply seal themselves off or are sealed off by a system of communication. Peters (1999) traced this model of communication to Thomas Stearns Eliot and Franz Kafka, whose evocations of individuals walled off from others by language remain a potent poetic lodestar.
There are two more models that depart from the idea of communication as a mental process, or as a way to share an accurate depiction of the world. One of these Peters (1999) traced to philosophers Martin Heidegger and John Dewey. Heidegger saw communication not as the authentic connection between people but as “the constitution of relationships, the revelation of otherness, or the breaking of the shells that encase the self” and not as “the sharing of private mental property” (pp. 16–17). John Dewey offered a different kind of end-around to the problem of communication. Peters (1999) described Dewey as having conceived of communication “as pragmatic making-do in community life,” and as “taking part in a collective world” (p. 18). Though he shared with Heidegger a turn away from conceiving of communication as authentic shared signification, Dewey gave us a more upbeat take with his focus on how communication can become a tool to solve shared problems.
A final model of communication that Peters (1999) extracted from the 1920s comes from Emmanuel Levinas. Peters (1999) described Levinas as having given us an understanding of communication “as a caress” (p. 20). From this standpoint, the failures of communication we find in all of these models is not something to mourn. Peters (1999) gave us a Levinas who argued that the:
failure of communication 
 allows precisely for the bursting open of pity, generosity, and love. Such failure invites us to find ways to discover others besides knowing. Communication breakdown is thus a salutary check on the hubris of the ego.
(p. 21)
Here communication’s necessary incompleteness was treasured for how it sustains the other. To seek a pure fusion of individuals or of cultures would be to seek the end of difference itself.
If this list of varied models of communication were not enough, Peters (2008) later developed another list of ways to consider communication, focused this time on four models of communication that emerged after World War II. One of these is cybernetics, a school of thought whose origins Peters (2008) connected to a “postwar fascination with communication, information, systems, probability, noise, redundancy, entropy, interference, breakdown, feedback, homeostasis, and so on” (p. 151). A second post-World War II school of thought was found in psychiatric understandings of communication, with its emphasis on therapeutics, unhitched from the traditional psychiatric interpersonal dyad and connected more broadly to groups, organizations, and societies. A third model of communication from the mid-20th century came to us largely from the humanities, especially as literary scholars began to collaborate with anthropologists. This school of thought, which could broadly be called cultural studies, emphasized the symbolic nature of media texts and how they fit into broader cultural and societal patterns.
Alongside these three other post-World War II models—cybernetics, psychiatry, and cultural studies—Peters (2008) outlined the emergence of what he calls the “social psychology of media effects” model (p. 149). This model of communication, which is the focus of much of this volume, traced its intellectual lineage to sociology, a field that would itself largely abandon the focus on communication (Pooley & Katz, 2008). The social psychology of media effects model would find broad purchase in newly founded communication departments in the U.S. and beyond. The model’s focus on how media messages and processes could in some way be connected causally to particular cognitive, attitudinal, or behavioral changes—or reinforce the status quo—became a taken-for-granted starting point of much communication research for decades to follow.

History of Communication Study

Two Short Stories about the History of Communication Studies

Why go over all of these models of communication as a prelude to a discussion of media effects? In part because it is important to remember that media effects is only one of many different ways to consider mass communication or the media. The field of communication’s analysis of its own past was for a long time the stuff of textbook syntheses of the history of communication study. These assessments were often built on historiographically thin claims. Simonson and Park (2015) described “two entwined stories” (p. 4) that have turned up very frequently in the field’s memory of its own past, in textbooks and beyond. The first of these, which came largely from Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz, made pre-World War II mass communication scholarship out to be caught up in the belief that the media had a “hypodermic” effect on people, thus positioning post-World War II scholarship, with its multivariate approaches and imagery of indirect effects, relatively sophisticated and reassuring compared to its ostensibly more gullible and alarmist predecessors (Lubken, 2008). The second story Simonson and Park (2015) found at the heart of much recollection of the history of communication study is the idea of the field’s “four founders.” This second idea, which proposed that Paul Lazarsfeld, Harold Lasswell, Kurt Lewin, and Carl Hovland were the proper founders of the study of communication, was, like much of the “hypodermic” theory, a story that claimed a certain disciplinary legitimacy for communication study. What it lacked in accuracy, the four founders story possessed in function. Simonson and Park (2015) described both stories as “legitimating myths” (p. 4), fitted to the field’s needs but largely inaccurate. Pooley (2008) has described histories like this as being “airbrushed and Whiggish” (p. 1); these stories tell us little about what actually has transpired in the world of communication inquiry. Consider the broad swaths of communication inquiry that Peters (1999) identified at work in the 1920s and post-World War II. These two intertwined stories about the history of communication turn their attention away from almost all of these trajectories in thought about communication. A proper understanding of media effects must be connected to a better-informed and more inclusive history of communication study.

Four (or Five) Historical Phases in the Study of Communication

Although communication departments are a relatively recent phenomenon, the study of communication goes back very far indeed. The Greco-Latin tradition of communication study installed the idea of speech as a distinct arena of inquiry to be called “rhetoric.” Rhetorical scholars still invigorate this tradition today. In the last two centuries, interest in communication per se has intensified, and even rhetoric has been brought under the rubric of communication study, at least in the United States.
In the late 19th through the early 20th centuries, communication widely came to be conceived in social thought in the U.S. and Europe as the means by which societies come into being. Much of the scholarly interest in communication at this time was connected to a fascination with the role played by the newspaper. American journalism education, with its practical orientation, bumped into the broader social meaning of the newspaper. The German Zeitungswissenschaft—“newspaper science”—took the study of newspapers and their world to be scientific in nature. This interest in how communication operated across societies was reinvigorated by technological and other changes in the early 20th century. Movies and radio stirred the scholarly imagination of the time, as did the newly invented worlds of public relations and advertising. The development of survey methods in the early 20th century provided a tool that seemed quite promising for developing a scientific measure of entire societies (Simonson & Park, 2015).
During and after World War II, the widespread use of propaganda and other means of influence via the mass media sparked tremendous interest in communication. In the United States, enterprising scholars founded communication programs, institutes, and departments. Many of these new communication programs carried pre-existing speech or journalism programs along with them, often using names like “speech communication” or “journalism and mass communication” to signal a hybridized approach. The academic study of communication moved quickly, if fitfully, and with distinct regional differences, across the world. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) was closely involved in research projects involving mass communication around the world. A distinct school of communication study emerged in Canada, where political economist Harold Innis established a framework for understanding the societal meaning of media of communication. His better-known colleague in the Explorations Group, Marshall McLuhan, adopted some of Innis’s ideas for his own jazzy take on how media can shape individuals and societies. The decades immediately after World War II found communication study spreading globally, refracted through different nations’ cultural traditions and political orders. The result was a field of study that could be fit to a dizzying array of pragmatic applications, critical questions, historical perspectives, and political interests (Simonson & Park, 2015).
Opposition to a number of mainstream ideas in the field of communication arose in the late 1960s and 1970s. New ideas invigorated communication study, while also calling into question some of communication study’s most treasured and unspoken precepts. Feminist approaches to communication, Marxist theory, and postcolonialism informed scholars who elaborated upon how the social scientific tradition in communication missed out on some of the definitive conflicts at work in the world. Much of this was of course fueled by the political awakenings of 1968 and their aftermaths. In 1983, the Journal of Communication’s special issue titled “Ferment in the Field” registered the interest of a panoply of scholars who hoped to see communication move beyond the administrative work of determining when communication was and was not effective (Simonson & Park, 2015).
Since the end of the Cold War, internet-enabled media have adjusted both the domain of communication study as well as how communication study has come to be organized. This is to say that the usual suspects—newspaper, television, radio, and movies—have all found themselves transformed anew in the digital age. At the same time, the means by which scholars approach communication has changed as well. Communication study has...

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