AMITY SCHOOL OF COMMUNICATION MJMC 1 st SEM INTRODUCTION TO COMMUNICATION Ms. PRACHI CHANDOLA. Four Eras of Mass Communications. Era of mass society theory (1850-1940) Era of scientific perspective on mass media (1940-1950) Era of limited effects (1950-60s)
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Four Eras of Mass Communications
Era of mass society theory (1850-1940)
Era of scientific perspective on mass media (1940-1950)
Era of limited effects (1950-60s)
Era of cultural criticism (1960s-1980s)
Mass Communication theories begins with a review of some of the earliest notions about media. These ideas were initially developed in the later half of the 19th century as new media technologies were invented and popularized. Although some theorists were optimistic about new technology, most were extremely pessimistic (Brantlinger, 1983). They blamed new industrial technology for disrupting peaceful, rural communities and forcing people to live in urban areas merely to serve as a convenient workforce in large factories, mines or bureaucracies.
Theorists were fearful of cities because of their crime,
cultural diversity, and unstable political systems. For
many social thinkers, mass media symbolized
everything that was wrong with the 19th century urban
life. The dominant perspective that emerged during
this period is referred to as mass society theory. It
began as a collection of contradictory notions – some
quite radical, others quite reactionary.
In general mass society ideas held strong appeal for any
social elites whose power was threatened by change.
Media industries such as ‘penny press’ were a
convenient for elites’ criticism. The media of the time
were easily attacked as symptomatic of a sick society –
a society that needed to either return to old values or be
forced to adopt a set of totally new values.
In time, the leaders of the Industrial Revolution gained enormous
influence over social change. They strongly favored all forms of
Technological Development, including mass media.
In their view technology was inherently good as it facilitated control
over the physical environment, expanded human productivity and
generated new forms of material wealth.
New technology would bring an end to social problems and lead to
the development of an Ideal social world.
But in the short term, industrialization brought with it enormous
problems – exploitation of workers, pollution and social unrest.
Today, the fallacies of both the critics of technology and its
advocates are readily apparent.
Mass society notions greatly exaggerated the ability of media to
quickly undermine social order. These ideas failed to consider
that media’s power ultimately resides in the freely chosen uses
that audiences make of it.
Technology advocates were also misguided and failed to
acknowledge the many unnecessary, damaging consequences that
resulted from applying technology without adequately
considering the impact.
During the 1930’s, world events seemed to continually confirm
the truth of mass society ideas. In Europe, reactionary and
revolutionary political movements used media in their struggles
for political power.
German Nazis introduced propaganda techniques that ruthlessly
exploited the power of new media technology like motion
pictures and radio.
All across Europe, totalitarian leaders like Hitler, Stalin and
Mussolini rose to political power and were able to exercise
seemingly total control over vast populations.
Private ownership of media, especially broadcast
media, was replaced by direct government control in
most European nations. The purpose was to use media
for the service of the society. But the unintended
outcome in most cases was to place enormous power in
the hands of ruthless leaders who were convinced that
they personally embodied what was best for all their
citizens. Exception was BBC, an independent public
At the very peak of their popularity, mass society
notions came under attack from Lazarsfeld,(1941), an
Austrian researcher and scientist. He argued that it
wasn’t enough to merely speculate about the influence
of media on society. Instead he proposed conducting
carefully designed, elaborate field experiments in which
he would be able to observe media influence and
measure its magnitude.
It was not enough to assume that political propaganda is powerful – hard evidence was needed to prove the existence of such effects (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet, 1944). Lazersfeld’s most famous efforts, the “Voter Studies”, actually began as an attempt to demonstrate the media’s power, yet they proved, at least to him and his colleagues, just the opposite.
By the early 1950s, Lazerfeld’s work had generated an
enormous amount of data based on which he concluded
that media were not nearly as powerful as had been
Instead, he found that people had numerous ways of
resisting media influence and were influenced by many
competing factors. Rather than serving as a disruptive
social force, media seemed to reinforce existing social
trends and strengthen the status quo.
He found little evidence to support the worst
fears of mass society theorists. Though
Lazarsfeld never labeled his theory, it is now
referred to as the Limited-effects perspective.
These views media as playing a very limited role
in the lives of individuals and larger society.
During the 1950s, limited-effects notions about media
continued to gain acceptance within academia. Several
important clashes occurred between their adherents and
those who supported mass society ideas (Bauer and
In 1960, several classic studies of media effects provided
apparently definitive support for the limited-effects
By 1961, V.O. Key had published Public Opinion and American
Democracy, a theoretical and methodological tour de force that
integrated limited-effects notions with social and political theory to
create a perspective that is now known as elite pluralism.This
theory views society as a number of interlocking pluralistic groups
led by opinion leaders who rely on media for information about
politics and social world.
Advocates of mass society notions came under increasing attack as
“unscientific” or “irrational” because they questioned “hard
By the mid-1960s, the debate between mass society and limited
-effects notions appeared to be over – at least within the mass
communication research community.
The body of empirical research findings continued to grow, and
almost all these findings were consistent with the latter view.
Little or empirical research supported mass society theory. This
was not surprising because most empirical researchers trained at
this time were warned against its fallacies.
Era of cultural criticism (1960s-1980s)Though most mass communication researchers in the United States found limited-effects notions and empirical research findings on which they were based persuasive, researchers in other parts of the world were less convinced.Mass society notions continued to flourish in Europe, where both left-wing and right-wing concerns about the power of media were deeply rooted in World War II experiences with propaganda. Europeans were also skeptical about the power of scientific, quantitative social research methods to verify and develop social theory (they saw them as reductionist – reducing complex communication processes and social phenomena to little more than narrow propositions generated from small-scale investigations). This reductionism was widely viewed as a distinctly American fetish. Some European academics were resentful of the influence enjoyed by American after World War II.They argued that American empiricism was both simplistic and intellectually sterile. Although some European academics welcomed and championed American ideas, other strongly resisted them and argued for maintaining approaches considered less biased or more traditionally European.
One group of European social theorists who vehemently resisted postwar U.S. influence was the neo-Marxists (Hall,1982).These left-wing social theorists believe that media enable dominant social elites to maintain their power. Media provide the elite with a convenient, subtle, yet highly effective means of promoting worldviews favorable to their interests. Mass media can be viewed, they argue as a public arena in which cultural battles are fought and a dominant or hegemonic culture is forged. Elites dominate these struggles because they start with important advantages. Opposition is marginalized, and the status quo is presented as the only logical, rational way of structuring society. Within neo-Marxist theory, efforts to examine media institutions and interpret media content came to have high priority.
During the 1970s, questions about the possibility of powerful media effects were again raised within U.S. universities.Initially, these questions were often advanced by scholars in the humanities who were unrestrained by the limited effects perspective and untrained in the scientific method. Their arguments were routinely ignored and marginalized by social scientists because they were unsupported by “scientific evidence.” Some of these scholars were attracted to European-style cultural criticism. Others attempted to create an “authentic” American school of cultural studies – though they drew heavily on Canadian scholars like Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan (Carey, 1977).This cultural criticism, although initially greeted with considerable skepticism by “mainstream” effects researchers, gradually established itself as a credible and valuable alternative to limited-effects notions.