Communication as social form: an autoecological perspective

Georg Simmel
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by Sorin Adam Matei

Associate Professor, Purdue University

citation: Matei, S A (2009). Communication as social form. [Online]. Available at:

What role does communication play in society? Although it is quite obvious that communication is vital for all forms of social organization, from families to nation states, there are many conceptual obstacles when it comes to explaining how this happens.

First of all, one has to avoid the twin dangers of tautology and banality. There is a natural overlap between society (understood as community) and communication, as their common semantic origin indicates. All communities involve communication of one type or another and there can be no communication outside social groups. In order to avoid this trap I will use Simmel’s (Simmel, 1964) distinction between social forms and social contents. From this perspective, communication is the form and community one of its possible contents. Thus, communication envelops and shapes human community or any of its specific sub-groups.

Second, the relationship between form and content, between communication and community (society) should not considered to be one between a signifier and a signified. Their connection is not purely representational Their nature is symbolic, having the capacity propose a certain from of reality, not only to reflect it.

As a symbolic form, communication cannot be posited as an outside, objective force. It should be looked at as subjective entity, whose first effects are in people’s understanding and imagining it. This means that there are no independent “communication effects,” which people did not, in a way or another, filter though their subjectivity, although these need not be rational or even fully conscious. People need to “capture” the content of the act of communication, which is always social, before acting upon it.

This process is one of inscribing reality, and is intentional, in the way phenomenological sociology and philosophy uses the term (Schutz, 1967). According to Schutz, who relies on Husserl, all human knowledge is the product of intentional projection of meaning into the world. Reality stream in front of our consciousness in an undifferentiated flow of experiences until our mind constructively apprehends them: “The experiences are apprehended, distinguished, brought into relief, marked out from one another; the experiences which were constituted as phases within the flow of duration now become objects of attention as constituted experiences” (Schutz, 1967, p. 51). Communication is one of the forms we use to encapsulate our experiences in a meaningful way.

Social communication presupposes a world of subjects able to imagine the other and their relationships (Mead, 1934). Communication is a symbolic form; it is the result of a common act and of a common “dream.” Communication is a collective projective effort.

What would be the best theoretical and methodological way to apply these ideas to mass communication research? How could we make sense of the way in which mass media and the public interact? In addition to the phenomenological and symbolic interactionist paradigms, mentioned above, I propose an ecological approach.

We need to distinguish, however, between the traditional definition of ecology, which was popularized in American sociology as a form of macro-analysis and ecology as a science of the interrelations between individuals mediated by social forms (symbols, customs, beliefs, institutions, etc.).

The first meaning of ecology, or human ecology, as it is better known, was considered by early symbolic interactionists and by the representatives of the Chicago School who employed it (Park, 1936), (McKenzie, 1925), (Hawley, 1968), and (Burgess, 1925) to be a specialized science looking at society from a biologist perspective. Taking their cue from the emerging science of the natural environment, ecology meant ” the study of the correlations between the organisms engaged with a given unit of environment” (Hawley, 1968 p. 328). It was a Darwinian, functionalist model of understanding social interaction. Human communities were considered to be ecosystems, where groups and social segments, institutions interact creating an integrated whole. McKenzie (1925), one of Park’s collaborators, described ecology as a process oriented research agenda, which looks at ecological distributions of people, communities and institutions in space. The concepts he employed for describing this process were mainly macro social: concentration, specialization, dispersion, and centralization. Even when looking at more individualized social levels of analysis, he described human actors through the perspective of their socially aggregated behaviors. For example, according to McKenzie (1925) individuals can be studied from the perspective of their mobility, which is “movement without change of ecological position” (p. 170).

Social, or human ecology, was thus a thoroughly functionalist and teleological method of study. It started from a macro level of analysis and it was interested in social communities as units. They were seen as more than the sum of their parts. Emphasis on equilibrium and natural self-regulation displayed a strong affinity for homeostatic functionalist theory, as it was later developed by Talcott Parsons (Parsons, 1952) and his followers. If somewhat justified by its limited research agenda, which was to seek knowledge about the structure of a social system as a thing in itself (Hawley, 1968), this approach has reified human action to an unjustified degree.

This type of ecological model not only fails to deal with the normative order of the social system (Hawley, 1968), but it ignores the individual or tries to explain it away as an element of a group. Despite early ecologists’ use of symbolic interactionist paradigm, which looks both at individuals and social processes, they have privileged interaction at the expense of symbolism. Mead’s postulate that the individual mind is social (Mead, 1934/), because it arises in the process of seeing itself reflected in the mirror of the generalized other’s reactions to it, was taken often literally. This ignores Mead’s repeated assertion that a full-blown society requires the existence of selves as one of its preconditions — see the “Society” section in “Mind, Self, Society”  (Mead, 1934/). Joined with the strong current of opinion coming from Durkheimian sociology, which in similar vein believed that the basic categories of human mind are social, especially via our religious instincts (Durkheim, 1965), social ecology ended up in a scientific blind alley as far as individual action was concerned.

In order to redress this misbalance, one needs to start from the other end of the ecological equation, from the meaning-generating individual. Hawley remarks that ecology could be conceived in two ways, as “autecology, which is the study of individual organisms’ interaction with environment, and synecology, the study of the correlations between the organisms engaged with a given unit of environment” (Hawley, 1968, p. 328).

Synecology could be seen as a valid approach only as long as one supposes that social science can make a clear distinction between the subject and its social environment. If the latter is seen as having “mass” and autonomy, in a positivist and materialist manner, then the subject could be seen as struggling to liberate himself from, or to accommodate himself to, the social that presses on his shoulders. Thus, synecology looks at how individuals establish viable relationships with environment not individually but collectively.

But even functionalists themselves ended-up believing that there is no ontological difference between the subject and its social environment, they are both made of human interactions (Alexander, 1993). Social environments are not more “objective” than our ideas about them; they are all the result of meaningful projections of the subject. They are collective, not individual, projections as the symbolic interactionists point out, but they are “ideal” not “material.” Social environments, including institutions, are “socially constructed,” they are objectified structures of meaning (Berger & Luckman, 1980).

An autecological vision starts exactly from this point, tracking back social environments to social subjects. In human society people interact at multiple levels and always subjectively oriented to one another. According to Max Weber (Weber, 1978), human actions are social only in so far as they have meaning attached to them, i.e. they are meaningfully oriented to other people’s actions or to reality. For example, “a mere collision of two cyclists may be compared to a natural event. On the other hand, their attempt to avoid hitting each other […] would constitute ‘social action'” (p. 23). Schutz (1967) makes this point even more forcefully adding that all human actions have an in-order-to reason, but they qualify as social only when they take into account at least another person’s reasons.

An autecological perspective is especially well fit to give us insight into the role of communication in the formation and change of society. As Schutz (1967) explains, during communication situations we are most likely to be oriented to one other in a meaningful way, and to construct an “objective” world out of subjective interactions. This has far ranging effects in terms of constructing an overall social interaction/communication theory. Setting the criterion of meaning at the center of social action we can see that communication is a form and a meaning-frame. On the other hand we can observe how its social infrastructure emerges from a myriad of individual experiences.

This type of ecological inquiry needs to be able, however, to use a set of auxiliary theories (Pan & McLeod, 1991) in order to explain in a natural progression how meaningful action explains not only face to face communication but also social communication, between individuals and institutions or vice versa.

This can be accomplished in two ways. One of them is inspired by Simmel’s idea that communication can be seen as a social form, which has objective existence but is subjective in origin. The other one follows Schutz (1967) and his ideas developed by Berger and Luckman (1980), who see human interactions as being progressively objectified through habituation.

According to Schutz (1967), one moves from meaningful actions oriented to one’s face to face interlocutors (consociates), to mediated interactions with people whose existence we know of but we don’t directly experience: our contemporaries. The latter actions can be further distinguished as being “we” (in traditional, Gemeinschaft situations) or “they” oriented (in modern, Gesellschaft situations). Meaningful interactions can also extend along temporal axes; they can be directed to one’s predecessors or successors. Berger and Luckman (1980) elaborate on this paradigm in order to explain the emergence of institutions. Institutions are typifications of habitual interactions with any of our possible interlocutors. Our daily routines standardize behavior and expectations as roles: habitual actions of type Y will be performed by actors of type X. Roles are increasingly organized in patterns of expectations and interactions until they are objectified as institutions. Institutionalized roles save us the trouble of second guessing our interactions with one another. Typified action eases the tension of interacting in unknown ways. An institution emerges as soon as a structure of roles is set up.

Institutions need not be solely oriented to one’s consociates or contemporaries. They can also refer to the universe of predecessors, or to one’s successors because they create and are built in a shared history with those that came before and those that will succeed us. Institutionalization is incipient in every social situation continuing in time.

Another strategy for specifying how an autecological theory of communication works both at macro and micro levels of analysis can be gleaned from Simmel’s theory of social forms. Communication can be seen as part of the mechanism that creates and maintains meaningful social forms. Human society is shaped by various ways of being, acting, and organizing, appropriated by people subjectively and projected into the world as objectified forms. I take forms to be, following Simmel, similar to an abstract functional relationship, a paradigm of organizing things mentally before enacting them socially. According to Wolff, a social form is “that element which, among the elements relevant to a particular inquiry as well as to the general viewpoint of sociology, is relatively stable – as against “content” which, with the same specifications, is relatively variable (Wolff, 1964, p. XXXiX). These forms are cultural and personal at the same time, in a manner similar to Cassirer’s (1944) symbolic forms. They originate in the capacity of all human beings to project a cone of meaning into the world, which selects and shapes reality in significant aspects. They are contentless and functional; they can stand for any number of “sociation” needs. Simmel distinguishes between sociability, which is a social form, and sociation, which is its content. The latter is the social nature of humanity; it is what makes us stick together. It is our ground zero of life together, a border zone between nurture and nature, consisting of:

erotic instincts, objective interests, religious impulses, and purposes of defense or attack, of play or gain, or aid or instruction, and countless others [that] cause man to live with other men, to act with them, against them, and thus to arrange their conditions reciprocally – in brief, to influence others and to be influenced by them. (Simmel, 1950, p. 40)

Sociability is the specifically human, “added-value” contribution to sociation, it is its form. Sociability is a generic name given to a collection of specific forms, including exchange, superiority and subordination, competition, division of labor, formation of parties or representation (Wolff, 1964). These and similar forms, to which I will soon add communication, “may be exhibited by the most diverse groups; and, the same interest may be realized in very different forms” (Wolff, 1964, p. XXXiV). From this perspective, all that is considered to be “social” is a form of sociability: greeting customs and beliefs in afterlife, kinship systems and social clubs, naming conventions and laws, news and poetry, art and technology. Social forms are concretized ways of imagining and then doing things together toward some human goal. Society is thus a social precipitate of beliefs, ideas, images, and symbols. The social significance of communication is not only (or even primarily) given in what is communicated (content) but in the fact that communication is a form of organizing reality. It is a species of sociability in which humans orient to one another through a repertoire of symbolic means. Following the symbolic interactionist school of thought, which through Schutz intersects phenomenology, one should add that the “meaning” of communication is brought to closure in interaction, rather than being given in its entirety, from the very beginning. Communication should, then, not be seen as an extrinsic or adjuvant factor in creating social forms, as an outside factor that can be known through its “effects.” It is part of social life; it is one of its forms.

Simmel’s, Schutz’, Mead’s and Berger’s theories do not compete with one another, they are complementary. Meaningful action directed by our orientation to various levels of sociation (consociates, contemporaries, etc.) can be seen, at the same time, as habitualized roles (institutions), as symbolic interaction and as a social form. In fact, social roles and institutions are actuated in communication, as various types of communication, ritualistic, instrumental, affective or playful. We can look at these interconnections more like a set of Russian dolls, where more specific forms (roles, institutions) are enclosed in more abstract forms (communication). Or if you prefer a fancy word, there are forms that can perform meta-functions, framing and explaining other forms, communication being one of the former.

To recapitulate, I proposed above a theory of communication and society based on meaningful action. It starts from the methodological assumption that at the center of the analysis should be human subjects engaging in actions oriented to other human beings. These should not be rational, or self-conscious. They have to be, however, intended and regular. Habitual social actions are institutionalized as roles and they are further organized in institutions.

Human actions are not spontaneous and “natural.” Various social forms inform and help us in carrying out social interactions. Some of them are fundamental and a priori (according to Cassirer (1944) these are: myth, language, art, science, and history). Communication itself, which is language seen at its most abstract level, is a social form. It consists mainly of ways in which we imagine ourselves interacting communicatively with other people. It is the meta-frame of this interaction and our universe of discursive expectations to other people. Thus, communication is seen not just as transfer of information but as the preconditions for and as meaningful action itself. It frames social interactions and institutions, helping crystallizing their meaning. As a social form, communication is the translucent matter out of which human sociability is made of.

Crucially for understanding how these abstract forms and meaning frames come together is the ecological framework. If we posit that society emerges as and in symbolic forms, which are arranged around a natural tendency of humans to search for meaning, we realize that symbols cannot be stored in our minds like a pile of sand. They should be arranged in a certain order to make any sense. Projecting meaning into the world means ordering it. This is done by ordering the symbols with/in which we describe it. The result will be integrated patterns (which need not be rational) of meaning. Their integration should not be perfect or non-contradictory. As Geertz (1973) explains, cultural integration should not be taken to be a sui generis phenomenon, “locked away from the common life of man in a logical world of its own […] it is also not taken to be an all-embracing, completely pervasive, unbounded one […]. [P]atterns counteractive to the primary ones exist as subdominant but nonetheless important themselves […] in any culture” (p. 406). According to Geertz, cultural discontinuity is just as prevalent as cultural integration and “systems need not be exhaustively interconnected to be systems” (p. 407). More importantly, however, these patterns are not immanent, they emerge in interaction and are liable to change at each step of interpretation and actuation. As Geertz puts it, “code does not determine conduct, and what was actually said need to have been” (1973, p. 18). Thus cultures, even institutions, are not autotelic, although their members are goal oriented. In fact it is the autonomy of the human subjects creating institutions, with their competing goals, which makes functional integration of social institutions questionable and possible at the same time. Although human subjects orient to one another along patterns of meaningful action, enacting social forms, whence the institutions, they also have the agency to direct their individual cone of meaning to one or another level of interaction within the institution or even beyond it, in space or time. In doing so the institution itself is affected and if a substantial number of people fail to focus their meaning “ray guns” on the structure of roles, the organization will sooner or later collapse.

Calling this theory “ecological” lays an important claim on a long established tradition of thought. Both to better specify my ideas and in order to distinguish between various breeds of ecological theory roaming the free ranges of social science, I will compare my stakes to an ecological theory of communication with several well-known mass communication theories. Although, with the exception of one, they do not call themselves ecological, they attempt to explain social and communicative processes in a holistic way. I will especially look at how they succeed or not in meeting the main requirement of a truly ecological theory: explaining the relationship between individuals and structures, without sacrificing either of them.

I chose for examination four theories: cultivation, framing, uses and gratifications and media dependency theories.

Cultivation theory

Cultivation analysis starts from the premise that television is a central socialization tool, with a strong massification bias. Television creates a mass of docile viewers by inculcating a socially dominant ideology in people’s minds through “massive, long-term and common exposure of large and heterogeneous publics to centrally produced, mass-distributed, and repetitive systems.” This theory claims to be different from the classical “media effects” method and Marxist inspired theories, such as those criticized by Bauer and Bauer (Bauer & Bauer, 1960) and by Parsons (Parsons & White, 1960). Its main strength, believes its author, George Gerbner, is its ability to reveal not short term, class interest manipulation of the media for tactical political goals but its long term, systematic effects on public consciousness. Also, it rejects the criticism that it presents the viewer as a passive recipient of whatever content is thrown at him. Rather, they say, although viewers can choose what to see, the supply of programming is limited to a reduced number of formal choices, interchangeable in terms of content. Diversification is neither desirable, nor under the control of the viewer. The result is absorption of the viewer into a stable and common mainstream public whose media consumption is controlled by a small number of increasingly powerful media conglomerates. Methodologically, cultivation theory relies on the “cultural indicators project,” which employs a three-pronged research strategy. The first line of research is institutional process analysis, which investigates the formation of policies directing the flow of media messages. The second approach is a longitudinal study of television drama conducted by using content analysis. This is meant to reveal the degree to which television depiction of social and cultural reality reflects social realities. Finally, the third element is cultivation analysis itself, which investigates the hypothesis that those who watch more television are more likely to have worldviews similar to those depicted by television. “We have used the concept of ‘cultivation’ to describe the independent contributions television viewing makes to viewer conceptions of social reality” (Gerbner et al., 1994, p. 6).

Cultivation analysis was often criticized for its propensity to see the viewer as a malleable toy in the hands of power élites. Its practitioners reject this. “Television neither simply ‘creates’ nor reflects images, opinions, and beliefs… Institutional needs and objectives influence the creation and distribution of mass-produced messages they create, fit into, exploit, and sustain the needs, values and ideologies of mass publics. These publics, in turn, acquire distinct identities as publics partly through experience to the ongoing flow of messages” (Gerbner et al., 1994, p. 7). The issue of what came first, identity or the media cultivating it, is irrelevant, the authors believe, because people are always born in a universe of symbols, in our case, of television symbols so identities are embedded in them from the very beginning. The authors also reject the confusion supposedly made by some of their critics between cultivation and reinforcement effects. They believe that television has its unique effects, which come from cumulative exposure to television alone. The change is not, however, unidirectional, it is gravitational. The angle of the “pull” of television programming on various groups is different, relative to their position to mainstream programming, but it is equally strong, given a certain level of exposure. Some other critics reject cultivation theory because research informed by it is unable to reveal short-term effects. But if there is no short-term effect this proves cultivation theory’s main tenet that people are stable entities and attracted by the mainstream. As successive generations grow up with television they become more similar. This makes the quantitative differentials really small; the effects are always in terms of a few percentage points. One of the main findings of cultivation analysis is that people who watch more TV are more likely to be politically moderate in their views, or to agree with accepted views. Cultivation theory thus claims at least the finding that television massifies.

Cultivation theory is a sophisticated attempt to modernize the magic bullet theory of economic (class) determination of cultural products. In this respect, cultivation theory strives to show that class and economic interests structurally (if not conspiratorially) shape the content of television and through it that of viewer’s minds. This does not happen, Gerbner et al. believe, just by mainstreaming dominant ideology values and themes.  The authors believe that the society being already capitalist these values are automatically part of the mainstream. What they contest is the validity of the values, based on the image about the world they rely on. For example, these values are seen to support inequality and hierarchy, because men from the upper/middle class dominate the world of television, both on and off screen. In addition, they believe that low quality, violent television is driven by two specific political and economic goals, which contribute to consolidating the grip of the élites on the masses of viewers.

Economically, violent programming is preferred because being formulaic it is easy to produce. Also, it is a transcultural, lowest common denominator language, which makes the television product highly saleable across social groups and national borders. Thus, low quality should be blamed on the profit maximizing drive of the media corporations, who prefer low cost, high demand products.

Politically, violence in television programming creates a syndrome of powerlessness, naturalizing the idea of an increasingly repressive police-controlled world. Naturalization of violent television programming makes stereotypes easier to accept, and consolidates a racist and sexist social order.

Considering the criterion advanced above, for identifying ecological theories, that of interconnection, cultivation theory seems to qualify for it, because it advances a hypothesis about how ideas and beliefs are shaped by the media. It also shows how social groups distribute and control media power and resources for preserving the present patterns of inequality. It also claims to be able to explain how people “naturalize” ideologically laden media contents. However, the theory remains at the level of macro-social explanations. Although it believes that it offers a credible explanation about how economic and class interest is transferred structurally, not mechanically, into communication content and collective consciousness, its explanation of why the élites and the public enter in this relationship is reductionist. All the élites want is to increase profit and control the weak and all what the mass public can do is comply. The key explanation is that media élites, conceived very narrowly as business managers and capitalist entrepreneurs, are animated only by instrumental thinking. Thus, the media as a whole will be animated by strict instrumental values and will narrowly represent them. But the greatest problem is that audiences are never given their motives, or if they are, acceptance of mainstream media is seen as a betrayal of another level of values they are not aware of. The public is seen as being engaged into a television experience almost against their interest. The only explanation why they would do this is not found in Gerbner et al. However, we can infer that they see the television viewer just as instrumentally controlled by his/her needs of entertainment and information as media corporation leaders, creative or administrative, are driven by profit maximization. From an autecological perspective, cultivation theory cannot conceive people as using media intentionally for their personal purposes. Nor can they imagine that violent fare on television can have more than one meaning or that viewers can watch television, including its violent fare, in various modes of involvement and interpretation. For example, the cultural indicator counts as a violent act both when Tom hits Jerry with a fly swatter and when Chuck Norris fells ten villains with one karate kick.

In conclusion, there is a significant gap between human subjects and media institutions. This makes cultivation theory less likely to be a fully ecological theory and to resemble more the classical media effects models. More importantly, the explanatory schema is firmly followed along the economic chain. This is a drawback not because the people who have a say in programming cannot leave their particular imprint in it, but because: 1) these people might not always be the owners 2) their interests and ideologies might not always be driven by economics.


Todd Gitlin’s book, “The Whole World is Watching” (1980), one of the best examples of framing theory in action, is about the sixties political movements and their “fateful conflict over control of the public cultural space in a society saturated with mass media” (p. 3). From this particular perspective he infers theories about the working of the media as a whole, political or not.

His assumption is that media is inflected by ideology. This is not coherent or even intentional, it is not the result of a process of domination, per se. It is the product of cultural pressures through appeal to majority consent. It is the consequence of hegemonic control of vital sources of information and representation. “That is to say, every day, directly or indirectly, by statement and omission, in pictures and in words, in entertainment and news and advertisement, the mass media produce fields of definition and association, symbol and rhetoric, through which ideology becomes manifest and concrete” (Gitlin, 1980, p. 2). Media has the power to shape reality by framing (defining) it. Thus, the powers that be have the ability “to define – and also define away – its opposition” (Gitlin, 1980, p. 2). This takes place through media frames, which are: “persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual” (Gitlin, 1980, p. 7). However, the model soon loses its subtlety because finds a one on one correspondence between symbolic frames (definitions) and ideological biases. When looking closer at the way in which the media framing works, the autonomy of the symbols disappears. They become, if not literally, at least in spirit, objects manipulated at will by an elite. Interests narrowly defined in terms of power and economic instrumentality dictate the motives of the elite. Inspired by Gramsci, Gitlin advances the hypothesis that in the production of meaning some have a greater say than others just by the fact that they are handling the tools through which this meaning is constructed. This tool-dependence theory makes him conclude, following Marx, that “Just as workers have no choice in what they make, how they make it, or how the product is distributed and used, so do people as producers of meaning have no voice in what the media make of what they say or do, or in the context within which the media frame their activity” (p. 7).

Although framing, in Gitlin’s interpretation, tries to link people’s subjective understanding of media contents with the institutional environment of social life, it fails the ecological test at exactly the same point where cultivation theory did. They both see the subjective frames of our minds, what Schutz would call our meaning-frames, as being the result of a rigged ideological game, where our habitualizations are controlled by forces beyond our control. Or if they are not, they come to us in a pre-processed form, modeled by economic and instrumental pre-frames, if we can call them that. Thus, to paraphrase Geertz, men are suspended in a web of (ideological) symbols others (not himself) spun for him, although they might believe they are their own. For this reason, framing cannot be considered an ecological theory. Just like cultivation it steals most of the agency from the human subject, emphasizing macro social forces of instrumental nature.

Uses and gratifications theory

The main assumption of this theory is that communication contributes to satisfying one’s needs. The key metaphor is that of the viewer/reader as a media consumer. The theory was created as a response to the “magic bullet theory” (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1980), trying to show that media “effects” are less influenced by the communication apparatus or even by the content alone. They are the result of users’ conscious decision to choose between messages according to a specific schedule of needs. However, where the cultivation or framing errs on the side of social and economic determination, uses and gratifications is biased toward a micro-vision of the process of communication. One of its main tenets seems to be that communication is the result of a “negative valence.

Media providers recognize users’ needs as “holes” in the process of communication, and they promptly fill them in with content.

This process is theoretically buttressed by 4 assumptions:

1.)    The audience is conceived as active, that is, an important part of mass media use is assumed to be goal directed

2.)     The initiative lies with the audience

3.)    Media compete with other sources of need satisfaction

4.)    Many of the goals of mass media use can be derived from data supplied by individual audience members themselves. (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974)

Thus, uses and gratifications could be considered as an extreme autecological theory but as I will show later on, its instrumental assumptions put in firmly in the social determination camp.

The strength of uses and gratifications theory is its empirical model. But this is not extremely well prepared to handle a complex network of interactions, at several levels simultaneously. The model is unidimensional, reducing the process of communication to a linear path. Messages travel along a structure of need and gratification for each user, with little lateral (group) interaction. More specifically, uses and gratification theory looks at

(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 (Katz et al., 1974 p. 20).

It is not surprising that such a model, although poorly prepared to respond to issues related to the role of communication in society, it is generally well regarded by social scientists and market researchers interested less in the “whys” of social science and more in its “hows.” This also shows that the distinctions made 30 years ago, between functionalism/pragmatism and radical social scientific projects, were more in terms of political strategy and interpretation of the origin of instrumental control, than in terms of core assumptions about the human subject engaging in the process of communication. Uses and gratifications theory is a direct inheritor of the pragmatic project. This is more interested, for the sake of methodological clarity, in the constellation of societal inputs and outputs that in the contents of the “black box” of human communication. This perspective, although very different in its methods and conclusion from cultivation, shares with it the assumption that our needs are mostly instrumental. Their instrumentality ends up in a specific form of social determination. There is some choice in terms of the possible mix of media and the timing for using them for satisfying a certain need, but ultimately are they are all socially induced. For example, media needs are seen arising and being satisfied in the following 5 prescribed social ways:

1.) Social situations produce tensions and conflicts, leading to pressure for their easement via mass media consumption

2.) Social situations create awareness of problems that demand attention, information about which may be sought in the media

3.) Social situations offer impoverished real-life opportunities to satisfy certain needs, which are then directed to the mass media for complementary, supplementary, or substitute servicing

4.) Social situations give rise to certain values, the affirmation and reinforcement of which is facilitated by the consumption of congruent media materials

5.) Social situation provide a field of expectations of familiarity with certain media materials, which must then be monitored in order to sustain membership of valued social groupings (Katz et al., 1974).

It is the fate of all instrumentally-driven theories, once they prescribe that the content of all social forms of interaction are need based, to end up by making them purely social because they come from a universalizing human nature, whose needs are given as part of our genus. Although most criticisms of the uses and gratifications approach are aimed at its contextual application (Lin, 1996), the main problem seems to be its simplified and substantive individualistic view of social life. It is highly significant that the authors of the theory chose to use the term “use,” which betrays their view that people engage in an instrumental exercise when getting involved with media. Although the model allows us to take an indirect peek at people’s subjective reasons, when they choose a medium over another, this happens only after we have already postulated that this occurs because they wanted to ease a certain need. This theory posits a specific reality behind people’s co-orientation to one another (rational human nature), which in fact limits their true scope of “needs” and solutions in a fairly narrow and predictable substantive array. Although substantive or instrumental needs can be part of anyone’s set of reasons for action, they cannot be the only ones. Human action for the sake of certain pure values, non substantive-need based, such as religious, value, moral or even ideological is not just a moralists’ dream but for very many people tangible realities.

More significantly, uses and gratifications theory, just like classical economics and utilitarian philosophy, assumes that all social interactions are strictly individual. This leaves the macro-social level of analysis uncovered and makes the theory very unfriendly to the ecological thinker.

Media System Dependency theory

Media systems dependency theory has emerged as a response to the shortcomings both of social determination models, in the cultivation theory vein, as well as to overly linear models, advanced by uses and gratification theory. MSD theory takes issue with the fact that uses and gratification theory considers primarily the role of individual actors in shaping and interpreting their relationship with mass communication channels. MSD advances the idea that “in ambiguous worlds of conflict and change, where fundamental issues of legitimacy and identity are contested, neither opinion leaders nor individuals have the same selectivity powers as they may have in more stable worlds” (Ball-Rokeach, 1985, p.10). Thus, drawing both on functional and symbolic interactionist models, it tries to understand “why mass communications sometimes have powerful and direct effects and at other times have indirect effects” (Ball-Rokeach, 1989, p. 302). But more importantly, MSD theory takes a directly ecological approach, viewing society as “an organic structure; it examines how parts of micro (little) and macro (big) social systems are related to each other and then attempts to explain the behavior of the parts in terms of those relationships” (Ball-Rokeach, 1989, p. 303). Overall, it is the relationship web that carries the burden of explanation. “The key relationship around which the logic of this approach is based is one of dependency. These relationships may be with the media system as a whole or with one of its parts” (p. 303). Media dependencies rest upon goals and resources. Social interaction is seen through the perspective of universalized gatekeeping: in order to attain their goals, individuals or organizations have to rely on resources not under their control. The model is not, however, prescriptive, goals and resources can vary. They can be applied to units at all levels of analysis. Thus, dependencies could be established between institutions, between various parts of a unitary institutional setting, or between individuals and institutions. More importantly, dependency relationships are never univocal, they are always two ways, although they can be symmetric or asymmetric. However, in order to exist, they have to be stable and repetitive (recursive), creating patterns of interdependence. At individual level, dependency comes to fulfill three types of goals: understanding, orientation and play. Each of these goals/dependency relationships can have a personal and a social valence. It is immediately apparent that media dependency theory has strong affinities with the meaningful action theory. In MSD theory, just like in meaningful action theory of communication, human beings are motivated to understand their environments. More importantly, people are impelled not by substantive needs, but by meaning needs (understanding, play, and orientation). In fact, some core MSD assumptions are consistent with the basic tenet of meaningful action theory: people are driven by the search for meaning. MSD, just like meaningful action theory, assumes that people continuously need to map their position into the world.

MSD’s concept of dependency identifies the means for achieving a meaningful image of our world. These means are social. Our decisions about how to conduct one’s daily life rely on information received from other people through the media or directly, in face to face encounters. Dependencies need not be institutional, they can be personal, too. Thus, MSD offers a comprehensive theory of ecological interaction, meshing in one web interpersonal and institutional (mediated) forms of communication.

More importantly, as it builds a network of connections with institutions and social settings, individuals are allowed by this model to construct their own media systems. The mix of media and goals can be very diverse, although with some constraints (social, economic, and technological).

Of the four theories presented here, MSD comes closest to the ecological theory of communication seen as meaningful action. The question is, though, if there are any substantive differences between them? On the one hand, the differences are in terms of degree of specification and abstraction. Communication as meaningful action theory is primarily a meta-theoretical framework in which one can fit the most general functions performed by communication in society. The difference, thus, is one of degree of abstraction. However, meaningful action theory incorporates elements from phenomenological social theory, seeing communication not just as a process but as a set of expectations about the communication process. People already have an image of the communication process in their mind when they engage one another, in a mediated or unmediated fashion, this being the reason why communication is considered a social form (like exchange, subordination, sociability, etc.). Communication does not just happen, and media systems do not just emerge, they are first “imagined” in virtue of a certain interpretive scheme about the world. The most notable difference between MSD and meaningful action theory is that the relationship of dependency is seen as functional, in MSD, and it is seen as intentional in meaningful action theory. We watch television with an interpretive framework in mind about what television is and can do for us. Our reliance on media, as a source of information for our goal orientation is not automatic, it is intentional. We might watch television for satisfying our need for self-understanding, but this need not be necessary. The choice is ours, it is given in the extra layer of subjectivity we bring with us in imagining television as a communicative tool. In fact, the idea is that beyond social and institutional constraints mentioned by MSD, there should also be introduced personal constraints in one’s choice of media. But all other things said and done, I see meaningful action theory not only to move the questions to another level of abstraction but also as a complementary theory for MSD.


This paper has tried to specify a new ecological model for the relationship between communication and society, which starts from a phenomenological and symbolic interactionist perspective. It has advanced the idea that communication is a social (symbolic) form, which creates the framework for sociability. Communication is also believed to originate in the specifically human capacity of projecting meaning into the world. Its role is to organize the undifferentiated mass of events and situations outside our consciousness in ordered structures of meaning. The search for meaning is based on functional (contentless) social forms, which are proposed as a priori categories of the human self.

The universal capacity of projecting meaning and social forms are what allows us to construct social worlds. However, this process does not take place on an individual level. People cannot act and exist socially unless they are able to orient themselves to other people. Social action is seen, following Weber (1978) as meaningful action, action oriented to other people or to reality in a significant way. Social forms, such as exchange, superordination or subordination, individuality or communication create social worlds by focusing the symbolic projection of individuals into collective “dreams.” Oriented interaction is then objectified in roles. Social organization, including media institutions, is the result of organizing roles in structures of habitual interactions. Once objectified in institutions, roles and symbols then start interacting with their creators, in a similar way in which language interacts with their users. Grammar limits usage, even opposes the vagrant user, but cannot stop marginal users (including new members or poets) to change it and adapt it to their needs.

This theory is seen as an ecological approach to human social affairs because it tries to bring together micro (people) and macro (institutions) levels of analysis without sacrificing either of them. I have then selected four mass communication theories to compare and contrast them with meaningful action theory. In doing this I looked at their goodness of fit with an ecological framework. Cultivation and framing theories, although they both try to problematize media contents both as subjective contents of human actors and objective products of institutions, fail the ecological test. Although they both pretend to support the idea that people’s subjective adherence to media products is what gives them power, they in fact reduce subjectivity and cultural framing to ideology. Ideology is in turn reduced to macro-social economic or instrumental interests. Uses and gratifications theory also posits media experience in an instrumental way, although it starts from the opposite end of the spectrum, looking at its individual resorts.

Meaningful action theory is found to be most congruous with media dependency theory (MSD). They both start from the premise that one of the most important goal of human subjects is understanding and orientation. Differences were found in that, as long as meaningful action theory looks at meaning as a cultural and individual effort, MSD looks at systematic, institutional and functional relationships. However, the two theories could be seen as complementary, not mutually exclusive.

Meaningful action theory, although based on insights gleaned from long established theories, such as phenomenology and neo-kantianism, is for the first time used in communication studies as a stand alone enterprise and its core ideas and principles are not yet clearly specified. One major unanswered question is how would one go about doing research in this vein? How would one operationalize communication as a social form? What would be the empirical tools of measurement? How can symbolic forms be captured? How can one measure the degree to which the objective existence of an institution depends on people’s subjective investment in the roles that gives it substance?

These and many other issues, which are still to be identified, constitute a rich research agenda. However, I believe the challenge to find answers to them is worth the effort.


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Sorin Adam Matei

Sorin Adam Matei - Professor of Communication at Purdue University - studies the relationship between information technology and social integration. He published papers and articles in Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Information Society, and Foreign Policy. He is the author or co-editor of several books. The most recent is Ethical Reasoning in Big Data. He also co-edited Transparency in social media and Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (Computational Social Sciences) , both the product of the NSF funded KredibleNet project. Dr. Matei's teaching portfolio includes online interaction, and online community analytics and development classes. His teaching makes use of a number of software platforms he has codeveloped, such as Visible Effort . Dr. Matei is also known for his media work. He is a former BBC World Service journalist whose contributions have been published in Esquire and several leading Romanian newspapers. In Romania, he is known for his books Boierii Mintii (The Mind Boyars), Idolii forului (Idols of the forum), and Idei de schimb (Spare ideas).

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