What is a theory of mass communication?

What qualifies as a mass communication theory? Typically, the phrase is connected with the idea of “media effects.” Mass communication theories are typically imagined as ways to explain how mass communication affects us. How does mass communication influence our political or shopping choices, how does it modify our perceptions of others and of the self, how does it instill ideas in our minds, or how does it trigger reactions in people (as in the media effects of violent content) ?

Mass communication theories imagined in this manner do exist and cover a certain reality of research, although there is a presumption,which could be problematic, that media can do things to us we are not quite capable of controlling. Mass communication research, however, is broader than such images, which offer only partial coverage of the issue. Mass communication theory is broader than these images because it deals with issues that cannot be seen as simple “effects.” Mass communication theory can also ask questions about the institutional context of media communication, about the activities that audiences engage while using mass media, or about the meaning read into or generated through mass media. The coverage of the “mass communication theory” concept also needs to be defined in terms of what is and what is not mass communication, especially in this era dominated by new forms of “socially mediated” communication.

Several useful definitions could help us better understand what mass communication theory is or is not.

Mass communication refers to that aspect of human communication that involves groups of people. “Group” here is loosely used to distinguish between a very small interaction set (dyads or triads). The more important aspect of the idea is that a group is a social gathering that is not cohesive or permanent, since we are dealing with mass, not family, community, or organizational phenomena. A group involved in a mass communication situation is also exposed more or less equally to a message. Once released, a message has the ability to equally reach a large number of people. (Social media with its privacy settings changes the terms of this discussion, but let us accept for now, that mass media is relatively open and broad). Mass communication is also characterized by high velocity. Messages circulate fast and far. Finally, mass communication is mediated by means of telecommunication or solid media. A mass communication message is encoded and conveyed through some technology, which makes it both less personal and more far reaching than other types of communication (ie, interpersonal)

In brief, mass communication is mediated communication that supports heterogeneous groups of people who exchange messages that available to many other members. Mass communication involves mediation technologies, which could take one of two modalities: one to many (or few to many), such as television, radio, print media, or many to many (social media, online forums, discussion sections of online media sources).

What does mass communication leave out? Strictly localized interactions, mostly interpersonal, mostly non-mediated are not part of the mass communication universe. Couples flirting, pastors or teachers sermoning or teaching, lovers quarreling, villagers gossiping, etc. are not part of the mass communication universe. Of course, as long as flirting, teaching, quarreling, or gossiping is not done on Twitter!  In other words, given that a lot of localized interactions, that are interpersonal can also take place in social media spaces (Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat), the distinction between mass and interpersonal communication becomes increasingly murky. No one would have anything to lose, however, if we admitted that interpersonal and mass mediated communication have become part of hybrid space that needs to be studied with a variety of methods and theories. At the same time, mass communication needs to include some sort of mediating technology.

Given the hybrid nature of the space, can the theories proposed for studying mass media be “pure” and “simple” anymore? Probably not, but let us first define the theory concept and then see what a theory could or should do for mass communication research, given the boundaries set around the field.

A theory is a set of statements posited in the format (implicit or explicit) “if, then.” Theories describe in words a certain model of ideal interactions, which are seen in the context of  causal relationships. The relationships are derived from assumptions that lead to necessary consequences. Causality is thus implied. Causality might, at the same time, be direct or indirect.  Context or moderating/mediating factors might control the flow of causality. Yet, causal inference cannot miss from any valid theory. The litmus test of a theory is valid prediction under certain ideal conditions. A theory offers a model of reality, in which if certain conditions are met, certain effects are expected. The manner in which the necessity of the relationship between causal factors and effects takes effect is indifferent. In other words, a good theory does not need to state that the actors/elements that are expected to produce an effect do so because they are bound by conditions and characteristics beyond their control. In fact, when dealing with human actors, theories assume that individuals will act in a certain way based on cognitions, values, and decisions that are at least in part willed and conscious. Yet, decisions or behaviors can be, and often are, constrained by contexts and desire to conform to or change reality. Humans need to behave in predictable ways, if not other reason to be able to co-exist with other members of their immediate social context. Long story, short, theories applied to human behavior do not need to be blindly deterministic, yet they cannot fail to predict a certain outcome, given certain premises.

We said that theories rely on models. What are models? They are simplified explanatory schematas made of sets of interactions or dependencies between concepts. Concepts refer to characteristics, states, or propensities that are generalizable to a whole class of entities: individuals, groups, symbols, ideas, or features thereof. Concepts are used in the most abstract models. When conducting research, concepts are operationalized as measurable variables, while models become operational themselves. Variables are not the concepts themselves, but the tools by which concepts (again, characteristics, states, or propensities) became visible.

We test the validity of a model (and implicitly of a theory) by proposing hypotheses. These are statements that take implicitly the “if, then” format, typically expressed in the format “the more, the more” (or the more, the less). They always match one or more sets of relationships described in a model.

To go back to square one, I offer here

A definition of mass communication theory:

A mass communication theory is a set of statements that describes in a formal manner a set of relationships between concepts, measurable by variables referring to characteristics or states of entities involved in the mass communication process (individuals, groups, institutions, units of content, etc). Theories aim to describe how process work under certain circumstances and their goal is predict future states on the basis of present conditions.

The readings below will help you better understand the finer points of theory, mass communication, and scientific research in general.

The practice of social research, 14th edition

Earl Babbie


The chapters assigned here provide the broadest and most specific, at the same time, introduction to what a theory is. It also explains how scientific inquiry devolves from insights to formal statements and testable propositions. It also differentiates between inductive and deductive intellectual and scientific processes.

  • chapter 1 – An Introduction to Inquiry Paradigms
  • chapter 2 Social Theory and Research – read especially the second part, which deals with the specific definition of theory
  • Chapter 4 – Research design (skim)
  • Chapter 5 – Operationalization, etc. (skim)
  • Chapter 17 – Reading and writing (focus on reading)



That’s Interesting! Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology

By Murray S. Davis

Phil. Soc. Sci. 1 (1971), 309-344 (Modified)

Question: How do theories that are generally considered interesting differ from theories that are generally considered non-interesting? Answer: Interesting theories deny certain assumptions of their audience, while non-interesting theories affirm certain assumptions of their audience. This answer was arrived at through the examination of a number of famous social, and especially sociological, theories. That examination also generated a systematic index of the variety of propositional forms that interesting and non-interesting theories may take. The fertility of this approach suggested a new field be established called the Sociology of the Interesting, which is intended to supplement the Sociology of Knowledge. This new field will be phenomenologically oriented in so far as it will focus on the movement of the audience’s mind from one accepted theory to another. It will be sociologically oriented in so far as it will focus on the dissimilar base-line theories of the various sociological categories that compose the audience. In addition to its value in interpreting the social impact of theories, the Sociology of the Interesting can contribute to our understanding of both the common sense and scientific perspectives on reality.

Read the entire article

Theory and Research in Mass Communication. Journal of Communication, 54: 662–704. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2004.tb02650.x

Bryant, J. and Miron, D. (2004)

The purpose of this investigation was to systematically assess mass communication theory over time. To accomplish this, we analyzed the treatment of epistemology and theories in a probability sample of articles from Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly (JMCQ), Journal of Communication (JOC), and Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (JOBEM). The time period covered was from 1956 (the year the youngest of the triumvirate, JOBEM, was first published) through 2000. We picked one issue per year for analysis; that is, we analyzed 45 issues of each journal, or roughly one quarter of their content during this period.
The goals of our content analysis were (a) to identify theories (including models), broad paradigms of scientific investigation and theorizing, and schools of thought that created such paradigms; (b) to locate them in the scientific fields and subfields (areas) that generated them; and (c) to determine what the cited theories were used for in the studies in which we found them. We also analyzed for several other features that will not be reported in this article.



1st Assignment

Find a scholarly source (book chapter, article, encyclopedia or handbook entry) no older than 2005 that defines and discusses a mass/social media communication theory. Summarize it in about  1000 words. The summary should be well written and specific. Mention the author and the context in which the theory was created. Explain the issue it tried to solve/explore. You need to identify and explain the causal effect that the theory proposes, the core concepts, and typical hypotheses that it can advance and validate. Also, explain why, in your view, this is a true theory and if it meets Murray’s definition of “interesting theory.” Be explicit about the criteria you used to determine if this proposition is a theory. Delivery: On Blackboard, September 10, 11:59 PM.

Sorin Adam Matei

Sorin Adam Matei - Professor of Communication at Purdue University - studies the relationship between information technology and social groups. 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 Structural differentation in social media. He also co-edited Ethical Reasoning in Big Data,Transparency in social media and Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (Computational Social Sciences) , all three 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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