Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-18, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 7 March, 2018 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2018.


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Mass media

core definition

The mass media refers to print and electronic forms of communication that are aimed at a widely dispersed audience.

explanatory context


analytical review (undated) states:

Mass media is communication—whether written, broadcast, or spoken—that reaches a large audience. This includes television, radio, advertising, movies, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, and so forth.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines mass media as:

Forms of communication designed to reach a vast audience without any personal contact between the senders and receivers. Examples would include newspapers, magazines, video recordings, radio and television


Schaefer (2002, p. 137) states:

By mass media sociologists refer to the print and electronic instruments of communication that carry messages to often widespread audiences. Print media include newspapers, magazines, and books; electronic media include radio, television, motion pictures, and the Internet. Advertising, which falls into both categories, is also a form of mass media.
The pervasiveness of the mass media in soci- ety is obvious. Consider a few examples. TV dinners were invented to accommodate the millions of “couch potatoes” who won’t miss their favorite television programs. Today screen time encompasses not just television viewing but also playing video games and surfing the Internet. Candidates for political office rely on their media consultants to project a winning image both in print and in the electronic media. World leaders use all forms of media for political advantage, whether it is to gain territory or to make a successful bid for the Olympics. AIDS education projects in parts of Africa and Asia owe much of their success to media campaigns.

associated issues

Researching the effects of the mass media

Social researchers are not just concerned, for example, with who watches what but also want to find out what social impact the media have. There are three sorts of questions that media researchers are concerned with. First, what effect does the mass media have on the audience?  Second, how are media messages produced and interpreted?  Third, what role does the media play in reproducing the social structure?

These three types of question represent three very different methodological concerns. Effects research is essentially positivist; interpretation research is, broadly speaking, phenomenological; and structural research is critical.


Effects research

There is a general assumptionthat the media do affect the audience in various ways. A spectacular, albeit dated, example of media effect occurred in the 1930s when Orson Welles' adaptation of War of the Worlds was broadcast on American radio. The programme began with a mock news broadcast of an alien invasion. It caused considerable panic, about 6 million listeners believed what they heard, and many people who lived in the vicinity of the supposed invasion got in their cars and fled.

The relationship between violence on television and violence in society has been another long standing area of public as well as research. Back in the 1980s, Gunter and Wober (1988, p. 1) claimed 'Over the years, more funding and research effort has been invested in the study of television violence than in any other aspect of television output. It is one of the most researched areas in the social sciences'.

In particular, it is assumed that children are susceptible to violent media images and are liable to act in a violent or aggressive way as a result of watching violent television. In one study children were shown a video of adults acting aggressively towards larger-than-life dolls. When subsequently given the opportunity to play with the dolls the children imitated the aggressive behaviour of the adults on the video (Bandura and Walters, 1964). Similarly, children exposed to violent programmes were shown to be slower in seeking adult help when they witnessed violence among children than were children who had not been exposed to violent programmes (Drabman and Thomas, 1975).

Similar effects research has examined the impact of the media on sex-role stereotyping. For example, young girls, aged 5 and 6 years old, were shown to hold less gender-stereotyped attitudes after watching a low-stereotyped cartoon, compared to those who saw neutral or high-stereotyped cartoons (Davidson et al., 1979). This kind of research supports the notion that the media have a direct (and often harmful) effect. It is based on a behaviourist view that adopts a stimulus-response model of social action. The media provide a stimulus, to which the reader, listener or viewer directly responds.

An alternative perspective on the effects of the media is cultivation theory. Cultivation theorists, on the whole, undertake surveys of people to find out what they watch and to relate this to questions about attitude or behaviour. For example, surveys have shown that people who watch a lot of television are more likely to have a view of the world that corresponds to how television portrays the world than are people who do not watch much television. In particular, older people are underrepresented on television, and heavy viewers tend to underestimate the numbers of elderly people in society. Similarly, there is a lot of violence on television and heavy viewers tend to think there is a lot more violent crime in society than do light viewers (Gerbner and Gross, 1976; Gerbner et al., 1986). It has been argued that surveys and experiments do not provide an accurate picture of the way people respond to television because they involve contrived settings in which people's reactions and views are obtained. A standard objection to experimental approaches is that they are such artificial situations that people are likely to react in a way that is different from the way they would react in everyday circumstances (see Researching the Real World Section 9).

A more naturalistic approach to the analysis of effects is to examine the relationship between events that have happened in the real world. For example, one study looked at the suicide rate in America following the highly publicised 'suicide' of well-known fictional characters on television (Phillips, 1986). Seasonal variations and some other factors were taken into account and Phillips showed a link between these 'famous' suicides and suicide rates in general. The study has been heavily criticised for not taking into account sufficient other factors that may have affected the suicide rate and for Phillips' reliance on national suicide statistics.

If assertions are made about the effects of the media on viewers then it is necessary to find out something about the content of the media. This is known as content analysis and it usually takes the form of counting or measuring specified features of media content and analysing interrreltionships. (see Researching the Real World Section 5.6).


Interpreting the media

Not all media research of the audience is concerned with the effects on the audience. An alternative approach has looked at what the audience get out of the media. Uses and gratifications research, for example, undertook surveys to analyse how the audience use the media to satisfy particular desires or needs (Blumler and Katz 1974; Blumler and McQuail, 1968). This is an early example of research that gave priority to the audience.

Uses and gratifications research has been used by so-called market theorists who argue that the media simply provide what the public wants. Sex and violence predominate because that is what the public finds interesting. The media are not potentially harmful, they simply cater for the market. Market theorists argue that research has shown that people do not usually accurately recall what they saw on television or read in the newspapers the previous day. So the media cannot be seen to have long-term effects (Whale, 1977). This approach is the opposite of cultivation theory, which suggests that long-term exposure to the media does not result in immediate effects but gradually results in a particular set of views of society.

An alternative interpretive framework is provided by the agenda setting theory of the media. It differs from the uses and gratifications approach and market theory by suggesting that individuals are not free to make use of, and interpret, the media as they want. Behaviourist theories (especially the cruder ones such as the magic bullet model that suggests that the media transmit simple direct messages to which the audience react in direct, predictable and uniform ways. In short, media messages are like magic bullets, providing a straightforward stimulus to which the audience respond. This approach no longer has  much credibility among media sociologists) suppose that the media tell us what to think. The agenda setting view argues that although the media do not tell us what to think they do tell us what to think about (Noelle-Neumann, 1974; Tichenor et al., 1970). The media provide the framework within which we approach issues. The media define the situation for us. This approach is most effective where readers and viewers have little or no other source of information, such as the media campaign around AIDS in the late 1980s (McCombs and Gilbert, 1986).

Reception theory focuses, in detail, on the way that the audience receives and interprets media messages, rather than trying to identify the general needs of the audience. The emphasis in reception studies is on the media experiences of viewers and the focus is usually on 'fans' rather than one-off viewers. Thus much reception research concentrates on serials, especially soap operas. Reception studies tend to use in-depth interviewing, group discussions, direct observation, and the analysis of personal documents such as letters or diaries. The main aim of data collection in such cases is to explore the meanings that the media message has for the receiver rather than to attempt quantification of effects.

The interpretive approach has also been applied in studies of the production of media messages. A classic example is Philip Elliott's (1972) The Making of a Television Series. It provided a detailed account of the making of The Nature of Prejudice, a seven-part documentary series made in autumn 1967 for ATV and transmitted in spring 1968. The study, which used direct observation, traced the evolution of the programmes through all the processes of selection from the emergence of an idea, through the recruitment of the production team and the collection of a wide range of material, to their final realisation in the studio. Elliott showed how haphazard the process of programme production is and how much it is constrained by the social and organisational framework in which it takes place.

A different emphasis on the way media output is produced comes from ethnomethodology see Researching the Real World Section

The interpretive studies discussed above thus provide insights into the way that media messages are produced and received. Most interpretive studies use qualitative techniques of data collection. Ang analysed the content of letters written to her. Morley used discussion groups to see how different people 'read' Nationwide. Hobson visited people in their homes and watched television with them and discussed the way they viewed Crossroads. Elliott used direct observation in his study of how a programme was put together, and Moloch and Lester adopted a similar technique in their ethnomethodological analysis of news production.
Some of these interpretive studies also point to, although do not concentrate on, the wider social and ideological context in which the media operate. It is this ideological and structural framework that is at the core of critical analyses of the role of the media.


Critical analyses of the media

Critical analyses of the media are concerned with the relationship between the mass media and the existing social structure. They examine what media messages contain, how they are 'read' and how they are produced. The aim is not to look at cause and effect relationships nor to interpret the processes of production and reception of the media. Critical studies see the media as part of the wider processes of control and as reproducing the status quo through the constant reassertion of dominant ideology. See Researching the Real World Section 5.11

Critical approaches include the hypodermic model, manipulation theory, control of the media thesis and hegemonic analyses. Philip Schlesinger's (1978) study of BBC News is an example of a critical analysis of the production of media messages. He observed how the News was produced at the BBC but also linked his observations to a study of the structure, history and ideology of the BBC that led him to the wider issue of how BBC News reproduces dominant ideology. Schlesinger asks, how is the news actually put together in the BBC newsrooms? How does the way it is assembled result in a specific version of reality? In particular, what are the practices and ideology that lie behind BBC news? He used direct observation, formal and informal interviews with BBC news staff. Schlesinger looked at the history of BBC news and the routines that news producers adopted (see Researching the Real World Section Critical analyses also focus on media content although without using a statistical approach, see Researching the Real World Section 5.11



related areas

See also

content analysis


Researching the Real World Section 5

Sources, undated, 'The Role and Influence of Mass Media', available at,articleId-26946.html, accessed 14 March 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Schaefer, R.T., 2002, 'Chapter 7: The Mass Media' available at, accessed 14 March 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2018

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