The Importance of International Contributions
To the Evolution of Mass Communication Theory
Bruce K. Berger
College of Communications and Information Studies
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40506-0042
Home Phone: 606-233-7285
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Berger is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky, where he is studying
international/intercultural communication. He is particularly interested in mass
communication theory and the increasing corporatization of the media industry.
Mass communication theory-making is often considered to be an American
invention, and one largely based on empirical research methodology. However,
this paper identifies some of the substantial contributions of international
scholars to mass communication theory within three broad categories of theory:
social/behavioral, critical/cultural, and normative. It's further demonstrated
that these international contributions are rich and generative in that they
increase our stock of communications knowledge and broaden our search for an
illuminating theoretical framework.
The Importance of International Contributions--
The Importance of International Contributions
To the Evolution of Mass Communication Theory
Nearly two decades ago British scholar Jeremy Tunstall (1977) suggested mass
communication research was fundamentally an American invention. Delia (1987)
noted that this construct of communication as an American tradition, one founded
solidly on empirical research methodology, may have grown out of a coalescence
of the field which occurred in the U.S. in the 1940s. Schramm (1983, 1985)
attributes the significant underpinnings of modern communication study to four
"Founding Fathers"DHovland, Lasswell, Lazarsfeld, and LewinDwho formulated major
theory in the U.S.
Clearly, the contributions of Americans to mass communication theory-making
and empirical research are substantial and vital. However, this paper will
identify some of the important international contributors to the evolution of
mass communications theory; "international" is here defined as non-American-born
scholars and researchers. I will argue that such contributions are substantial,
they are increasing, and they yield diverse and generative perspectives which
enrich the field by expanding our stock of communications knowledge.
Theories about mass communication are developed to help us better understand
and gain insight into the roles and effects of media with respect to
individuals, societies, and social and political change. However, the
definitional aspects of theories, particularly in the social sciences, appear to
be inevitably complex and controversial. Today there is widespread flux,
diversity, and controversy within the field of communication, amply illustrated
in two special issues of the Journal of Communication (1983, 1993) and in a
special issue of the European Journal of Communication (1990). Collectively
these issues exhibit a plethora of perspectives and a proliferation of
approaches concerning theory, research methodology, communications education,
and public policy issues, among others. Levy and Gurevitch (1994) note such
diversity suggests, positively, that the field is integrating globally and,
negatively, that by being everywhere the field appears to be nowhere.
Perhaps the central arguments are as much about the meaning of theory, and what
constitutes "legitimate" theory, as they are about diverse and conflicting
perspectives. The social science approach favored by many American scholars is
anchored solidly in empirical research in order to evaluate the utility and
validity of theory (Baran & Davis, 1995). Thus, a communication theory is only a
communication theory if it meets the tests and demands of the social science
approach. For purposes of this paper, however, I will examine theory-making, and
theory, within a framework of three more generous definitions. A communication
y "A set of inter-related propositions that suggest why events
occur in the manner that they do" (Hoover, 1984, p. 38).
y "Sets of ideas of varying status and origin which may explain or
interpret some phenomenon" (McQuail, 1987, p.4).
y "Any conceptual representation or explanation of a phenomenon"
(Littlejohn, 1989, p. 15).
Few would argue that communications thinking and elements of theory find their
roots in a rich intellectual and historical tradition which respects neither
disciplinary nor cultural boundaries, so much so it is beyond the scope of this
paper to do more than identify a few examples. Barnouw (1989), Beniger (1990),
Czitrom (1982), Delia (1987), and O'Keefe (1994), among many others, highlight
the diverse intellectual origins and disciplinary mainstreams that feed
communications theories, drawing from ideas and sources in anthropology,
sociology, psychology, philosophy, politics, economics, literature, rhetoric,
semantics, and history. Barnouw (1989), Lang (1980), McQuail (1987), and Peters
(1994) describe the additions of many to the development and construction of
theory: the early philosophical contributions of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates;
the rhetorical work of Cicero and Quintillion; the theological communications of
Acquinas; the contributions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophers
like Kant, Hegel, Heidigger, Nietzsche, Bacon, Hobbes, Pascal, and Locke; the
work of nineteenth-century European social thinkers Bagehot, Durkheim, Maine,
Tarde, Toennies, and Weber; and the significant impact of three of the most
influential thinkers of the last 150 years: Freud, Jung, and Marx. More recently
we must cite the contributions of French thinkers Althusser, Derrida, Foucault,
and Lyotard; the semiotics of Barthes and Eco; and the impact of German
philosopher and sociologist, Jurgen Habermas. We might also add the work of
Gutenberg, Marconi, and many other inventors and developers of mass
communication technologies, and it's important to remember these are a few
contributions from just the Western world.
The contributions of non-American-born scholars to communications theory-making
also are rich and extensive. In the remainder of this paper I will cover the
period of roughly 1940-present and highlight international contributions (Table
#1) within the framework of three broad categories of mass communication theory:
1) the social/behavioral theories, prevalent in U.S. research, which deal
extensively with media effects and are based on empirical research methodology,
2) critical/cultural theories, which examine media structures, systems, and
social practices, both to seek social change and to better understand the
effects of mass communication on and within culture, and 3) normative theories,
which describe desired criteria against which media systems may be structured
Acknowledging that the categories themselves are equivocal, my attention in
this paper is directed broadly to international theory makers and their specific
contributions, not to precise definitions and divisions of theory into laws,
perspectives, rules, systems, and the like. Further, each of these categories
represents a perspective within which differing but equally important questions
are raised about mass communication issues. For example, if we examine media
coverage of the 1996 U.S. Presidential election, a social/behavioral theorist
might raise questions about the effects of widespread negative advertising on
voter choices. A critical theorist might pursue answers to questions concerning
the lack of media coverage for a variety of third-party candidates. And a
normative theorist might question how national media may be structured and
utilized to better inform and educate voters about the various political parties
and substantive issues. I will demonstrate that each of these categories of
theory has benefited from the contributions of international theorists.
The Legacy of Lazarsfeld and Empiricism
We begin, appropriately, with the substantial contributions to
social/behavioral effects theory and empirical research by Paul F. Lazarsfeld.
Born in 1901 in Vienna, Lazarsfeld was trained in psychological measurement and
subsequently taught psychology and statistics at the University of Vienna
(Czitrom, 1982; Delia, 1987; Lowery & DeFleur, 1983; and Schramm, 1985; among
others, provide excellent insights and historical accounts). He first visited
the U.S. in 1933 on a two-year Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. Due to the
deteriorating political situation in Austria, Lazarsfeld returned to the U.S.
in 1937 and headed the Radio Research Office at Princeton University. In 1939
Lazarsfeld and the research project moved to Columbia University, where he
became a sociology professor and led the work of the Bureau of Applied Social
Research, which was responsible for a great number of administrative studies on
radio listening and communications behavior.
Lazarsfeld was a methodologist, an empiricist of the first order, and as Baran
and Davis (1995) note, "For the field of mass communication research he proved
to be the right person at the right time" (p.13). He conducted carefully
designed field experiments so that he could observe and measure media influence.
His most famous research project (Lazarsfeld, Berelson & Gaudet, 1944) involved
the 1940 presidential contest between Roosevelt and Wilkie. He wanted to
ascertain how and why people decided to vote as they did, and, according to
Lowery and DeFleur (1983), the study "_represents one of the most imaginative
uses of survey designs and techniques in the history of social science" (p.89).
Conducted in Erie County, Ohio, the study involved some 3,000 households
tracked through monthly survey interviews from May to November of 1940.
Interpretation of the comprehensive results yielded several significant findings
that were to shape mass communication research in the U.S. for some years.
First, the study produced the "two-step flow" model of communications effects,
in which influence and information were demonstrated to flow from the media to
opinion leaders, and from them to other sections of the population. Second, the
researchers concluded that the media were not nearly as powerful as mass effects
theory had held. People were found to have many ways of resisting the effects of
media, e.g., peers and family members, and rather than being a disruptive force,
the media appeared to reinforce existing social trends and to strengthen the
status quo. In a later publication (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955), Lazarsfeld would
examine in more detail the importance of interpersonal and small group
relationships, as well as the role of opinion leaders, in shaping personal
decision and action, which was valuable in later research on social
relationships and their role in mass communications processes. Although
Lazarsfeld never labeled his work, it later became known as the limited effects
theory, and a great deal of empirical research evidence in the 1950s and 1960s
supported limited effects theory.
Thus, Lazarsfeld made significant and lasting contributions to mass
communication theory. Katz (1987), one of his colleagues and his last Ph.D.
student, described his impact this way: "Much of the history of communications
research can be written as a set of continuing arguments with Paul Lazarsfeld"
(p. S25). In addition to this methodological and empirical legacy, Delia (1987)
suggests that Lazarsfeld helped institutionalize communications research within
American universities, he influenced and helped train a generation of scholars
(Berelson, Merton, Klapper, and Lowenthal, among others), and he bridged
academic and commercial interests through his administrative studies.
Other German-Austrian Influences on Empirical Research
Lazarsfeld's arrival in the U.S. coincided with that of a number of emigre
scholars and researchers from Austria and Germany, and their contributions to
the foundations of empirical research and to propaganda analysis, in particular,
are finely documented by Kurt Lang (1979), himself a German and a noted
sociologist of mass communication, as well as by Fleming and Bailyn (1969),
Hardt (1986, 1991), and Jay (1985).
Kurt Lewin, one of the emigres, taught psychology at the University of
Berlin before moving to the U.S. in 1933 and taking a position at the Iowa Child
Welfare Research Station. Lang (1979), Lowery and DeFleur (1983), and Schramm
(1985) note that Lewin may best be remembered for his development of group
dynamics at the University of Iowa, and his examination of the ways in which
small group settings and group patterns create a social construction of reality
for group members, an important concept in mass communication active-audience
studies. Lewin also was interested in social values and change, and especially
in communication channels and the gatekeepers (a term Lewin coined) who
controlled information flow. During World War II he became involved with studies
of how various foods find their way to the dining table. He discovered that
discussions among peers and group discussion were more effective and persuasive
than lectures by experts. This finding, and the gatekeeper concept, were then
valuable additions to thinking concerning content flow in mass media and
diffusion and communications campaigns.
Three other emigres contributed to specific research on propaganda
techniques and content analysis during the war: Ernst Kris, Siegfried Kracauer,
and Hans Speier. Kris, an Austrian, left his position at an art museum in Vienna
and traveled to England, where he worked for a BBC radio monitoring service in
the early stages of the war before relocating to the U.S. and obtaining a
position on the Research Project on Totalitarian Communication (Lang, 1979). He
analyzed radio broadcast propaganda content from the two world wars to determine
how Nazi propagandists distorted reality to try to achieve their goals.
Kracauer and Speier, both German, also were involved in propaganda content
and analysis studies. A former journalist for the Frankfurter Zeitung, Kracauer
worked under a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship and analyzed Nazi film
propaganda. Speier analyzed Nazi radio broadcasts. Lang (1979) notes that the
theme of their work emphasized the Nazi's efforts to "maintain the impression
of actuality_while using details to create a pseudo-reality supportive of the
Nazi totalitarian political system" (p. 51). Kracauer (1947) utilized the
language and approaches of psychoanalysis and cultural anthropology in his
analyses and subsequently explored extended linkages between film and history,
which Hardt (1986) contends was an example of early critical social research in
the U.S. The work of these three emigres contributed to a growing accretion of
knowledge on propaganda, persuasion, and attitude change.
The Frankfurt School
The last group of emigres I will mention, Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal,
and Theodor Adorno, represented a Marxist group of thinkers from the Frankfurt
School, the Institute for Social Research that was founded in 1923 at the
University of Frankfurt and affiliated from 1934-1948 with Columbia University,
after which time it returned to Frankfurt. Horkheimer, named Director of the
Institute in 1931, was a critical analyst who was interested in the nature and
preservation of "high culture" in society, i.e., art, literature, and symphonic
music; he believed that mass communication served to undermine high culture.
Following a similar theme, Lowenthal provided analysis and insight into popular
culture and communication. In one study he analyzed biographies in popular
magazines in the U.S. and discovered that "heroes of production" were being
replaced by "idols of consumption," e.g., popular entertainers (Lang 1979).
Lowenthal's social criticism is regarded by Hardt (1991) as early work in what
is today popular culture analysis. Adorno, who collaborated in empirical
research projects for a period of time with Lazarsfeld, conducted critical
analysis of American radio programs, and, through funding provided by the
American Jewish Committee (Smythe & Van Dinh, 1983), was part of a team that
analyzed the susceptibility of Americans to Fascist propaganda, helping to
develop the F-scale, a tool for measuring Fascist disposition (Adorno et al.,
While the Frankfurt School had some impact on social science research in
the U.S., it also represented a significant departure point from empirical
research methodology, one that was to have lasting influence in communication
research. Czitrom (1982) notes that members of the Frankfurt School
"subordinated questions about the impact of mass media as defined by the
empirical traditionDissues of persuasive effectsDto broader problems of
consciousness: namely, issues of cultural value" (p. 142). These critical
theorists largely rejected empirical-based theory, believing that it reduced
cultural questions to narrow research categories and didn't situate studies
within a complete social context.
Another aspect of their intellectual inheritance was important for
subsequent critical/cultural theorists. Members of the Frankfurt School believed
that critical examination of the role of media in societies was important; they
saw the mass media as a powerful vehicle which didn't serve to facilitate
change, but rather to preserve the status quo to the benefit of those in
control. Thus, in contrast to Lazarsfeld's limited effects perspective, these
critics viewed media as having powerful, adverse effects which needed to be
scrutinized within a complete social, political, and historical context.
Finally, it's important to acknowledge a second-generation member of the
Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas, the highly regarded and controversial German
philosopher and sociologist, whom Rogers (1985) describes as the "modern-day
intellectual leader in recasting and remodeling critical theory" (p.224).
Habermas, who studied under Adorno and was a former assistant at the Frankfurt
School in the 1950s, is widely recognized for his sweeping but probing work with
sociolinguistics, discourse studies, and the role of communicative actions in
the formation of social systems.
Lang and Noelle-Neumann
The contributions of two other German scholars must be mentioned before
concluding this section: Kurt Lang and Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. As noted
earlier, Lang (1979) has provided important historical insight into mass
communication. Born in Berlin and a retired professor of sociology and
communication at the University of Washington, Lang also has written extensively
about public opinion formation, agenda-building theory, and the effects of radio
and television on American life. Additionally, Lang and his wife (1984) have
conducted some pioneering research concerning the integrative effects of mass
media. Through live broadcasting of public ceremonies or significant events,
e.g., the Olympics, the Kennedy funeral, and the Watergate hearings, the media
demonstrate a considerable ability to draw and focus mass attention, to create a
very real sense of occasion, and to highlight universal values (Barnouw, 1989).
The studies are of particular interest in demonstrating how television can cross
cultural and social boundaries in such situations.
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, born in Berlin in 1916, is today professor of
communications research at the University of Mainz and founder and director of
the Public Opinion Research Center in Allensbach, Germany. She is considered to
be "one of the most prominent living European analysts of mass communication"
(Simpson, 1996). Through empirical studies she researched and developed a
controversial theory, "spiral of silence," which is concerned with media and
formation of public opinion. She (1993) describes her theory this way:
"Observations made in one context spread to another and
encouraged people either to proclaim their views or to swallow them and
keep quiet until, in a spiraling process, the one view dominated the
public scene and the other disappeared from public awareness as its
adherents became mute. This is the process that can be called a 'spiral
of silence'" (p. 5).
Noelle-Neumann's theory is part of agenda-setting theory, which posits that
the media, in selecting, choosing, and positioning the news they report and
highlight, essentially tell consumers what to think about and what is most
important: they set the agenda. "Spiral of silence" theory was a significant
contribution in this regard, even though it has been criticized by others (Baran
& Davis, 1995; Simpson, 1996). Perhaps most importantly, her work supported the
emergence of moderate effects theory within the past several decades. Such
theorists argue that in certain situations, and over time, the mass media can
have direct and powerful effects. We now turn our attention to one such
Gerbner and Cultivation Theory
Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1919, George Gerbner is Professor of
Communications and Dean Emeritus of The Annenberg School for Communications,
University of Pennsylvania. He has been a prolific researcher and scholar whose
contributions have led to wide-spread debate about media and cultural impact. He
is perhaps best known for his analyses of television violence and television's
long-term impact on perceptions of reality, the foundation work for which began
during the turbulent late 1960s in the U.S.
Gerbner and colleagues at The Annenberg School conducted television content
analysis for a task force of the National Commission on the Causes and
Preventions of Violence. Their work demonstrated that violent content was
prevalent and difficult to avoid on American TV programming. This project was
closely followed by a large-scale initiative funded by Congress (the Surgeon
General's Committee) to examine television violence more thoroughly. Once more
Gerbner provided content analysis of selected prime time and children's TV
programming; violence, as assessed through a "violence profile," was seen to
decrease slightly in the former category but to increase significantly in
cartoon programs (Gerbner, 1971and 1976).
In their assessments, Gerbner and colleagues also began to examine cultural
indicators and to develop a theoretical framework to explain their work, which
they called "cultivation" theory; Gerbner first introduced the term in 1969 (see
Potter, 1994, for an excellent analysis). Essentially, cultivation theory
asserts that mass media, and especially television, influence our view or
perception of reality. Since violence in television content is so prevalent,
those who watch a great deal of TV tend to see the world as a far more dangerous
and frightening place than those who watch less TV. Thus, living in the world of
television cultivates a particular view of reality. Based on his work with
cultural indicators, Gerbner went on to argue that television has become a
major transmitter of American culture. Through this "enculturation," people
develop roles and behaviors based on what they see (Infante, Rancer, & Womack,
Gerbner, too, has attracted both critics and controversy. Cultivation
theory comes down on the side of big effects over time for the mass media, it
supports social construction of reality theories, and it is one platform of
argument for current critical, cultural, and developmental theorists.
The Canadian Determinists
Two Canadians, Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, have been leading
proponents for what is called technological determinism, i.e., mass media
technologies shape social interaction and the experiences of culture in powerful
ways. Innis, a political economist, takes a rather dim view of the results of
technology's impact on society. In his central works (1950, 1951) he examines
the ways in which those in control in Canada used the telegraph, railway, and
other technologies to expand their social and political power. He believed that
newer technologies would make such centralization and control more likely, even
as they disrupted the human sense of time, space, and power. Innis saw the
accumulation and evolution of technologies not as a sign of progress, but rather
as the process of inevitable social disintegration (Czitrom, 1982).
McLuhan, a literary scholar, was influenced by Innis, and he was a popular
(but academically criticized) spokesman and advocate in the 1960s for the
emerging electronic age. McLuhan wasn't concerned with issues of society and
central control; he focused on the impact of technologies on the individual, and
particularly on individual perception and thinking. In Understanding Media
(1964) he writes: "_the personal and social consequences of any mediumDthat is,
of any extension of ourselvesDresult from the new scale that is introduced into
our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology" (p. 23).
Every new technology creates a new environment, and the emerging mass media were
in the process of decentralizing modern living so that a "global village"
ultimately would be created. The technologies themselves, the forms, rather than
the message content, were significant to McLuhan.
Meyrowitz (1994) contends that Innis and McLuhan "stand alone in terms of
the breadth of history and culture they attempt to include in their frameworks"
(p. 52), and certainly their work is important in linking the development of
communication technologies with issues of time, space, and power. Indeed, the
issues they raised concerning the impact of technologies on cognition,
education, literacy, and popular culture continue to be relevant in our
increasingly wired world of computers and communications satellites.
The contributions of two other Canadians, Erving Goffman and Albert
Bandura, born three years apart in the province of Alberta, also should be
noted, although for very different work. Goffman, a sociologist, is perhaps best
known for his work (1974) with "frame analysis," an explanation for the
expectations we use to understand various social situations. During our daily
lives, Goffman contends, we rely on social cues to interpret our environment and
to shift into an appropriate frame for acting within that environment. The
media, he suggests, can shape or influence social cues or dominant frames by
creating or supporting stereotypes or public representations of gender, race, or
behaviors, among others, thereby helping to shape the social construction of
Bandura, a psychologist, was concerned with personality development and
social learning, particularly through mass media. He argues that people may
"model" what they see in media, and they can learn new behaviors simply by
observing them, as well as the rewards or punishments accorded to such behaviors
(Baran & Davis, 1995). Bandura's work was conducted at a time when the impact of
television violence was being closely analyzed in the U.S., and he contributed
to that analysis and to the advancement of social learning theory.
The Critical/Cultural Theorists
The empirically-based, limited effects theory of mass communication
dominated the U.S. research scene from the 1940s to the 1960s, and it retains
strong advocates today, if perhaps more for the methodology than the theory.
Beginning in the 1960s, however, a critical/cultural theoretical perspective,
then largely European, began to emerge, and it remains in my view a valuable
counterpoint to the social science, positivistic school. As noted earlier, the
roots for some critical theory trace to the Frankfurt School; later the locus
for much critical and cultural studies work was in Britain, especially at the
Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England.
Stuart Hall (1982), one of the leading voices for the cultural approach,
argues that the European foundation for critical speculation is based upon three
historical and powerful media concerns:
"Some were defined as cultural: the displacement, debasement
and trivialization of high culture_.Some were defined as political: the
vulnerability of the masses to the false appeals, propaganda and
influence of the media. Some were defined as social: the break up of
community ties_of intermediary face-to-face groups and the exposure of
the masses to the commercialized influences of elites, via the media"
Blumler (1980, 1981) provides extensive and insightful comparative analysis
of the differences between the American approach to mass communication research
and this European critical perspective, highlighting the central importance for
critical theorists of locating media analysis within social, political,
economic, and symbolic institutional contexts, or what he calls an "holistic"
approach. Blumler also suggests the contrasting approaches are due, in part, to
the development of American research within a commercial media system, while
European research was undertaken within a public service or state-owned
McQuail (1987, 1989), another British scholar whom we shall examine in more
detail in a discussion of normative theory, categorizes the thrusts of
critical/cultural theory in these ways: Political/economic media theory is
concerned with the structures of media ownership and market forces based on
profit, which impacts the content and distribution of news. Media hegemony
theory examines the promulgation of a distorted sense of reality, to the benefit
of ruling classes or structures, and is concerned with the spread and influence
of ideology on culture. Socio-cultural or cultural studies, which find their
source in the Frankfurt School, focus on popular culture and the experiences of
particular groups in society, e.g., the young, laborers, women, and racial and
ethnic minorities. These studies examine the products and context of popular
culture and the integration or subordination of the "marginalized" groups into
mass society and culture.
In addition, and echoing Adorno, critical/cultural scholars are concerned
with macroscopic analysis, rejecting the empirical approach as too confining.
They use qualitative analytical approaches, they believe debate is an important
method of theory examination and testing, and they often are active politically
in trying to shape social policy.
As noted earlier, Hall is an articulate spokesman and theorist for the
cultural approach, and he has established the importance of ideology, discourse,
and the significance of language in media analysis. Another leading figure is
Raymond Williams, whom Golding and Murdock (1980), both political/economic
theorists, argue has been most influential in the development of cultural
studies in England and within the Birmingham School. A literary critic and an
English Professor at Cambridge, Williams examined cultural developments in
England and wrote about cultural change and the domination of cultures by
elites, working through the cross disciplines of literary criticism, history,
sociology, and philosophy, and blending popular cultural approaches with Marxist
Jeremy Tunstall (1977), another British cultural theorist, has examined
extensively U.S. media, which he believes specialize in the production and
distribution of American cultural commodities. Such cultural hegemony, which he
views as quite deliberate, serves to break down traditional values and local
cultures, resulting in the spread of Western capitalism and ideals, to the
detriment of receiving countries.
James Halloran, Director of the Leicester University Centre for Mass
Communication Research, and Peter Golding at the same university, which is a
center for British critical theorists who are concerned with political/economic
interpretation of media and ownership, pursue a stronger Marxist orientation in
their work (Curran, 1990). Halloran, a consultant to UNESCO and the McBride
Commission during the New World Information Order debates in the 1970s and early
1980s (Djiki, Maczuga, & Pisarek, 1990), is particularly concerned with the
impact of television and other technological innovations on communication and
cultural or social domination. Golding follows a similar line in analyzing
communications and perceived social inequalities.
Critical/cultural theorists and scholars are at work in the U.S., too,
where strong proponents in feminist and ethnographic studies are making
important contributions to new thinking in the field, and in Latin America, a
source of historic critical expression.
Critical Theorists in Latin America
Critical theory has strong roots in Latin America, perhaps because as
Rogers (1985) suggests a critical stance may grow naturally out of the serious
economic, social, and political conditions that have persisted in the region, or
because as Barnouw (1989) notes, classical development has not produced the
hoped-for economic improvement. In any case, Latin American scholars and
researchers have spoken out against the transnationalization of news flow and
its alleged impact on local culture, as well as the purposes and motives of
those in control of media institutions, among other critical topics.
In their insightful examination of communication in Latin America, Atwood
and McAnany (1986) argue that scholars in the region have made substantial
contributions to critical theory and to research on the most important
communication issues facing the continent. Schwartz and Jaramillo (1986) support
this contention and identify four pioneers of critical research in Latin
America: Antonio Pasquali, Eliseo Veron, Armand Mattelart, and Luis Beltran.
Pasquali, a Venezuelan philosopher and communications theorist in the early
1960s, studied the effects of top-down, transnational communication on
Venezuelan audiences, and he worked to influence media policies at the national
and international (UNESCO) levels. Veron, an Argentine socialist, is cited for
his work with ideology, signification, and messaging, particularly with respect
to how they shape one's world view. Mattelart, a Belgian lawyer and demographer
who worked in Chile from 1963-1973, framed his research within the context of
communications and class struggle, becoming an outspoken critic of the influence
of transnational corporations on indigenous culture and calling for the
replacement of media's coverage of the elites with coverage of common people.
Beltran, a Bolivian journalist educated at Michigan State University, called for
a "communication of liberation" from the dependency on core Western nations and
media. He emphasized the importance of access and dialogue and, like Pasquali,
directed attention to formation of national communication policies to support
the particular development goals of Latin American countries.
Other critical and development theorists noted by Atwood and McAnany,
Barnouw (1989), and Huesca and Dervin (1994) include Juan Diaz Bordenave of
Paraguay, Fernando Reyes Matta of Mexico, and two Brazilians: Jose Marques de
Melo and Paulo Freire. Marques de Melo is well-known for his content analysis of
Brazilian and Spanish dailies, while Freire, a substantial critic of
communications education, is recognized for the concept of "conscientization," a
kind of horizontal, non-directed communication at the local level that would
help people learn, understand, and eventually overcome repression.
While the work of these critical theorists provides a unique and valuable
Latin American perspective, perhaps the most lasting contributions to
theory-making are yet to come. Rogers (1985) suggests: "If a synthesis of the
empirical and critical approaches is to be forged, it may be most likely to
occur in Latin America" (p. 230). Huesca and Dervin identify another
possibility, an important linkage of theory and practice: "Indeed, a major
quest, if not the major quest of Latin American communication research has been
the search for theories of and for communication practice" (p. 55).
Normative Theory and Development Communication
Earlier I noted that normative theories describe desired criteria or
values, e.g., ethical standards, purposes, public service roles, against which
media systems may be structured and evaluated. As such they are not considered
to be social scientific theories in the U.S., although mass media in this
country certainly are guided by historically developed free press and social
responsibility theories. Elsewhere, normative theories have played an important
role in communication theory, ideology, and practice.
Dennis McQuail, born in London and currently Professor of Mass
Communication at the University of Amsterdam, is one of the leading scholars
concerning normative theory. He (1987) has described a number of such theories
of the media, i.e., authoritarian, free press, social responsibility, Soviet
media, development, and democratic-participant media, linking each with a
particular social role. Democratic-participant theory, for which he is largely
responsible, is the most recent approach; it calls for "deinstitutionalization"
of media and a kind of cultural pluralism wherein ethnic and community groups
would have far greater access to media, which should serve "the needs,
interests, and aspirations of the 'receiver' in a political society" (p. 97).
More recently McQuail (1994) has argued thoughtfully that changes brought
about by new technologies and the end of the Cold War have revived the need for
a universal social theory of the media because the old normative values appear
outdated and insufficient. He suggests the following guiding principles for
media structure and performance: communication freedom, diversity in channels
and content, information quality, social order and solidarity, and cultural
order and reflection.
McQuail, Servaes (1986), Altschull (1995), and Shah (1996), among many
others, have analyzed development communication theory, which in its simplest
and broadest form posits that the mass media, working in step with government,
can successfully stimulate social improvement, political stability, and economic
growth. Born in the Western world, and further conceptualized at a Press
Foundation of Asia meeting in Manilla in the 1960s (Shah, 1996), this approach
came into widespread use in the developing countries in the 1960s and 1970s, and
it is still practiced in some countries today.
Unfortunately, the theory appears to be largely unsuccessful in practice.
The concept was taken by the leaders of some developing countries as license for
establishing state control of the media. Further, the media products of such
control (sometimes referred to as "development journalism") became repetitive,
uninviting coverage of political leaders, ceremonial events, and propagandistic
and inaccurate development reports. Finally, the concept and practice became
mired in the shrill UNESCO debates concerning cultural imperialism, Third-World
dependency, and Western media hegemony in the 1970s and 1980s.
Today, multicultural proponents continue to debate the merits of, and
refinements to development communication theory. Some, like Kaarle Nordenstreng
(Finnish), Cees Hamelink (Dutch), and Hamid Mowlana (Iranian), have come down on
the side of national and cultural autonomy in communications, believing that the
continued transnational flow of information has distinctly harmed local
development efforts. Majid Tehranian (1994), another Iranian, makes a compelling
argument for a "communitarian" approach to communication and development, one
that bears some resemblance to McQuail's democratic-participant approach. Shah
(1996) perhaps goes farthest in calling for the replacement of development media
with "emancipatory journalism," emphasizing advocacy and a community orientation
wherein journalists would participate in "relevant new social movements and take
on the role of professional movement intellectuals" (p. 158).
A Brief Note on Asia
Modern communications research in Asia is emerging and has grown rapidly
since mid-century and especially within the past two decades (Barnouw, 1989).
One particular area of research that may yield significant theoretical findings
is the role of culture in development communications, particularly indigenous
communications media, or what is sometimes called micromedia. A decade ago Wang
and Dissanayake (1984) reported on a series of projects which examined how
indigenous communications systems, e.g., folk dramas, community bulletins,
storytelling, and village meetings, could be integrated with modern
communications systems so that development was spurred without sacrificing
basic cultural values or retarding human needs. While these projects yielded
mixed results, one can imagine that Asian communication scholars in the future
may make substantial theoretical contributions to understanding the many
complexities of culture and communication.
While it is widely accepted that the foundation of communications thinking
is constructed from multiple disciplines and cultures, this paper has
demonstrated through abundant examples that international contributions to mass
communication theory also are substantial, rich, and diverse.
First, international scholars and researchers have helped to develop and
shape social/behavioral theories and empirical research methodology; the work of
Lazarsfeld and key German and Austrian emigres during the 1940s contributed to
development of limited effects theory and to our understanding of persuasion and
propaganda techniques, and later contributions in cultivation theory and
spiral-of-silence approaches supported the then emerging concept of moderate or
selected media effects. Second, the Canadian determinists, members of the
Frankfurt and Birmingham Schools, and recognized Latin American scholars are
centrally responsible for development of critical/cultural theories, an
important counterpoint to North American social/behavioral studies, and one
gaining followers in this country. Third, normative theory, which raises
important questions about media role(s), content, and structure, has continued
to be studied and developed by scholars from many countries. One may imagine
increasing interest in normative studies as the speed and reach of communication
technologies increase and as news and entertainment companies continue to merge,
consolidate, and strengthen their political and economic muscles globally.
Finally, this paper has not examined other important international contributions
in evolving theoretical areas, including interpretive approaches, ethnographic
and feminist studies, linguistic and narrative analyses, and postmodernism
This paper also has demonstrated the rich and generative nature of these
many international contributions, i.e., how various theoretical perspectives
raise and then pursue differing questions, and in doing so, increase and broaden
our academic stock of communications knowledge. In fact, we should not be
surprised by this constellation of contributors to theory-making. As scholars
and researchers we build on ideas from the past, we draw them fresh from the
environments and currents of our time, and we construct them anew in our
imagination and musings, wherever on this planet we call home. As our world
becomes more wired and linked electronically, both easing and hastening the flow
and exchange of scholarly information and ideas, one may imagine that a rich and
generative profusion of ideas from around the globe will feed communications
Will existing diverse and seemingly conflicting theoretical perspectives
produce a unifying theory of mass communication, or an illuminating framework?
No one knows, but I believe we may find hope in the imagery of a mosaic, which
is produced painstakingly by setting small colored pieces of marble, tile,
glass, or precious stones into a surface. There are at least three lessons for
us in the mosaic. First, the work of art consists of individual pieces. Second,
the imagery is not complete until all of the pieces are in place. Third, to
fully appreciate and to interpret the mosaic, one needs to discover it at the
right distance, in the right light, from the right perspective. Quite simply,
there is more to learn and more work to do, and a profusion of international
voices speeds and enriches our quest.
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Some International Contributors to Mass Communication Theory
Social/Behavioral Theory Critical/Cultural Theory
GermanDAustrian Emigres Birmingham School--English
concerned with: culture,
1. Paul Lazarsfeld ideology,
--limited effects theory 17. Stuart Hall
27. Denis McQuail--English
2. Kurt Lewin 18. Raymond Williams
--gatekeeper concept 19. Jeremy Tunstall
28. Majid Tehranian--Iranian
3. Ernst Kris--propaganda University of
4. Siegfried Kracauer--propaganda (Political/economic theorists)
5. Hans Speier--propaganda
6. Kurt Lang 20. James Halloran
--agenda building 21. Peter Golding
Cultural Imperialism/Dev. Communication
29. Kaarle Nordenstreng--Finnish
31. Hamid Mowlana--Iranian
23. Eliseo Veron--Argentine
24. Armand Mattelart--Belgian
25. Luis Beltran--Bolivian
26. Paolo Freire--Brazilian
(Marxist thinkers, strong media
7. Max Horkheimer
8. Leo Lowenthal
9. Theodor Adorno
10. Jurgen Habermas--second generation
Moderate Effects/Culture Implications
11. Elisabeth Noelle-Neuman--German
12. George Gerbner--Hungarian
13. Harold Innis
14. Marshall McLuhan
15. Erving Goffman
--frame analysis/social cues
16. Albert Bandura