Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Theories of Communication Part I

The study of communication and mass media has led to the formulation of many theories: structural and functional theories believe that social structures are real and function in ways that can be observed objectively; cognitive and behavioral theories tend to focus on psychology of individuals; interactionist theories view social life as a process of interaction; interpretive theories uncover the ways people actually understand their own experience; and critical theories are concerned with the conflict of interests in society and the way communication perpetuates domination of one group over another .

The earliest theories were those propounded by Western theorists Siebert, Paterson and Schramm in their book Four Theories Of the Press (1956). These were termed "normative theories" by McQuail in the sense that they "mainly express ideas of how the media ought to or can be expected to operate under a prevailing set of conditions and values." Each of the four original or classical theories is based on a particular political theory or economic scenario.


Authoritarian Theory

According to this theory, mass media, though not under the direct control of the State, had to follow its bidding. Under an Authoritarian approach in Western Europe, freedom of thought was jealously guarded by a few people (ruling classes), who were concerned with the emergence of a new middle class and were worried about the effects of printed matter on their thought process. Steps were taken to control the freedom of expression. The result was advocacy of complete dictatorship. The theory promoted zealous obedience to a hierarchical superior and reliance on threat and punishment to those who did not follow the censorship rules or did not respect authority. Censorship of the press was justified on the ground that the State always took precedence over the individual's right to freedom of expression.
This theory stemmed from the authoritarian philosophy of Plato (407 - 327 B.C), who thought that the State was safe only in the hands of a few wise men. Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679), a British academician, argued that the power to maintain order was sovereign and individual objections were to be ignored. Engel, a German thinker further reinforced the theory by stating that freedom came into its supreme right only under Authoritarianism.
The world has been witness to authoritarian means of control over media by both dictatorial and democratic governments.

Libertarianism or Free Press Theory

This movement is based on the right of an individual, and advocates absence of restraint. The basis of this theory dates back to 17th century England when the printing press made it possible to print several copies of a book or pamphlet at cheap rates. The State was thought of as a major source of interference on the rights of an individual and his property. Libertarians regarded taxation as institutional theft. Popular will (vox populi) was granted precedence over the power of State.

Advocates of this theory were Lao Tzu, an early 16th century philosopher, John Locke of Great Britain in the17th century, John Milton, the epic poet ("Aeropagitica") and John Stuart Mill, an essayist ("On Liberty"). Milton in Aeropagitica in 1644, referred to a self righting process if free expression is permitted "let truth and falsehood grapple." In 1789, the French, in their Declaration Of The Rights Of Man, wrote "Every citizen may speak, write and publish freely." Out of such doctrines came the idea of a "free marketplace of ideas." George Orwell defined libertarianism as "allowing people to say things you do not want to hear". Libertarians argued that the press should be seen as the Fourth Estate reflecting public opinion.

What the theory offers, in sum, is power without social responsibility.

Social Responsibility Theory

Virulent critics of the Free Press Theory were Wilbur Schramm, Siebert and Theodore Paterson. In their book Four Theories Of Press, they stated "pure libertarianism is antiquated, outdated and obsolete." They advocated the need for its replacement by the Social Responsibility theory. This theory can be said to have been initiated in the United States by the Commission of The Freedom Of Press, 1949. The commission found that the free market approach to press freedom had only increased the power of a single class and has not served the interests of the less well-off classes. The emergence of radio, TV and film suggested the need for some means of accountability. Thus the theory advocated some obligation on the part of the media to society. A judicial mix of self regulation and state regulation and high professional standards were imperative.
Social Responsibility theory thus became the modern variation in which the duty to one"s conscience was the primary basis of the right of free expression.

Soviet Media/Communist Theory

This theory is derived from the ideologies of Marx and Engel that "the ideas of the ruling classes are the ruling ideas". It was thought that the entire mass media was saturated with bourgeois ideology. Lenin thought of private ownership as being incompatible with freedom of press and that modern technological means of information must be controlled for enjoying effective freedom of press.
The theory advocated that the sole purpose of mass media was to educate the great masses of workers and not to give out information. The public was encouraged to give feedback as it was the only way the media would be able to cater to its interests.
Two more theories were later added as the "four theories of the press" were not fully applicable to the non-aligned countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, who were committed to social and economic development on their own terms. The two theories were:

Development Communication Theory

The underlying fact behind the genesis of this theory was that there can be no development without communication. Under the four classical theories, capitalism was legitimized, but under the Development communication theory, or Development Support Communication as it is otherwise called, the media undertook the role of carrying out positive developmental programmes, accepting restrictions and instructions from the State. The media subordinated themselves to political, economic, social and cultural needs. Hence the stress on "development communication" and "development journalism". There was tacit support from the UNESCO for this theory. The weakness of this theory is that "development" is often equated with government propaganda.

Democratization/Democratic Participant Media Theory

This theory vehemently opposes the commercialization of modern media and its top-down non-participant character. The need for access and right to communicate is stressed. Bureaucratic control of media is decried.


Before the first World War, there was no separate field of study on Communication, but knowledge about mass communication was accumulating. An outcome of World War I propaganda efforts, the Magic Bullet or Hypodermic Needle Theory came into existence. It propounded the view that the mass media had a powerful influence on the mass audience and could deliberately alter or control peoples' behaviour.

Klapper (1960) formulated several generalizations on the effects of mass media. His research findings are as follows: "Mass-media ordinarily does not serve as a necessary and sufficient cause of audience effect, but rather functions through a nexus of mediating factors and influences. These mediating factors render mass-communication as a contributory agent in a process of reinforcing the existing conditions."

The main mediating factors which he considers responsible for the functions and effects of mass communications are 

- selective exposure i.e., people's tendency to expose themselves to those mass communications which are in agreement with their attitudes and interests; and
- selective perception and retention i.e., people's inclination to organize the meaning of mass communication messages into accord with their already existing views.


In the early 40"s, before the invention of television, Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Goudet conducted an American survey on mass campaigns. The study revealed that informal social relationships had played a part in modifying the manner in which individuals selected content from the media campaign. The study also indicated that ideas often flowed from the radio and newspapers to opinion leaders and from them to the less active sections of society. Thus, informal social groups have some degree of influence on people and mould the way they select media content and act on it.

 Figure 2.1
Source: CIA Advertising at www.ciadvertising.org/ortega/Theories.htm (used by permission)


This theory simply stated that mass communication media channels communicate directly to the mass audience without the message being filtered by opinion leaders.


This was based on the idea that there are a number of relays in the communication flow from a source to a large audience.


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