Political socialization and agenda setting research can be seen as separate components of an emerging emphasis on the mass media as “molders of meaning.” That is, these theories attempt to assess the various manners in which the media create or modify the pictures of the world held by individuals and societies. Meaning can be purposefully or accidentally created. It is not easy to study, for it resides inside the heads of individuals, and cannot be accurately gauged by their overt behaviors. As media sociologist Melvin DeFleur has argued on several occasions, all the tools of the anthropologist, sociologist, psychologist, cultural historian, and communications researcher can be brought to bear in the understanding of how the mass media shape our cultural and “meaning-centered” environment. When such tools are employed, they uncover evidence to support once again a stalagmite theory of mass communication, concluding that when media manipulate symbols, they establish and subsequently stabilize new meanings, change old meanings, and even subtly stimulate behaviour. Fads, customs, cliches, and significant social values are involved, and the media are significant factors in their creation and continuance
At this juncture, it is appropriate to purpose what DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach have called an integrated dependency theory of mass communication. Such a theory depends upon a recognition of various psychological and social factors that prevent the media from having arbitrary control over their audiences. That means we should discard the bullet or hypodermic needle model of the mass communication process, because”it assumes a homogenized, malleable “mass society.” We have already pointed out that individual differences models show us how individual’ consumers psychologically cope with media messages; social categories models show us how groups of consumers actively respond to media messages; and social influences models show us how groups of consumers are connected with one another (via organizations, publics, demographic interest groups, etc.) in ways that are relatively stable and that help keep them from being too readily manipulated by external forces including the media.
In the words of DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach: Mass media not only lack arbitrary influence powers, but their personnel lack the freedom to rigger in arbitrary communication behavior. Both the media and their audiences are integral parts of their society. The surrounding sociology-cultural context provides controls and constraints not only on the nature of media messages but also on the nature of their effects on audiences.
Nevertheless, the media–indeed, all our means of communication– have very important roles in holding society together. To understand this more fully, we should note what happens to societies as they change from traditional to modern systems of communication and cohesion
In traditional societies, most information needs are derived from first-hand, direct contacts with “reality” or from listening to other people who have experienced that reality (tribal elders, hunters, or others who serve to bind time). Once that traditional structure breaks down, and life becomes more complex, individuals and institutions assume a wide variety of divisions of laborer serving ditTerent functions to connect them to one another. A breakdown in traditional, face-to-face oral communication culture brings about societies that have ever greater needs for second or third hand information, and ever greater reliance upon external sources to bind time and do the “reality testing.” Modern societies expect their public officials to assemble and enforce their laws and codes of social conduct; they expect their scientists and engineers to establish and maintain mastery over their physical environment; and they expect their teachers and mass media to collect cultural data and to inform, educate, persuade, and entertain them. All these modern social systems, which are extensions of individuals, are interdependent; each serves and is in turn served by all the others
Mass media obviously playa key role in establishing and maintaining the interdependent nature of modern societies. Just
as individuals in a free society attempt to determine the levels of dependency they have upon political, economic, religious, and other systems, so do they attempt to exercise free will in deciding how dependent upon the media they will be. Nevertheless, simply by virtue of being part of a social system, today’s citizens must put a great deal of reliance upon the media. Backtracking through our discussions of meaning theory, agenda setting, political
socialization, play theory, uses and gratifications, and structures and functions, we will see how all this comes together
Media put our environment in perspective by giving its many parts various meanings. They help establish our agendas, by giving us things to think and talk about; they help us become socialized into our communities and political systems, and to participate in change when necessary; and they help us cope with or escape from life’s realities in a wide variety of ways. In short, the greater our needs to belong, to understand, and to cope, the greater our reliance upon the mass media. From this, it follows they the media mu.st have our thoughts, beliefs, values, and even our behaviour
The dependency theory proposed by DeFleur and Ball- Rokeach emerges quite logically from other theorists’ mid·1970s claims that the media are indeed powerful instruments for social change and maintenance. Several substantial research studies on persuasion, values clarification, information processing, and the effects of television violence on children gave tentative support to what one social scientist, Noelle-Neumann, called itA Return to the Concept of Powerful Mass Media
Basically, the claim for powerful media rests on arguments that the theories and models in vogue today have a great deal of logical validity, but cannot be adequately proven in -traditional laboratory settings where only a few variables are manipulated and only immediate or short-range effects are studied. The only way to understand the long-range, accumulative, and indirect influence of media upon public opinion is to conduct cultural studies in the natural environment, according to this emerging school of thought
Noelle-Neumann’s argument is that the most basic and powerful characteristics of mass communication-the media’s cumulation, ubiquity, and consoncnee-do not lend themselves to routine research. By cumulation she means the media’s slow but pervasive influence-what we have been calling the stalagmite factor. By ubiquity she means the omnipresence of media-the simple fact that because media are everywhere, it is impossible to conduct classic experimentation in which we compare what happens to those exposed to media with those who are not exposed. (She also shares DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach’s view that media and other social institutions are so interdependent that we cannot observe the influence of one without considering all of the others.) By consonance she means the unified picture of events and issues held by various media-van extreme case of agenda setting, in which public opinion cannot help but be shaped by media that rely upon the same sources of information and that share common definitions of what is going on, what is important, and what values should be presented.
The “powerful effects” argument, like the “meaning” and dependency theories of DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach cited earlier, is difficult to refute because it does not emerge from the empirical traditions which gave rise to so many of the other theories
discussed in this chapter. For that very reason, Noelle-Neumann, Def’leur and Ball-Rokeach are being taken seriously in mass communication circles, where many scholars have grown tired of the limited findings uncovered by traditional research strategies.
Their instincts tell them that the influence of the media is not trivial, but profound, and they are beginning a research agenda– with new tools-that will help them prove their case