Media theory has undergone important transformations over the past two centuries. We have identified four distinct eras in the development of mass communication theories, beginning with the origin of media theory in the nineteenth century and ending with the emergence of an array of contemporary perspectives. As we explore each of these eras, we will describe the various types of mass communication theories that were constructed, consider their objectives, and illustrate both their strengths and their limitations. We will point out the purposes these theories served and the reasons why they were replaced or ignored by later scholars. In some cases, theories were rejected when they couldn’t be validated by scientific research or supported by logical arguments. Empirical evidence contradicted their key notions, or they proved difficult to explain or defend. Occasionally, proponents gave up trying to find evidence to support them or they became irrelevant as media or society changed.
We will tell the story of mass communication theory development. It will help you better understand how past theories evolved and why current theories are considered important. Although many of the older theories have been rejected as unscientific or otherwise useless and no longer guide our thinking, they remain important as milestones (Lowery and DeFleur, 1995), and some continue to enjoy contemporary acceptance by segments of the public and some media practitioners. Most important, though, is that knowledge of earlier perspectives enables you to appreciate present-day theories.
In each era, the emergence of important conflicting perspectives can best be seen as the accomplishment of a research community working within the constraints imposed by its own values, preexisting ideas, and research standards. Each research community was also constrained by competing theories, limited financial resources, externally imposed political restrictions, and values held in the larger society. Although isolated theorists can produce innovative conceptualizations, research communities recognize, develop, and then popularize these notions. We will consider how such communities have grown and functioned as we describe the theories they fostered or rejected.