THE EMERGENCE OF THE LIMITED-EFFECTS PERSPECTIVE

A SCIENTIFIC PERSPECTIVE ON MASS COMMUNICATION LEADS TO THE EMERGENCE OF THE LIMITED-EFFECTS PERSPECTIVE

Mass society notions were especially dominant among social theorists beginning in the mid-1800s and lasting until the 1950s. Since then these ideas have enjoyed intermittent popularity whenever new technology has posed a threat to the status quo. In 2005, for example, conservative religious leaders attacked cable television’s cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants for promoting “the homosexual agenda” (Olbermann, 2005), and in 2007 film critic Michael Medved accused Happy Feet, the digital animation film about penguins, of containing “a bizarre anti-religious bias,” an “endorsement of gay identity,” and a “propagandist theme” of condemnation of the human race, support for environmentalism, and exaltation of the United Nations (quoted in Hightower, 2007, p. 3).

During the 1930s, world events seemed to continually confirm the truth of mass society ideas. In Europe, reactionary and revolutionary political movements used media in their struggles for political power. German Nazis improved on World War I propaganda techniques and ruthlessly exploited new media technology like motion pictures and radio to consolidate their power. Viewed from America, the Nazis seemed to have found powerful new ways to manipulate public attitudes and beliefs. All across Europe, totalitarian leaders like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini rose to political power and were able to exercise seemingly total control over vast populations. The best explanation for these sudden changes seemed to be propaganda delivered by newspapers, radio, and movies. Most European nations replaced private ownership of media, especially broadcast media, with direct government control. The explicit purpose of these efforts was to maximize the usefulness of media in the service of society. But the outcome in most cases was to place enormous power in the hands of ruthless leaders who were convinced that they personally embodied what was best for all their citizens.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, mass society notions began to be empirically investigated by Paul Lazarsfeld, who would eventually overturn some of its basic assumptions. Trained in psychological measurement, Lazarsfeld fled the Nazis and came to the United States on a Ford Foundation fellowship (Lazarsfeld, 1969). For the emerging field of mass communication research, he proved to be a seminal thinker and researcher. Like many of his academic colleagues, Lazarsfeld was interested in exploring the potential of newly developed social science methods, such as surveys and field experiments, to understand and solve social problems. He combined academic training with a high level of entrepreneurial skill. Within a few years after arriving in the United States, he had established a very active and successful social research center, the Bureau for Applied Social Research at Columbia University. Lazarsfeld provides a classic example of a transitional figure in theory development—someone well grounded in past theory but also innovative enough to consider other concepts and methods for evaluating new ideas. Though quite familiar with and very sympathetic to mass society notions (Lazarsfeld, 1941), Lazarsfeld was committed to the use of empirical social research methods in order to establish the validity of theory. He argued that it wasn’t enough to merely speculate about the influence of media on society. Instead, he advocated the conduct of carefully designed, elaborate surveys and even field experiments in which he would be able to observe media influence and measure its magnitude. It was not enough to assume that political propaganda is powerful—hard evidence was needed to prove the existence of such effects (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet, 1944).

Lazarsfeld’s most famous research efforts, the “American Voter Studies,” actually began as an attempt to document the media’s power during election campaigns, yet they eventually raised more questions about the influence of media than they answered. As we shall see, this is a common outcome of empirical social research when it is used to assess the role of media.

By the mid-1950s, Lazarsfeld’s work and that of other empirical media researchers had generated an enormous amount of data (by precomputer standards). Interpretation of these data led Lazarsfeld and his colleagues to conclude that media were not nearly as powerful as had been feared or hoped. Instead, these researchers found that people had numerous ways of resisting media influence, and their attitudes were shaped by many competing factors, such as family, friends, and religious community. Rather than serving as a disruptive social force, media more often seemed to reinforce existing social trends and strengthen rather than threaten the status quo. They found little evidence to support the worst fears of mass society theorists. Though Lazarsfeld and others never labeled this theory, it is now referred to as limited-effects theory.

Today, as you’ll see in Chapters 6 and 7, the limited-effects theory encompasses numerous smaller media theories. This set of theories views media as playing a limited, somewhat minimal role in the lives of individuals and the larger society. They are still widely used in guiding research, even though their shortcomings are recognized. They are especially useful in explaining the short-term influence of routine media usage by various types of audiences. Several of these theories are referred to as administrative theories because they are used to guide practical decisions for various organizations. For example, these theories can guide research by television advertisers as they develop and evaluate campaign strategies to boost sales. And as you might imagine, the research generated by administrative theories is called administrative research. You can get a better idea of exactly what administrative as used here means in the box entitled “Administrative versus Critical Research: The Example of Prescription Drug Advertising.”

Throughout the 1950s, limited-effects notions about media continued to gain acceptance within academia. These notions dominated the new field of mass communication research as it was developing in the 1950s and 1960s. Several important clashes occurred between their adherents and those who supported mass society ideas (Bauer and Bauer, 1960). This is hardly surprising, since the rise of Communism across Eastern Europe seemed to provide ample evidence that media could be used as powerful tools to meld more and more masses of individuals into an ever more powerful totalitarian state. How could the United States expect to win the Cold War unless it could somehow find a way to use mass media to confront and overcome the Soviets?

In 1960, several classic studies of media effects (Campbell et al., 1960; Deutschmann and Danielson 1960; Klapper, 1960) provided apparently definitive support for the limited-effects notions. By 1961, V. O. Key had published Public Opinion and American Democracy, a theoretical and methodological tour de force integrating limited-effects notions with social and political theory to create a perspective that is now known as elite pluralism. This theory views democratic society as made up of interlocking pluralistic groups led by opinion leaders who rely on media for information about politics and the social world. These leaders are well informed by media even though their followers are mostly apathetic and ignorant. In the 1950s and 1960s, advocates of mass society notions came under increasing attack from limited-effects theorists as “unscientific” or “irrational” because they questioned “hard scientific findings.” Mass society notions were further discredited within academia because they became associated with the anti-Communist Red Scare promoted by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. McCarthy and his allies focused considerable attention on purging alleged Communists from the media. These purges were justified using mass society arguments—average people needed to be protected from media manipulation. Limited-effects theorists argued that average people were well protected from media influence by opinion leaders who could be trusted to filter out Communist propaganda before it reached these ordinary Americans.

By the mid-1960s, the debate between mass society and limited-effects advocates appeared to be over—at least within the mass communication research community. The body of empirical research findings continued to grow, and almost all were consistent with the latter view. Little or no empirical research supported mass society thinking. This was not surprising, because most empirical researchers trained at this time were warned against its fallacies. For example, in the 1960s, a time of growing concern about violence in the United States and the dissolution of respect for authority, researchers and theorists from psychology, rather than mass communication, were most active and prominent in examining television’s contribution to these societal ills (we will examine their efforts in Chapter 8). Many communication scientists stopped looking for powerful media effects and concentrated instead on documenting minimal, limited effects. Some of the original media researchers had become convinced that media research would never produce any important new findings and returned to work in political science or sociology.

In a controversial essay, Bernard Berelson (1959), who worked closely with Paul Lazarsfeld, declared the field of communication research to be dead. There simply was nothing left to study when it came to the mass media. Berelson argued that it was time to move on to more important work. Ironically, he wrote his essay just before the field of media research underwent explosive growth. Throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s, students flooded into university journalism schools and communication departments. As these grew, so did their faculty. As the number of faculty members increased, so did the volume of research. But was there anything left to study? Were there any important research questions that weren’t already answered? Were there any important findings left to uncover? In fact, many American social science researchers believed there were. Challenge came to limited-effects theory from several fronts, primarily from psychologists and sociologists interested in media’s large-scale societal influence.

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