Uses and Gratifications Theory

What does the Uses and Gratifications theory view?

Uses and Gratifications Theory:

One influential tradition in media research is referred to as ‘uses and gratifications’ (occasionally ‘needs and gratifications’). This approach focuses on why people use particular media rather than on content. In contrast to the concern of the ‘media effects’ tradition with ‘what media do to people’ (which assumes a homogeneous mass audience and a ‘hypodermic’ view of media), U & G can be seen as part of a broader trend amongst media researchers which is more concerned with ‘what people do with media’, allowing for a variety of responses and interpretations. However, some commentators have argued that gratifications could also be seen as effects: e.g. thrillers are likely to generate very similar responses amongst most viewers. And who could say that they never watch more TV than they had intended to? Watching TV helps to shape audience needs and expectations.

U & G arose originally in the 1940s and underwent a revival in the 1970s amd 1980s. The approach springs from a functionalist paradigm in the social sciences. It presents the use of media in terms of the gratification of social or psychological needs of the individual (Blumler & Katz 1974). The mass media compete with other sources of gratification, but gratifications can be obtained from a medium’s content (e.g. watching a specific programme), from familiarity with a genre within the medium (e.g. watching soap operas), from general exposure to the medium (e.g. watching TV), and from the social context in which it is used (e.g. watching TV with the family). U & G theorists argue that people’s needs influence how they use and respond to a medium. Zillmann (cited by McQuail 1987: 236) has shown the influence of mood on media choice: boredom encourages the choice of exciting content and stress encourages a choice of relaxing content. The same TV programme may gratify different needs for different individuals. Different needs are associated with individual personalities, stages of maturation, backgrounds and social roles. Developmental factors seem to be related to some motives for purposeful viewing: e.g. Judith van Evra argues that young children may be particularly likely to watch TV in search of information and hence more susceptible to influence (Evra 1990: 177, 179).

An empirical study in the U & G tradition might typically involve audience members completing a questionnaire about why they watch a TV programme. Denis McQuail offers (McQuail 1987: 73) the following typology of common reasons for media use:




    • finding out about relevant events and conditions in immediate surroundings, society and the world
    • seeking advice on practical matters or opinion and decision choices
    • satisfying curiosity and general interest
    • learning; self-education
    • gaining a sense of security through knowledge

Personal Identity

    • finding reinforcement for personal values
    • finding models of behaviour
    • identifying with valued other (in the media)
    • gaining insight into one’s self

Integration and Social Interaction

    • gaining insight into circumstances of others; social empathy
    • identifying with others and gaining a sense of belonging
    • finding a basis for conversation and social interaction
    • having a substitute for real-life companionship
    • helping to carry out social roles
    • enabling one to connect with family, friends and society


    • escaping, or being diverted, from problems
    • relaxing
    • getting intrinsic cultural or aesthetic enjoyment
    • filling time
    • emotional release
    • sexual arousal

Blumler & Katz (1974) argued that audience needs have social and psychological origins which generate certain expectations about the mass media, leading to differential patterns of media exposure which result in both the gratification of needs and in other (often unintended) consequences. This does assume an active audience making motivated choices. However, McQuail suggests that the dominant stance of recent researchers in this tradition is now that:

Personal social circumstances and psychological dispositions together influence both… general habits of media use and also… beliefs and expectations about the benefits offered by the media, which shape… specific acts of media choice and consumption, followed by…. assessments of the value of the experience (with consequences for further media use) and, possibly… applications of benefits acquired in other areas of experience and social activity. (ibid: 235).

James Lull (1990: 35-46) offers a typology of the social uses of television based on ethnographic research.

Social Uses of Television


    • Environmental: background noise; companionship; entertainment
    • Regulative: punctuation of time and activity; talk patterns


    • Communication Facilitation: Experience illustration; common ground; conversational entrance; anxiety reduction; agenda for talk; value clarification
    • Affiliation/Avoidance: Physical, verbal contact/neglect; family solidarity; family relaxant; conflict reduction; relationhip maintenance
    • Social Learning: Decision-making; behaviour modelling; problem-solving; value transmission; legitimization; information dissemination; substitute schooling
    • Competence/Dominance: Role enactment; role reinforcement; substitute role portrayal; intellectual validation; authority exercise; gatekeeping; argument facilitation

(Lull 1990: 36)

Watching TV Soap Operas

A major focus for research into why and how people watch TV has been the genre of soap opera. Adopting a U & G perspective, Richard Kilborn (1992: 75-84) offers the following common reasons for watching soaps:

    • regular part of domestic routine and entertaining reward for work
    • launchpad for social and personal interaction
    • fulfilling individual needs: a way of choosing to be alone or of enduring enforced loneliness
    • identification and involvement with characters (perhaps cathartic)
    • escapist fantasy (American supersoaps more fantastical)
    • focus of debate on topical issues
    • a kind of critical game involving knowledge of the rules and conventions of the genre

Watching TV Quiz Programmes

McQuail, Blumler and Brown (1972) offered the following summary of clusters of ‘uses’ that people made of TV quizzes:

Gratifications of TV Quiz Shows: Selected Responses

Self-Rating Appeal

    • I can compare myself with the experts
    • I like to imagine that I am on the programme and doing well
    • I feel pleased that the side I favour has actually won
    • I am reminded of when I was in school
    • I laugh at the contestants’ mistakes

Basis for Social Interaction

    • I look forward to talking about it with others
    • I like competing with other people watching with me
    • I like working together with the family on the answers
    • The children get a lot out of it
    • It brings the family together sharing the same interest
    • It is a topic of conversation afterwards

Excitement Appeal

    • I like the excitement of a close finish
    • I like to forget my worries for a while
    • I like trying to guess the winner
    • Having got the answer right I feel really good
    • I get involved in the competition

Educational Appeal

    • I find I know more than I thought
    • I find I have improved myself
    • I feel respect for the people on the programme
    • I think over some of the questions afterwards
    • It’s educational

(McQuail, Blumler & Brown 1972)

Social class seemed to be related to gratifications here. McQuail et al. noted that most of those who watched quiz programmes for ‘self-rating’ gratifications lived in council houses and were working-class. ‘Excitement’ was most commonly reported as a gratification by working-class viewers who were not very sociable. And those who reported ‘educational appeal’ as the major gratification were those who had left school at the minimum age. John Fiske suggests that these could be seen as compensatory uses of the media ‘to gratify needs that the rest of social life frustrates’ (Fiske 1982: 136). In contrast, people who reported having many acquaintances in their neighbourhood tended to see the quizzes as a basis for social interaction.

Criticisms of ‘Uses and Gratifications’

The use of retrospective ‘self-reports’ has several limitations. Viewers may not know why they chose to watch what they did, or may not be able to explain fully. The reasons which can be articulated may be the least important. People may simply offers reasons which they have heard others mention. More promising might be the study of people’s engagement with media as it happens.

Some degree of selectivity of media and content is clearly exercised by audiences (e.g. choice or avoidance of TV soap operas. However, instrumental (goal-directed) accounts assume a rational choice of appropriate media for predetermined purposes. Such accounts over-emphasize informational purposes and ignore a great deal in people’s engagement with media: TV viewing can be an end in itself. There is evidence that media use is often habitual, ritualistic and unselective (Barwise & Ehrenberg 1988). But more positively, TV viewing can sometimes be seen as aesthetic experience in which intrinsic motivation is involved.

The U & G approach has been criticized as ‘vulgar gratificationism’. It is individualistic and psychologistic, tending to ignore the socio-cultural context. As a theoretical stance it foregrounds individual psychological and personality factors and backgrounds sociological interpretations. For instance, David Morley (1992) acknowledges that individual differences in interpretation do exist, but he stresses the importance of subcultural socio-economic differences in shaping the ways in which people interpret their experiences with TV (via shared ‘cultural codes’). U & G theorists tend to exaggerate active and conscious choice, whereas media can be forced on some people rather than freely chosen. The stance can also lead to the exaggeration of openness of interpretation, implying that audiences may obtain almost any kind of gratification regardless of content or of ‘preferred readings’. Its functionalist emphasis is politically conservative: if we insist that people will always find some gratifications from any use of media, we may adopt a complacently uncritical stance towards what the mass media currently offer.

U & G research has been concerned with why people use media. Whilst this approach sprang from ‘mainstream’ research in social science, an interpretive tradition has arisen primarily from the more arts-oriented ‘cultural (and ‘critical’) studies’. The approach sometimes referred to as reception theory (or reception analysis) focuses on what people see in the media, on the meanings which people produce when they interpret media ‘texts’ (e.g. Hobson 1982, Ang 1985, Seiter, Borchers, Kreutzner & Warth 1989). This perspective tends to be associated with the use of interviews rather than questionnaires. Such interviews are often with small groups (e.g. with friends who watch the same TV programmes). The emphasis is on specific content (e.g. a particular soap opera) and on specific social contexts (e.g. a particular group of working-class women viewers).

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