Sociological Perspectives on the Role of the Media

Limited-effects theory

The limited-effects theory argues that because people “generally choose what to watch or read based on what they already believe, media exerts a negligible influence”. This theory originated in the 1940s and 1950s and was tested when studies that examined the ability of media to influence voting found that well-informed people relied more on personal experience, prior knowledge, and their own reasoning. This goes to show that perhaps media “experts” most likely swated the votes of those who were less informed. A critic of this theory would point to two problems with this perspective. One opposed to this sociological theory might argue that this theory is not applicable to today’s society, as it came into existence when the dominance and availability of the media was far less widespread than the way it is today.

Class-dominant theory

The class-dominant theory argues that the media “reflects and projects the view of a minority elite, which controls it”. This correlates with the idea that the elite compose the 1% of the population, as opposed to reflecting a majority. Advocates of this theory believe that massive media organizations limit competition by putting big businesses at the “reins” of the media.When ownership media organizations is restricted, they have the ability to manipulate what people can see or hear through the media. For example, owners can easily avoid or silence stories that expose unethical behavior within corporations, and can manipulate what is and is not showcased, in order to influence viewers to succumb to certain attitudes or viewpoints, especially when sponsorship, in terms of advertising, plays a huge role in this problem.

Culturalist theory

The culturalist theory, developed in the 1980’s and 1990’s, combines the other two sociological theories and claims that people interact with media to “create their own meanings out of the images and messages they receive”. People view and assess the material in which they view, based on their own knowledge and experience. Thus, when researchers ask different groups to explain the meaning of a particular song or video, the groups produce widely differing interpretations based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, and religious background. Therefore, culturalist theorists claim that, while a few elite in large corporations may “exert significant control over what information media produces and distributes”, personal perspective, experience, and attitudes plays a more powerful role in how audiences interpret the messages showcased in the media.

What role does mass media play in society?

Mass media as “communication—whether written, broadcast, or spoken—that reaches a large audience. This includes television, radio, advertising, movies, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, and so forth.”

Mass media is a significant force in modern culture. Sociologists refer to this as a mediated culture where media “reflects and creates the culture”. People are constantly bombarded with messages from a plethora of sources including Television, billboards, movies, and magazines, to name just a few.

These forms of media is that they are able to promote not only products, but moods, attitudes, and a sense of what is and is not important, or socially acceptable. This creates an issue when the messages being showcased are negative ones. This relates back to my first research question, as some of the negative messages showcased by the media in regards to body image are what influence, alter, and distort society’s perception of beauty. 

One of the role that Mass media plays in society is that it makes possible the concept of celebrity: people could not become famous without the way that movies, magazines, and news media are able to reach across the globe on such a grand scale. Cliffnotes states that, In fact, “only political and business leaders, as well as the few notorious outlaws, were famous in the past. Only in recent times have actors, singers, and other social elites become celebrities or ‘stars'”.

The current level of media prevalence has not always existed. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, television, for example, consisted of primarily three networks, public broadcasting, and a few local independent stations. The programming of these channels were primarily aimed at two-parent, middle-class families. Despite this, many middle-class households did not even own a television. In contrast, one can find a television in even the poorest of homes, and multiple TVs in the homes of most middle-class families.

The availability of televisions has increased significantly, but programming has also diversified, creating shows to aim people of all ages, incomes, backgrounds, interestes, and attitudes. The internet has also increased the role of mass media in more recent days, as nearly all business and companies now make themselves available online.

“Although TV and the Internet have dominated the mass media”, the article states, “movies and magazines—particularly those lining the aisles at grocery checkout stands—also play a powerful role in culture, as do other forms of media”.

So what role does mass media play in today’s society? Most will agree that mass media is a permanent part of modern culture, and there are three main sociological perspectives on the role of media exist: the limited-effects theory, the class-dominant theory, and the culturalist theory.