Uses & Gratifications/ Dependency Theory
E. Rossi Spring 2002
Over the past few decades, technology has truly revolutionized our lives. Perhaps one of the biggest transformations has occurred within mass communication. Prior to the industrial revolution, society had a virtually nonexistent form of mass media. However, as life began to transform, mass communication began to grow in all aspects. With each decade within the twentieth century, edge-breaking theories were presented in relation to the communication field. Two theories that brought forth a relatively astonishing perspective to this field were the Uses and Gratifications Approach and the Dependency Theory. These theories truly revolutionized the way one characterizes mass communication.
Elihu Katz first introduced the Uses and Gratification Approach, when he came up with the notion that people use the media to their benefit. The perspective emerged in the early 1970’s as Katz and his two colleagues, Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch continued to expand the idea. This theory was contemporary because it contradicted older views that assumed the audience was a passive group. The Uses and Gratifications Approach views the audience as active, meaning that they actively seek out specific media and content to achieve certain results or gratifications that satisfy their personal needs.
The sources of the media chosen are distinctive. As Jay Blumler points out in his book The Use of Mass Communication, “Studies have shown that audience gratifications can be derived from at least three distinct sources: media content, exposure to the media per se, and social context that typifies the situation of exposure to different media.”(Blumler 24) It is clear that audiences spend time using the media in various ways. Whether they are killing time or using it as a social tool, each medium is unique in its purpose.
The uses and Gratifications Approach has five basic assumptions. As Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch explain in the book Mass Communication Research, the first assumption is that “the audience is conceived as active.”(Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch 15) This idea focuses around the assumption that the viewers are goal oriented and attempt to achieve their goals through the media source. This directly reflects and responds to the needs of the audience member in obtaining the media source.
According to the book, the second basic assumption is that “in the mass communication process much initiative in linking need gratification and media choice lies with the audience member.”(Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch 16) This is encompassing the idea that people use the media to their advantage more often than the media uses them. The receiver determines what is going to be absorbed and does not allow the media to influence them otherwise. The individual opinion is more powerful than what the media is portraying.
The third basic assumption that Mass Communication Research directs us to is that “the media competes with other sources of need satisfaction.”(Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch 16) This focuses on the idea that each individual has several needs. In response to this, they have created a wide range of choices that will meet these needs. The strongest rival to media based sources include face-to-face communication. This can often help an individual cope with circumstances surrounding them most effectively. Because of this, mass communication must compete strongly with non-media related sources and help create a need for itself as well as a proper balance between the two.
The forth basic assumption that the book points out is that “many of the goals media use can be derived from data supplied by the individual audience members themselves.”(Katz, Blumler, &Gurevitch 17) This idea claims that people are very aware of their motives and choices and are able to explain them verbally if necessary. There have been several studies in all parts of the world that have sampled viewers and come to conclusions about the type of media used as well as the content explored. Furthermore, it was found that audience members use these media forms to shape their own identities.
The final basic assumption taken from the book Mass Communication Research is that “value judgments about cultural significance of mass communication should be suspended while audience operations are explored on their own terms”(Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch 17). The theorists believe that the audience can only determine the value of the media content. It is the individual audience members who make the decision to view the media; therefore, they place the value on it by their individual decision to view it.
These basic assumptions provide a framework for understanding the exact correlation between the media and the viewers. In addition, it provides a distinction as to how the audience is more or less active and the consequences of their involvement in the media as a whole.
When one explores the Uses and Gratifications Approach, another theory that has emerged becomes quite prevalent, The Dependency Theory. Melvin DeFleur and Sandra Ball-Rokeach first described The Dependency Theory in 1976. It was, in a sense, an extension or addition to the Uses and Gratifications Approach brought about a few years earlier. The theory is in essence an explanation of the correlating relationship between the media content, the nature of society, and the behavior of the audiences. It states that people in an urban society have become dependent on mass communication to assist them in receiving the information that they need, in order to make a variety of decisions concerning their everyday lives. As Stephen Littlejohn explains in his book Theories of Human Communication, “First you will become more dependent on media that meet a number of your needs than on media that provide just a few.”(Littlejohn, 325) Since each persons needs are different, what they depend on is clearly going to fluctuate. Therefore, if a person finds a medium that provides them with several functions that are central to their desires, they will be more inclined to continue to use that particular medium in the future.
In his book, Littlejohn goes on to explain, “The second source of dependency is social stability.”(Littlejohn, 325) In times of conflict, such as in war periods, society as a whole tends to become more dependent on the media for a sense of stability. Furthermore, one may see an increase in media usage when something important is coming up, such as a presidential election. These special circumstances make viewers more dependent on the media to find out what is happening in society.
The dependency theory brings forth many unique propositions and functions. As Sandra Rokeach and Melvin DeFleur explain in the book Communication Research 3, “The basic propositions of The Dependency Theory can be brought together and summarized as follows: The potential for mass media messages to achieve a broad range of cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects will be increased when media systems serve many unique, and central information functions.” This again reiterates the idea that the more the medium has to offer, the more useful it will become.
The cognitive changes that the Dependency Theory bring forth are multi-fold. The media brings forth attitude formation and an impact on agenda setting. Since the theory complies with the idea that people rely on it for information determining their decisions, it clearly can help individuals develop certain attitudes regarding given subjects. In addition, it encourages them to converse about certain things. The affective nature of the media is quite distinctive. It can create many different feelings such as fear, anxiety, and happiness. The media also can promote behavior changes. This can result in an audience member doing something that they would not ordinarily do. The mass media possess these three abilities and because of that, society has become dependent on the media for virtually all it’s outside resources in order to make decisions.
When analyzing any theory, one must looks towards some form of criteria to judge it by. The criteria that seems to be appropriate for the Uses and Gratifications Approach and The Dependency Theory seems to be logic, consistency, testability, and simplicity.
First, when analyzing the logical approach to both theories, they seem to pass. One can see with these theories that it is logical that individuals would choose what they want to view and can clearly gain from that. This is why we see an increase in viewers when important circumstances are happening within our country.
Second, when focusing on the consistency aspect to the theories, this area is one that is somewhat differential. Although the theories are not highly contested, they do not correspond completely with previous research. One may find it hard to believe that the media has no influence over the viewer at all. There are several circumstances within the field of advertising that suggest that people are influenced by the media. This suggests that people can be persuaded.
The testability aspect seems somewhat unreliable. The way that the theories were primarily tested were through sampling the audience viewers. The results could possibly be biased because individuals may not realize the power that the media has over them. In essence, the sampling was one sided.
Finally, when one looks at the simplicity of the theories, they seem to pass. Both of the theories are extremely easy to understand and comprehend. In addition, they link together, which helps the perception of them become more explicit.
With every theory, some criticism must be expected. Both the Uses and Gratifications Approach and The Dependency Theory are no exception to this act. One main criticism is based on the idea that the audience is completely active. It seems as though the theorists feel that there is not room for any middle ground. In many cases people turn to viewing the media as a result of habit. This factor is not mention in their theory.
Other critics argue that the broader public does not effect individual decisions regarding the media. According to Ronald Rice, in his book The New Media, states, “Larger social purposes and effects have to do with why an individual, for the most part, reads a newspaper”(Rice 108). This is simply stating that the reason why most people view media or read newspapers is to gain societal information.
Mass Communication has come a very long way over the last thirty years. Many different perspectives have been brought forth and analyzed in terms of effectiveness. The Uses and Gratifications Approach and The Dependency Theory were two theories that brought forth a new genre of ideas and aspects of cognition to mass communication. The mass media is an extremely complex system that responds to the foundation of these theories in media’s everyday production.
Katz, Elihu, Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch. The Use of Mass Communication. Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1974.
Katz, Elihu, Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch. “Uses of Mass Communication by the Individual.” Mass Communication Research: Major Issues and Future Directions. Eds. W.P. Davidson and Fredrick Yu. New York: Praeger, 1974. 11-35.
Littlejohn, Stephen. Theories of Human Communication: Seventh Edition. Albuquerque, New Mexico: Wadsworth, 2002. 323-326.
Rice, Ronald. The New Media. Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1984. 107-108.
Rokeach, Sandra and Melvin DeFleur. “A Dependency Model of Mass Media Effects.” Communication Research 3. New York, 1976. 3-21.