Cultivation Theory

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Cultivation Theory (Source: Hawkins and Pingree, 1983)

What is the Cultivation Theory? Meaning.

The Cultivation Theory is a mass communication theory that suggests a shaping - cultivating -  cumulative long-term effect of TV media on the social reality of viewers.

Origin of Cultivation Theory. History

The Cultivation Theory has been developed by professor George Gerbner from Annenberg School of Communications of Philadelphia, US, in 1967-1974. He was conducting research called “Cultural Indicators Program” about the impact of violence broadcasted in TV programs on individuals.

His early hypothesis aimed to demonstrate that a massive use of media leads to an increase in acceptance of violence and in the engagement of cruel behaviors. Gerbner started considering TV as a new social agent competing with traditional ones such as family, school, church and peer groups. Analyzing TV programs, especially fictions, he divided audiences in 3 groups:

  1. Low Users, those who watch TV less than 2 hours a day.
  2. Normal Users, those who watch TV from 2 to 6 hours a day.
  3. Heavy Users, those who watch TV for more than 6 hours a day.

Through an accurate analysis of the three groups, Gerbner formulated his Cultivation Theory.

The theory holds that even a massive use of the medium television has no immediate effects on individuals’ mindset but in the long run a cultivation effect is able to alter the perception of reality and drive individuals to live in a skewed model, derived from what is broadcasted on TV. See also: Limited Effects Theory, Lasswell’s 5 Ws Model, Uses and Gratification Theory, and Play Theory. Unlike the Persuasion Theory, Gerbner argues that media effects are visible only in the long run and are also unintentional. A peculiarity of his theory was the focus on media effects on people that don’t have a strong awareness of society and its dynamics (young people). Kids and teenagers have a less critical sense and few experiences in the real world. Gerbner claims that those people, especially heavy users among them, are literally “cultivated” by TV, hence the name Cultivation Theory. In fact kids, who lack models from the real world, are heavily conditioned from events and models represented on TV. They tend to grow with a simplified, stereotyped and skewed view of reality that in the long run overlaps the objective reality of daily life.

Gerbner’s Cultural Indicators Program focused on both content and audience:

  • Content: it was demonstrated that in TV programs there is an over representation of certain events (more violence and thus more cops) and certain categories of people (more people from the middle class, typically white rich men).
  • Audience: Gerbner’s earlier hypothesis of “cultivation” was confirmed and also the validity of the mainstreaming effect: media are capable of influencing their audiences by making interests of a dominant elite (white rich men) prevail. Compare with: Validity Effect. From a sociological viewpoint it means that media serve to reinforce people’s status quo while slowing down social changes. This means that an intense exposure to media leads to a standardization and homogenization of people’s culture.

Of course, the Cultivation Theory has not been free from critics:

  • The main critic concerns Gerbner’s poor consideration of psychological and sociological variables in audiences.
  • In addition, there is no proof that media effects, and in particularly TV, can be compared to effects of public opinion. Compare with: Spiral of Silence.
  • Thirdly, there is no statistic correlation between a high exposure to TV and an increase in violent behaviors; thus there is no evidence that violence is triggered by TV programs, because an increase in violence in the world can be the result of many other variables far more complex than TV.
  • Lastly, in other contexts different from the US there have been other results regarding media effects, so part of Gerbner’s findings can only find application in US or other Anglophonic countries.

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