Mass Communication Theories

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Mass Communication Theories

What are Mass Communication Theories? Meaning.

Mass Communication Theories are a set of theories about communication processes generated from a sender and delivered simultaneously to a mass of receivers through transmitting devices (media).


Mass Communication Theories have taken a large portion of media studies since the birth of mass media. Denis McQuail attempted to classify mass communication and media effects theories, distinguishing 4 main phases.


4 Phases of Mass Communication. History

  1. The first phase starts with origin of mass media, and continue during all 1930s. This period is characterized by passive audiences and powerful media, with strong and direct effects on individuals. Mass communication is mainly aimed at people’s behaviors manipulation. Main theories of this phase are: Propaganda and Hypodermic Needle Theory.
  2. The second phase, which goes from the 1940s to the 1960s, in a more optimistic perspective starts considering the limitations of mass communication. Media are not so powerful, because audiences are resistant to their messages. Resistance is based upon psychological individual traits and a crucial role is played by social context and Opinion Leaders. In this period proliferate many mass communication theories such: Persuasion Theory, Two Steps Flow Model, Laswell’s 5 Ws Model, and the Limited Effects Theory.
  3. During the third phase, going from 1970 to 1980, there is a general step backward to the first phase with some relevant differences. Media are again considered very powerful, but their effects are no longer immediate and impacting the short run of an individual; mass communication is seen as a long run influencer able to shape an individual competences, knowledge, values and beliefs. Most important theories of this phase are: Play Theory, Uses and Gratifications Theory, Spiral of Silence, and Agenda Setting Theory.
  4. The fourth phase started in the 1980s, and is characterized by active audiences who are able to mitigate media effects on individuals’ behaviors. McQuail defined this last, and current phase, with the term “Negotiated Influence”. Media take the role of a social constructivist tool, meaning that their aim is to raise up consciousness in individuals as media programs are negotiated by individuals themselves with their expressed preferences. People have the power to choose what information and how they want it to be delivered. There is a tendency to reconsider Lazarsfeld’s perspective, as suggested in 1992 by Wolf, as far as it concerns the weight of personal relationships on individuals’ values, beliefs and behaviors. Social influence is not dictated by media, but goes through media and especially new media but is driven by social contexts. A strong example of this new concept are online social networks. Most relevant theories of this period are: Cultivation Theory and Dependence Theory.

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