Cultivation Theory

What is the Cultivation Theory?

The Cultivation Theory suggests heavy television exposure will have a significant influence on our perception of the real world. The more we see a version of reality being depicted on the screen, the more we will believe it is an accurate reflection of society.

For example, if we watch lots of crime shows and see reports of public disorder on the news bulletins every night, we will begin to worry that violence is having a dangerous impact in our own neighbourhoods. Or, if you watched films set in American high schools, you would be forgiven for believing that American teenagers all look as if they are in the twenties.

Background

With the increasing accessibility of radio and television, many academics and politicians wanted to explore the impact of the media on the public. For instance, the hypodermic needle theory and the two-step flow model helped to further our understanding of the relationship between the audience and the broadcast media, especially the use of propaganda to spread political ideologies.

In 1973, George Gerbner, a professor of communication, defined three areas of research:

  1. institution process analysis – the power roles between the mass media and other organisations;
  2. message systems analysis – the prevalence and frequency of important symbols used by media texts; and
  3. cultivation analysis – the impact of common images on the audience and how they shape our attitudes and beliefs.

A brilliant example of the second focus for analysis of the media is Gerbner’s own Violence Index, a quantitative look at the representation of violence on primetime television. By simply counting the number of times violence was portrayed in various programmes, Gerbner was able to demonstrate that instances of violence on the television screen occurred more frequently compared to real life.

Mean World Syndrome

The third component of his approach is to evaluate the media’s influence on the audience. Put simply, can television shape our view of the world through the use of common and repetitive messages. Again, Gerbner was able to show heavy viewers, which he defined as someone who watched more than four hours of television per day, were more likely to perceive the real world as violent and dangerous.

Gerbner claimed there was “considerable support for the proposition that heavy exposure to the world of television cultivates exaggerated perceptions of the number of people involved in violence in any given week”.

For example, the following graph is from the “Opinion Research Corporation” which published its results in March, 1979. It provides examples of mainstreaming and resonance in terms of the relationship between the amount of viewing and the per cent of respondents saying that “fear of crime is a very serious personal problem”.

bar chart showing the influence on the media

Notice how heavy viewers were more likely to claim violence was a personal problem in their lives compared to those respondents who were considered to be light viewers of television. Put simply, the more violence we are exposed to on the screen, the more we consider violence to be a threat to our own lives.

Gerbner called this cognitive bias mean world syndrome.

Mainstreaming and Resonance

Since we all watch the same news and follow the same programmes, Gerbner argued that television creates a common ideology and point of view for the audience. Despite any differences in demographics and cultural backgrounds, we will begin to share the same values and attitudes. He labelled this filtering effect mainstreaming.

There is often a similarity between everyday reality and the narratives constructed on television. The characters seem convincing and the plots, although exaggerated for dramatic effect, remain believable. If the stories seem real to the audience, we begin to synthesise them into our view of the world. Gerbner labelled this blurring of fact and fiction resonance.

Socialisation

For decades, television has been a pervasive and persuasive influence on society because of its ability to reach such as wide audience. Most people have more than one screen in the house. Therefore, plays an important role in socialisation. Through our continued exposure to the representation of society’s dominant and standard ideologies in the media, or cumulation, we begin to internalise those values and accept them as truth. For example, gender role stereotypes are well-established, there are obvious constructions of beauty in the media, and junk food is often seen as pleasurable.

Gross and Gerbner called this form of social learning enculturation.

Examples

Although Gerbner’s Cultural Indicators Project focused on the impact of television on the audience, the cultivation theory can be applied to other media, such as newspapers and YouTube. The model can also be useful for exploring the impact of the representation of other common ideologies and values on our views of the world.

Consider the following examples and the dominant ideologies they express. Can the cultivation theory help explain why we simply accept these myths?

It might also be useful to explore these issues in terms of Cohen’s moral panic concept and Albert Bandura’s social learning theory.

Exam Practice and Revision

The best way to develop your understanding of Gerbner’s cultivation theory is to apply the key concepts to a variety of media texts, issues and debates. You can find examples on our audience exam practice page, including a question on gender and enculturation which is worth looking at first.

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