The "Individual" in Communication Research: Part I

This is the first part of a series I'm writing, tracing the history of how the idea of the "individual" has been understood in the history of media research. The primary reason why I'm doing it is personal: that tracing the history of a scientific discipline, is to me is an important, if often overlooked aspect of studying that discipline, because it helps consolidate the various ways in which researchers and theorists have thought about something in the past. It is also something I would like students of introductory media research (specially those who come from different backgrounds) to get a very good idea of. if you do chance upon this series online, and find it relevant for your needs, I hope it'll help you to understand the field better as well.


In the fourth century BC, the “newest” technology of communication was not very new. It was that of the written word, and it had been “invented” nearly three millennia ago. And much like how scholars today debate the manner in which communication technologies affect us and shape our lives, Socrates was engaging in a similar debate with the Athenian aristocrat, Phaedrus. Plato, who was then a pupil of Socrates, recorded this debate around the year 370 BC. A line from his transcript, of particular importance to this essay, is very revealing: “for this discovery of yours [says Socrates] will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves” (Plato, 370 B.C.). In what is perhaps the most scathing critique of the technology of writing ever recorded, Scorates quite unknowingly set a precedent and a legacy that communication research today has continued to value: the enduring problem of the “individual”.

As an area of scientific inquiry, we can argue that communication is a very old field, dating back to at least the era of Socrates. As a modern scholarly discipline however, with a set of academic associations, university departments, and journals, communication is much younger, going back to only the middle of the 20th century. Since then, the field has grown in a dramatic manner, and expanded to include various diverse areas of research. Amidst the staggering variety of scholarship that the field has produced, the prominence of communication technologies (“media”), and their relation to us, both as individuals and as members of a collective, has been unwavering. As a result, the scientific understanding of the relationship dynamics between technologies and individual members of the public has grown to become one of the persisting issues in communication research. In this essay I attempt to develop a narrative that explores the evolution of this line of thought, since the early days of the discipline till this day.

The “Individual” in Pre-Communication Research

Walter Lippman
To understand the evolution of the “problem of the individual” in a holistic manner, we need to jump back a few decades before the “birth” of the field of communication. Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922) is frequently considered to be one of the earliest definitive scholarly works that theorized about the relationship between media and the public. In this classic work, Lippmann describes a functional democratic government, and talks about how individuals living in a society rely on the media to know what is happening around them. He warns us not to conflate “news” with “truth” and explains how the media only provide us with images of the world around us, as opposed to something that is “real”. It is in response to these images in our heads that we, as individuals react and behave in the real world. For Lippmann therefore, people are cut off from reality by the existence of a pseudo-environment created by the media, and this pseudo-environment is not very different from fiction. People “live in the same world but they think and feel in different ones” (Kindle Location 317). He also writes about how one of the functions of media is to make “the effort to alter the picture to which men [sic] respond, to substitute one social pattern for another” (Kindle Location 366). He dubbed this ‘propaganda’.

The “Individual” in Propaganda Research

It is therefore not surprising that propaganda research was one of the early names bestowed upon what we know today as the field of communication. Unlike how we think of the word now, “propaganda” did not have a negative undertone in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, work by scholars of the time even thought of propaganda as a positive force. Edward Bernays for instance, wrote in 1928 how propaganda is a means of ensuring the organized functioning of a society that would otherwise descend into chaos and mayhem (1928, Chapter 1). For Bernays, propaganda as “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions” of the people was an important element in democratic society” Not only was this manipulation “crucial” it was also “the logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized”. This was perhaps because in the then recently concluded World War, the mobilization of the armed forces and the spreading of “the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe” had been a result of media propaganda (Creel, 1920) and the general effects that media had had on individuals were seen in favorably.
Fast forward three decades however, and the word “propaganda” had taken on a distinctively negative color. With the world still reeling from the horrors of the Second World War, Hanna Arendt writing in 1951, talked about how propaganda was the primary tool used by totalitarian regimes to erode all truth and morality. She wrote about how “in an ever-changing, incomprehensible world” people would, “at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true... The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism” (Arendt, 1951).
Hanna Arendt

It was in such a tempestuous world, torn asunder by two World Wars, that the field of communication was born. It is therefore not surprising, considering the terrible effects of propaganda that the world had just witnessed, that the general attitude towards media and how they affected individuals had become darker. The earliest theories of media and individual behavior generally tend to reflect this. One of the more popular theories of the time is known as the “hypodermic needle theory” or “the magic bullet” theory. Relatively simple compared to later theories, the “magic bullet theory” hypothesized a model of communication wherein every individual in an audience was equally and directly affected by the entire quantum of information contained in the communication. Rooted in behaviorism studies of the 1930s, and concurring with the development of Claude Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication (1949), the theory lent itself very easily to the frayed imagination of communication scholars of the post-war period.

Even though the magic bullet theory was simple and intuitive, it helped make inroads into the early days of media effects research. More generally, it set a precedent for a wave of “persuasion theories” that came to represent the dominant line of thinking in the field at that time. The premise on which it was based was straightforward: the effect that the media had on individuals was undeniable. What scholars mulled over were how they could further understand these effects. Harold Lasswell’s theory linear model of communication (1948) sums up the general idea: “Who says What to Whom in Which Channel with What Effect?”

It is important to make the distinction between the “individual” and the collective at this point. Even though scholars acknowledged that individuals were part of a larger “crowd”, a “mass”, or a “public” (Blumer, 1966; Le Bon, 1896), the effect that the messages had on them, happened at an individual level. One of the effects, in fact was that they transformed individuals into emotional collectives. To borrow an illustration from Robert Park, news as a medium helps in the communication of emotion and the creation of “social tension” (1925). Individual cognitions are swayed by the rise of social tension, and this in turn gives rise to “herding”, “milling”, and other forms of collective behavior. Similarly Le Bon (1896) opined that, when a number of individuals is subjected to an “influence of certain predisposing causes” a crowd is born: “A collective mind is formed, doubtless transitory, but presenting very clearly defined characteristics.”  Arendt’s gloomy ideas (1951) about propaganda were very similar, although she hypothesized such transformative effects on a much larger, societal scale.

Read part 2 here.


Arendt, H. (1951). The origins of totalitarianism. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Bernays, E. L. (1928). PROPAGANDA. New York: Liveright.

Blumer, H. (1966). Collective behavior. Principles of Sociology, 166–222.

Creel, G. (1920). How We Advertised America (Vol. XXX). New York: Harper.

Lasswell, H. (1948). The structure and function of communications in society. In L. Bryson (Ed.), The communication of ideas. New York: Harper.

Le Bon, G. (1896). The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: Ernest Benn.

Lippmann, W. (1922). Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company

Park, R. E. (1925). Immigrant Community and Immigrant Press. American Review 3.

Plato. (n.d.). A Dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus. Retrieved August 12, 2018, from

Shannon, C. E., &; Weaver, W. (1949). The mathematical theory of communication. The
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