The Individual in Communication Research: Part III

This is the third 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 first two parts dealt with how the conception of the individual moved from one that assumed passive acceptance of media messages, to one that more deeply considered the role of human agency in how they interpreted the message. In this part, I trace how the thinking continued along those lines and how the period following the active audience era  became synonymous with the future positivism of American social science research.

Read part 1 here.
Read part 2 here.


More Power to the Individual

Joseph Klapper (1960) sums up the problem of the individual in communication research by highlighting the hitherto lack of social context. He writes, that “if the influence of mass communication is to be described in socially meaningful terms, research must […] inquire into the relative prevalence of the conditions under which several effects occur” and that it is only in “… the identification of conditions under which mass communication has different effects…”  can we truly get a nuanced understanding of the influence that the media exercises over people. This is one of the earliest references to the fact that media effects research had thus far, completely ignored the situational and functional context of individuals receiving messages. To Klapper, who was a student of the great Paul Lazarsfeld, media effects research needed a phenomenistic approach (p. 475-6): “a shift away from the tendency to regard mass communication as a necessary and sufficient cause of audience effects, towards a view of the media as influences, working amid other influences, in a total situation.”

Paul Lazarsfeld
This is the era which really cemented the importance of studying the relationship between media and individual members in an audience as the dominant paradigm of communication research. The seminal works from this period include the theory of the “two step flow of communication” and more generally, the idea of personal influence by Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz (1966; 1957). In the words of Lazarsfeld and Paul Merton, “The mass media confer status on public issues, persons, organizations […] they bestow prestige and enhance the authority of individuals and groups by legitimizing their status”. The mass media further helps enforce social norms by exposing deviations to the public view, and this in turn “enforces some degree of public action against what has been privately tolerated”. However, under the influence of the media, only a select few become the opinion leaders, and the majority of the mass is largely indoctrinated with the ideas and ideals that are transmitted through to them [emphases added].” This “narcotizing dysfunction”, as they lament, causes large swathes of human populations to become “politically apathetic and inert” (1971).

Two things stand out in this extract. The first, is the acknowledgement that, in line with active audience theories in psychology, the media influences individuals differently, some individuals more, others less. The second is that the effect that messages have on the “mass” are not direct effects of the media, but those of the “opinion leaders” – the select few who take on the task of transmitting the media messages to the masses. In other words, without opinion leaders, the media wouldn’t have any significant effect on individuals. Crucially, this only happens because of the social networks that provide the conduits for the flow of influence, for individuals who are embedded in them, in society.

Emile Durkheim
It is perhaps relevant here to pause for a second, take a short detour through the early days of sociology, and ponder. What Lazarsfeld, Merton, and Katz were saying in the mid-20th century was not exactly novel. Instead it was the rehashing of an old idea that had once been popular, decades before communication as a field had been existent. This idea was that of “imitation” and its proponent was the great French sociologist, Gabriel Tarde (1880). Tarde, an avant-garde theorist of sociology, if ever there was one, opined that since society is made up of individuals, it is the social psychology of the interactions between individuals that gives rise to social structures and brings about social change. He embraced a view that social change happened because of some people who innovated and others who imitated. This theory flew in the face of conventional sociology of the time, most notably, the ideas espoused by Emile Durkheim. Durkheim was not in favor of reducing sociology to a science of collective individual psychology. Instead, he argued that sociology should be conceptualized in a level of its own , and that norms, social structures, and institutions should be thought of something imposed from “outside” upon individuals (Elihu Katz, 2006) (see González-Bailón, 2017, p. 47). Tarde however, was unable to do anything substantial with his ideas at that time, unlike Durkheim who did extensive research on how structures determine individual behavior and published his seminal work on suicide patterns towards the end of the 19th century (1897). Tarde, as
Gabriel Tarde
a result, despite being popular in his time, is said to have “lost” his debates with Durkheim.

Returning to the field of communication and the problem of the individual in the middle of the 20th century, Lazarsfeld, Katz, and Merton’s ideas about opinion leaders and how they influence the masses is eerily similar to Tarde’s “bottom-up” conception of sociology. Continuing the dichotomy and bringing back Klapper’s (1960) criticism of conventional media effects research of the time, by neglecting social context that individuals in society are situated within, media and audience studies had taken an almost Durkheimian, “top-down” approach. This was something that Katz acknowledged later as well, that in so far as mass communication research was concerned, Tarde’s ideas about thinking about social science was slowly resurfacing and becoming increasingly relevant in the face of ideas such as “two step flow” and personal influence (2006; Elihu Katz, Ali, & Kim, 2014).

The theories of this period are thus known for alluding less power to the media –“hence minimal effects”, and more power to opinion leaders – who are other individuals – in determining the effects that messages have on people. However, unlike the “active audience theories”, these theories bestow lesser power on the recipient of the message. While individuals do exercise some agency in making sense of complex media messages by means of interpersonal communication, there is a clear hierarchy of the “elite” opinion leaders – those who transmit media messages – and the “masses” – who depend on the opinion leaders to interpret the messages and to understand what’s going on around them.

Other theories of the period, that focused on the social context of individuals include theories of diffusion (Rogers, 1962), including early work in the field of social networks (Granovetter, 1973), the spiral of silence theory (Noelle-Neumann, 1974) and social learning theory (Bandura & Walters, 1963)

 This era of communication research thus became symbolic of the “swell of  positivist American social science”(Gitlin, 1978), but this in turn engendered a substantial amount of criticism as well. The cultural commentator Todd Gitlin for example, challenged that “by only studying the effects that could be “measured” experimentally and or in surveys” mass communication research has “put the methodological cart ahead of the theoretical horse” (Gitlin, 1978). Also, that “by taking for granted the existing institutional order, the field has been able to skirt the substantive questions of valuation” (p. 206). Moreover, there was a general uneasiness amongst critics of the field regarding Lazarsfeld’s close association with Frank Stanton, the then president of the CBS television network. There was a feeling that in doing his research, Lazarsfeld (and others of the era who subscribed to a similar positivist vision) were quietly advancing corporate commercial interests (Rogers, 1992). The Columbia studies for instance, that had led to the birth of the “two step flow” model, were criticized for undermining more insidious effects that the media had on individuals (Gitlin, 1978). It didn’t help when Klapper, Lazarsfeld’s student was employed by the CBS network and then had to testify in Washington to “fend off possible regulation resulting from the potential effects of television in the domains of smoking, sexuality, and violence” (Neuman & Guggenheim, 2011).

Read part 4 here.



Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1963). Social learning and personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart andWinston.

Durkheim, E. (1897). Suicide: A study in sociology, translated by John Spaulding and George Simpson. New York Free Press.

Gitlin, T. (1978). Media Sociology : The Dominant Paradigm. Theory and Society, 6(2), 205–253.

González-Bailón, S. (2017). Decoding the social world : data science and the unintended consequences of communication

Granovetter, M. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. The American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360–1380.

Katz, E. (1957). The Two-Step Flow of Communication: An Up-To-Date Report on an Hypothesis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 21(1), 61.

Katz, E. (2006). Rediscovering Gabriel Tarde. Political Communication, 23(3), 263–270.

Katz, E., Ali, C., & Kim, J. (2014). Echoes of Gabriel Tarde : what we know better or different 100 years later.

Katz, E., & Lazarsfeld, P. (1966). Personal Influence, The part played by people in the flow of mass communications.

Klapper, J. (1960). The Effects of Mass Communication. In M. Janowitz & B. Berelson (Eds.), READER IN PUBLIC COMMUNICATION (pp. 473–486). New York: The Free Press.

Lazarsfield, P. F., & Merton, R. (1971). Mass Communication, Popular Taste, and Organized Social Action. In W. Schramm & D. Roberts (Eds.), The Process and Effects of Mass Communication (pp. 554–578). University of Illinoise Press.

Neuman, W. R., & Guggenheim, L. (2011). The Evolution of Media Effects Theory: A Six-Stage Model of Cumulative Research. Communication Theory, 21(2), 169–196.

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The Spiral of Silence a Theory of Public Opinion. Journal of Communication, 24(2), 43–51.

Rogers, E. M. (1962). Diffusion of innovations. Free Press.

Rogers, E. M. (1992). Standpoint On early mass communication study. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 36(4), 467–471.

Tarde, G. (1880). The Laws of Imitation. Retrieved from