Cultivation theory examines the long-term effects of television. "The primary proposition of cultivation theory states that the more time people spend 'living' in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality portrayed on television." Under this umbrella, perceptions of the world are heavily influenced by the images and ideological messages transmitted through popular television media.
Cultivation is a positivistic theory, meaning it assumes the existence of objective reality and value-neutral research. A study conducted by Jennings Bryant and Dorina Miron (2004), which surveyed almost 2,000 articles published in the three top mass communication journals since 1956, found that Cultivation Analysis was the third most frequently utilized theory, showing that it continues to be one of the most popular theories in mass communication research.
- 1 Definition
- 2 Background
- 3 Assumptions
- 4 Research strategy analyzing the role of the media
- 5 Perceptions of violence
- 6 Key terms in cultivation analysis
- 7 Variations
- 8 In other fields
- 9 Criticisms
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Additional reading
Cultivation theory suggests that exposure to television, over time, subtly "cultivates" viewers' perceptions of reality. Gerbner and Gross assert: "Television is a medium of the socialization of most people into standardized roles and behaviors. Its function is in a word, enculturation". Within his analysis of cultivation, Gerbner draws attention to three entities—institutions, messages, and publics.
Initial research on the theory establishes that concern regarding the effects of television on audiences stem from the unprecedented centrality of television in American culture. Gerbner posited that television as a mass medium of communication had formed into a common symbolic environment that bound diverse communities together, socializing people into standardized roles and behaviors. He thus compared the power of television to that of religion, stating television was to modern society what religion once was in earlier times. Thus, Gerbner's research focused on the larger meaning of heavy television consumption instead of the meaning behind specific messages.
Cultural Indicators Project
Developed by George Gerbner and Larry Gross in 1967, cultivation theory is derived from several large-scale research projects as a part in a comprehensive project entitled Cultural Indicators. The Cultural Indicators Project began as a singular study commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson for the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. The commission was formed to address issues of violence in American culture; one specific area of interest for the Johnson administration was the effects of television violence on audiences. Gerbner subsequently began work on the federally funded Cultural Indicators Project at the Anneberg School of Communications. Congress then facilitated the creation of the Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior in 1972. This new committee funded a number of studies on the effects of television: Gerbner's Cultural Indicators was one of those chosen.
Gerbner's project was largely facilitated by the increasing divide between political conservatives and private commercial investors in the late 1960s. Performing the task of middle man, Gerbner and his team acted as impartial researchers, examining the effects and implications of television consumption without having any vested political or financial interest in its outcome. This standpoint allotted Gerbner access to a number of grants that continued to fund the Cultural Indicators Project throughout the 1970s.
Cultivation theory is underscored by three core assumptions. The first assumption highlights the medium, the second—the audience, and the final assumption deals with the functionality of the medium on its larger audience.
- Television is fundamentally different from other forms of mass media.
- Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli argued that while religion or education had previously been greater influences on social trends, now "[t]elevision is the source of the most broadly shared images and messages in history...Television cultivates from infancy the very predispositions and preferences that used to be acquired from other primary sources ... The repetitive pattern of television's mass-produced messages and images forms the mainstream of a common symbolic environment."
- Television, unlike print media, due largely to literacy, and film, due to fincial, accessibility has a lower threshold for consumption. According to Gerbner, television has become the "central cultural arm of our society."
- Television shapes the way individuals within society think and relate to each other.
- Gerbner and Gross write that “the substance of the consciousness cultivated by TV is not so much specific attitudes and opinions as more basic assumptions about the facts of life and standards of judgment on which conclusions are based." Simply put, the realities created by television are not based on real facts but on speculations.
- Gerbner observed that television reaches people, on average, more than seven hours a day. While watching, television offers “a centralized system of story-telling”. Gerbner asserts that television's major cultural function is to stabilize social patterns and to cultivate resistance to change. We live in terms of the stories we tell and television tells these stories through news, drama, and advertising to almost everybody most of the time.
- Television's effects are limited.
- The dichotomy of assumption three asserts that television if a part of a larger sociocultural system. Therefore, although the effects of watching television may be increased or decrease at any point in time, its impact is consistently present.
- Gerbner’s ice age analogy states that “just as an average temperature shift of a few degrees can lead to an ice age or the outcomes of elections can be determined by slight margins, so too can a relatively small but pervasive influence make a crucial difference. The size of an effect is far less critical than the direction of its steady contribution."
Research strategy analyzing the role of the media
Cultivation Theory is the final step in a three part process that looks at the effects of television on society. The first two are institutional process analysis and message system analysis. While cultivation theory focuses on macrosystems of and television's influence on society as a whole, the first two steps deal with the creation of media messages and how these messages are displayed to an audience.
Step 1: Institutional process analysis
Institutional process analysis investigates how the flow of media messages is produced and managed, how decisions are made, and how media organizations function. Ultimately, it asked: What are the processes, pressures, and constraints that influence and underline the production of mass-media content?
Step 2: Message system analysis
The second part of this strategy is known as message system analysis, which has been used since 1967 to track the most stable and recurrent images in media content. "Based on message system analyses, cultivation researchers develop hypotheses about what people would think about various aspects of ‘‘reality’’ if everything they knew about some issue or phenomenon were derived from television's dominant portrayals." This step entails creating a detailed content analysis on the consistent images, themes, and messages on any one particular show.
Another facet of the message-system analysis Gerbner discovered was something Griffin called "equal violence, unequal risk." The research Gerbner conducted showed that the amount of violence portrayed in media stayed consistent, but the distribution of that violence was never equal. The children and the elderly, for example, are more common recipients of violence than young or middle-aged adults. Gerbner often discovered trends in violence toward minority groups, with African Americans and Hispanics being the recipients of violence more often than Caucasians; two other demographics that experienced similar inequality were women and "blue-collar" workers. Griffin wrote: "The ironic result of this tendency is that the demographics shown, inaccurately, to be more in danger of violence than the rest are the demographics that will walk away from the media more afraid of violence.
Step 3: Cultivation analysis
The final part of the research study is the cultivation analysis. According to Griffin: "Cultivation deals with how TV's content might affect viewers—particularly the viewers who spend lots of time glued to the tube. This is where most of the action takes place in the theory." Gerbner found that the impact of television on its viewers is not unidirectional, that the "use of the term cultivation for television's contribution to conception of social reality... (does not) necessarily imply a one-way, monolithic process. The effects of a pervasive medium upon the composition and structure of the symbolic environment are subtle, complex, and intermingled with other influences. This perspective, therefore, assumes an interaction between the medium and its publics."
Perceptions of violence
Gerbner initial work specifically looked at the effects of television violence on American audiences. Violence underscored the larger part of Gerbner's work on cultivation theory, as he and his team speculated that violence had an effect on the way Americans perception of safety, crime, and general lawlessness in both their immediate communities and the greater population. Therefore, they measured dramatic violence, which Gerbner defines as “the overt expression or threat of physical force as part of the plot.”
In 1968, Gerbner conducted a survey to demonstrate this theory. From his results he placed television viewers into three categories; "light viewers" (less than 2 hours a day), "medium viewers" (2–4 hours a day) and "heavy viewers" (more than 4 hours a day). He found that heavy viewers held beliefs and opinions similar to those portrayed on television rather than the real world which demonstrates the compound effect of media influence. Those who would be classified as heavy viewers to Gerbner experience shyness, loneliness, and depression much more than those who either do not watch television or who do not watch television nearly as much. From this study, Gerbner also began working on what would become his Mean World Index, an idea that subscribes to the notion that heavy consumption of violent related television content leads the viewer to believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is.
Positive correlation between TV viewing and fear of criminal victimization
"In most of the surveys Gerbner conducted, the results reveal a small but statistically significant relationship between TV consumption and fear about becoming the victim of a crime. The question at the start of the chapter is illustrative: Those with light viewing habits predict their weekly odds of being a victim are 1 out of 100; those with heavy viewing habits fear the risk 1 out of 10. Actual crime statistics indicate that 1 out of 10,000 is more realistic."
Supporting this finding is a survey done with collegiate students that showed that there was a significant correlation between the attention paid to local crime and fear. This survey also showed a significant correlation between the fears of crime and violence and the number of times the respondents viewed television per week.
Perceived activity of the police
"People with heavy viewing habits believe that 5 percent of society is involved in law enforcement. Their video world is peopled with police officers, judges, and government agents. People with light viewing habits estimates a more realistic 1 percent."
General mistrust of people
"Those with heavy viewing habits are suspicious of other people's motives. They subscribe to statements that warn people to expect the worst." These people would be likely to believe statements such as: "Most people are just looking out for themselves"; "In dealing with others, you can't be too careful"; and "Do unto others before they do unto You." This mindset is what Griffin calls the mean world syndrome.
Gerbner's original analysis shows that heavy viewers are much more likely to be afraid of walking alone at night. The reluctance of these individuals has also been seen on a more global scale because heavy viewers are much more likely to believe we, as a nation, should stay out of world affairs.
Key terms in cultivation analysis
This term is what Gerbner sought to discover in his research. Griffin defines this as "the difference in the percentage giving the television answer within comparable groups of light and heavy TV viewers." Gerbner wanted to find how often individuals who watched a significant amount of television were influenced to have the same opinion as what they saw in the media. Gerbner believed there was no before-television stage in a person's life. He alleged the media influences a person the moment they are born.
There are four attitudes that Gerbner focused on: (1) the chances of involvement with violence, (2) fear of walking alone at night, (3) perceived activity of police, and (4) general mistrust of people. When a person watches more television, that person is more likely to think he or she has a higher chance of getting into violence. The individual is likely to have a greater fear of walking alone at night. Griffin notes that people who view heavy amount of television think "that five percent of society is involved in law enforcement", which is four percentage points higher than actuality. Finally, heavy television watchers are more mistrusting of people than light or medium television viewers. This suspicious view on the world is called the mean world syndrome. Griffin sums this up as "the cynical mindset of general mistrust of others subscribed to by heavy TV viewers".
"Mainstreaming is the blurring, blending, and bending process by which heavy TV viewers from disparate groups develop a common outlook on the world through constant exposure to the same images and labels on TV." Mainstreaming television plays a central role in society. There are many people that do not have access to television, but the underlying truth is, the reach of television is so expansive that it has become the primary channel responsible for mainstream in our culture. Mainstream is more than the sum of all cross-currents and sub-currents, it represents the broadest range of shared meanings and assumptions in the most general, functional and stable way. Heavy television viewing may override individual differences and perspectives, creating more of an American (and increasingly global) "melting pot" of social, cultural and political ideologies.
Gerbner found that ideas and opinions commonly held by heavy viewers as a result of mainstreaming have to do with politics and economics. According to Griffin, Gerbner's research led to the conclusion that heavy viewers tend to label themselves as middle class citizens who are politically moderate. Gerbner also found people who labeled themselves as either liberal or conservative among those who mainly watched TV occasionally. Interestingly enough, however, he also found that “cultural indicators noted that their positions on social issues are decidedly conservative."
Resonance occurs when things viewed on television are actually congruent with the actual everyday realities of viewers. Gerbner writes that this provides a double dose of messages that resonate and amplify cultivation. Additionally, Gerbner et al. defines resonance as the combination of everyday reality and television providing a "double dose" that resonates with the individual, which in turn amplifies cultivation. The example they give is of minority groups whose fictional television character is stereotypically more frequently victimized on television, creating an exaggerated perception of violence for individuals who watch more television Griffin sums it up nicely, when he states, "Gerbner claimed that other heavy viewers grow more apprehensive through the process of resonance." Furthermore, Gerbner said, "The congruence of the television world and real-life circumstances may ‘resonate’ and lead to markedly amplified cultivation patterns." This cultivation could have a large effect on our society if these viewers insist on receiving more security from the government, their work place, family, friends, etc. Resonance seeks to explain why heavy TV viewers often have an amplified vigilance about the world.
As either mainstreaming or resonance, cultivation produces first-order or second-order effects. First-order effects refers to the learning of facts, while second-order effects involve "hypotheses about more general issues and assumptions" that people make about their environments.
Mean World Index
Gerbner et al. developed the Mean World Index. The Mean World Index finds that long-term exposure to television in which violence is frequent cultivates the image of a mean and dangerous world. Viewers who consumed television at a higher rate believed that greater protection by law enforcement is needed and reported that most people "cannot be trusted" and are "just looking out for themselves.". The Mean World Index consists of three statements:
- Most people are just looking out for themselves.
- You can't be too careful in dealing with people.
- Most people would take advantage of you if they got the chance.
Dramatic violence is the "overt expression or serious threat of physical force as part of the plot." Shows such as Law & Order SVU and CSI: Miami use murder to frame each episode of their shows, thus underscoring the presence of dramatic and gratuitous violence. The idea of dramatic violence underscores the relationship between fear and entertainment. Though death is being used as a plot point, it also functions to cultivate a particular image of looming violence.
Heavy viewers are individuals who watch at least four hours of television a day, however Nielsen notes that heavy viewers are now defined as those that watch more than 11 hours of television a day. Heavy viewers are consistently characterized as being more susceptible to the images and messages on television. They also rely on television more to cultivate their perceptions of the real world. In a recent study done on the cultivation effects of reality television, an Indiana University study found that young girls who regularly watched the MTV hit, Teen Mom had an unrealistic view of teen pregnancy.
Several cognitive mechanisms that explain cultivation effects have been put forth by Shrum (1995; 1996; 1997). Shrum's availability heuristic explanation suggests that heavy viewers tend to have more frequent, recent, and vivid instances of television reality on the "top of the head" (i.e., available and accessible) when surveyors ask them questions, resulting in more responses that relate to television viewing and also speedier responses. Another mechanism that might explain the cultivation phenomenon is a cognitive-narrative mechanism. Previous research suggests that the realism of television narratives in combination with individual-level "transportability," or the ability to adopt a less critical stance toward a narrative, might facilitate cultivation effects (e.g., Bilandzic & Busselle, 2008).
Effect of cultivation on children
"There was a positive relationship between childhood television viewing levels and the social reality beliefs in young adulthood. The results of this study suggest that television viewed during childhood may have an impact on the social reality beliefs a person holds as an adult." "Accordingly, the present study focuses on the potential impact of childhood television viewing on social reality beliefs during adulthood. The focus of the present study will be childhood exposure to television genres that tend to be violent. Given that it has been argued and demonstrated that measuring exposure to violent content is a more appropriate method for cultivation analyses than measuring overall television exposure levels."
International cultivation analysis
International cultivation analysis attempts to answer the question of whether the medium or the system is the message. Gerbner et al. found that countries where the television programs were less repetitive and homogeneous than the United States produced less predictable and consistent results. The variety of television content is also an important factor. Increased diversity and balance within television channels or programs leads viewers to report similar preferences. Further, importing television programs internationally can elicit variable responses depending on the cultural context and the type of television program. For example, exposure of US television programs to Korean females resulted in liberal perspective of gender roles and family. However, in the Korean male television viewers, US programs brought out increased hostility and protection of Korean culture. Another study showed that Australian students who watched US television programs (especially adventure and crime shows) were more likely to view Australia as dangerous; however, they didn't transfer this danger to America, even though they were watching US television programs. A study conducted by Minnebo and Eggermont in 2007 found that heavy television viewers, over the age of 30, in Belgium "were more likely to believe that most young people are substance users."
In other fields
Although Gerbner's research focused on violence on TV this theory can be applied to a variety of different situations. Many other theorists have done studies related to the cultivation theory which incorporated different messages than Gerbner's original intent. This research has been conducted in order to defeat two criticisms of the theory; its breadth and lumping of genres.
Kathleen Beullens, Keith Roe, and Jan Van den Bulck conducted research relating to alcohol consumption in music videos. The research revealed that high exposure to music videos develops an unrealistic perception of alcohol consumption. Musicians in these videos endorse alcohol in their songs and create a false reality about alcohol and its effects." Beullens, K., Roe, K., & Van den Bulck, J. (2012). "Music Video Viewing as a Marker of Driving After the Consumption of Alcohol". Substance Use & Misuse, 47(2), 155-165.
LGBTQ, women, and sexuality
Sara Baker Netzley conducted research in a similar fashion to Gerbner in the way that homosexuals were depicted on television. This study found that there was an extremely high level of sexual activity in comparison to the amount of gays that appeared on television. This has led those who are heavy television consumers to believe that the gay community is extremely sexual. Much like the idea of a mean and scary world it gives people a parallel idea of an extremely sexual gay community."
A number of scholars have critiqued Gerbner's assertions on cultivation theory, particularly its intentions and its scope. One critique of the theory analyzes the objective of the theory. Communications professor Jennings Bryant posits that cultivation research focuses more on the effects rather than who or what is being influenced. Bryant goes on to assert that the research to date has more to do with the "whys" and "hows" of a theory as opposed to gathering normative data as to the "whats", "whos", and "wheres".
Critics have also faulted the logical consistency of cultivation analysis, noting that the methods employed by cultivation analysis researchers do not match the conceptual reach of the theory. The research supporting this theory uses social scientific methods that are typically used with limited effects findings. Another possibility is that the relationship between TV viewing and fear of crime is like the relationship between a runny nose and a sore throat. Neither one causes the other—they are both caused by something else." Many also question the breadth of Gerbner's research. When using the Cultural Indicators strategy, Gerbner separated his research into three parts. The second part focused on the effects of media when looking at gender, race/ethnicity, and occupation. Michael Hughes writes: "it does not seem reasonable that these three variables exhaust the possibilities of variables available…which may be responsible for spurious relationships between television watching and the dependent variables in the Gerbner et al. analysis." Also, the variables Gerbner did choose can also play a factor in the amount of time a person has available to watch TV.
Another critique comes from Daniel Chandler: "those who live in high-crime areas are more likely to stay at home and watch television and also to believe that they have a greater chance of being attacked than are those in low-crime areas." He claims as well, “when the viewer has some direct lived experience of the subject matter this may tend to reduce any cultivation effect.” While television does have some effect on how we perceive the world around us, Gerbner's study does not consider the lived experiences of those that do inhabit high crime areas.
Forms of violence
Gerbner is also criticized for his lumping of all forms of violence. Chandler argues, "different genres—even different programmes—contribute to the shaping of different realities, but cultivation analysis assumes too much homogeneity in television programmes" This point is addressed by Horace Newcomb (1978) who argues that violence is not presented as uniformly on television as the theory assumes; therefore, television cannot be responsible for cultivating the same sense of reality for all viewers. When considering different programs that are on television, it makes sense that scholars would criticize Gerbner's lack of categories. For example, Saturday morning cartoon "play" violence is in combination with a murder on Law and Order. This does not seem to logically fuse together. Morgan and Shanahan understand this dispute, but they contend "that people (especially heavy viewers) do not watch isolated genres only, and that any 'impact' of individual program types should be considered in the context of the overall viewing experience."
Cultivation analysis has also been criticized by humanists for examining such a large cultural question. Because the theory discusses cultural effects, many humanists feel offended, thinking that their field has been misinterpreted. Horace Newcomb (1978) writes "More than any other research effort in the area of television studies the work of Gerbner and Gross and their associates sits squarely at the juncture of the social sciences and the humanities."
The theory has also received criticism for ignoring other issues such as the perceived realism of the televised content, which could be essential in explaining people's understanding of reality. Wilson, Martins, & Markse (2005) argue that attention to television might be more important to cultivating perceptions than only the amount of television viewing. In addition, C. R. Berger (2005) writes that because the theory ignores cognitive processes, such as attention or rational thinking style, it is less useful than desired.
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