Communication Theory/Uses and Gratifications
Uses and gratifications approach is an influential tradition in media research. The original conception of the approach was based on the research for explaining the great appeal of certain media contents. The core question of such research is: Why do people use media and what do they use them for? (McQuail, 1983). There exists a basic idea in this approach: audience members know media content, and which media they can use to meet their needs.
In the mass communication process, uses and gratifications approach puts the function of linking need gratifications and media choice clearly on the side of audience members. It suggests that people’s needs influence what media they would choose, how they use certain media and what gratifications the media give them. This approach differs from other theoretical perspectives in that it regards audiences as active media users as opposed to passive receivers of information. In contrast to traditional media effects theories which focus on “what media do to people” and assume audiences are homogeneous, uses and gratifications approach is more concerned with “what people do with media” (Katz, 1959). It allows audiences personal needs to use media and responds to the media, which determined by their social and psychological background.
The approach emphasizes audiences’ choice by assessing their reasons for using a certain media to the disregard of others, as well as the various gratifications obtained from the media, based on individual social and psychological requirements (Severin & Tankard, 1997). As a broader perspective among communication researches, it provides a framework for understanding the processes by which media participants seek information or content selectively, commensurate with their needs and interests (Katz et al., 1974a). Audience members then incorporate the content to fulfill their needs or to satisfy their interests (Lowery & Nabila, 1983).
Origin and History
It is well accepted that communication theories have developed through the realms of psychology and sociology over the past 100 years. With illumed by valuable ideas as well as exploring more untilled fields in these two disciplines, researchers elicit a series of higher conceptions of understanding media. As a sub-tradition of media effects research, uses and gratifications approach is suggested to be originally stemmed from a functionalist paradigm in the social sciences (Blumler & Katz, 1974).
To some extent, however, functional theory on communication agrees with media’s effects towards people. For example, a model often used in the theory, the Hypodermic Syringe model, discusses that “the mass media have a direct, immediate and influential effect upon audiences by ‘injecting’ information into the consciousness of the masses” (Watson & Hill 1997, p. 105). Functional theory influenced studies on communication from the 1920s to the 1940s. After that, a shift which rediscovered the relationship between media and people occurred and led to establishment of uses and gratifications approach.
The exploration of gratifications that motivate people to be attracted to certain media is almost as old as empirical mass communication research itself (McQuail, 1983). Dating back to the 1940s, researchers became interested in the reasons for viewing different radio programmes, such as soap operas and quizzes, as well as daily newspaper (Lazrsfeld & Stanton, 1944, 1949; Herzog, 1944; Warner & Henry, 1948; etc.). In these studies, researchers discovered a list of functions served either by some specific content or by the medium itself (Katz et al., 1974b). For instance, radio soap operas were found to satisfy their listeners with advice, support, or occasions for emotional release (Herzog, 1944; Warner and Henry, 1948); rather than just offering information, newspaper was also discovered to be important to give readers a sense of security, shared topics of conversation and a structure to the daily routine (Berelson, 1949). For these diverse dimensions of usage satisfaction, psychologist Herzog (1944) marked them with the term “gratifications.”
Uses and gratifications approach became prevailing in the late 1950s till 1970s when television has grown up. Some basic assumptions of the approach were proposed when it was rediscovered during that era. Among the group of scholars who focus on uses and gratifications research, Elihu Katz is one of the most well-known and contributed greatly to establishing the structure of the approach.
Elihu Katz is served both as a sociologist and as a communication researcher. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology in 1956 from Columbia University and began teaching at the University of Chicago until 1963. During the next thirty years, he taught in the Department of Sociology and Communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the late 1960, invited by the Government of Israel, Katz headed the task force charged with the introduction of television broadcasting. This experience led to his subsequent academic work about broadcasting and television in leisure, culture and communication from the 1970s to1990s (UPENN, 2001). In 1992, he joined the faculty of the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, and also directed its experimentaln that people use the media to their benefit. In a study by Katz, Gurevitch and Haas (1973), a subject which is known as the usThey took a more humanistic approach to looking at media use. They suggest that media users seek out a medium source that best fulfills the needs of the user and they have alternate choices to satisfy their need. (Blumler & Katz, 1974). They also discovered that media served the functions of surveillance, correlation, entertainment and cultural transmission for both society and individuals (Blumler and Katz, 1974).
Five basic assumptions were stated in a study of Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch in 1974 as follows. They provide a framework for understanding the correlation between media and audiences:
- The audience is conceived as active, i.e., an important part of of mass media use is assumed to be goal oriented … patterns of media use are shaped by more or less definite expectations of what certain kinds of content have to offer the audience member.
- In the mass communication process much initiative in linking need gratification and media choice lies with the audience member. This places a strong limitation on theorizing about any form of straight-line effect of media content on attitudes and behavior.
- The media compete with other sources of need satisfaction. The needs served by mass communication constitute but a segment of the wider range of human needs, and the degree to which they can be adequately met through mass media consumption certainly varies.
- Methodologically speaking, many of the goals of mass media use can be derived from data supplied by individual audience members themselves- i.e., people are sufficiently self-aware to be able to report their interests and motives in particular cases, or at least to recognize them when confronted with them in an intelligible and familiar verbal formulation.
- Value judgments about the cultural significance of mass communication should be suspended while audience orientations are explored on their own terms. (p. 15-17).
In addition, Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch also commented that, although previous researches on gratifications detected diverse gratifications that attract people on the media, they did not address the connections between these gratifications (Katz et al., 1974a). They suggested that uses and gratifications research concern with following aspects: “(1) the social and the psychological origins of (2) needs which generate (3) expectations of (4) the mass media or other sources which lead to (5) differential exposure (or engaging in other activities), resulting in (6) need gratification and (7) other consequences, perhaps mostly unintended ones” (Katz et al., 1974b, p. 20).
The studies of Katz and his colleagues laid a theoretical foundation of building the uses and gratifications approach. Since then, the research on this subject has been strengthened and extended. The current status of uses and gratifications is still based on Katz’s first analysis, particularly as new media forms have emerged in such an electronic information age when people have more options of media use.
Needs and Gratifications
Uses and gratifications approach emphasizes motives and the self-perceived needs of audience members. Blumler and Katz (1974) concluded that different people can use the same communication message for very different purposes. The same media content may gratify different needs for different individuals. There is not only one way that people uses media. Contrarily, there are as many reasons for using the media as there are media users (Blumler & Katz, 1974).
Basic needs, social situation, and the individual’s background, such as experience, interests, and education, affect people’s ideas about what they want from media and which media best meet their needs. That is, audience members are aware of and can state their own motives and gratifications for using different media. McQuail, Blumler, and Brown (1972) proposed a model of “media-person interactions” to classify four important media gratifications: (1) Diversion: escape from routine or problems; emotional release; (2) Personal relationships: companionship; social utility; (3) Personal identity: self reference; reality exploration; value reinforces; and (4) Surveillance (forms of information seeking).
Another subdivided version of the audience’s motivation was suggested by McGuire (1974), based on a general theory of human needs. He distinguished between two types of needs: cognitive and affective. Then he added three dimensions: “active” versus “passive” initiation, “external” versus “internal” goal orientation, and emotion stability of “growth” and “preservation.” When charted, these factors yield 16 different types of motivations which apply to media use (Figure 1).
Figure 1. A structuring of 16 general paradigms of human motivation (McGuire, 1974).
Katz, Gurevitch and Haas (1973) developed 35 needs taken from the social and psychological functions of the mass media and put them into five categories:
- Cognitive needs, including acquiring information, knowledge and understanding;
- Affective needs, including emotion, pleasure, feelings;
- Personal integrative needs, including credibility, stability, status;
- Social integrative needs, including interacting with family and friends; and
- Tension release needs, including escape and diversion.
Congruously, McQuail’s (1983) classification of the following common reasons for media use:
- finding out about relevant events and conditions in immediate surroundings, society and the world
- seeking advice on practical matters or opinion and decision choices
- satisfying curiosity and general interest
- learning; self-education
- gaining a sense of security through knowledge
- finding reinforcement for personal values
- finding models of behavior
- identifying with valued others (in the media)
- gaining insight into oneself
Integration and Social Interaction
- gaining insight into the circumstances of others; social empathy
- identifying with others and gaining a sense of belonging
- finding a basis for conversation and social interaction
- having a substitute for real-life companionship
- helping to carry out social roles
- enabling one to connect with family, friends and society
- escaping, or being diverted, from problems
- getting intrinsic cultural or aesthetic enjoyment
- filling time
- emotional release
- sexual arousal (p. 73)
These dimensions of uses and gratifications assume an active audience making motivated choices.
McQuail (1994) added another dimension to this definition. He states:
Personal social circumstances and psychological dispositions together influence both … general habits of media use and also … beliefs and expectations about the benefits offered by the media, which shape ... specific acts of media choice and consumption, followed by ... assessments of the value of the experience (with consequences for further media use) and, possibly ... applications of benefits acquired in other areas of experience and social activity (p. 235).
This expanded explanation accounts for a variety of individual needs, and helps to explain variations in media sought for different gratifications.
Gratifications sought (GS) and gratifications obtained (GO)
The personal motivations for media use also suggest that the media offer gratifications which are expected by audiences. These gratifications can be thought of as experienced psychological effects which are valued by individuals. Palmgreen and Rayburn (1985) thus proposed a model of the gratifications sought (GS) and gratifications obtained (GO) process shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. An expectance-value model of media gratifications sought and obtained (Palmgreen and Rayburn, 1985).
The model distinguishes between GS and GO. Thus, where GO is noticeably higher than GS, we are likely to be dealing with situations of high audience satisfaction and high ratings of appreciation and attention (McQuail, 1983).
To investigate the relationship between GS and GO, Palmgreen et al. (1980) conducted a study of gratifications sought and obtained from the most popular television news programs. The results indicated that, on the one hand, each GS correlated either moderately or strongly with its corresponding GO; on the other hand, the researchers found that the gratifications audiences reportedly seek are not always the same as the gratifications they obtain (Palmgreen et al., 1980). A later study conducted by Wenner (1982) further showed that audiences may obtain different levels of gratifications from what they seek when they are exposed to evening news programs.
Media Dependency Theory
Media dependency theory, also known as media system dependency theory, has been explored as an extension of or an addition to the uses and gratifications approach, though there is a subtle difference between the two theories. That is, media dependency looks at audience goals as the origin of the dependency while the uses and gratifications approach emphasizes audience needs (Grant et al., 1998). Both, however, are in agreement that media use can lead to media dependency. Moreover, some uses and gratifications studies have discussed media use as being goal directed (Palmgreen, Wenner & Rosengren. 1985; Rubin, 1993; Parker & Plank, 2000).
Media dependency theory states that the more dependent an individual is on the media for having his or her needs fulfilled, the more important the media will be to that person. DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1976) described dependency as the correlating relationship between media content, the nature of society, and the behavior of audiences. It examines both macro and micro factors influencing motives, information-seeking strategies, media and functional alternative use, and dependency on certain media (Rubin and Windahl, 1982).
As DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) suggested, active selectors’ use of the media to achieve their goals will result in being dependent on the media. Littlejohn (2002) also explained that people will become more dependent on media that meet a number of their needs than on media that provide only a few ones. “If a person finds a medium that provides them with several functions that are central to their desires, they will be more inclined to continue to use that particular medium in the future” (Rossi, 2002).
The intensity of media dependency depends on how much people perceive that the media they choose are meeting their goals. These goals were categorized by DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) into three dimensions which cover a wide range of individual objectives: (1) social and self understanding (e.g., learning about oneself, knowing about the world); (2) interaction and action orientation (e.g., deciding what to buy, getting hints on how to handle news or difficult situation, etc.); (3) social and solitary play (e.g., relaxing when alone, going to a movie with family or friends). DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) also suggested that more than one kind of goal can be activated (and satisfied) by the same medium.
Dependency on a specific medium is influenced by the number of media sources available to an individual. Individuals should become more dependent on available media if their access to media alternatives is limited. The more alternatives there are for an individual, the lesser is the dependency on and influence of a specific medium (Sun et al., 1999).
Uses and Gratifications Research in a New Era
The uses and gratifications has always provided a cutting-edge theoretical approach in the initial stages of each new mass medium, such as newspapers, radio and television, and now the Internet, which receives the significance via this approach (Ruggiero, 2000).
The uses and gratifications theory has been widely used, and also is better suited, for studies of Internet use. In the Internet environment, users are even more actively engaged communication participants, compared to other traditional media (Ruggiero, 2000). The theory also suggests that people consciously choose the medium that could satisfy their needs and that audiences are able to recognize their reasons for making media choices (Katz et al., 1974). Some surveys have shown that users have little trouble verbalizing their needs when using the Internet (Eighmey & McCord, 1997; Lillie, 1997; Nortey, 1998; Piirto, 1993; Ryan, 1995). Katz et al. (1974) argued that available media choice compete to satisfy individual needs. Thus, there exists competition not only between the Internet and other traditional media, but among each options in the Internet itself as well.
Despite the robustness of this list, history has shown that new media often create new gratifications and new motivations among various audience groups (Angleman, 2000). These new dimensions of users’ motivations and gratifications need to be identified and satisfied. Although motivations for Internet use may vary among individuals, situations, and media vehicles, most uses and gratifications studies explore them based on some or all of the following dimensions: relaxation, companionship, habit, passing time, entertainment, social interaction, information/surveillance, arousal, and escape (Lin, 1999).
Examining how and why students use a university computer bulletin board, Rafeali (1986) found that users seldom skip the factual or informative messages, which indicates their strong interest in messages of this type. Maddox (1998) also suggested that the most important reason why people use the Internet is to gather various kinds of information. Lin (2001) found similar results when she examined online services adoption. She found that online services are perceived primarily as information-laden media, and that audiences who need to create more outlets for information reception are the ones most likely to adopt online services (Lin, 2001).
Internet use is also linked to a series of instrumental as well as entertainment-oriented gratifications (Lin, 1996). Some scholars ranked diversion/entertainment as more important than exchanging information in triggering media use (Schlinger, 1979; Yankelovich Partners, 1995). Rafeali (1986) found that the primary motivation of bulletin board users are recreation, entertainment, and diversion, followed by learning what others think about controversial issues by communicating with people who matter in a community. Entertainment content appears to satisfy users’ needs for escapism, hedonistic pleasure, aesthetic enjoyment, or emotional release (McQuail, 1994). Providing entertainment, therefore, can motivate audiences to use the media more often (Luo, 2002).
Examining the Internet as a source of political information, Johnson and Kaye (1998) found that people use the web primarily for surveillance and voter guidance and secondarily for entertainment, social utility and excitement. In a study of the web as an alternative to television viewing, Ferguson and Perse (2000) found four main motivations for Internet use: entertainment, passing time, relaxation/escape and social information.
The Internet combines elements of both mass and interpersonal communication. The distinct characteristics of the Internet lead to additional dimensions in terms of the uses and gratifications approach. For example, “learning” and “socialization” are suggested as important motivations for Internet use (James et al., 1995). “Personal involvement” and “continuing relationships” were also identified as new motivation aspects by Eighmey and McCord (1998) when they investigated audience reactions to websites. The potential for personal control and power is also embedded in Internet use. Pavlik (1996) noted that online, people are empowered to act, communicate, or participate in the broader society and political process. This type of use may lead to increased self-esteem, self-efficacy, and political awareness (Lillie, 1997).
Heightened interactions were also suggested as motivations for using the Internet. Kuehn (1994) called attention to this interactive capability of the Internet through discussion groups, e-mail, direct ordering, and links to more information (Schumann & Thorson, 1999; Ko, 2002). As such, Lin (2001) suggested that online services should be fashioned to satisfy people’s need for useful information as well as social interaction opportunities.
Group support is another important reason for using the Internet. The Internet can provide a relatively safe venue to exchange information, give support, and serve as a meeting place without fear of persecution (Tossberg, 2000). It provides an accessible environment where individuals can easily find others who share similar interests and goals. As part of a group, they are able to voice opinions and concerns in a supportive environment (Korenman & Wyatt, 1996).
Other studies identified anonymity as one of the reasons why people go online. According to McKenna et al. (2000), people use the security of online anonymity to develop healthy friendships and gratify their need to socialize. Those who play massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) report that anonymity reduces their self-awareness and motivates their behaviors in game playing (Foo & Koivisto, 2004). Another survey done by Choi and Haque (2002) also found anonymity as a new motivation factor for Internet use. Some also suggested that the Internet offer democratic communication to anonymous participants in virtual communities such as chat rooms. Ryan (1995) indicated that anonymity motivates users to speak more freely on the Internet than they would in real life. With small fear of social punishment and recrimination, minority groups can equally participate in the communication process provided the technology is universally available (Braina, 2001).
Criticisms of Uses and Gratifications Research
Although uses and gratifications approach holds a significant status in communication research, the research of the approach receives criticisms both on its theory and methodology represented.
McQuail (1994) commented that the approach has not provided much successful prediction or casual explanation of media choice and use. Since it is indeed that much media use is circumstantial and weakly motivated, the approach seems to work best in examining specific types of media where motivation might be presented (McQuail, 1994).
The researcher Ien Ang also criticized uses and gratifications approach in such three aspects:
- It is highly individualistic, taking into account only the individual psychological gratification derived from individual media use. The social context of the media use tends to be ignored. This overlooks the fact that some media use may have nothing to do with the pursuit of gratification - it may be forced upon us for example.
- There is relatively little attention paid to media content, researchers attending to why people use the media, but less to what meanings they actually get out of their media use.
- The approach starts from the view that the media are always functional to people and may thus implicitly offer a justification for the way the media are currently organized (cited by CCMS-Infobase, 2003).
Since it is hard to keep track of exposure patterns through observation, uses and gratifications research focus on the fact relied heavily on self-reports (Katz, 1987). Self-reports, however, are based on personal memory which can be problematic (Nagel et al., 2004). As such, the respondents might inaccurately recall how they behave in media use and thus distortion might occur in the study.
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