Over the past five decades, Elihu Katz (born in New York in 1926) has made a major contribution to the analysis of mass communication. Best known for the concept of the “two-step flow of mass communication” and for the theory of “uses and gratifications” obtained by media audiences, Katz’s work examines the relation between the individual and the group in the process of mass media influence, contributing to the understanding of the active television viewer, the diffusion of innovations, media effects, public opinion, and media imperialism. Professionally, Katz has divided his time between America (first the University of Chicago, later the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, then the University of Pennsylvania) and Israel (where he founded the Communications Institute at the Hebrew University, headed the Institute of Applied Social Research, and directed the task force charged with introducing television to Israel in the 1960s).
His work began with the publication of Personal influence in 1955 (with his mentor at Columbia) and two books on the diffusion of innovation: Medical innovation (1966), with James Coleman and Herbert Menzel, and The politics of community conflict (1969), with Robert Crain and Donald Rosenthal. These were followed by the founding statement of uses and gratifications theory, The uses of mass communications (1974), edited with Jay Blumler, which stressed the active and selective nature of audiences’ responses to the media. His equally influential investigation into the cultural conditions of audience reception of the American soap opera Dallas, The export of meaning (1990), with Tamar Liebes, took him in a more cultural, interpretive direction. More recently, he published a groundbreaking analysis of media events, Media events (1992), with Daniel Dayan.
Other books include a reader on Bureaucracy and the public (1973), edited with Brenda Danet; The secularization of leisure (1976) with Michael Gurevitch; Broadcasting in the third world (1977) with George Wedell, a cross-national account of media and modernization; Social research on broadcasting (1977), a report on the role of research in understanding the audience for the BBC; Almost midnight (1980) with Itzak Roeh, Akiba Cohen, and Barbie Zelizer, on the changing nature of television news; Mass media and social change (1981), edited with Tamas Szecsko; Election studies (2001) with Yael Warshel; and, most recently, Canonic texts in media research (2003), edited with John Durham Peters, Tamar Liebes, and Avril Orloff, which re-examined canonical (or “should be” canonical) figures in the history of media and communication research.
According to the two-step flow hypothesis, opinion leaders seek out mass media messages relevant to their expertise and disseminate these through vertical or horizontal flows in their local community, especially during periods of uncertainty, resulting in a selective transmission process, which either resists or facilitates social change, depending on interpersonal relations in primary groups. Looking more broadly at the question of media influence, Katz (1980, 119) argued that “the history of empirical work on the effects of mass communications can be written in terms of two concepts: selectivity and interpersonal relations.” Thus, “the ‘power’ of the media rises and falls, conceptually, as a function of the importance attributed to the intervening processes of selectivity and interpersonal relations” (Katz 1980, 120), an importance which he shows to oscillate over six decades of research on “effects.”
In a famous exchange, Todd Gitlin (1978) articulated the classic critique of media effects research, attacking its focus on measurement, quantification, and short-term effects, its marketing orientation, and its claim to scientific objectivity and political neutrality: in short, its grounding in functionalist sociology. Katz and Lazarsfeld, claimed Gitlin, drastically underplayed the power of the media as regards long-term ideological effects, particularly those that reinforce the status quo. Notwithstanding attempts from Katz and others to rebut these criticisms (Peters 1989; Simonson 2006), the debate between Katz and Gitlin became emblematic of the struggle between administrative and critical scholars during the 1970s and 1980s.
Yet Katz has consistently advanced an agenda of convergence across often warring divisions in the research field – seeking to integrate methods, political positions, academic disciplines, and research traditions. Drawing on social psychology, sociology, and political science, his commitment to convergence is also evident in his various academic and practice-oriented collaborations, as expressed in a series of articles designed to build bridges across intellectual divides.
Katz’s work furthers the understanding of the complex relations between public opinion, media, and social interaction. Influenced by the social theorist Tarde, Katz points out that, insofar as Tarde argued for the rationality of public opinion as contrasted with the mindlessness of the masses, he may be seen as the originator of the active/passive viewer (or voter) debate in media and communications research, with the notion of the two-step flow (Katz & Lazarsfeld 1955), foreshadowed in Tarde’s social psychological essay of 1898, “La conversation” (Katz 1992). Last, Katz has always been committed to the usefulness of social science research in public policy terms, seeking ways to ensure that his research on media effects, media institutions, public opinion, and audiences benefits society, especially journalism, broadcasting, and public policy.
- Blumler, J. G., & Katz, E. (eds.) (1974). The uses of mass communications: Current perspectives on gratification research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Gitlin, T. (1978). Media sociology: The dominant paradigm. Theory and Society, 6, 205 –253.
- Katz, E. (1980). On conceptualising media effects. Studies in Communication, 1, 119 –141.
- Katz, E. (1992). On parenting a paradigm: Gabriel Tarde’s agenda for opinion and communication research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 4(1), 80 – 86.
- Katz, E., & Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1955). Personal influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communication. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
- Livingstone, S. (1997). The work of Elihu Katz: Conceptualizing media effects in context. In J. Corner, P. Schlesinger, & R. Silverstone (eds.), International handbook of media research: A critical survey. London: Routledge, pp. 18 – 47.
- Peters, J. D. (1989). Democracy and American mass communication theory: Dewey, Lippman, Lazarsfeld. Communication, 11, 199 –220.
- Simonson, P. (ed.) (2006). Politics, social networks, and the history of mass communications research: Re-reading “Personal influence” [special issue]. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 608.