As early as 1974, Ball-Rokeach presented the first in a series of papers that would unfold the concepts and assumptions of media system dependency (MSD) theory (Ball-Rokeach 1974). The paper was titled “The information perspective.” Its basic premise was that media effects flow from the information resources of the media system that are implicated in the everyday life requirements of people (micro), groups or organizations (meso), and other social systems (macro) to act meaningfully in ambiguous or threatening social environments. Thus, this paper launches the argument that the media system is best viewed as an information system whose powers vis-à-vis effects rest on the scarcity or exclusivity of their information resources – the creation/gathering, processing, and dissemination of information. Media information spans classical news and entertainment genres.
The Context Of Msd Theory Formation
At the time of the initial formulation of MSD theory, the media system was relatively stable and bounded . The prevailing media effects thesis (Katz & Blumler 1974) was that people are pretty much in charge of the gratifications they seek and find through their media uses. MSD theory emerged, in part, as a felt difficulty with the proposition that the media per se had, at best, weak effects. Rather than trying to posit a powerful media effects alternative, such as was being developed in Gerbner’s cultivation theory (Gerbner et al. 1980), MSD theory emerged to reframe the effects question to ask: “Under what societal and individual conditions do/don’t media have substantial effects?” The work was informed by other scholars’ attempts (especially those of Gerbner, Rosengren, and Wright) to move the discussion away from the largely socialpsychological or micro-level of analysis – where selectivity processes and interpersonal influence were said to operate to conserve audiences’ established beliefs and behavior. The aim was to develop a multilevel approach that might have greater phenomenological correspondence with people’s everyday experiences of media effects in periods of rapid social change and conflict (see Ball-Rokeach 1998).
Major Conceptual Components: The Early Years Of MSD Theory
A point of departure was that media effects could not be accounted for in terms of the characteristics of the audience and/or the characteristics of the message, but required a multilevel ecological theory to capture an effects process wherein individuals and media are situated in their larger social environs. The media production system operates in an environment where it has dependency relationships with other social systems, and these relations not only affect the media’s behavior but also contour the relationships individuals can develop with the media (Ball-Rokeach 1985). For example, media systems in the United States emerged initially in the context of a relationship with the political system such that the goals that individuals could attain via MSD relations were largely limited to things political. Over time the scope of media production expanded, through new dependency relationships formed with economic, religious, educational, recreational, health, and other systems, such that individuals could pursue like goals though MSD relations.
The dependency relation thus exists at multiple levels of analysis. In essence, it reflects the extent to which resources controlled by one entity (the media) have to be accessed by another party (other social systems, organizations, individuals) to attain fundamental goals. Thus follows the notion that effects are by-products of dependency relations more than they are by-products of clever persuasion or the characteristics of audience members. These dependencies arise when individuals, organizations, or other systems consider media information resources – the gathering/creating, processing, and dissemination of information both in news and in entertainment genres – to be essential or preferable to alternative modes of achieving their goals. Of course systems, institutions, and organizations control resources that the media system and its constituent organization must access to attain their goals; that is, dependency relationships at these levels of analysis are two-way, varying from asymmetric (one party needs the resources of the other more than the other way around) to symmetric. They are also situated in a dynamic environment where the struggles for control of scarce resources, diffusion of new technologies, changing political economies, etc. effect change in the structure of MSD relations.
By taking an ecological approach, the theory places the emphasis upon the characteristics of the dependency relationship. It is not, for example, that individuals are dependent per se, but that they have a dependency relationship with the media that affects the likelihood of media effects. Most of the empirical testing of MSD theory focuses upon the media–audience (macro-to-micro) relation (see Meshkin 1999 for a review). That relation is conceived to be asymmetric and invariable in structure; that is, media resources are implicated in individuals’ goals of understanding (themselves and their social environs), orientation (acting and interacting), and play (solitary and social) more than the resources of most individuals are implicated in media goal attainment. The media–audience-member dependency relation is variable with respect to intensity and scope. Intensity is conceptually defined in terms of how exclusive media information resources are and empirically assessed in terms of perceived helpfulness in goal attainment. Resource scope in the media–individual dependency relation is usually invariant – largely limited to the dissemination resource – as most individuals, in contrast to many organizations, do not try to control media information-gathering/creating and information processing resources. Referent scope refers to the number of media forms implicated in a particular case. Goal scope is the most frequently addressed scope dimension and refers to the breadth of goals implicated in individuals’ MSD relations.
Another major component of the theory is the view of individuals as embedded not only in interpersonal networks that tend to conserve shared beliefs and behavior, but also in a larger context, often marked by ambiguity, threat, conflict, and change, that tends to open the door to media effects. The origins of the structure, intensity, and scope of individuals’ MSD relations are thus grounded in their social as well as their interpersonal and personal environs (Ball-Rokeach 1985). Those environs are dynamic, i.e., changing over situation and time. Put briefly, the more problematic people’s social environs, the more likely it is that the media information system will be a, if not the, major resource in people’s efforts to understand and act meaningfully in those environs. The prime condition for media effects, then, is when there are problematic social environs that prompt asymmetric, intense, and broad-goal-scope MSD relations. It is in this sense that media effects are conceived to be an outcome of the nature of media–audience–society relations (Ball-Rokeach & De Fleur 1976).
While the nature of the social environs is a key determinant of individuals’ MSD relations, it is not the only determinant. There is substantial variation in how people respond or adapt to the same social environs. Under conditions of ambiguity, for example, some will actively seek to resolve the ambiguity, while others may seek to escape or withdraw (Ball-Rokeach 1974). In this case, the more active are also the more likely to experience media effects, because the media system is usually positioned as the best or most accessible information system through which ambiguity may be addressed. These active problem solvers, thus, would have more intense and probably broader-goal-scope MSD relations. How active an individual is at any one point in time and place will depend on major sources of individual variation. Most important are variations in goals or priorities that implicate media, variations in structural location or the degree to which people have access to alternative information systems (e.g., experts), and variation in interpersonal network discursive agendas.
Major Conceptual Components: Elaboration Of MSD Theory
As MSD theory developed over the years, the macro-/micro-focus was expanded with increased attention to intervening meso-level forces; specifically, the interpersonal network. While interpersonal discussion of media topics had been incorporated into the theory early on (e.g., Ball-Rokeach et al. 1984), it was later incorporated in a somewhat different way. Instead of the more usual effects-buffer role, interpersonal discourse on media topics was conceived as a variable that could lessen or intensify media effects. The reasons for this unpredictability were made more explicit in subsequent work (Ball-Rokeach 1998), where the interpersonal network was conceived as also having dependency relations with the media for much the same reasons as had been argued for individuals. For example, when the social environs are ambiguous due to rapid social change, the network must also access the best information resources available to make sense of the members’ shared environment. Established beliefs affect information processing, but because they may not be sufficient for understanding, the door may be open to new or altered beliefs. The discourse agenda of interpersonal networks of friends, co-workers, neighbors, and the like is likely to include topics that are a product of MSD relations. It was at this point in the development of MSD theory that Ball-Rokeach incorporated agenda-setting processes into her MSD model of media effects.
More than 30 years after the initial foray into MSD theory, the theory is still employed and elaborated in empirical research. Most studies examine the intensity of individual MSD relations, but there are also case studies of macro-level issues, such as the evolution of MSD relations under conditions of social change (see Meshkin 1999). However, major changes in media production resources suggested the need for fundamental elaboration of the theory to take into account the less bounded and more chaotic media landscape of the twenty-first century. Obvious examples include the implications of going from three dominant television networks to hundreds of television channels, the emergence and blending of the Internet with traditional media, the explosion of ethnic media, and the multimedia and increasingly centralized ownership structure.
From A Media To A Communication Ecology Theory
In response to these changes, MSD theory has become even more ecological, moving away from a conception of the bounded media system to a communication ecology where traditional media, new media, ethnic media, the media of community institutions, and interpersonal discourse operate in the context of each other. They become information system alternatives for people to select according to which one or which combination of alternatives best serves particular goals. Another major change has been to drop the term “dependency” and replace it with the term “connectedness.” While “dependency” had a sound theoretical basis in Emerson’s notion that power is the flipside of dependency, the term all too often connoted a dependent personality. Especially when considering the more complex communication ecology, it is helpful to speak of people, groups, and organizations as having connections with alternative information production systems.
The expanded version of MSD theory has been incorporated into communication infrastructure theory (CIT; see Kim & Ball-Rokeach 2006). Some researchers continue to use the earlier version of MSD theory when they are examining the effects of a particular media form(s) and this is appropriate. As any good ecological theory should, MSD theory has evolved over time to adapt to changing environments, including insights and knowledge introduced by other theorists and researchers, especially Elihu Katz, Jack McLeod, and Lewis Friedland. At present the primary effects addressed by CIT are civic engagement, health literacy and disparities, the important roles played by ethnic media in diverse urban communities, the connections between virtual and place-based communities, and the effects of communication environments on the strength of neighborhood storytelling networks.
- Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (1974). The information perspective. Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, August, Montreal.
- Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (1985). The origins of individual media system dependency: A sociological framework. Communication Research, 12, 485 –510.
- Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (1998). A theory of media power and a theory of media use: Different stories, questions, and ways of thinking. Mass Communication and Society, 1, 5– 40.
- Ball-Rokeach, S. J., & DeFleur, M. L. (1976). A dependency model of mass media effects. Communication Research, 3, 3 –21.
- Ball-Rokeach, S. J., Rokeach, M., & Grube, J. W. (1984). The great American values test: Influencing behavior and belief through television. New York: Free Press.
- Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). The “mainstreaming” of America: Violence profile No. 11. Journal of Communication, 30, 10 –29.
- Katz, E., & Blumler, H. (1974). The uses of mass communications: Current perspectives on gratifications research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Kim, Y.-C., & Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (2006). Civic engagement from a communication infrastructure perspective. Communication Theory, 16, 173 –197.
- Meshkin, D. (1999). Media dependency theory: Origins and directions. In D. Demers & K. Viswanath (eds.), Mass media, social control, and social change. Ames: Iowa State University Press, pp. 77– 98.