Cultivation theory, developed by George Gerbner and his colleagues, proposes that television viewing makes an independent contribution to audience members’ conceptions of social reality. The central hypothesis guiding cultivation research is that the more time people spend watching television, the more their beliefs and assumptions about life and society will be congruent with the most stable and repetitive messages found in television’s dramatic entertainment programs.
History of Cultivation Theory
Cultivation theory was devised as one component of the Cultural Indicators project, a long-term research program that began in the late 1960s. The project follows a three pronged research strategy. The first, called “institutional process analysis,” investigates power roles in media industries and the pressures and constraints that affect how media messages are selected and produced. The second, called “message system analysis,” quantifies and tracks the most common and recurrent elements in television content. The third, cultivation analysis, studies whether and how television viewing relates to viewers’ conceptions of social reality (Gerbner 1973).
The theory of cultivation has been prominent in communication research, and the Cultural Indicators project has generated over 300 scholarly publications. Although early cultivation research was especially concerned with television violence, over the years the investigation expanded to include sex roles, images of aging, political orientations, environmental attitudes, science, health, religion, minorities, occupations, and other topics. Replications have been carried out in Argentina, Australia, England, Germany, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, Russia, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, and elsewhere.
The methods of cultivation analysis were designed to correct for specific blind spots in previous mass communication research. Most earlier studies looked at whether individual messages or genres could produce some kind of change in audience attitudes and behaviors; in contrast, cultivation sees the totality of television’s programs as a coherent system of messages, and asks whether that system might promote stability (or generational shifts) rather than immediate change in individuals. Whereas most research and debate on, for example, television violence has been concerned with whether violent portrayals make viewers more aggressive, Gerbner and his colleagues claimed that heavy exposure to television cultivates exaggerated beliefs about the amount of violence in society, along with a sense of insecurity, victimization, and interpersonal mistrust. This cluster of outlooks is referred to as the “Mean World Syndrome” (Gerbner & Gross 1976).
Cultivation theory is not concerned with the impact of particular program(s) or genre(s). It does not address questions of artistic quality, realism, or individual viewers’ “readings” of media messages. Rather, cultivation emphasizes aggregate patterns of images and representations to which entire communities are exposed over long periods of time.
Cultivation does not deny the existence or importance of selective viewing, individual programs, or differences in interpretations; it just sees these as different research questions. It focuses on what is most broadly shared, in common, across program types and among large groups of otherwise heterogeneous viewers. Thus, cultivation theory argues that the systemic consequences of television as technology and institution cannot be found in terms of isolated fragments of the whole. The project is an attempt to say something about the broad-based ideological consequences of a commercially supported cultural industry celebrating consumption, materialism, individualism, power, and the status quo along lines of gender, race, class, and age. None of this denies the fact that some programs may contain some specific messages more than others, that not all viewers watch the same programs, or that the messages may change over time (Gerbner et al. 2002).
The theory of cultivation emphasizes the role that storytelling plays in the lifelong process of socialization. One basic difference between human beings and other species is that we live in a world that is created by the stories we tell. The stories of any culture constitute lessons that reflect and cultivate that culture’s most basic, fundamental, and often invisible assumptions, ideologies, and values. Great portions of what we know, or think we know, come not from personal or direct experience, but from many modes of storytelling. Stories – myths, legends, soap operas, cop shows – tend to express and reproduce (i.e., cultivate) a culture’s central beliefs about what exists, what is real, normal, good and bad, and what different types of people can expect in life.
Mass communication is the mass production, distribution, and consumption of cultural stories. Over much of human history, stories were told face to face by parents, teachers, or the clergy. Mass media, especially television, transform the cultural process of storytelling into a centralized, advertiser-sponsored system that now tells most of the stories to most of the people, most of the time. Most of the stories we now consume are not hand-crafted works of individual expressive artists, but mass-produced by bureaucracies according to strict market specifications. The commercial imperatives of television require it to produce stories that reflect – and thereby sustain and cultivate – the “facts” of life that most people take for granted.
Each year, starting in 1967, the Cultural Indicators project content analyzed a week-long sample of US network television drama in order to delineate selected features and trends in the overall world television presents to its viewers. In the 1990s, the analysis was extended to include new networks, channels, and genres. Throughout, message system analysis focused on the most pervasive content patterns that are common to many different types of programs but characteristic of the system of programming as a whole, because these hold the most significant potential lessons television cultivates. The coding instrument covers a wide range of themes, actions, and demographic representations, and is subjected to extensive reliability analysis.
The findings from the message system analyses are used to formulate questions about people’s conceptions of social reality, often contrasting television’s “reality” with some other real-world criterion. Survey questions are posed to samples of children, adolescents, or adults, and the differences (if any) in the beliefs of light, medium, and heavy viewers, other things held constant, are assessed. The questions do not mention television, and respondents’ awareness of the source of their information is seen as irrelevant. For the analysis, respondents are divided into groups of relatively light, medium, and heavy viewers on the basis of the distribution within any specific sample.
Messages and Impacts
The prominent and stable over-representation of well-off white males in the prime of life pervades prime time. Women are outnumbered by men at a rate of two or three to one and allowed a narrower range of activities and opportunities. The dominant white males are more likely to commit violence, while old, young, female, and minority characters are more likely to be victims. Crime in prime time is at least 10 times as rampant as in the real world, and an average of five to six acts of overt physical violence per hour involve well over half of all major characters.
Cultivation researchers argue that these messages of power, dominance, and victimization cultivate relatively restrictive and intolerant views regarding personal morality and freedoms, women’s roles, and minority rights. Rather than stimulating aggression, cultivation theory contends that heavy exposure to television violence cultivates insecurity, mistrust, and alienation, and a willingness to accept repressive measures in the name of security, all of which helps maintain the prevailing hierarchy of social power.
Cultivation is not a linear, unidirectional “effect,” but part of a dynamic, ongoing process of interaction among messages and contexts. Television viewing relates in different ways to different groups’ life situations and worldviews. For example, personal interaction with family and peers makes a difference, as do real-world experiences. A wide variety of socio-demographic and individual factors produce sharp variations in cultivation patterns. These differences often illustrate a phenomenon called “mainstreaming,” which means that heavy television viewing may erode the differences in people’s perspectives which stem from other factors and influences. Mainstreaming represents a relative homogenization of otherwise divergent viewers.
Cultivation theory has been a highly controversial and provocative approach; the results of cultivation research have been many, varied, and often contested. The assumptions and procedures of cultivation analysis have been vigorously critiqued on theoretical and methodological grounds; extensive debates and colloquies continue to engage the scholarly community, and have led to a wide variety of refinements and extensions (Newcomb 1978; Gerbner et al. 1980; Hirsch 1980; Shanahan & Morgan 1999).
Some researchers have sought cognitive explanations for how television’s images are processed, stored, and retrieved within viewers’ heads. A broad range of intervening processes has been examined (e.g., the role of perceived reality, active vs passive viewing, the family and the social context of exposure). Some have criticized the assumption of relative stability in program content over time and across genres, and emphasized the differential and specific impacts of exposure to different programs and types. The spread of nonbroadcast alternative delivery systems such as cable, satellite, and VCRs has been taken into account, and cultivation has been adapted to the virtual worlds of video games. Increasingly complex and demanding statistical tests and analytical models have been applied.
The literature contains numerous failures to replicate its findings as well as numerous independent confirmations. The most common conclusion, supported by meta-analysis, is that television makes a small but significant contribution to viewers’ beliefs about the world (Shanahan & Morgan 1999) Given the pervasiveness of television and even light viewers’ substantial cumulative exposure, finding observable evidence of cultivation at all is remarkable. Therefore, a systematic pattern of small but consistent differences between light and heavy viewers may indicate far-reaching consequences.
Cultivation theory was developed when television viewing in the United States was dominated by three broadcast networks. Yet, in the early twenty-first century, all US broadcast networks combined attract under 50 percent of prime-time viewers, and the audience is divided among dozens of specialized cable and satellite channels devoted to specific interests. With the spread of VCRs, digital video recorders, digital broadcasting, video-on-demand, and pay-per-view, along with the ability to download programs on the Internet, mobile phones, and portable music players, audiences now seem to be able to choose from an extraordinary range of diverse content, watching whatever they want whenever they want, in ways that contradict many assumptions of cultivation.
Yet these new delivery systems alone do not fundamentally change the dynamics that drive program production and distribution. There has been little reduction in exposure to “network type” programming; many new channels mainly offer more of the same types of programs. Concentration of ownership is increasing as the traditional barriers among networks, stations, studios, syndicators, cable operators, cable networks, and advertisers dissolve. Further, key aspects of the earlier media system are amplified; e.g., premium cable channels have much higher levels of violence than do broadcast networks. Available evidence indicates that new technologies intensify cultivation; for heavy viewers, new media mean even greater exposure to more of the same messages. Thus, technological developments alone will not diminish cultivation if the messages do not change.
In sum, cultivation theory is concerned with the most general consequences of long-term exposure to centrally produced, commercially supported systems of stories. Cultivation analysis concentrates on the common consequences of living with television: the cultivation of stable, resistant, and widely shared assumptions and conceptions reflecting the institutional interests of the medium and the larger society. Understanding the dynamics of cultivation can help develop and maintain a sense of alternatives essential for self-government in a media-dominated cultural environment.
- Gerbner, G. (1973). Cultural indicators: The third voice. In G. Gerbner, L. Gross, & W. H. Melody (eds.), Communications technology and social policy. New York: John Wiley, pp. 555 – 573.
- Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. Journal of Communication, 26(2), 173 –199.
- Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). The “mainstreaming” of America: Violence profile no. 11. Journal of Communication, 30(3), 10 – 29.
- Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., Signorielli, N., & Shanahan, J. (2002). Growing up with television: Cultivation processes. In J. Bryant & D. Zillman (eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research, 2nd edn. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 43 – 67.
- Hirsch, P. (1980). The “scary world” of the nonviewer and other anomalies: A reanalysis of Gerbner et al.’s findings of cultivation analysis. Communication Research, 7(4), 403 – 456.
- Newcomb, H. (1978). Assessing the violence profile of Gerbner and Gross: A humanistic critique and suggestion. Communication Research, 5(3), 264 – 282.
- Shanahan, J., & Morgan, M. (1999). Television and its viewers: Cultivation theory and research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Williams, D. (2006). Virtual cultivation: Online worlds, offline perceptions. Journal of Communication, 56(1), 69 – 87.
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