Dating back to work done in Columbia’s Bureau of Applied Social Research in the 1940s, media uses and gratifications (U&G) research represents one of the oldest and largest continuous programs of research in the field of communication. The tradition represents hundreds of research projects since the 1940s examining the reasons why people use mass media including radio, television, film, print media, and the Internet. U&G has consistently been one of the most frequently published mass communication theoretical perspectives in communication journals over the past 50 years. The product of this massive research effort has been a large set of taxonomies of media use motives; research linking those motives to antecedent variables (e.g., social factors, personality) and media use, along with some consequences (effects) of that use; and an extensive theoretical discussion and critique. Many scholars hold that U&G represents a research perspective that is separate from the media effects tradition.
Major Dimensions Of Uses And Gratifications
In their 1974 collection, Katz and Blumler, along with Gurevitch, provided the germinal theoretical description of the U&G paradigm, stating that U&G research is concerned with “the social and psychological origins of needs, which generate expectations of the mass media or other sources, which lead to differential patterns of media exposure (or engagement in other activities), resulting in need gratifications and other consequences, perhaps mostly unintended ones” (Katz et al. 1974, 20). From these first theoretical musings, U&G stood in contrast to many contemporary effects theories by positing an active audience that uses media to satisfy felt needs, rather than a passive media audience that is affected by media messages.
Rubin, one of the most prolific U&G researchers of the 1980s and 1990s, specified five a priori assumptions about the relationship between people and media embodied in U&G research. The first assumption is that media use is motivated, goal-directed, and purposive behavior. Second, individuals initiate media use in response to felt needs. Third, a variety of individual differences and social factors guide and filter media use behavior. Fourth, media use is just one of many alternatives people have; thus media competes with other communication to best satisfy needs and motives. Finally, U&G research assumes that people are a more powerful influence than media in most cases.
In 1961, Schramm et al. specified three motives for television use among children: entertainment, social interaction, and learning. As other taxonomies were specified with the emergence of new media and genres, these three core motives expanded, but remained fairly consistent with the original formulation. Typically, television use motives include those for entertainment (e.g., to pass time, diversion, arousal, relaxation), social interaction (e.g., co-viewing, parasocial interaction, cultural currency), and learning (e.g., information about the environment, socialization by the media). Print media motivations also include entertainment (escapism), social interaction (prestige; Interactivity, Concept of), and learning (interpreting public affairs, surveillance). New media often introduce different motives. For example, video game motives include entertainment (diversion, arousal, fantasy) and social interaction, but not learning (Sherry et al. 2006). Instead, unique motives of gaming include the challenge of beating the game and the competition of beating others.
Changes Over Time In The Topic And Its Treatment
According to Rosengren et al., U&G research proceeded in three major phases up until the writing of their collection, Media gratifications research: Current perspectives in 1985. The first phase began in the 1940s and lasted until the late 1950s. This era was characterized by descriptive research focusing on the reasons individuals use media, starkly contrasting with the mass society powerful effects beliefs of the time. The second phase, which Rosengren et al. called the operationalization period, focused on developing typologies of media use during the 1960s. The working philosophy of the time is best summed up by Schramm et al., who wrote, “In order to understand television’s impact and effect on children, we have first to get away from the unrealistic concept of what television does to children and substitute the concept of what children do with television” (1961, 169). The second era efforts culminated in the early paradigm models proffered by Katz et al. and by Rosengren in Blumler & Katz’s classic 1974 collection The uses of mass communications: Current perspectives of gratifications research.
Of these perspectives, the model advanced by Rosengren (1974) best encapsulates the core concepts and theoretical linkages of U&G. Rosengren’s model stated that basic needs, individual differences, and social pressures combine to result in a variety of perceived problems and motivations to which gratifications are sought from the media and elsewhere, leading to differential patterns of media effects on both the individual and societal levels. Thus, in the 1970s U&G became consistent with the emerging emphasis on functionalism found in many other disciplines at the time.
After the publication of the Blumler and Katz collection, researchers continued to expand empirical data in support of the Rosengren model. This effort resulted in the emergence of several core concepts and debates. Some scholars attempted to reduce existing taxonomies into clearer theoretical distinctions, dividing motivations for media use into those that represent media uses (to satisfy anticipated pragmatic goals) and those that satisfy media gratifications (transitory mental or emotional responses). Rubin continued this work, further specifying instrumental use motives (seeking exciting or entertaining information) and ritualistic use motives (habitual). Instrumental uses were associated with more purposeful, limited, and selective media use, while ritualistic motives were associated with generalized medium or genre use that was more time-consuming.
Another focus emerged from the debate as to whether media audiences were active or passive. Though the paradigm had always posited an active audience, this notion was difficult to sustain as research into habitual or ritualistic motives continued to emerge. Researchers came to understand that media users exhibited varying levels of selectivity and attention before, during, and after the media use process. Recently research has shown that unconscious selection of media and genres may be driven by biological states that are either transitory or relatively stabile across the life-span (Sherry 2001). Thus, media use is likely both active and passive; conscious and unconscious.
Rosengren’s theoretical explication notes that media use does not guarantee that an individual’s perceived problems will always be solved by the media. Researchers therefore began to investigate the differences between media gratifications sought and media gratifications obtained. Further, they developed an approach to media satisfaction based on an expectancy value model. In this model, media satisfaction resulted from beliefs about gratifications attributes possessed by the media and affective evaluation of those attributes. This model was more successful than a straightforward comparison of the gratifications obtained to the gratifications sought (Palmgreen & Rayburn 1985).
Criticism Of The Uses And Gratifications Approach
Several scholars have criticized U&G as non-theoretical and lacking in conceptual clarity and explanatory mechanisms. In particular, critics claim that many of the key concepts, particularly motives, needs, gratifications, and uses, are not conceptually distinct from one another. Recently, however, scholars have begun to clarify the concepts implicated in reasons for media use by borrowing concepts from psychology like intrinsic, implicit, and explicit motives, as well as intrinsic motivations. Another problem is that the taxonomic tendencies in the literature are too compartmentalized to support the notion of a unified theory of media use. Careful consideration of the guiding model suggests that this conclusion is more due to the research that has been undertaken than to any deficit in the potential explanatory power of the U&G model. In order for the model to reach its explanatory potential, it must address the question of the etiology of media use motivations theorized in it (Vorderer et al. 2006).
As pointed out above, the approach’s key assumption, namely that media users are active in the selection of media and can articulate the reasons for media use, has also been criticized. In response, some researchers have attempted to address the etiology of use motivation. For example, researchers have examined the relationship between media use and the “Big Five” personality factors (neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness), other personality factors, chronic loneliness, self-esteem, sensation seeking, and need for arousal. To date, media researchers have not demonstrated a strong link between personality traits and media use (Finn 1997). Typically, the results are mixed, with few personality variables associated with media use variables. However, research on biological drivers such as temperament may go a long way toward solving this problem.
Finally, critics have complained that U&G research is narrowly focused on individuals and does not acknowledge the impact of societal factors and societal-level changes. While this has certainly been the case with the empirical research, scholars have begun to call for cross-level theorizing in media research. U&G is a good candidate for cross-level thinking; Rosengren’s (1974) model clearly articulates the importance of both individual- and societal-level variables as a part of the media selection process.
Future Directions In Research, Theory, And Methodology
One of the advantages of the U&G approach is the ease with which it applies to new media and new technologies. In fact, interactive technologies such as the Internet and video games have breathed new life into U&G research because of its emphasis on active audiences. Online users and games must make frequent content or response choices while engaged with these new media. With the advent of wikis and personal web page sites such as Facebook and MySpace, media users are getting more actively involved in both creating and consuming media. Taxonomies of Internet usage motivations parallel earlier media in some ways (e.g., interpersonal utility, pastime, information seeking, convenience, and entertainment), but also provide a place to communicate with family and friends. This difference marks one of the major distinctions in this new medium.
Recent work on new media highlight two broad types of gratifications users can expect: process gratifications and content gratifications. Song et al. (2004) argue that the Internet is different from traditional media because it provides not only an activity to engage in (process motivations such as surfing the net or playing games) and information (e.g., news stories, product information, online movies), but also a new social aspect that traditional media lack (e.g., instant messaging, chatting with customer service, talking over the Internet while gaming). Further, the Internet puts more information in the hands of users more quickly and easily than any other medium. Users do not need to wait for a newscaster or journalist to provide game scores and analysis – it is all instantly available. It will be interesting to see the gratifications that people will develop with these new media and the extent to which these media will create dependency or replace other forms of human communication.
For now, growing numbers of young scholars are focusing attention in two directions. First, they are creating taxonomies of use of emerging media as scholars did in the past. More importantly, they are more closely examining the experience of media use through an array of entertainment media theories and concepts including hedonic theory, selective exposure, flow, presence, and transportation (Bryant & Vorderer 2006). These scholars are interested in the phenomenological experience of media entertainment, as well as in clarifying the psychological and neurophysiological systems implicated in media use. Like the U&G scholars that preceded them, they are addressing the weaknesses of the paradigm through continuing empirical and theoretical advances. Thus the oldest and largest research domain in mass communication continues to grow and evolve with each new generation of researchers.
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