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The merits and limitations of the ‘Effects Tradition’ in media audience research

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The effects of mass media on individuals in society are something that is a constant topic of debate. With continuous technological advancements the range of media available to the public is indeed increasing on a large scale. The effects of mass media on individuals, the majority of the time tends to be depicted in a negative nature. There is one type of medium that is seen as the ringleader in ‘feeding’ society with these socially unaccepted images and is always at the forefront of constant criticism and that is television.

Television is a highly debated topic and is constantly targeted and used as a scapegoat for the rise in anti social behaviour within society. There has been various theory and speculation regarding the effects of mass media and television in particular, on society by theorists such as; Gauntlett, Hall, Hagell & Newburn and Frankfurt School (Marxists). The most highly publicised theory about the effects of mass media on society is known as the ‘Effects Tradition’.

The Effects Tradition is one of the most controversial studies regarding the effects of mass media on society and has been highly criticised due to clear flaws within the study (which will be highlighted within this essay). Although the study has its limitations in many ways, there are also some key factors that are relevant regarding the effects of mass media and again television in particular. Within this essay I will be discussing the merits and limitations of the ‘Effects Tradition’ drawing on mainly the works of Gauntlett, Bandura, Hall and Frankfurt School. Effects of mass media on society have been widely researched.

Gauntlett in his numerous years of extensive research came to the conclusion whereby there not being any clear links identified regarding the effects of media upon behaviour that clearly these supposed effects are just not there to be found (Gauntlett, 1995). However there is another perspective that you can look at the flaws of this study and that is that they had continuously taken the wrong approach to the mass media. Gauntlett clearly identifies key factors regarding the limitations within the ‘Effects Tradition’ (also known as ‘Effects Model’) in his article “Ten things wrong with the ‘effects model’” (Dickinson et al, 1998).

Gauntlett noted that the effects model deals with social problems backwards. The effects model instead of going to the root of social anti-social behaviour, the individual that participates in the anti social behaviour and studying various factors about the individual such as background, age, class etc. The effects model seems to go about finding the cause in the total opposite way, looking at the mass media and then trying to link it to individuals.

Hagell and Newburn’s (1994) study is a clear example of this as the 500 ‘ordinary’ pupils that they studied had no particular interest in violent programmes and the majority of them didn’t even have any access to television. So all in all the project was a total contradiction of the socially stereotyped opinion as the minority that viewed violent footage and participated in violent activities would be very minimal so the findings would not reflect the socially constructed opinions of mass media as the likely hood of mass media having an effect on individuals would be a very small percentage.

However in Bandura’s (1975) study of young men, who had watched a great amount of violence on TV when they were children, were more aggressive than the children who had watched violent footage occasionally. However, the findings did point out that the children that were more aggressive as kids showed no tendency to watch more violence on TV in their adulthood. Childhood viewing of violence only accounted for 10 percent of aggression in adulthood. Although this may appear to be a small percentage, if 100,000 people nationwide view a similar program that is 10,000 individuals that will be affected by violent viewing.

This indeed can definitely have an impact socially. Therefore supporting Bandura’s theory that fantasy viewing leads to the real thing. Most critiques of effects of mass media on society tend to take a passive view of the audience and this is something that the effects tradition is highly criticised for. This “hypodermic” view of media influence, in which the media is seen to have this total control over individuals viewing, having the power to “inject” their audiences with particular “messages”, which will cause individuals to act and behave in certain ways, was a total undermining of subjects individualism. … their work ‘gives to the mass media and the culture industry a role of ideological dominance which destroys both bourgeois individualism and the revolutionary potential of the working class” regarding Frankfurt School (Woollacott 1982: p105).

The Frankfurt School’s believed that people are easily fooled by capitalism, a sense of “false consciousness”, where Frankfurt School explain that individuals are clearly constrained by the bourgeoisie society. A clear and very naive assumption within the effects tradition is that a single message is delivered to the audience and that televised violence will always be negative. So really they are placing programs such as Crime Watch UK and Kill Bill in the same category, when there depictions of violence are clearly coming from different angles and the effects tradition seems to exempt ‘real’ televised violence, so if it said that televised violence has effects on individuals shouldn’t these particular programmes also have the same effect?

Hall’s encoding/decoding model (1981) clearly shows the non-simplicity of the audience. Hall goes onto to explain that although the mass media are ‘injecting messages’ to the audience. It is very unlikely that each person will perceive the message in the same context as this one reading is very much capable of having a variety of meanings (polysemic). “… the dominant ideology is typically inscribed as the ‘preferred reading’ in a media text, but that this is not automatically adopted by readers. “(Hall, 1981: p135)

Which can depend upon numerous factors again that cannot be found in the mass media but in the audience itself, for instance personal experiences and beliefs as well as the factors I highlighted earlier on such as, background, class etc. The effects tradition constantly makes this common error that homogenises society and fails to leave leeway for personal differences and Individualism. A part of the effects model, which is referred to as ‘uses and gratifications’ focuses on why people use particular media, rather than on content.

In contrast to the concern of the ‘media effects’ tradition with ‘what media do to people’, Uses & Gratification theory is much more concerned with ‘what people do with media’, again allowing for a vast contrast of understandings. “… even the most potent of the mass media content cannot ordinarily influence an individual who has ‘no use’ for it in the social and psychological context in which he lives. The ‘uses’ approach assumes that people’s values, their interests, their associations, their social reyes, are pre-potent, and that people selectively ‘fashion’ what they see and hear to these interests” (Katz (1959) in McQuail (1971))

However although the audience is not as ‘passive’ as the effect tradition suggests, there is a slight relationship that would link mass media and anti-social behaviour as ‘modelling’ can some what explain why highly publicised suicides and drug overdoses e. g. Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway are followed by sharp increases of self-inflicted death. It also helps us understand why political assassinations e. g. Martin Luther King and Jr. Malcolm X occur in clusters. And with this observation explains the spread of tactics of militant non-violence approaches to racial and antiwar protest, as positive publicised events can work in the same way as negative publicised events. The study is also flawed in a sense that it is bias because the researchers seem to ignore the fact that as well as working in a negative sense watching televised violence as individuals can be a positive thing and it can possibly eradicate certain strong feelings that if acted out would involve a form of anti-social behaviour.

The effects tradition has a too narrow minded and simplistic attitude towards the effects of mass media. Studies by Feshbach and Singer (1971) show that televised violence can have a cathartic effect on individuals and rather than the aggressive media output making individuals more aggressive it works in total opposite way, whereby the ‘subjects’ continual viewing of violent images acts as a outlet to purge individuals of imbedded emotional feelings. This is said to have the same effect when watching pornography.

But this theory also has its flaws in a sense that catharsism is only a temporary measure and sooner or later those embedded emotions once the individual returns back into the ‘real’ world will again rise to the surface. Another fact with the effects tradition research is that the majority of the research that was carried out tended to be laboratory studies. Gauntlett (1995) made comment about the ‘unnatural environment’, which the research is carried out in.

Due to the fact that, “… he material shown often lacks context and story and so doesn’t duplicate the real experience of watching television. ” (Gauntlett, 1995) It can also be said that the ‘subjects’ may behave more aggressively in the laboratory simply because they are excited by the film content, which could equally happen if they watched footage that was non-violent. The key flaw also with laboutory experiments are that the ‘subjects’ involved in experiments often feels that they should behave as the experimenter wishes them to behave.

This was demonstrated by researchers such as Borden (1975) who have shown that the presence, appearance and gender of an observer can radically affect children’s behaviour. This flaw was a key element in Bandura’s (1962) study with the Bobo doll, as this did not depict ‘real’ life whatsoever as when the bobo doll when hit would ‘bounce’ back up therefore the children would indeed feel no emotion about attacking the doll as there was no consequences. However when the children actually witnessed consequences to the violent behaviour they tended not to attack the doll.

The majority of the research studies conclude that over a long period of time watching continuous violent footage will by all means increase at least slightly the possibility that these pacific individuals will show signs of aggressive tendencies. The effects model lacks in the sense that it fails to identify or explain human behaviour towards the media in society. Where other models use statistics and various data to support their claims, the effects model has failed in that respect, as much of the findings contained within the model are mainly a matter of assumption and plain sociological naivety.

Gauntlett (1995) says strongly about the model how Its continued survival is indefensible and unfortunate. Its blatant failure to address any concrete relation between the mass media and effects on individuals does not at all suggest that the research into the impact of the mass media should not be taken into careful consideration as technological advancements has enabled theorists to take a more ‘open minded’ and rational approach to the issue.

Studies by Greg Philo and Glasgow University Media Group colleagues have often used imaginative methods to explore the influence of media presentations upon perceptions and interpretations of factual matters (Philo, 1990; Philo, ed. , 1996). Future studies that manage to avoid the flaws and assumptions which have by all means destroyed the creditability of the effects tradition is most likely to have some advantages, as I have struggled to find many key advantages within the effects tradition.

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