Communication Media Dependency
Joo-Young Jung
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0056


Media system dependency theory was first developed by Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Melvin DeFleur in 1976. The theory addresses the shortcomings of communication studies in 1960s and 1970s that either focused on the micro-level or psychological level of individual’s media use or focused on the macro-level with the assumption of strong media effects. Rather than resorting to either strong or weak media effects, media system dependency theory focuses on the factors that influence media effects and the context in which the power of media becomes strong or weak. The power of media is affected by whether the media are exclusive and important resources to the particular individual and social organization. Media system dependency theory explains the relationship between individuals, groups, organizations, social systems and the media system from an ecological and multilevel perspective.

Major Theoretical Works

Media system dependency theory evolved over three decades starting in the 1970s. In each decade, Ball-Rokeach published a theoretical paper that further developed and elaborated the theory. In Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur 1976, the authors first proposed the theory and explained how media system dependency (MSD) relations in a society bring about cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects. In Ball-Rokeach 1985, the author explicated individual’s MSD relations, identifying antecedent variables and proposing typology of six goal-driven dependency relations. Ball-Rokeach 1998 was a third theoretical paper that further specified the dimensions of MSD relations, and highlighted the ecological framework of the theory.

  • Ball-Rokeach, Sandra J. 1985. The origins of individual media system dependency: A sociological framework. Communication Research 12:485–510.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365085012004003E-mail Citation »

    This work explicates antecedent factors that influence media system dependency relations, which include structural dependency relations and the social environment at the macro-level, interpersonal networks at the meso-level, and individual characteristics at the micro-level. Ball-Rokeach also proposed a typology of six media dependency goals, which have become widely used in studies that have applied media system dependency theory.

  • Ball-Rokeach, Sandra J. 1998. A theory of media power and a theory of media use: Different stories, questions, and ways of thinking. Mass Communication & Society 1.1–2: 5–40.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this piece, Ball-Rokeach emphasizes the ecological nature of media system dependency theory. She explicates cross-level interactions among individuals, interpersonal networks and the media system, which have been the main thrust in the past works, but not explicitly framed. Also, the nature of individual-level dependency relations was explained in detail, and the difference in the individual-media relationship between media system dependency theory and uses and gratification theory was explained in detail.

  • Ball-Rokeach, Sandra J., and Melvin L. DeFleur. 1976. A dependency model of mass media effects. Communication Research 3:3–21.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365027600300101E-mail Citation »

    This paper is the first published work that proposed media system dependency theory. The authors define core concepts, and pose theoretical hypotheses regarding the relationship between the information-delivery function of media, individuals’ dependency engendering goals, and the influence of conflict and change in the larger social environs. The model that they present focuses on cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects of media dependency relations.

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