Communication Parasocial Theory in Communication
by
Gayle Stever
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0181

Introduction

Parasocial theory is an area of inquiry that has been principally pursued in communication studies although work in psychology, sociology and related disciplines has been done as well. The concept originated in 1956 with the article “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction” by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl wherein the authors suggested that television specifically, but also media in general, had put people in contact with those who were previously unknown and unknowable before the existence of visual media. Celebrities/famous people had existed before television, but what changed with the advent of televisions in the living rooms of people’s homes was that now it was possible to have a parasocial interaction in a face-to-face way with someone whose image and personality had invaded the privacy of one’s own home. Horton and Wohl focused in their discussion on the evening talk shows where a host brought celebrity guests onto the show and conducted informal conversations with those guests in a format that made the viewer feel like part of the conversation. The format encouraged the viewer to “interact” with the participants on the program, even though they were unable to really be part of the conversation. Creating a semicircle seating configuration on the show that implied that the circle was completed by the viewers at home added to the sense that one was part of a conversation. Such parasocial interaction (PSI) was defined by the one-sidedness of the interaction with the viewer knowing the television celebrity quite well while being completely unknown in return. PSI thus led to a parasocial relationship (PSR), which was the continuation of the feeling of knowing the celebrity long after the program had actually ended. In a small percentage of cases, the celebrity became a source of felt security and safe haven such that a parasocial attachment (PSA) was created. An attachment relationship is one in which a person seeks proximity to another in order to feel safe and secure. Traditionally infant/caregiver relationships and adult romantic relationships have been recognized for their attachment properties, but the idea that television personalities or other public entertainers can afford a sense of security and safety is one that has been explored in the parasocial research literature.

General Overviews

Once the concepts of PSI and PSR had been introduced in Horton and Wohl 1956, there was a period of inactivity until the early 1970s where little was done with the concept. Starting with McQuail, et al. 1972, the 1970s saw the beginnings of research into parasocial theory, although as noted later, there was some confusion as to how the two concepts, PSI and PSR, might be different. This confusion resulted in measures that failed to differentiate the constructs, necessitating the later work of various researchers to find measures that would recognize the distinction.

  • Horton, D., and R. Richard Wohl. 1956. Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance. Psychiatry 19.3: 215–229.

    DOI: 10.1080/00332747.1956.11023049E-mail Citation »

    This article introduced the idea of “parasocial” for the first time. While Horton and Wohl’s article eventually had a huge impact on research in both communication and psychology, the idea was somewhat dormant until the 1970s when uses and gratifications researchers began to look anew at this concept and how it related to media consumption.

  • McQuail, D., J. G. Blumler, and J. R. Brown. 1972. The television audience: A revised perspective. In Sociology of mass communications. Edited by D. McQuail, 135–165. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

    E-mail Citation »

    This article suggested that PSI is used for both companionship and personal identification in a society where movies and mass media were increasingly being used for fantasy and escapism. The work of these authors explored media as a source of gratification. This article also used the term “vicarious relationship” to talk about the relationships that viewers have with media personae.

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