In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mass Media

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Histories
  • Debating the Concept of the “Mass”
  • Networks and Fragmentation
  • Media Effects and Public Opinion
  • Media Reception: General Principles
  • Media Reception: Family, Gender, and Class
  • Social Problems
  • Social Movements
  • Media and Community
  • Popular Culture
  • Medium Studies
  • Globalization
  • Comparative Media Systems

Sociology Mass Media
Rodney Benson, Tim Wood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0119


While the “mass media” have long been an object of research, scholarly emphasis has shifted in recent decades from the first word of that term to the second. In the 1920s and 1930s, as the sociology of mass media began to assert itself as an academic subdiscipline, social scientists, media industry researchers, and other critics were concentrated most intently on aggregate, society-wide “mass” effects. In the contemporary moment, the focus has shifted to “media” as plural in every sense: as technologies, as niche circuits of cultural production and reception, and as distinctive multinational, national, or subnational institutional fields. How far this fragmentation of media goes, to what extent it is really something new, and the degree to which it also means a dispersal of power continue to be at the center of debate in sociology and related disciplines. There is also ample evidence of increases in the scale of media infrastructures along with new kinds of global connections. In other words, although the term mass has gone out of favor (for instance, one important media studies journal has changed its name from Critical Studies in Mass Communication to Critical Studies in Media Communication), some level of “mass” mediated communication—that is, communication involving connections between the one to many or the many to many—seems to be taken for granted by all researchers in this still-growing field of study. No survey of this sprawling field can be complete, but we have attempted to identify some of the major subfields as defined by researchers themselves and works exemplary of distinctive theories or methods. We include works not only in sociology, but also in political science, anthropology, economics, and all those branches of media studies that attempt to link their theorizing with systematic empirical research on media production, texts, and audiences.

Overviews and Histories

Contemporary media research draws on multiple theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches. Curran 2010 and McQuail 2010 offer excellent broad overviews. Berelson 1959 and Katz, et al. 2003 present mainstream canonical views of key early works in the field. Gitlin 1978 provides an important critical reassessment of this canonical narrative, while Dorsten 2012 critiques the effacement of female scholars from accounts of the discipline’s history. Pooley 2008 synthesizes several revisionist histories of mass communications research, producing the most developed rethinking of the field to date. Couldry 2012 delivers an erudite and wide-ranging attempt to update social theories of media for the digital era.

  • Berelson, Bernard. 1959. The state of communication research. Public Opinion Quarterly 23:1–6.

    This classic essay presents Lewin, Lasswell, Lazarsfeld, and Hovland as four “founding fathers” of communications research, a contested but canonical view of the field.

  • Couldry, Nick. 2012. Media, society, world: Social theory and digital media practice. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Focuses on the transformations generated by digital technology, constructing a social theory of everyday media use. Couldry examines the ontologies, categorizations, accumulations of power, and normative frameworks in which digital media exist, placing emphasis on the importance of mediated representation in social life.

  • Curran, James, ed. 2010. Media and society. 5th ed. New York: Bloomsbury.

    The latest in an excellent series formerly entitled Mass Media and Society, this collection continues the tradition of past editions by offering an exemplary, far-ranging view of the field. Despite the conspicuous name change, the volume contains several essays exploring the ongoing relevance of the term mass for media studies.

  • Dorsten, Aimee-Marie. 2012. “Thinking dirty”: Digging up three founding “matriarchs” of communication studies. Communication Theory 22.1: 25–47.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2011.01398.x

    In a rejoinder to Berelson’s 1959 “founding fathers” historical account of communications studies, Dorsten underscores the contributions of female thinkers such as Hortense Powdermaker, Mae Huettig, and Helen MacGill Hughes to the formation of the field of mass media research.

  • Gitlin, Todd. 1978. Media sociology: The dominant paradigm. Theory and Society 6:205–253.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01681751

    This landmark essay critiques the “limited-effects” model posited by Lazarsfeld and others for not taking adequate account of media’s institutional power. One finds here a compelling Gramscian-inflected argument for a conception of power that operates not through changing opinions but rather through reinforcing and naturalizing the existing order.

  • Katz, Elihu, John Durham Peters, Tamar Liebes, and Avril Orloff, eds. 2003. Canonic texts in media research. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Breaking the history of mass media research into “schools” (the Columbia School, Frankfurt School, Chicago School, Toronto School, and British Cultural Studies), this book offers essays reflecting on canonical texts from each approach.

  • McQuail, Denis. 2010. McQuail’s mass communication theory. 6th ed. London: SAGE.

    Productively links surveys of mass media research to emerging issues and problems. A thorough introduction to the field, suitable as a textbook or as a reference for scholars seeking concise overviews of various subfields.

  • Pooley, Jefferson. 2008. The new history of mass communication research. In The history of media and communication research: Contested memories. Edited by David W. Park and Jefferson Pooley, 43–69. New York: Peter Lang.

    In this historiography of revisionist histories, Pooley integrates work from scholars across various disciplines to challenge the canonical narrative of early US communications research.

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