Communication Media Dependency
Joo-Young Jung
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0056


Media system dependency (MSD) theory was first developed by Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Melvin DeFleur in 1976. The theory addresses the shortcomings of communication studies in the 1960s and 1970s that either focused on the microlevel or psychological level of individual’s media use or focused on the macrolevel with the assumption of strong media effects. Rather than resorting either to strong or weak media effects, MSD 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. MSD theory explains the relationships among individuals, groups, organizations, social systems, and the media system from an ecological and multilevel perspective.

Major Theoretical Works

Media system dependency (MSD) theory evolved over three decades starting in the 1970s. In each decade, Sandra 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 MSD relations in a society bring about cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects. In Ball-Rokeach 1985, the author explicates individuals’ MSD relations, identifying antecedent variables and proposing typology of six goal-driven dependency relations. Ball-Rokeach 1998 is a third theoretical paper that further specifies the dimensions of MSD relations and highlights the ecological framework of the theory.

  • Ball-Rokeach, Sandra J. 1985. The origins of individual media system dependency: A sociological framework. Communication Research 12.4: 485–510.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365085012004003

    This work explicates antecedent factors that influence MSD relations, which include structural dependency relations and the social environment at the macrolevel, interpersonal networks at the mesolevel, and individual characteristics at the microlevel. Ball-Rokeach also proposes a typology of six media dependency goals, which have become widely used in studies that have applied MSD 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.

    In this piece, Ball-Rokeach emphasizes the ecological nature of MSD 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 were not explicitly framed. Also, the nature of individual-level dependency relations is explained in detail, and the difference in the individual-media relationship between MSD theory and uses-and-gratification theory is also explained in detail.

  • Ball-Rokeach, Sandra J., and Melvin L. DeFleur. 1976. A dependency model of mass media effects. Communication Research 3.1: 3–21.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365027600300101

    This paper is the first published work that proposed MSD 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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