In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Two-Step Flow

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Emergence of the Two-Step Concept
  • Criticism of the Model
  • The Paradigm’s Fight for Survival
  • Who are the Opinion Leaders?
  • Methods and Measures
  • Types of Opinion Leaders
  • The Two-Step Flow and Diffusion of Innovations
  • Two-Step Flow in the New Media

Communication Two-Step Flow
Gabriel Weimann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0131


The concept of the “two-step flow of communication” emerged from The People’s Choice, the American voting study conducted by Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues at the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University (Lazarsfeld, et al. 1948, cited under Emergence of the Two-Step Concept). These researchers observed that “ideas often flow from radio and print to opinion leaders and from them to the less active sections of the population” (p. 151). Thus, they suggested the flow of information and influence from the mass media to their audiences was taking place in two steps: from the media to the opinion leaders, and from opinion leaders to the public. This model certainly called into question most of the assumptions of the “powerful media” notion by revealing the limits of media influence while highlighting the role played by personal influence and especially by certain individuals—the opinion leaders. These ideas caught the attention and imagination of a new generation of researchers who opened a new theoretical and empirical vista. The bibliography of the two-step flow model and the opinion leadership conceptualization extends from the early discoveries—the “golden age,” when hundreds of studies in various areas provided empirical evidence—to modern criticism and modifications related to the new media environment.

General Overviews

Several reviews of the emerging and growing body of research on the two-step model were published. The earliest attempts, by Troldahl and Van Dam 1965 and Van den Ban 1964, appeared in the 1960s. Later, Hamilton 1971 tried to broaden the concept of opinion leadership, whereas Katz 1987 attempted to reply to critics of the two-step studies. Lowery and DeFleur 1995 summarizes the studies on the two-step model as part of their review, whereas Weimann 1994 and Keller and Berry 2003 focused their reviews on the opinion leaders themselves (or the “influential”). Finally, Southwell 2014 presents an overview of the two-step flow (and its linkage to diffusion), major findings to date, and future directions for research.

  • Hamilton, Herbert. 1971. Dimensions of self-designated opinion leadership and their correlates. Public Opinion Quarterly 35:266–274.‏

    DOI: 10.1086/267899

    The author attempts to broaden the concept of opinion leaders in order to learn about many dimensions or aspects of this phenomenon as it applies to a single population at a particular point in time.

  • Katz, Elihu. 1987. Communications research since Lazarsfeld. Public Opinion Quarterly 51:S25–S45.

    This is Katz’s attempt to reply to critics of the Columbia School studies. He analyzes three challenges to the paradigm of limited effects—namely, the institutional, critical, and technological criticisms—and highlights their misinterpretations of the limited effects concept.

  • Keller, Edward, and Jonathan Berry. 2003. The influentials. New York: Free Press.

    The authors claim that “One American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy” (p. 148). These are the influentials, and this book attempts to provide an empirical portrait of these individuals, as well as a series of rules and guidelines for marketing to them.

  • Lowery, Shearon, and Melvin DeFleur. 1995. Personal influence: The two-step flow of communication. In Milestone in mass communication research. 3d ed. By Shearon Lowery and Melvin DeFleur, 189–212. White Plains, NY: Longman.

    This chapter on the two-step model provides an excellent review of the emergence of the theory, empirical methods, and findings from studies.

  • Southwell, Brian. 2014. Two-step flow, diffusion, and the role of social networks in political communication. In The Oxford handbook of political communication. Edited by K. Kenski and K. Hall Jamieson. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This chapter provides a broad overview of the two-step flow (and its linkage to diffusion), major findings to date, and future directions for research. The author suggests that the general theoretical orientation suggested by that tradition continues to be relevant to political communication in the 21st century. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Troldahl, Verling, and Robert Van Dam. 1965. Face-to-face communication about major topics in the news. Public Opinion Quarterly 29.4: 626–634.

    DOI: 10.1086/267365

    This study was undertaken to obtain further evidence concerning conversations that people have on public affairs topics. The sample was also used to identify opinion leaders. The findings suggest that there appears to be more opinion sharing than opinion giving in this subject area, thus less evidence for the two-step flow.

  • Van den Ban, Anne. 1964. A revision of the two-step flow of communications hypothesis. International Communication Gazette 10:237–249.

    DOI: 10.1177/001654926401000303

    This Dutch study suggests that turning to opinion leaders depends on people’s need for new information. If they are badly in need of information, they will turn to well-informed persons who often belong to a higher social status.

  • Weimann, Gabriel. 1994. The influentials: People who influence people. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    This book offers a multidisciplinary presentation of the definitions, typologies, methods, and findings of opinion leadership research, from its early formulation, through the emergence of the first empirical evidence, to the most recent research.

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