Communication Theories


The idea of agenda-setting has evolved greatly since its initial conception.  Using the ideas from McCombs and Shaw (1972) agenda-setting theory describes how the media influences public perception of important current issues.  First-level agenda-setting explains how media organizations choose which news stories to feature, and then the general public and political figures will assume these are the most important issues to be concerned with.  Second-level agenda-setting asserts that not only does the media influence which issues the public should value, but it also shapes the way in which the public will feel about particular issues.

Diffusion of Innovations

Diffusion of innovations seeks to understand how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures.  In 1962 Everett Rogers, a professor of sociology, published a book called Diffusion of Innovations. The book proposes four main elements that influence the spread of a new idea. Diffusion is the process by which an innovation (1) is communicated through certain channels (2) over time (3) among members of a social system (4). It suggests it is not the people who change, but the innovations themselves. Instead of trying to persuade people to change, this theory sees change as the reinvention or changing of the product.

Cognitive Dissonance

This theory, proposed by Leon Festinger (1957), is one of the more well known persuasion theories ever developed. It specifically examines the relationship between attitude and behavior. Essentially, attitudes should cause behavior, however, this is not always the case. Therefore, cognitive dissonance specifically examines how behavior influences attitude. Often times individuals remain consistent in their attitudes by exposing themselves to messages that are consistent with their beliefs. However, when people act in a way that is contradictory to their beliefs, they change their attitude to match their behavior, therefore relieving the dissonance by shifting their attitude.

Cultivation / Mean World Syndrome

George Gerbner and Larry Gross (1976) studied the effects of television violence on viewers over an extended time. They found that people who view more television tend to view the world as a more violent place than it actually is.  This concept came to be known as the mean world syndrome (Gerbner, 1998). This series of violence studies eventually formed the foundation for what has come to be known as cultivation theory. Cultivation basically says that our perceptions of the world are influenced by the media we consume. This theory has been expanded to include diverse topics such as viewer perceptions of age and gender roles as well as perceptions of body image. It has also been expanded beyond television to include any media that is frequently consumed.

Media Systems Dependency

Proposed by Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur (1967), this theory is “a complex system in which the media, individuals, their interpersonal environment, and the social environment are seen to have dependency relationships with each other” (Miller, 2005, p. 261). Ball-Rokeach and DeFluer say that dependency is “a relationship in which the satisfaction of needs or the attainment of goals by one party is contingent upon the resources of another party” (as cited in Miller, 2005, p. 262). MSD “has a role both in understanding and explaining media relationships and in encouraging social action to change media policy and individual behavior” (Miller, 2005, p. 264). [Communication Theories, Perspectives, Processes, and Contexts]

Conversational Implicature

Grice (1975) asserted that communication is possible because we follow sets of rules based on the four basic criteria of the cooperative principle. Quantity is the amount of information shared. We must offer enough information to be fully understood, but not so much as to hide the relevant information. Quality information is not false or lacking in evidence. Relation means that the information is relevant to the previous discourse. And manner is how the information is presented. It should be clear, orderly, and unambiguous. If we fail to follow these criteria, communication breaks down.

Information Manipulation

McCornack (1992) suggests that deceptive messages are a result of covert violation of Grice’s (1975) cooperative principle criteria. Because the violation is not made apparent, the listener is misled by the assumption that the speaker is adhering to the cooperative principles of quantity, quality, relation, and manner.

Spiral of Silence

Developed in 1965 by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, Spiral of Silence theory argues that as a prevailing or popular opinion gains dominance in the media, individuals who hold opposing opinions become less willing to speak their opinion in public.  According to Spiral of Silence, this leads to a failure to recruit new people, leading to opinions which are opposite the perceived public opinion to fall silent out of a fear of isolation and ultimately out of the media (Miller, 2005).


Standpoint theory has slowly developed past couple of centuries, and it has been richly grounded in feminist and Marxist frameworks.  The conception of standpoint theory that will be used for the purposes of this site comes from Hartsock (1998) which expands standpoint theory to analyze the individuals in other disenfranchised groups.  The main assertions of the theory are that a standpoint is a place from which certain people socially construct their world, and an individual’s involvement with specific social groups will greatly influence that standpoint.  The differences and inequalities from these social groups create distance and barriers between standpoints.

Uses and Gratifications

Uses and gratifications theory attempts to find the motivations of media consumers and what drives individuals to consume media. Uses and gratifications theory’s roots date back to Herta Herzog’s (1941) work in the middle of the 20th century. Herzog proposed that different audiences seek out media for different reasons, which was a direct contradiction to many of the popular, high-effects media research at the time. Today, uses and gratifications theory has been applied to almost every medium and has shown that audiences can have a wide variety of uses for media, including for social, entertainment, personal identity, and information-seeking reasons.