George Gerbnerís Cultivation Theory Application Paper
University of Colorado at Boulder
The Sociopsychological tradition of human communication views communication as expression, interaction, and influence and focuses on problems of communication dealing with undesired behaviors or effects (Dr. Craig Lecture, November 9, 2006). While there are many theories that fit into this tradition, Cultivation Theory is one of the most interesting and pertinent in todayís world. Cultivation theory, which is a Sociopsychological theory, was primarily developed by the famous communication theorist, George Gerbner during his Cultural Indicator research. Gerbner began his Cultural Indicator research in the 1960ís which led to Cultivation Theory; he continued to study, refine, and extend the research for the next twenty years. For purposes of this essay, I will concentrate on a small part of this research which Gerbner and fellow theorists documented in the Journal of Communication titled "The ĎMainstreamingí of America: Violence Profile No. 11." The research for this journal article included both message system analysis, which was the monitoring of television programming, and cultivation analysis which was an investigation of participantsí conceptions of social reality (Greunke, 2006).
Message system analysis consisted of viewing numerous television programs over many years and analyzing the amount of violence shown. By doing this Gerbner et al. (1980) discovered a television reality in which an act of violence occurred five times an hour, people in law enforcement were far overrepresented, men outnumbered women three to one, and the young and old were underrepresented. In doing his cultivation analysis, Gerbner designed an experiment in which participants were asked a series of questions related to violence. The participants were classified as either high (4 or more hours/day), moderate (2-4 hours/day), or light (less than 2 hours/day) television viewers. This was done in order to determine how much the amount of television viewing contributes to oneís perception of reality. Unlike many previous studies, Gerbner focused on perceptions and attitudes rather than behaviors (Chandler, 1995). Gerbner et al. (1980) believed that the amount of exposure to television greatly impacted the strength of cultivation and therefore concentrated his research on these heavy viewers.
From Gerbnerís Cultural Indicator research he developed a theory known as Cultivation Theory. The central claim of Cultivation Theory is that "Television makes specific and measurable contributions to viewersí conceptions of reality" (Gerbner et al., 1980, p. 10). Because Gerbner believed that "Television is the central and most pervasive mass medium in American culture" at the time, he analyzed it as opposed to other media (Gerbner et al., 1980, p. 14). Within Cultivation Theory, Gerbner et al. (1980) noticed two main occurrences that illustrate and augment the theory which he termed "mainstreaming" and "resonance."
The first, known as "mainstreaming," is when heavy viewers among different demographic groups share a commonality of outlooks cultivated by television that are not shared by light viewers from these different groups (Gerbner et al., 1980). For example, heavy viewers from different income categories answered the "Fear of crime is a very serious personal problem" question more similarly than the light viewers did from different income categories. As would be expected, the light viewers from a lower income were more likely to answer that it was a serious personal problem than light viewers with higher incomes. For heavy viewers, the answers only differed slightly depending on the income bracket. Therefore there was a convergence of outlooks among heavy viewers which Gerbner called "mainstreaming."
The second main phenomenon Gerbner et al. (1980) discovered is known as "resonance." This occurs when what is seen on television is similar to oneís life experience and creates a "double dose" of the message which greatly enhances cultivation (Gerbner et al., 1980, p. 15). An example of resonance would be if someone was walking home late at night in the city and was mugged. If a few weeks later that same person watched someone on television get mugged, they would be getting a "double dose" of the message that it is common for people to get mugged. Thus the experience in real life and of watching television would resonate and create a more intense cultivation of this belief in reality. This person would then believe that being mugged is much more common than it truly is.
In order to apply Gerbnerís Cultivation Theory, I decided to conduct a miniature experiment of my own to see how Gerbnerís theory would pertain to a topic other than violence. Instead of testing violence in television and how it impacts peopleís views of how violent the real world is, I decided to test the cultivation effects of an equally common theme in television, namely sexual references. Sexual references, which I considered to be any direct or indirect mention of sex, sexual gestures, obvious sexual ways of dressing and behaving, or any sexual act, are pervasive in todayís television environment. Everything from music videos, to family programs, to reality shows, to primetime dramas are saturated with references to sex.
The method for conducting this experiment involved, like Gerbnerís Cultural Indicator research, both message system analysis and cultivation analysis. In terms of the message system analysis, I viewed ten popular adult programs on television over the Thanksgiving holiday break which included a wide variety of genres ranging from Desperate Housewives to part of the Broncoís Football game to Real World to 7th Heaven to Law and Order to Sex and the City. For each show I counted the number of sexual references and divided this number by the number of minutes the show was on. The average number of sexual references was equal to one sexual reference every two minutes. Obviously certain shows, such as Sex and the City, made reference to sex far more often than the Broncoís game thus it is important to note that the range of sexual references among shows went from one every twenty seconds to one every thirty minutes. Certainly it is apparent that the amount of sexual references greatly depends upon the type of show watched. In general the shows illustrated a television reality in which sex played an extremely important role in society, casual sex was common, people often had dozens of sexual partners during a lifetime, and virginity was lost at a very young age. For purposes of this experiment, I will assume that the real world differs from the television world in that sex only plays a somewhat important role in society, casual sex is not common, people on average only have a few sexual partners during a lifetime, and virginity is lost at an older age.
The bulk of the experiment consisted of cultivation analysis in which I gave a survey to 20 people ranging in age from 24 to 72. It is important to note that this is a very small sample and many of these people were family members and friends and thus do not represent a truly diverse group of people and could likely have produced biased results. The respondents consisted of eight men and twelve women and were all white and of middle to upper class backgrounds living in the Denver Metropolitan area. Like Gerbner, when calculating the results, I divided the people into three groups consisting of light viewers, moderate viewers, and heavy viewers. Even though people in general watch far more television now than they did during Gerbnerís research, I decided to leave the classification of amount of viewing the same; this was done in order to create an experiment comparable to Gerbnerís. Thus, five people fit into the light viewing category watching less than two hours of television a day, five fit into the moderate viewing category watching two to four hours a day, and ten fit into the heavy viewing category watching four or more hours of television a day. Similar to Gerbnerís finding that respondents coming from lower income tended to watch more television than those coming from a higher income background, I found that on average males tended to watch about an hour more television per day than their female counterparts (Gerbner et al., 1980).
The survey I administered consisted of background questions and four questions dealing with sex which the respondents had to either circle a number from 1 to 5 representing their views or were given various choices and asked to circle one. The questions consisted of the following: How big of an impact does sex have on society?; How common is casual sex?; How many sexual partners does an average person have in a lifetime?; and What is the average age to lose oneís virginity?. The results were tabulated and averaged among viewing categories for each question.
For most questions, the results did illustrate Gerbnerís cultivation theory. Those in the heavy viewing category were more likely than those in the light viewing category to answer in ways that mimic television reality as opposed to actual reality. For example, all participants were asked to answer the question of how big of an impact sex has on society on a scale from one to five with one representing very little impact and five representing an enormous impact. The average answer for light viewers was 2.8 while the average answer for heavy viewers was 3.5. Because television portrays sex as having a larger impact on society than it may actually have in real life, a higher number corresponds more closely to television reality than to the real world. This exemplifies the central claim of Cultivation Theory for two reasons. First, the higher response from heavy viewers shows that the long-term exposure these respondents have had to television has influenced their perceptions of reality by making them very similar to television reality. Second, even though the cultivation differential between light and heavy viewers is relatively small, it is still measurable and significant.
The two main phenomena of mainstreaming and resonance theorized by Gerbner were also illustrated in the responses to certain questions. For the analysis of mainstreaming, I will concentrate on the question of: How common is casual sex? The following graph shows the responses of both light and heavy viewers and is further divided by gender:
This graph provides evidence for mainstreaming because the heavy viewers in both the female and male categories had a very similar response to how common casual sex is. The female light viewers, on the other hand, had a much lower response to how common casual sex is while the male light viewers had the highest response to the question. In terms of Gerbnerís Cultivation Theory this would suggest that the heavy viewersí exposure to television has led them to have a homogenous view of reality (Morgan, n.d.). Regardless of gender, the heavy viewersí high exposure to television has led them to perceive the world in a similar way- the way that television portrays reality. Those that are light viewers are less exposed to televisionís cultivation of a "mainstream" and thus tend to hold more extreme views than heavy viewers.
Resonance, or the "amplification of issues particularly salient to certain groups of viewers," can also be seen in responses to certain questions, especially in the question of: How old is the average age to lose oneís virginity? (Gerbner et al., 1980, p. 10). For this analysis I again averaged the results among groups and further divided them by gender. The following graph illustrates the phenomenon of resonance:
This chart shows first that both male and female heavy viewers believed the average age of losing oneís virginity was younger than both males and females in the light viewing category. This, according to Gerbner, occurs because people lose their virginity at younger ages in television reality than they do in actual reality. The exposure to television, for the heavy viewers thus must be cultivating the perception of a reality where people lose their virginity at a young age. Second, it is apparent here that the male responses to this question, in relation to female responses, were more affected by high television exposure. This could be explained through Gerbnerís idea of resonance which states that when issues on television mimic real life experiences, viewers get a "double dose" of the message. In this case resonance would occur more in males presumably because they are more likely to lose their virginities at a younger age than females. For example, if one of the male respondents had lost his virginity at age 14 and had also seen 14 year old males on television losing their virginities, the perception that 14 is an average age to lose oneís virginity would be enforced. Women on the other hand may have lost their virginities at an older age on average. If this were the case, seeing someone on television losing his or her virginity at age 14 would only create one "dose" of the message and would lead to a much weaker cultivation of this view than the men had.
Though this miniature experiment is similar to Gerbnerís Cultural Indicator research, the differences and weaknesses of this experiment must be stressed. Gerbner and his colleagues studied this phenomenon for twenty years while I only spent a week doing research. Also, I had far fewer respondents than Gerbner making my results much less reliable. Finally, the topic of research, violence versus sex on television, may play very different roles in cultivation. Therefore, while this experiment did aid in the understanding of Gerbnerís theory, it most likely cannot be reasonably relied upon as evidence for the validity of Cultivation Theory.
There are many critiques of Gerbnerís Cultivation Theory which point to both its usefulness and to needed improvements in the theory. One of the main criticisms is that the results are inconsistent. Though the same or similar results were replicated by Gerbner and other communication theorists, other studies have shown conflicting results (Morgan, n.d.). Because the results are inconclusive, some say that the findings cannot be seriously relied upon. This means that it would be irrational to believe Gerbnerís central claim that television cultivates attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions that are closely aligned with television reality (Chandler, 1995). Similarly, some criticize Gerbner and fellow theorists for not having a sufficient number of participants in the study (Morgan, n.d.). Though the results are statistically significant, some say that they would carry more weight if more people had been involved. I would suggest that in order to respond to this criticism, Gerbner and fellow theorists should have repeated the study more, or involved more people in their cultivation analysis.
Additionally many argue that the results from Gerbnerís Cultural Indicator research show correlation rather than causality (Chandler, 1995). It is difficult to detect which causes which; does viewing more television cause the fear of violence to increase or does the fear of violence cause increased television viewing? Moreover, the two could simply be correlated through a third common factor such as socioeconomic status. Though this is partially accounted for by Gerbner, some communication theorists such as P. Hirsch argue that "cultivation theory ignores other variables including sex, education, race, and geographic location in the gathering of information" (Greunke, 2006). Another thing completely ignored by Gerbner is the types of programs people are watching and how different types of programs affect cultivation. This would be very interesting and would make the theory more useful because we could then point to actual programs that may be cultivating unrealistic perceptions.
Another thing to consider with relation to the usefulness of Cultivation Theory is how true it holds today. First of all, the programs on television today are radically different than they were during the 1960ís and 1970ís when Gerbner was conducting his research. Perhaps they are even more violent than before and are arguably much more sexual in nature. In addition, people now watch considerably more television than before and on average spend somewhere around 6 hours a day tuned into television. Using Cultivation Theory, one would expect that these changes would cause much more cultivation and thus mainstreaming and resonance for the average citizen. A further thing to consider are the other forms of media in our society such as video games and the internet and what impact they may have in cultivating perceptions of reality. Even though Gerbner et at. (1980) stated that "The television set has become a key member of the family, the one who tells most of the stories most of the time," this may no longer be the case for many people (p. 14). For several, violent video games such as Grand Theft Auto may be telling the stories. Another suggestion I have for Gerbner would be to test the cultivation effects of the exposure to these other types of media since they are now widespread in our society.
Overall it is clear that Cultivation Theory is useful for many reasons. It highlights certain aspects of communication which cannot be easily seen from other theories or out of personal intuition. It allows us to determine some of the consequences that long-term exposure to what I would call "television communication" has on individuals. Some of the communication aspects this theory illustrates are that communication is useful in that it influences people both in their perceptions and attitudes. As Gerbner stated, what people view on the television has a small but considerable impact on their attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors (Chandler, 1995). Also, the causes (exposure to television) and effects (cultivation of a television reality) of communication can be seen. The theory also allows us to see that communication does not just happen between individuals, but is possible within different types of media including television. Cultivation Theory allows us to see communication problems as stemming from an incongruence between the television reality we are often exposed to, and the real world we live in. The problem in this situation is the undesirable effects that exposure to television causes. Unlike some of the other theories we have studied, however, Cultivation Theory does not help us understand many aspects of communication such as what genuine dialogue entails, the machine-like aspects of communication systems, or how power dynamics can distort communication outcomes.
George Gerbner was dedicated to freedom, fairness, and equity in the media which is part of what his theory attempts to explain and accomplish (Greunke, 2006). If we rely on Cultivation Theory, it could be extremely influential for advertisers, television programmers, and the average citizen. Whether one considers cultivation to be beneficial or negative to society, it has certainly had an effect on our average perceptions of the real world. It is important as citizens, nevertheless, to remember that the television world does not always, and probably very rarely does, accurately depict the real world we live in.
Chandler, Daniel. (1995). Cultivation theory. Retrieved November 22, 2006 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/cultiv.html
Gerbner, George., Gross, Larry., Morgan, Michael., & Signorielli, Nancy. (1980). The "mainstreaming" of America: Violence profile no. 11. Journal of Communication, 30, 10-29.
Greunke, LeAnn. (2006). The cultivation theory: George Gerbner. Retrieved November 26, 2006 from http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/Speech/rccs/theory06.htm
Morgan, Michael. (n.d.). Audience research: Cultivation analysis. Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved November 27, 2006 from http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/A/htmlA/audienceresec/audienceresec.htm