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Media uses and gratifications (U&G) research represents one of the oldest and largest continuous programs of research in the field of communication. The tradition investigates the reasons why people use mass media. The product of this massive research effort has been a large set of taxonomies of media use motives; research linking those motives to antecedent variables (e.g., social factors, personality) and media use, along with some consequences (effects) of that use; and an extensive theoretical discussion and critique.
Major Dimensions Of Uses And Gratifications
Katz et al. (1974) provided the germinal theoretical description of the U&G paradigm, stating that U&G research is concerned with “the social and psychological origins of needs, which generate expectations of the mass media or other sources, which lead to differential patterns of media exposure (or engagement in other activities), resulting in need gratifications and other consequences, perhaps mostly unintended ones” (Katz et al. 1974, 20). In contrast to media effects theories, U&G posits an active audience that uses media to satisfy felt needs, rather than a passive media audience that is affected by media messages.
Rubin specified five a priori assumptions embodied in U&G research: 1) media use is motivated, goal-directed, and purposive behavior; 2) individuals initiate media use in response to felt needs; 3) a variety of individual differences and social factors guide and filter media use behavior; 4) media use is just one of many alternatives people have; and 5) U&G research assumes that people are a more powerful influence than media in most cases. Schramm et al. (1961) specified three motives for television use among children: entertainment, social interaction, and learning. As other taxonomies were specified with the emergence of new media and genres, these three core motives expanded, but remained fairly consistent with the original formulation.
Changes Over Time In The Topic And Its Treatment
According to Rosengren et al. (1985), U&G research proceeded in three major phases up until 1985. The first phase from 1940s until the late 1950s was characterized by descriptive research focusing on the reasons individuals use media. The second phase focused on developing typologies of media use during the 1960s. The second era efforts culminated in the early paradigm models proffered by Katz et al. and by Rosengren in Blumler & Katz’s classic 1974 collection. Of these perspectives, the model advanced by Rosengren (1974) best encapsulates the core concepts and theoretical linkages of U&G, stating that basic needs, individual differences, and social pressures combine to result in a variety of perceived problems and motivations to which gratifications are sought from the media and elsewhere, leading to differential patterns of media effects on both the individual and societal levels.
From the mid-1970s on, researchers continued to expand empirical data in support of the Rosengren model. This effort resulted in the emergence of several core concepts and debates. Some scholars attempted to reduce existing taxonomies into clearer theoretical distinctions, specifying ‘instrumental use motives’ (seeking exciting or entertaining information) and ‘ritualistic use motives’ (habitual). Another focus emerged from the debate as to whether media audiences were ‘active’ or ‘passive.’ Though the paradigm had always posited an active audience, this notion was difficult to sustain as research into habitual or ritualistic motives continued to emerge.
Researchers also began to investigate the differences between media gratifications sought and media gratifications obtained. Recently research has shown that unconscious selection of media and genres may be driven by biological states that are either transitory or relatively stabile across the life-span (Sherry 2001). Thus, media use is likely both active and passive; conscious and unconscious.
Criticism Of The Uses And Gratifications Approach
Several scholars have criticized U&G as non-theoretical and lacking in conceptual clarity and explanatory mechanisms. In particular, critics claim that many of the key concepts, particularly motives, needs, gratifications, and uses, are not conceptually distinct from one another. Recently, however, scholars have begun to clarify the concepts implicated in reasons for media use by borrowing concepts from psychology like intrinsic, implicit, and explicit motives, as well as intrinsic motivations.
Another problem is that the taxonomic tendencies in the literature are too compartmentalized to support the notion of a unified theory of media use. Careful consideration of the guiding model suggests that this conclusion is more due to the research that has been undertaken than to any deficit in the potential explanatory power of the U&G model.
Finally, critics have complained that U&G research is narrowly focused on individuals and does not acknowledge the impact of societal factors and societal-level changes. While this has certainly been the case with the empirical research, scholars have begun to call for cross-level theorizing in media research. U&G is a good candidate for cross-level thinking; Rosengren’s (1974) model clearly articulates the importance of both individual- and societal-level variables as a part of the media selection process.
Future Directions In Research, Theory, And Methodology
One of the advantages of the U&G approach is the ease with which it applies to new media. In fact, interactive technologies such as the Internet and video games have breathed new life into U&G research and its emphasis on active audiences. Online users and games must make frequent content or response choices while engaged with these new media. Taxonomies of Internet usage motivations parallel earlier media in some ways (e.g., interpersonal utility, pastime, information seeking, convenience, and entertainment) but also provide a place to communicate with family and friends. This difference marks one of the major distinctions in this new medium.
Recent work on new media highlight two broad types of gratifications users can expect: process gratifications (activities such as surfing the net or playing games) and content gratifications (information such as news stories, product information). In addition, new media offers a new social aspect that traditional media lack (e.g., instant messaging, talking over the Internet while gaming), putting more information in the hands of users more quickly than any other medium. For now, growing numbers of young scholars are focusing attention in two directions. First, they are creating taxonomies of use of emerging media as scholars did in the past. More importantly, they are more closely examining the experience of media use through an array of entertainment media theories and concepts. Like the U&G scholars that preceded them, they are addressing the weaknesses of the paradigm through continuing empirical and theoretical advances.
- Katz, E., Blumler, J. G., & Gurevitch, M. (1974). Utilization of mass communication by the individual. In J. G. Blumler & E. Katz (eds.), The uses of mass communications: Current perspectives of gratifications research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 19–32.
- Palmgreen, P. C., Wenner, L. A., & Rosengren, K. E. (1974). Uses and gratifications research: The past ten years. In K. E. Rosengren, L. A. Wenner, & P. C. Palmgreen (eds.), Media and gratifications research: Current perspectives. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 11–37.
- Rosengren, K. E. (1974). Uses and gratifications: A paradigm outlined. In J. G. Blumler & E. Katz (eds.), The uses of mass communications: Current perspectives of gratifications research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 269–286.
- Rosengren, K. E., Wenner, L. A., & Palmgreen, P. C. (eds.) (1985). Media and gratifications research: Current perspectives. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Rubin, A. M. (1994). The uses-and-gratifications perspective of media effects. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research, 2nd edn. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 525–548.
- Ruggiero, T. E. (2000). Uses and gratifications theory in the 21st century. Mass Communication and Society, 3, 3–37.
- Sherry, J. (2001). Toward an etiology of media use motivations: The role of temperament in media use. Communication Monographs, 68(3), 274–288.