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Cultivation theory

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Cultivation theory, developed by Professor George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, derived from several large-scale research projects "concerned with the effects of television programming (particularly violent programming) on the attitudes and behaviors of the American public" (Miller, 2005, p. 281) in the 1960s and 1970s.

Miller (2005) says, "The widespread influence of television...was a concern for many scholars and policy makers. In the late 1960s, civil unrest, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and other events convinced many that we had to know more about how television affects us" (p. 282).

Gerbner and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania took a large role in the research projects, which included the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence in 1967 and 1968 and the Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior in 1972.


"In gathering data for these research investigations...Gerbner and his colleagues developed a theory that posits that television should not be studied in terms of targeted and specific effects (e.g., that watching Superman will lead children to attempt to fly by jumping out the window) but in terms of the cumulative and overarching impact it has on the way we see the world in which we live" (Miller, 2005. p. 282).

Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli (1986) said that instead of religion or education, now, "Television is the source of the most broadly shared images and messages in history...Television cultivates from infancy the very predispositions and preferences that used to be acquired from other primary sources...The repetitive pattern of television's mass-produced messages and images forms the mainstream of a common symbolic environment" (pp. 17 - 18).

Cultivation theory in its most basic form, then, suggests that exposure to television, over time, subtly "cultivates" viewers’ perceptions of reality. This cultivation can even have an impact on light viewers of TV because the impact on heavy viewers has an impact on our entire culture. Gerbner and Gross (1976) say "Television is a medium of the socialization of most people into standardized roles and behaviors. Its function is in a word, enculturation" (p. 175).

Gerbner et al. (1986) go on to say the impact of television on its viewers is not unidirectional, that the "use of the term cultivation for television's contribution to conception of social reality... (does not) necessarily imply a one-way, monolithic process. The effects of a pervasive medium upon the composition and structure of the symbolic environment are subtle, complex, and intermingled with other influences. This perspective, therefore, assumes an interaction between the medium and its publics" (p. 23).

Testing Cultivation TheoryEdit

Research about the effects of TV began with the investigation in the studies mentioned above and has been most often tested "through a comparison of the content of television and the beliefs people hold about the nature of the world" (Miller, 2005, 283).

Gerbner et al. (1976) say "Instead of asking what communication 'variables' might propagate what kinds of individual behavior changes, we want to know what types of common consciousness whole systems of messages might cultivate" because "the world of TV drama consists of a complex and integrated system of characters, events, actions, and relationships whose effects cannot be measured with regard to any single element or program seen in isolation" (p. 181).

Gerbner et al. (1976) say, "We believe that the key to the answer rests in a search for those assumptions about the 'facts' of life and society that television cultivates in its more faithful viewers. That search requires two different methods of research" (p. 181). They are content analysis and cultural indicators analysis.

Content AnalysisEdit

The first step in cultivation research is content analysis: in short, the process of studying the subject matter on TV. For example, in 1969, Gerbner and his colleagues "began to chart the content of prime-time and weekend children's television programming, and Gerbner et al (1986, p. 25) noted that 2,105 programs, 6,055 major characters, and 19,116 minor characters had been analyzed by 1984. Significantly, Gerbner et al. (pp. 25 - 26) noted the following patterns: " (Miller, 2005, pp. 283 - 284)

  • Men outnumbered women three to one on television
  • Older people and younger people are underrepresented on television
  • Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented on television
  • Seven percent of television characters are "middle class"
  • Crime is 10 times as rampant in the "television world" as it is in the real world

Cultural Indicators AnalysisEdit

The second step in cultivation research is the cultural indicators analysis: the process of "assessing individuals' beliefs about what the world is like" (Miller, 2005, p. 284). This analysis involves surveys of individuals using factual questions about the world. "For example, an analysis of perceptions about violence might ask respondents about the likelihood of being a victim of violent crime. The forced-choice answer to these questions would include both a 'television response' (e.g., a 1 out of 10 chance of being a victim) and a 'non-television response' (e.g., a much smaller chance closer to the actual likelihood of being a victim)" (Miller, 2005, 284).

Miller (2005) says a separate measure (often at a different point in time) would be used to assess the overall viewing habits of the individual (p. 283).

Cultivation AnalysisEdit

The final step in cultivation research is cultivation analysis: "a comparison between light television viewers and heavy television viewers. If heavy television viewers tended to provide answers that were more in line with the television response, researchers would have support for the cultivation hypothesis" (Miller, 2005, p. 283).

Critiques and Extensions of Cultivation TheoryEdit

The main critiques of cultivation theory include:

Weak and Limited EffectsEdit

"Some of the earliest (and continuing) critiques of cultivation theory noted the relatively small effects that were found for cultivation processes and the fact that these effects were further diminished when controlling for a number of relevant demographic variables (e.g., age, gender, education). For example...Hirsch (1980 concluded that 'across most of the attitude items reported by the Annenberg group...the effect of television viewing is clearly minimal when the responses of nonviewers and extreme viewers are analyzed separately'...(and) a recent analysis of cultivation research (Morgan Shanahan, 1997) found an average effect size for cultivation effects to be only .01" (Miller, 2005, p. 286).

Gerbner et al. (1986) respond by saying, "If , as we argue, the messages are so stable, the medium is so ubiquitous, and accumulated total exposure is what counts, then almost everyone should be affected. Even light viewers live in the same cultural environment as most others who do watch television. It is clear, then, that the cards are stacked against finding evidence of effects. Therefore, the discovery of a systematic pattern of even small but pervasive differences between light and heavy viewers may indicate far-reaching consequences" (p. 21).

Gerbner et al. (1986) continue by suggesting that evidence of even the smallest effects can make a difference when he says "after all, a single percentage point difference in ratings is worth millions of dollars in advertising revenue..." (p. 21).

Two ways "in which cultivation theorists have extended their theory to account for small effects and differences in effects among subgroups" (Miller, 2005, p. 286) are the concepts of mainstreaming and resonance, added to the theory.

  • Mainstreaming "means that television viewing may absorb or override differences in perspective and behavior that stem from other social, cultural, and demographic influences. It represents the homogenization of divergent views and a convergence of disparate viewers (p. 31)" (Miller, 2005, 286).
  • Resonance "is another concept proposed to explain differential cultivation effects across groups of viewers. The concept suggests that the effects of television viewing will be particularly pronounced for individuals who have had related experience in real life. That is for a recent mugging victim or someone who lives in a high crime neighborhood, the portrayal of violence on television will resonate and be particularly influential" (Miller, 2005, 286).

Nature of Television ViewingEdit

Critics also question the part of the theory that says "Compared to other media, television provides a relatively restricted set of choices for a virtually unrestricted variety of interests and publics. Most of it's programs are by commercial necessity designed to be watched by nearly everyone in a relatively nonselective fashion" (Gerbner, 1986, p. 19).

This suggestion has been met with opposition, especially since the widespread use of cable television, TiVo and the like.

Several critics have suggested that changes in these assumptions might lead to better predictions about the cultivation effect. (Miller, 2005)

The Cultivation EffectEdit

Miller (2005) says "Several critics have been levied against the link between viewing patterns and resultant views of the world" (p. 287). They have suggested the extension of cultivation theory by differentiating between first-order and second-order cultivation effects.

  • "First-order cultivation effects refer to the effects of television on statistical descriptions about the world" (Miller, 2005, p. 287). For example, "a first-order effect would suggest that heavy viewers would overestimate the likelihood of being the victim of a crime" (Miller, 2005, p. 287).
  • "Second-order cultivation effects refer to effects on beliefs about the general nature of the world" (Miller, 2005, p. 287). For example, "a second-order effect would suggest that heavy viewers would be more likely to view the world as a mean or scary place" (Miller, 2005, p. 287).

"Cultivation theorists have appreciated this distinction but never developed the implications of the distinctions on a theoretical level" (Miller, 2005, p. 287).

"In more recent years, the discussions regarding cultivation theory have been somewhat more measured and more concerned with extending the theory in a useful way (e.g., Hawkins & Pingree, 1980; Potter, 1993) (Miller, 2005, p. 286).


Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976a). Living with television: The violence profile. Journal of Communication, 26, 172-199.

Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1986). Living with television: The dynamics of the cultivation process. In J. Bryant & D. Zillman (Eds), Perspectives on media effects (pp. 17-40). Hilldale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., Signorielli, N., and Jackson-Beeck, M. (1979). The Demonstration of Power: Violence Profile No. 10. Journal of Communication, 29, 177-196.

Miller, K. (2005). Communications theories: perspectives, processes, and contexts. New York: McGraw-Hill.

See alsoEdit

he:הבניית מציאות

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