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Cultivation Theory
George Gerbner

MASS COMMUNICATION: MEDIA EFFECTS


  1. Introduction.
    1. George Gerbner argued that heavy television viewing creates an exaggerated belief in a mean and scary world.
    2. Gerbner emphasized the symbolic content of television drama.
    3. Television has surpassed religion as the key storyteller in our culture.
    4. Violence is television’s principal message, and particularly for devoted viewers.
    5. Gerbner was concerned that violence affects viewers’ beliefs about the world around them and the feelings connected to those beliefs, more than leading to violent’ behavior.
    6. Cultivation theory is not limited to TV violence, but it can help people theorize about how TV influences how people view social reality.
    7. Gerbner introduced the theory of cultivation as part of his “cultural indicators” paradigm.
  2. Institutional process analysis: The first prong.
    1. Institutional process research addresses scholars’ interest in determining the reasons why media companies produce the messages they do.
    2. Researchers attempt to understand what policies or practices might be lurking behind the scenes of media organizations.
  3.  Message system analysis: The second prong.
    1. Message system analysis uses the method of content analysis to study and classify the specific messages that TV projects.
    2. Gerbner studied violence, but this method can be used to focus on any type of TV content.
    3. An index of violence
      1. He defined dramatic violence as “the overt expression of physical force (with or without a weapon, against self or others) compelling action against one’s will on pain of being hurt and/or killed or threatened to be so victimized as part of the plot.”
      2. Gerbner’s definition of dramatic violence rules out verbal abuse, idle threats, and pie-in-the-face slapstick.
      3. Gerbner found that the annual index of violence is both extremely high and stable.
    4. Equal violence, unequal risk
      1. On any given week, two-thirds of the major characters are caught up in some kind of violence.
      2. Heroes are just as involved as villains, yet there is great inequality as to the age, race, and gender of those on the receiving end of physical force.
      3. Minority groups are often the recipients of violence on TV, despite their underrepresentation.
      4. Not surprisingly, these are the very people who exhibit the most fear of violence when they turn the TV off.
  4. Cultivation analysis: The third prong.
    1. Message system analysis deals with the content of TV; cultivation analysis deals with how TV’s content might affect viewers—particularly the viewers who spend lots of time glued to the tube.
    2. Television viewing cultivates ways of seeing the world, based on the images, values, portrayals, and ideologies shown on TV.
  5. Cultivation works like a magnetic or gravitational field.
    1. The cultivation process is similar to the pull of a gravitational field.
    2. Although the magnitude of TV’s influence is not the same for every viewer, everyone is affected by it.
    3. Marketing professor L. J. Shrum believes that people make judgments about the world around them based on the accessibility principle--what comes to mind most quickly or the information that is most accessible.
  6. Mainstreaming: Blurring, blending, and bending of viewer attitudes.
    1. Mainstreaming is the process by which heavy viewers develop a commonality of outlook through constant exposure to the same images and labels.
    2. Instead of narrowcasting their programs, TV producers broadcast in that they seek to “attract the largest possible audience by celebrating the moderation of the mainstream.”
    3. TV homogenizes its audience so that heavy viewing habits share the same orientations, perspectives, and meanings with each other, causing people to share common perceptions of reality that resemble the TV world.
    4. The television answer is the mainstream.
    5. Gerbner illustrates the mainstreaming effect by showing how television types blur economic and political distinctions.
      1. They assume that they are middle class.
      2. They believe they are political moderates.
      3. In fact, heavy viewers tend to be conservative.
    6. Traditional differences diminish among people with heavy viewing habits.
  7. Resonance: The TV world looks like my world, so it must be true.
    1. Gerbner thought the cultivating power of TV’s messages would be especially strong over viewers who perceived that the world depicted on TV was a world very much like their own.
    2. This resonance process causes the power of TV’s messages to be stronger for such viewers. 
  8. Research on cultivation analysis.
    1. Cultivation takes time.
    2. Change due to cultivation takes place over months and years; most experiments measure change that takes place over 30 or 60 minutes.
    3. Cultivation analysis relies on surveys instead of experiments.
    4. Gerbner labeled heavy viewers as those who watch four hours or more daily whereas light viewers watch less than two hours.
    5. His basic prediction was that heavy TV viewers would be more likely than light viewers to see the social world as resembling the world depicted on TV.
  9. The major findings of cultivation analysis.
    1. Believing that violence is the backbone of TV drama and knowing that people differ in how much TV they watch, Gerbner sought to discover the cultivation differential. That’s his term for “the difference in the percent giving the ‘television answer’ within comparable groups of light and heavy viewers.”
    2. People with heavy viewing habits believe that 5% of society is involved in law enforcement compared to light viewers’ estimates of 1%.
    3. Heavy viewers are more suspicious of people’s motives.
    4. Gerbner called this cynical mindset the mean world syndrome.
  10. Critique: How strong is the evidence in favor of the theory?
    1. For several decades, communication journals have been filled with the sometimes bitter charges and countercharges of critics and supporters.
    2. Perhaps the most daunting issue to haunt cultivation research is how to clearly establish the causal claim that heavy TV viewing leads a person to perceive the world as mean and scary.
    3. Testability is seen as low because there is a lack of longitudinal studies.
    4. Correlation is not necessarily cause and effect. Both fear of crime and heavy television viewing could be the result of other factors—living in a high crime area, for example.
    5. Cultivation effects also tend to be statistically small.
    6. The theory must adapt to the new media environment of cable and streaming.
    7. It’s also important to keep in mind that amid all the criticism, few theories in the area of mass communication have generated as many studies.


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MOVIE CLIPS





Instructors can get additional
resources. Read more

Archived chapters (PDF)
from previous editions
are available in
Resources by Type.
See list

New to Theory
Resources?

Find out more in this short
video overview (3:01).


Cultivation Theory
George Gerbner

MASS COMMUNICATION: MEDIA EFFECTS


  1. Introduction.
    1. George Gerbner argued that heavy television viewing creates an exaggerated belief in a mean and scary world.
    2. Gerbner emphasized the symbolic content of television drama.
    3. Television has surpassed religion as the key storyteller in our culture.
    4. Violence is television’s principal message, and particularly for devoted viewers.
    5. Gerbner was concerned that violence affects viewers’ beliefs about the world around them and the feelings connected to those beliefs, more than leading to violent’ behavior.
    6. Cultivation theory is not limited to TV violence, but it can help people theorize about how TV influences how people view social reality.
    7. Gerbner introduced the theory of cultivation as part of his “cultural indicators” paradigm.
  2. Institutional process analysis: The first prong.
    1. Institutional process research addresses scholars’ interest in determining the reasons why media companies produce the messages they do.
    2. Researchers attempt to understand what policies or practices might be lurking behind the scenes of media organizations.
  3.  Message system analysis: The second prong.
    1. Message system analysis uses the method of content analysis to study and classify the specific messages that TV projects.
    2. Gerbner studied violence, but this method can be used to focus on any type of TV content.
    3. An index of violence
      1. He defined dramatic violence as “the overt expression of physical force (with or without a weapon, against self or others) compelling action against one’s will on pain of being hurt and/or killed or threatened to be so victimized as part of the plot.”
      2. Gerbner’s definition of dramatic violence rules out verbal abuse, idle threats, and pie-in-the-face slapstick.
      3. Gerbner found that the annual index of violence is both extremely high and stable.
    4. Equal violence, unequal risk
      1. On any given week, two-thirds of the major characters are caught up in some kind of violence.
      2. Heroes are just as involved as villains, yet there is great inequality as to the age, race, and gender of those on the receiving end of physical force.
      3. Minority groups are often the recipients of violence on TV, despite their underrepresentation.
      4. Not surprisingly, these are the very people who exhibit the most fear of violence when they turn the TV off.
  4. Cultivation analysis: The third prong.
    1. Message system analysis deals with the content of TV; cultivation analysis deals with how TV’s content might affect viewers—particularly the viewers who spend lots of time glued to the tube.
    2. Television viewing cultivates ways of seeing the world, based on the images, values, portrayals, and ideologies shown on TV.
  5. Cultivation works like a magnetic or gravitational field.
    1. The cultivation process is similar to the pull of a gravitational field.
    2. Although the magnitude of TV’s influence is not the same for every viewer, everyone is affected by it.
    3. Marketing professor L. J. Shrum believes that people make judgments about the world around them based on the accessibility principle--what comes to mind most quickly or the information that is most accessible.
  6. Mainstreaming: Blurring, blending, and bending of viewer attitudes.
    1. Mainstreaming is the process by which heavy viewers develop a commonality of outlook through constant exposure to the same images and labels.
    2. Instead of narrowcasting their programs, TV producers broadcast in that they seek to “attract the largest possible audience by celebrating the moderation of the mainstream.”
    3. TV homogenizes its audience so that heavy viewing habits share the same orientations, perspectives, and meanings with each other, causing people to share common perceptions of reality that resemble the TV world.
    4. The television answer is the mainstream.
    5. Gerbner illustrates the mainstreaming effect by showing how television types blur economic and political distinctions.
      1. They assume that they are middle class.
      2. They believe they are political moderates.
      3. In fact, heavy viewers tend to be conservative.
    6. Traditional differences diminish among people with heavy viewing habits.
  7. Resonance: The TV world looks like my world, so it must be true.
    1. Gerbner thought the cultivating power of TV’s messages would be especially strong over viewers who perceived that the world depicted on TV was a world very much like their own.
    2. This resonance process causes the power of TV’s messages to be stronger for such viewers. 
  8. Research on cultivation analysis.
    1. Cultivation takes time.
    2. Change due to cultivation takes place over months and years; most experiments measure change that takes place over 30 or 60 minutes.
    3. Cultivation analysis relies on surveys instead of experiments.
    4. Gerbner labeled heavy viewers as those who watch four hours or more daily whereas light viewers watch less than two hours.
    5. His basic prediction was that heavy TV viewers would be more likely than light viewers to see the social world as resembling the world depicted on TV.
  9. The major findings of cultivation analysis.
    1. Believing that violence is the backbone of TV drama and knowing that people differ in how much TV they watch, Gerbner sought to discover the cultivation differential. That’s his term for “the difference in the percent giving the ‘television answer’ within comparable groups of light and heavy viewers.”
    2. People with heavy viewing habits believe that 5% of society is involved in law enforcement compared to light viewers’ estimates of 1%.
    3. Heavy viewers are more suspicious of people’s motives.
    4. Gerbner called this cynical mindset the mean world syndrome.
  10. Critique: How strong is the evidence in favor of the theory?
    1. For several decades, communication journals have been filled with the sometimes bitter charges and countercharges of critics and supporters.
    2. Perhaps the most daunting issue to haunt cultivation research is how to clearly establish the causal claim that heavy TV viewing leads a person to perceive the world as mean and scary.
    3. Testability is seen as low because there is a lack of longitudinal studies.
    4. Correlation is not necessarily cause and effect. Both fear of crime and heavy television viewing could be the result of other factors—living in a high crime area, for example.
    5. Cultivation effects also tend to be statistically small.
    6. The theory must adapt to the new media environment of cable and streaming.
    7. It’s also important to keep in mind that amid all the criticism, few theories in the area of mass communication have generated as many studies.


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