Introduction to Cultivation Theory

By Ayesh Perera, published Jan 22, 2027 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Definition

  • Cultivation theory is a sociological and communications framework which holds that regular and long-term exposure to media influences how consumers of media view the world and behave in real life (Nabi & Riddle, 2008).
  • The theory suggests that the portrayal of various social realities in the media significantly shapes how media consumers interpret such realities. Cultivation theory is a positivistic philosophical concept that acknowledges the existence of objective reality and adopts value-neutral research (West & Turner, 2010).

As part of the Cultural Indicators Project, a research study commissioned for the National Violence Commission, Professor George Gerbner introduced cultivation theory in the 1960s to assess the impact of television on television viewers (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1986).

The potential influence of violence on television upon those who watch television was of special interest during the initial stages of research.


Theoretical Assumptions

Several key assumptions undergird cultivation theory:

  1. Television is a unique, affordable, accessible and pervasive mode of communication which is regularly and abundantly viewed by its consumers (Gerbner, Gross, Jackson-Beeck, Jeffries-Fox & Signorielli, 1978).
  2. Television can form the cultural mainstream and shape how most people in society view life (Settle, 2018).
  3. Television fosters general assumptions concerning life [rather than specific attitudes].
  4. Television tends to support the status quo and normalize established values and practices (Gerbner, Gross, Jackson-Beeck, Jeffries-Fox & Signorielli, 1978).
  5. While television’s observable and specific effects on society are small, its cumulative impact upon the cultural consciousness is noteworthy (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1980) (West & Turner, 2014).
  6. Novel technologies [such as Netflix, online TV etc.] reinforce and amplify the influence of television.

The Mean World Syndrome

Gerbner (1980) introduced a concept called the mean world syndrome to denote the cognitive bias that inclines consumers of violent content on television to view the world around them as more dangerous than reality warrants.

This bias might also cause those who regularly watch violent content to experience higher levels of anxiety, pessimism, fear and alertness to non-existent threats.

Conversely, according to the theory, those who view television less often are less likely to be afflicted with such feelings and thoughts. They, moreover, tend to see the world as less dangerous.


Mainstreaming

Mainstreaming, another concept associated with cultivation theory, is the process whereby television viewers from diverse backgrounds, via their exposure to the same labels and images, develop a homogeneous outlook of the world (Griffin, 2012; Perse, 2005).

Mainstreaming blurs traditional distinctions among groups in favor of the worldviews of those who sponsor television programing.

Thus, the regular viewing of television, which functions as a melting pot of social and cultural trends, can result in the diminution and subsequent collapse of individual perspectives (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1994).


Resonance

Resonance is the resemblance of television narratives to the viewers’ everyday lives (Gerbner, 1998).

According to Gerbner, this congruence amplifies the impact of cultivation, thereby exerting enormous influence upon society (Griffin, 2012).

For example, when viewers of violent television scenes have already experienced violence in their lives, their belief that the world is dangerous is significantly strengthened.

The solidification of such perceptions can inspire and fuel the public demand for greater safety measures against crime from the state.


Research

More recently, researchers have ventured into spheres outside television as well as themes other than violence to analyze the impact of cultivation theory (Perera, 2021).

Dmitri Williams, for example, has striven to ascertain whether video games have the same capacity television does to influence the understanding of social reality (Williams, 2006).

The subjects in the field study had to play a MMORPG game, and the results showed a notable correlation signifying the influence of cultivation.

Furthermore, a study on music videos depicting musicians endorsing alcohol, has unveiled that exposure to such videos could engender biased and mistaken opinions concerning alcohol consumption (Beullens, Roe & den Bulck, 2012).

Moreover, research into hip-hop journalism has indicated that when hip-hop celebrities recommend violence, their adolescent fans become prone to engaging in violent conduct (Oredein, Evans & Lewis, 2020).

Additionally, an examination of the influence of social media upon immigrant adaptation implies that immigrants utilizing social media during their acculturation tend to draw conclusions concerning their new surroundings from media messaging (Croucher, 2011).

The study suggests that these immigrants’ online consumption would shape their offline interactions with their host nation’s natives.


Criticism

Gerbner’s description of cultivation theory has elicited significant criticism (Perera, 2021). One major criticism that focuses upon cultivation theory’s theoretical flaws holds that cultivation theory addresses questions involving the humanities utilizing social science methodologies (West & Turner, 2010).

Another reproval challenges the purported causal relationship between television viewing and the apprehension of violence, and asserts that a third factor could be engendering both (Griffin, 2012).

A third animadversion contends that the theory’s dismissal of cognitive processes such as rational thinking could diminish its utility (Berger, 2005).

Furthermore, Daniel Chandler has suggested that the lived experiences of people might explain their view of the world better than the cultivation effect. He notes that residents in crime hotspots tend to stay home, view television, and subsequently convince themselves that they could easily become victims of crime (Chandler, 2011).

Chandler points out that these individuals’ direct experience with crime shrinks the actual cultivation effect. Additionally, Horace Newcomb has argued that since the presentation of violence on television is not uniform, television viewing would not foster identical perceptions of reality for all viewers (Newcomb, 1978).

Finally, James Shanahan and Michael Morgan have contended that the aggregate of television watching should be considered when assessing the impact of a particular type of program because individuals do not solely watch isolated genres on television (Morgan & Shanahan, 2010).

In conclusion, the criticisms of cultivation theory have not been disregarded. The endeavor to integrate heuristic processes in evaluating the impact of the vividness of violent television content upon cultivation effects is a striking example (Riddle, 2010).

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Perera, A. (2022, Jan 27). Introduction to cultivation theory. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/cultivation-theory.html

APA Style References

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Croucher, S. M. (2011). Social networking and cultural adaptation: A theoretical model. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 4(4), 259-264.

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Gerbner, G. (1969). Toward “cultural indicators”: The analysis of mass mediated public message systems. AV Communication Review, 17(2), 137-148.

Gerbner, G. & Gross, L. (1972). "Living with television: The violence profile". Journal of Communication. 26(2): 173–199.x

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Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1986). Living with television: The dynamics of the cultivation process. Perspectives on Media Effects, 17-40.

Griffin, E. (2012). Communication Communication Communication. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gerbner, G., & Morgan, M. (2010). The Mean World Syndrome: Media Violence & the Cultivation of Fear. Media Education Foundation documentary transcript [http://www. mediaed. org/transcripts/Mean-World-Syndrome-Transcript. pdf, 19, 2020.

Morgan, M., & Gerbner, G. (2002). Against the mainstream: The selected works of George Gerbner. P. Lang.

Morgan, M., & Shanahan, J. (2010). The state of cultivation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 54(2), 337-355.

Newcomb, H. (1978). Assessing the violence profile studies of Gerbner and Gross: A humanistic critique and suggestion. Communication Research, 5(3), 264-282.

Oredein, T., Evans, K., & Lewis, M. J. (2020). Violent trends in hip-hop entertainment journalism. Journal of Black studies, 51(3), 228-250.

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Settle, Q. (2018). Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis and Application. Journal of Applied Communications, 102(3), 1d-1d.

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