Uses and gratifications theory

Uses and gratifications theory (UGT) is an approach to understanding why and how people actively seek out specific media to satisfy specific needs. UGT is an audience-centered approach to understanding mass communication.[1] Diverging from other media effect theories that question “what does media do to people?”, UGT focuses on “what do people do with media?”[2

History

Beginning in the 1940s, researchers began seeing patterns under the perspective of the uses and gratifications theory in radio listeners.[13] Early research was concerned with topics such as children’s use of comics and the absence of newspapers during a newspaper strike. An interest in more psychological interpretations emerged during this time period.

In 1948, Lasswell introduced a four-functional interpretation of the media on a macro-sociological level. Media served the functions of surveillance, correlation, entertainment and cultural transmission for both society and individuals[14]

Stages of the theory

Uses and gratifications theory was developed from a number of prior communication theories and research conducted by fellow theorists.

Stage 1

  • In 1944 Herta Herzog began to look at the earliest forms of uses and gratifications with her work classifying the reasons why people chose specific types of media. For her study, Herzog interviewed soap opera fans and was able to identify three types of gratifications. The three gratifications categories, based on why people listened to soap operas, were emotional, wishful thinking, and learning.[15]
  • In 1970 Abraham Maslow suggested that uses and gratifications theory was an extension of the Needs and Motivation Theory. The basis for his argument was that people actively looked to satisfy their needs based on a hierarchy. These needs are organized as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the form of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental needs at the base and the need for self-actualization at the tip. From the bottom-up the pyramid contains Biological/Physical, Security/Safety, Social/Belonging, Ego/Self-Respect and Self-actualization at the top.[15]
  • In 1954 Wilbur Schramm developed the fraction of selection, a formula for determining which form of mass media an individual would select. The formula helped to decide the amount of gratification an individual would expect to gain from the medium over how much effort they had to make to achieve gratification.[15]

Stage 2

  • In 1969 Jay Blumler and Denis McQuail studied the 1964 election in the United Kingdom by examining people’s motives for watching certain political programs on television. By categorizing the audience’s motives for viewing a certain program, they aimed to classify viewers according to their needs in order to understand any potential mass-media effects.[4] The audience motivations they were able to identify helped lay the groundwork for their research in 1972 and eventually uses and gratifications theory.[15]
  • In 1972 Denis McQuail, Jay Blumler and Joseph Brown suggested that the uses of different types of media could be grouped into 4 categories. The four categories were: diversion, personal relationships, personal identity and surveillance.[15]

Stage 3

  • The most recent interest surrounding Uses and Gratifications Theory is the link between the reason why media is used and the achieved gratification.[15]
  • UGT researchers are developing the theory to be more predictive and explanatory by connecting the needs, goals, benefits, and consequences of media consumption and use along with individual factors.[15]
  • Work in UGT was trailblazing because the research of Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch built on Herzog’s research and caused a paradigm shift from how media influences people to how audiences use media, diminishing the dominance of the limited effects approach to mass media studies.[15]

Jay Blumler presented a number of interesting points, as to why Uses and Gratifications cannot measure an active audience. He stated, “The issue to be considered here is whether what has been thought about Uses and Gratifications Theory has been an article of faith and if it could now be converted into an empirical question such as: How to measure an active audience?” (Blumler, 1979). Blumler then offered suggestions about the kinds of activity the audiences were engaging with in the different types of media.

  • Utility : “Using the media to accomplish specific tasks”[72]
  • Intentionality: “Occurs when people’s prior motive determine use of media”[72]
  • Selectivity: “Audience members’ use of media reflect their existing interests”[72]
  • Imperviousness to Influence: “Refers to audience members’ constructing their own meaning from media content” [72]

25 years later, in 1972, Blumler, McQuail and Brown extended Lasswell’s four groups. These included four primary factors for which one may use the media:[73]

  • Diversion: Escape from routine and problems; an emotional release[74]
  • Personal Relationships: Social utility of information in conversation; substitution of media for companionship[75]
  • Personal Identity or Individual Psychology: Value reinforcement or reassurance; self-understanding, reality exploration[76]
  • Surveillance: Information about factors which might affect one or will help one do or accomplish something[77]

Katz, Gurevitch and Haas (1973) saw mass media as a means by which individuals connect or disconnect themselves with others. They developed 35 needs taken from the largely speculative literature on the social and psychological functions of the mass media and put them into five categories:

  • Cognitive Needs: Acquiring information, knowledge and understanding[72]
    • Media Examples: Television (news), video (how-to), movies (documentaries or based on history)
  • Affective Needs: Emotion, pleasure, feelings[72]
    • Media Examples: Movies, television (soap operas, sitcoms)
  • Personal Integrative Needs: Credibility, stability, status[72]
    • Media Examples: Video
  • Social Integrative Needs: Family and friends[72]
    • Media Examples: Internet (e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, social media)
  • Tension Release Needs: Escape and diversion[72]
    • Media Examples: Television, movies, video, radio, internet

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