This is a reanalysis of ‘Personal Influence’ by Lazarsfeld et. al. a study on the effects of media content and its conclusion that media are not important. ‘Personal Influence’ is also known as the Multistep Flow Model is a theory based on a 1940’s study on social influence that states that media effects are indirectly established through the personal influence of opinion leaders. The majority of people receive much of their information and are influenced by the media second hand, through the personal influence of opinion leaders.
The ‘Multistep Flow Model says that most people form their opinions based on opinion leaders that influence the media. Opinion leaders are those initially exposed to specific media content, interpret based on their own opinion and then begin to infiltrate these opinions through the general public who then become “opinion followers.” These “opinion leaders” gain their influence through more elite media as opposed to mainstream mass media. In this process, social influence is created and adjusted by the ideals and opinions of each specific “elite media” group and by these media group’s opposing ideals and opinions and in combination with popular mass media sources. Therefore, the leading influence in these opinions is primarily a social persuasion.
The two-step flow of communication model hypothesizes that ideas flow from mass media to opinion leaders and from them to a wider population. It was first introduced by sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld et al. in 1944 and elaborated by Elihu Katz and Lazarsfeld in 1955 and subsequent publications. Lowery and DeFleur argue the book was much more than a simple research report: it was an effort to interpret the authors’ research within a framework of conceptual schemes, theoretical issues, and research findings drawn broadly from the scientific study of small groups. Unlike the hypodermic needle model, which considers mass media effects to be direct, the two-step flow model stresses human agency. According to Lazarsfeld and Katz, mass media information is channelled to the “masses” through opinion leadership. The people with most access to media, and having a more literate understanding of media content, explain and diffuse the content to others. Based on the two-step flow hypothesis, the term “personal influence” came to illustrate the process intervening between the media’s direct message and the audience’s reaction to that message. Opinion leaders tend to be similar to those they influence—based on personality, interests, demographics, or socio-economic factors. These leaders tend to influence others to change their attitudes and behaviours. The two-step theory refined the ability to predict how media messages influence audience behaviour and explains why certain media campaigns do not alter audiences’ attitudes. This hypothesis provided a basis for the multi-step flow theory of mass communication.
Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz are considered to be the founders of functional theory and their book Personal Influence (1955) is considered to be the handbook to the theory. One of the first to embark on Communications research was the first to introduce the difference between ‘administrative research’ and ‘critical research’ in regards to the media. Critical research he believed, criticizes the media institutions themselves for the perspective ways they serve dominant social groups. Critical research favours interperspective and inductive methods of inquiry. Lazarsfeld’s study of the 1940 presidential election was published as The People’s Choice (1944). During the research revealed information about the psychological and social processes that influence voting decisions. The study also uncovered an influence process that Lazarsfeld called “opinion leadership.” He concluded that there is a multistep flow of information from the mass media to persons who serve as opinion leaders, which then is passed on to the general public. He called this communication process the “two-step flow of communication.” Elihu Katz isa professor in the School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania collaborated in 1955 with Lazarsfeld, in research to observe the flow of influence at the intersections of mass and interpersonal communication and wrote their book Personal Influence. Katz pursued Lazarfeld’s research in a study of the flow of information. This is the basis of Personal Influence. Katz and Lazarsfeld concluded that: … the traditional image of the mass persuasion process must make room for ‘people’ as intervening factors between the stimuli of the media and resultant opinions, decisions, and actions.”
The presidential election 1940 questioned as to whether President Franklin Roosevelt would seek his third term in office. Funded by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, Life magazine, and the pollster Elmo Roper, Columbia’s Office of Radio Research conducted a new kind of study of voting. It was based on a panel study of 2,400 voters in Erie County, Ohio. Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet supervised 15 interviewers, who from May-October interviewed the strategically selected 2,400 members of the community several different times in order to document their decision making process during the campaign. They focused on what factors would influence their decisions as the campaign progressed. The People’s Choice, a book based on this study presented the theory of “the two-step flow of communications,” which later came to be associated with the so-called “limited effects model” of mass media: the idea that ideas often flow from radio and print to local “opinion leaders” who in turn pass them on to those with more limited political knowledge “opinion followers.” The conclusion of the research explained that sometimes person-to-person communication can be more effective than traditional media mediums such as newspaper, TV, radio etc. This idea developed further in the book Personal Influence.
In 1944, Paul Lazarsfeld contacted McFadden Publications in regards to his first book, The People’s Choice. The two collaborated forming a mutually beneficial partnership in which McFadden saw a way to financially profit from advertising to the female population and Lazarsfeld saw a way to gain more information on social influence . Out of this came the study conducted by the Bureau of Applied Social Research in which 800 female residents of Decatur, Illinois, where interviewed through panel interviews to discover what and who primarily influenced their decision making. Lazarsfeld worked with Robert Merton and thus hired C. Wright Mills to head the study. Another part of the research team, Thelma Ehrlich Anderson, trained local Decatur women to administer surveys to targeted women in town. By 1955. the Decatur study was published as part of Elihu Katz and Lazarsfeld’s book Personal Influence. The book concluded that ultimately, face-to-face interaction is more influential than traditional media influence and thus confirmed the two-step flow model of communication.
The two-step flow of communication hypothesis was first introduced by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet in The People’s Choice, a 1944 study focused on the process of decision-making during a Presidential election campaign. These researchers expected to find empirical support for the direct influence of media messages on voting intentions. They were surprised to discover, however, that informal, personal contacts were mentioned far more frequently than exposure to radio or newspaper as sources of influence on voting behaviour. Armed with this data, Katz and Lazarsfeld developed the two-step flow theory of mass communication. This theory asserts that information from the media moves in two distinct stages. First, individuals (opinion leaders) who pay close attention to the mass media and its messages receive the information. Opinion leaders pass on their own interpretations in addition to the actual media content. The term ‘personal influence’ was coined to refer to the process intervening between the media’s direct message and the audience’s ultimate reaction to that message. Opinion leaders are quite influential in getting people to change their attitudes and behaviours and are quite similar to those they influence. The two-step flow theory has improved our understanding of how the mass media influence decision-making. The theory refined the ability to predict the influence of media messages on audience behaviour, and it helped explain why certain media campaigns may have failed to alter audience attitudes an behaviour. The two-step flow theory gave way to the multi-step flow theory of mass communication or diffusion of innovation theory.
The original two-step flow hypothesis—that ideas flow from the media to opinion leaders and then to less active sections of the population—has been criticized and negated by myriad consequent studies. Findings from Deutschmann and Danielson assert, “we would urge that the Katz-Lazarsfeld two-stage flow hypothesis, as a description of the initial information process, be applied to mass communication with caution”. They find substantial evidence that initial mass media information flows directly to people on the whole and is not relayed by opinion leaders. Furthermore, the two-step hypothesis does not adequately describe the flow of learning. Everett Rogers’ “Diffusion of Innovations” cites one study in which two-thirds of respondents accredited their awareness to the mass media rather than face-to-face communication. Similarly, critics argue that most of Lazarsfeld’s findings pertain to learning factors involved with general media habits rather than the learning of particular information. Both findings suggest a greater prevalence of a one-step flow of communication.
However, Lazarsfeld’s two-step hypothesis is an adequate description to understand the media’s influence on belief and behaviour. Troldahl finds that media exposure is a first step to introduce discussion, at which point opinion leaders initiate the second-step flow. These findings also realize opinion leader’s decisive role in the balance theory, which suggests that people are motivated to keep consistency among their current beliefs and opinions. If a person is exposed to new observations that are inconsistent with present beliefs, he or she is thrown into imbalance. This person will then seek advice from their opinion leader, to provide them with additional cognitions to bring them back into balance.
In recent times sociological study of the media has been dominated by the theme of the relative powerlessness of the broadcasters. This strange conjunction of events is logical. Sociologists have failed to ask the critical questions that behind the idea of unimportance of mass media there is a faulty concept of ‘importance’ similar to the faulty concept of ‘power’. The dominant sociology of mass communication has been unable to grasp certain fundamental features of its subject and by doing so it has had the effect of justifying mass media ownership, control, and purpose.
The ‘Dominant Paradigm’ has been called the ‘received knowledge’ of ‘personal influence’ and has taken attention from the power of the media to perform its role as mediator between two conflicting sources. Media sociology has highlighted the recalcitrant audience and their resistance to media messages and not their dependency. It has studied media effects so narrowly that the results are flimsy. It defines short-term effects as important only because these effects are measurable and thus deflected more significant meanings of mass media production. Hard data is sought to satisfy anyone and no one when it would be better to seek hard questions. By studying only measurable effects experimentally or in surveys it has put the methodological cart before the theoretical horse. Thus, many years of research on ‘effects’ of mass media has produced little theory and few findings.
The field of ‘mass media research’ has been certifying as ‘normal’ what it should have been investigating as ‘problematic’, namely the vast reach and scope of the instruments of mass broadcasting, especially television. By emphasising effects on ‘attitudes’ and loosely defined ‘behaviour’ it has ignored the reality that mass broadcasting exists in corporate housing under state supervision. The important questions are ‘who wants media?’ and ‘for what purpose’? Has ‘mass broadcasting’ created institutional configurations and has existing institutions such as schools, politics, family or sport been altered in structure, goals or social meaning and how have these institutions used the media to shape its products? Further questions should be; has the prevalence of broadcasting changed the conduct of politics, how does it effect social structure? How does the wide reach of TV into millions of living rooms affect social structure? These questions have been skirted, by accepting the existing institutional order; the field has inadvertently avoided the question of valuation: does TV fulfil or frustrate social interest? By ignoring such questions the field has made itself useful to the obvious beneficiaries of mass media broadcasting.
In reference to The Dominant Paradigm and Its Defects Lazarsfeld’s contention that the effects of media are not important in the formation of public opinion which he demonstrates by the ‘two step flow of communications’ (the idea that messages reach people not directly but indirectly as ‘media messages’ are interpreted by leaders for audiences.) This paradigm pays close attention to the variables (especially ‘relations’) between signifier and signified. The audience are defined as interrelated individuals rather than isolated targets in a mass society. Effects are measured as changes over time. Lazarsfeld developed a methodology or paradigm but in what sense does is this methodology or paradigm dominant? A dominant paradigm should have three major tendencies of thought a) identifies important areas of investigation in a field; b) exploits certain methodology; c) produces results. The two-step-flow of communication, the idea that opinion leaders mediate between mass media and audience. The paradigm is worthy of closer re-examination. The paradigm implies that structural (institutional) impact is lost in the process and subsequently the media impact is reinterpreted by ‘leaders’ who then distribute their impressions.
The course of mass media theory has to be understood as a historical process. All theories have three metatheoretical condition; the nature of the theory, the normal worldview and actual social, political, and technological conditions. The dominant paradigm has to be understood as an intersection of all these factors.
The Hypodermic Theory is a theory of society and the mass media within it. In the hypodermic model mass communicators ‘inject’ ideas into vulnerable individuals. The “hypodermic needle theory” implied mass media had a direct, immediate, and powerful effect on its audiences. The mass media in the 1940s and 1950s were perceived as a powerful influence on behaviour change. Several factors contributed to this “strong effects” theory of communication, including: the fast rise and popularization of radio and television, the emergence of the persuasion industries, such as advertising and propaganda, the Payne Fund studies of the 1930s, which focused on the impact of motion pictures on children, and Hitler’s monopolization of the mass media during WWII to unify the German public behind the Nazi party The theory suggests that the mass media could influence a very large group of people directly and uniformly by ‘shooting’ or ‘injecting’ them with appropriate messages designed to trigger a desired response. Both images used to express this theory (a bullet and a needle) suggest a powerful and direct flow of information from the sender to the receiver. The bullet theory graphically suggests that the message is a bullet, fired from the “media gun” into the viewer’s “head.” With similarly emotive imagery the hypodermic needle model suggests that media messages are injected straight into a passive audience, which is immediately influenced by the message. They express the view that the media is a dangerous means of communicating an idea because the receiver or audience is powerless to resist the impact of the message. There is no escape from the effect of the message in these models. The population is seen as a sitting duck. People are seen as passive and are seen as having a lot media material “shot” at them. People end up thinking what they are told because there is no other source of information.
New assessments that the Magic Bullet Theory was not accurate came out of election studies in “The People’s Choice,” (Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet, 1944/1968). The project was conducted during the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 to determine voting patterns and the relationship between the media and political behaviour. The majority of people remained untouched by the propaganda; interpersonal outlets brought more influence than the media. The effects of the campaign were not all-powerful to where they persuaded helpless audiences uniformly and directly, which is the very definition of what the magic bullet theory does. As focus group testing, questionnaires, and other methods of marketing effectiveness testing came into widespread use; and as more interactive forms of media (e.g.: internet, radio call-in shows, etc.) became available, the magic bullet theory was replaced by a variety of other, more instrumental models, like the two step of flow theory and diffusion of innovations theory.
Magic bullet theory model (Source: Katz & Lazarsfeld (1955)) Scope and Application: Mass media: The classic example of the application of the Magic Bullet Theory was illustrated on October 30, 1938 when Orson Welles and the newly formed Mercury Theatre group broadcasted their radio edition of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” On the eve of Halloween, radio programming was interrupted with a “news bulletin” for the first time. What the audience heard was that Martians had begun an invasion of Earth in a place called Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. It became known as the “Panic Broadcast” and changed broadcast history, social psychology, civil defence and set a standard for provocative entertainment. Approximately 12 million people in the United States heard the broadcast and about one million of those actually believed that a serious alien invasion was underway. A wave of mass hysteria disrupted households, interrupted religious services, caused traffic jams, and clogged communication systems. People fled their city homes to seek shelter in more rural areas, raided grocery stores and began to ration food. The nation was in a state of chaos, and this broadcast was the cause of it. Media theorists have classified the “War of the Worlds” broadcast as the archetypal example of the Magic Bullet Theory. This is exactly how the theory worked, by injecting the message directly into the “bloodstream” of the public, attempting to create a uniform thinking. The effects of the broadcast suggested that the media could manipulate a passive and gullible public, leading theorists to believe this was one of the primary ways media authors shaped audience perception.
It is important to remember that ‘effects’ of mass media, according to media theorists, are arguably short lived and so any findings in their research have little long term consequences. These effects are fourfold; immediate, short term, long term and institutional. The method of ‘personal influence’ study (two step flow and hypodermic) demands their own critique beginning with their ‘taken for granted assumptions’:
(1) the exercise of power through mass media is presumed to be comparable to the exercise of power in face-to-face situations. The assumption can be challenged in that audiences may be influenced by mass media but it is reciprocal. Media too can be influenced by audience. Media are part of the ‘great chain of being’ in which everyone, indeed everything, is in its duly and divinely appointed place.
(2) Power is to be assessed in case studies of discrete incidents. The occasion of influence was the face-to-face encounter in which individual A commended attitude A to individual B thus A is an opinion leader. Power may be a free flowing marketplace commodity.
(3) The unit of influence is short term, which can be attributed to media intervention.
(4) Attitude change: If the respondent had ‘changed mind’ as a result of influence then it is necessary to ascertain was it a fresh change or a return to an old attitude? Reinforcement of opinion is as crucial as change or introduction to a specific ideology but these can only occur where there is an opinion to reinforce or oppose. It cannot occur in the absence of opinion. The media appear to be extremely effective in creating opinions.
(5) Followers as opinion leaders. (Opinion leading is, in itself) an act of following (one follows an opinion).
We now need to confront the specific theory of ‘personal influence’ and how it fails its intended purpose. The general theoretical conclusion that ‘ideas often flow from radio and print to opinion leaders and from them to the less active sections of the population’ is seen to be more wrong than right. Not every opinion will change and many of the changes (not the changers) were made without any personal contact and thus dependent on mass media.
The findings of ‘personal influence’ are distorted in that they were applicable prior to the arrival of television. It says nothing about the force of television in the domain of political consciousness and political conduct. A larger question arises here too; the confusion of synchronic and diachronic dimensions. The snapshot taken in 1945 was assumed to be general and valid across boundaries of time. This transposition is not justifiable. The theory of mass media can only be studied in terms of ‘full exposure’ and not ‘more’ or ‘less’ exposure between individuals. The long-term purpose of such research is fruitless when considered outside of the historical context. Today’s mass media is different to the past and thus, in terms of relevance, the past no longer applies.
In linguistics, a synchronic analysis is one that views linguistic phenomena only at one point in time, usually the present, though a synchronic analysis of a historical language form is also possible. This may be distinguished from diachronic, which regards a phenomenon in terms of developments through time. Diachronic analysis is the main concern of historical linguistics; most other branches of linguistics are concerned with some form of synchronic analysis.
Synchronic and diachronic approaches can reach quite different conclusions. For example, a Germanic strong verb like English sing-sang-sung is irregular when viewed synchronically: the native speaker’s brain processes these as learned forms, whereas the derived forms of regular verbs are processed quite differently, by the application of productive rules (for example, walk-walked). This is an insight of psycholinguistics, relevant also for language didactics, both of which are synchronic disciplines. However a diachronic analysis will show that the strong verb is the remnant of a fully regular system of internal vowel changes; historical linguistics seldom uses the category “irregular verb.”
Personal Influence started by assuming that mass media influence is comparable to face-to-face influence and that power exists as discrete occasions of short-term attitude changes or behavioural choice? To answer such questions as this one we need to investigate and understand a number of ideological predispositions and orientations; administrative point of view, marketing orientation and social democratic ideology.
Questions are posed from high administrative positions within institutions. The sociologists will explore the problems associated with such powers and their control over audiences. The search is always on for predictive research and from the administrators viewpoint this is the most favourable premise of any inquiry. Lazarsfeld, himself with a long-term background in Administration, recognised the problem of relationship between media and academics when he once stated; “At what point will the commercial partners find some necessary conclusion too hard to take and at what point will they shut us off from the indispensable sources of funds and data?” Lazarsfeld clearly acknowledges his indebtedness to the media and sacrifices his independence. The administrative point of view is clearly considered.
Mass communications research developed very largely in response to market requirements. In the 1930s when Lazarsfeld arrived in America most national brands were multiplying and resorting to national advertising campaigns. They needed to know what to say, how often, over which channels and to whom. The consumer society was exploding and by 1945 it was in full swing. As radio progressed on popularity audience research (on the marketing of commodities) would be equally as important as hardware research (on the production of commodities). For this they needed demographical figures, audience figures, and research data and Lazarsfeld was in the right place at the right time to cater to this need. However, regardless of background and location Lazarsfeld and his equals operating under the command of those who needed such research had to create satisfactory techniques were inevitably conditioned by the practicality of their financers’ interests. Can such condition create unquestionable tactics? Much of the work of marketing orientation remains undone and has become media sociology.
Theorists do not live by theory alone. Facts do not stand by themselves; they have to be justified by an ideological position. Such a position can be conscious or unconscious and, if the former, more or less public. Social democracy and the work of Lazarsfeld are linked by biographically and theoretically. The marketing orientation and at least one important variant of European social democracy share a common conception of ‘the people’ and it is at first appearance paradoxical; they are both sovereign and passive. High consumption capitalism justifies itself in terms of mass satisfaction, and insists that the market is the true measure of democratic expression. The people are consumers and choose from the possibilities available and when they choose they confirm the legitimacy of the supplier. Put another way, social democracy requires marketing orientation, a rigorous procedure for giving people what they want. However, as is the case with young students seeking career guidance advice, it is not only expected but appreciated when guidance is proffered.
Over the course of the 20th century capitalism would work to present consumer sovereignty as the equivalent of freedom, in the common view and the common parlance. (If you don’t like one thing, choose another). The assumption that choice among the givens amounts to freedom becomes the root of the worldwide rationale of the global corporations (the global shopping centre). A society develops and continues to develop by freedom of choice but such choices are manipulative and promise much but deliver little. By ignoring these choice processes Sociologists have done their share to consolidate and legitimise the regime of capitalism. That the dominant paradigm is now proving vulnerable to critique is a measure of decline of capitalist legitimacy, commercial values and the political self-confidence of the rulers.