Cultivation Theory

tv violence by carlos latuff

Cultivation theory is a social theory which examines the long-term effects of television. Developed by George Gerbner and Larry Gross of the University of Pennsylvania. They were ‘concerned with the effects of television programming (particularly violent programming) on the attitudes and behaviors of the American public.’

Gerbner asserts that the overall concern about the effects of television on audiences stemmed from the unprecedented centrality of television in American culture. He posited that television as a mass medium of communication had formed into a common symbolic environment that bound diverse communities together, socializing people in to standardized roles and behaviors. He compared the power of television to the power of religion, saying that television was to modern society what religion once was in earlier times.

However, cultivation theory was not developed to study ‘targeted and specific effects (e.g., that watching ‘Superman’ will lead children to attempt to fly by jumping out the window) [but rather] in terms of the cumulative and overarching impact [television] has on the way we see the world in which we live.’ Cultivation theory in its most basic form, then, suggests that exposure to television, over time, subtly ‘cultivates’ viewers’ perceptions of reality. Gerbner and Gross say ‘television is a medium of the socialization of most people into standardized roles and behaviors. Its function is in a word, enculturation.’ The central hypothesis explored in cultivation research is that those who spend more time watching television are more likely to perceive the real world in ways that reflect the most common and recurrent messages of the television world, compared with people who watch less television, but are otherwise comparable in terms of important demographic characteristics.

When a person watches more television, that person is more likely to think he or she has a higher chance of getting into violence. The individual is likely to have a greater fear of walking alone at night. People who view heavy amount of television think, ‘that five percent of society is involved in law enforcement,’ which is four percent higher than actuality. Finally, heavy television watchers are more mistrusting of people than light or medium television viewers. This suspicious view on the world is called the ‘mean world syndrome.’

Television plays a central role in society. While there are many diverse cultures in the United States (and the world) contributing the variety of beliefs, values, attitudes and practices creating our unique cultures, there is one thing that ties us all together: television. Of course there are many people that do not have access to television, but the underlying truth is, the reach of television is so expansive that it has become the primary channel responsible for mainstream in our culture. Heavy television viewing may override individual differences and perspectives, creating more of an American (and increasingly global) ‘melting pot’ of social, cultural and political ideologies. Essentially, the more TV a viewer watches, the more likely it becomes that their opinions of various items in the world will start to mirror those the media portrays. In fact, most heavy TV viewers do not even know they are starting to bend their views to those of the media.

Resonance occurs when things viewed on television are actually congruent with the actual everyday realities of viewers. Gerbner writes that this provides a double dose of messages that resonate and amplify cultivation. The example he gives is of minority groups whose fictional television character is stereotypically more frequently victimized on television, creating an exaggerated perception of violence for individuals who watch more television. This cultivation could have a large effect on our society if these viewers insist on receiving more security from the government, their work place, family, friends, etc. Resonance seeks to explain why heavy TV viewers often have an amplified vigilance about the world.

Gerbner et al. developed the Mean World Index, which consists of three statements: 1) Most people are just looking out for themselves; 2) You can’t be too careful in dealing with people; and 3) Most people would take advantage of you if they got the chance. The Mean World Index finds that long-term exposure to television in which violence is frequent cultivates the image of a mean and dangerous world. More frequent viewers had a perception of reality in which greater protection is needed.

A 2002 study by Gerbner et al. expanded on previous research about Cultivation Theory to include variations in cultivation. It is noted that personal interactions have an impact on cultivation. For example, parental co-viewing, and family and peer support can impact the level of cultivation for adolescents—more cohesive support, results in more resistant adolescents are to cultivation.

International cultivation analysis attempts to answer the question of whether the medium or the system is the message. Gerbner et al. found that countries where the television programs were less repetitive and homogenous than the United States produced less predictable and consistent results. The variety of television content is also an important factor. Increased diversity and balance within television channels or programs leads viewers to report similar preferences. Further, importing television programs internationally can elicit variable responses depending on the cultural context and the type of television program.

For example, exposure of U.S. television programs to Korean females resulted in liberal perspective of gender roles and family. However, in the Korean male television viewers, U.S. programs brought out increased hostility and protection of Korean culture. Another study showed that Australian students who watched U.S. television programs (especially adventure and crime shows) were more likely to view Australia as dangerous. However, they didn’t transfer this danger to America, even though they were watching U.S. television programs.

Neilsen informed the general public that ‘television viewing had reached an all-time high’ in 2009. With this new age of technology, we have access to television at our fingertips at almost every moment of the day. The introduction of the Internet has multiplied our viewing capabilities and we can be more selective than ever. Hulu, YouTube, TiVo, On Demand, and other computer-mediated technologies are making this process affordable, quick, and easy.

Cultivation Analysis has been applied to other forms of media, including video games. A longitudinal, controlled experiment examined the presence of cultivation effects in the playing of an online game. Over the course of playing the video game for one month, participants changed their perceptions of real world dangers. However, these dangers only corresponded to events and situations present in the game world, not other real-world crimes.

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