television shapes concepts of social reality

History and Orientation

With the decline of hypodermic needle theories a new perspective began to emerge: the stalagmite theories. Black et. al. used the metaphor of stalagmite theories to suggest that media effects occur analogously to the slow buildup of formations on cave floors, which take their interesting forms after eons of the steady dripping of limewater from the cave ceilings above. One of the most popular theories that fits this perspective is cultivation theory.

Cultivation theory (sometimes referred to as the cultivation hypothesis or cultivation analysis) was an approach developed by Professor George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. He began the 'Cultural Indicators' research project in the mid-1960s, to study whether and how watching television may influence viewers' ideas of what the everyday world is like. Cultivation research is in the 'effects' tradition. Cultivation theorists argue that television has long-term effects which are small, gradual, indirect but cumulative and significant.

Core Assumptions and Statements

Cultivation theory in its most basic form, suggests that television is responsible for shaping, or ‘cultivating’ viewers’ conceptions of social reality. The combined effect of massive television exposure by viewers over time subtly shapes the perception of social reality for individuals and, ultimately, for our culture as a whole. Gerbner argues that the mass media cultivate attitudes and values which are already present in a culture: the media maintain and propagate these values amongst members of a culture, thus binding it together. He has argued that television tends to cultivate middle-of-the- road political perspectives. Gerbner called this effect ‘mainstreaming’. Cultivation theorists distinguish between ‘first order’ effects (general beliefs about the everyday world, such as about the prevalence of violence) and ‘second order’ effects (specific attitudes, such as to law and order or to personal safety). There is also a distinction between two groups of television viewers: the heavy viewers and the light viewers. The focus is on ‘heavy viewers’. People who watch a lot of television are likely to be more influenced by the ways in which the world is framed by television programs than are individuals who watch less, especially regarding topics of which the viewer has little first-hand experience. Light viewers may have more sources of information than heavy viewers. ‘Resonance’ describes the intensified effect on the audience when what people see on television is what they have experienced in life. This double dose of the televised message tends to amplify the cultivation effect.

Conceptual Model


Cultivation Theory

Source: Hawkins and Pingree (1983)

Favorite Methods

Cultivation analysis usually involves the correlation of data from content analysis (identifying prevailing images on television) with survey data from audience research (to assess any influence of such images on the attitudes of viewers). Audience research by cultivation theorists involves asking large-scale public opinion poll organizations to include in their national surveys questions regarding such issues as the amount of violence in everyday life. Answers are interpreted as reflecting either the world of television or that of everyday life. The answers are then related to the amount of television watched, other media habits and demographic data such as sex, age, income and education.

Scope and Application

Cultivation research looks at the mass media as a socializing agent and investigates whether television viewers come to believe the television version of reality the more they watch it.


In a survey of about 450 New Jersey schoolchildren, 73 percent of heavy viewers compared to 62 percent of light viewers gave the TV answer to a question asking them to estimate the number of people involved in violence in a typical week. The same survey showed that children who were heavy viewers were more fearful about walking alone in a city at night. They also overestimated the number of people who commit serious crimes. This effect is called ‘mean world syndrome’. One controlled experiment addressed the issue of cause and effect, manipulating the viewing of American college students to create heavy- and light-viewing groups. After 6 weeks of controlled viewing, heavy viewers of action-adventure programs were indeed found to be more fearful of life in the everyday world than were light viewers.


Key publications

  • Boyd-Barrett, Oliver & Peter Braham (Eds.) (1987). Media, Knowledge & Power. London: Croom Helm.
  • Condry, John (1989). The Psychology of Television. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Dominick, Joseph R. (1990). The Dynamics of Mass Communication. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Evra, Judith van (1990). Television and Child Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976a). Living with television: The violence profile. Journal of Communication, 26, 172-199.
  • Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976b). The scary world of TV’s heavy viewer. Psychology Today, 10(4), 41-89.
  • Hawkins R.P & Pingree, S. (1983). Televisions influence on social reality. In: Wartella, E.,
  • Whitney, D. & Windahl, S. (Eds.) Mass Communication Review Yearbook, Vol 5. Beverley Hills CA: Sage.
  • Livingstone, S. (1990). Making Sense of Television. London: Pergamon.
  • McQuail, D. & Windahl, S. (1993). Communication Models for the Study of Mass Communication. London: Longman.
  • Stappers, J.G. (1984) De eigen aard van televisie; tien stellingen over cultivatie en culturele indicatoren. Massacommunicatie 12(5-6), 249-258.

See also Media, Culture and Society, Mass Media