Action Theory and Communication Research: Recent Developments in Europe

Action Theory and Communication Research: Recent Developments in Europe

Action Theory and Communication Research: Recent Developments in Europe

Action Theory and Communication Research: Recent Developments in Europe


The action theoretical approach has already proved its value as a framework for communication research, most especially in the study of media audiences and media use. The approach privileges the perspective of the acting individual but offers guidelines for connecting the subjective orientation with networks of social interaction and for treating 'behaviour' as a social process. Research within this framework takes account of the wider social context and calls for a careful combination of empirical observation and interpretation, with a corresponding diversity of methodologies. The contributions to the volume shed light on the significance of media use in everyday experience and contribute to an understanding of communication in society.


Denis McQuail and Karsten Renckstorf

Social action perspectives in (mass) communication research

Social action perspectives have played a major role in communication research from the start of the academic enterprise called communication science. Although far from being the mainstream approach to communication research in Europe, this tradition has developed its own theory, research methods and a considerable amount of fresh and promising insights into communication processes. It focuses primarily, although not exclusively, on audience activity and mass media use both the central objects of study for communication research from the very beginning (cf. Renckstorf & McQuail, 1996). Initially, the audience was conceived of as an undifferentiated mass, a passive target for persuasion and information, waiting, as it were, for media messages to come along so the audience members could respond to them in a more or less uniform, quite foreseeable manner. However, as students of mass media effects soon came to recognize, audiences were made up of real people, surrounded by and imbedded in social groups, which can be characterized as networks of interpersonal relationships through which media effects are mediated. That is, essentially, why audiences can resist the influence often intended by media campaigners. People have their own varied reasons for using the media, and it is they who choose to attend to media messages – or not. According to a well-known assessment, [the initial mistake, was to suppose that media choose their audiences. They aim to do so, but their selections are less decisive than the choices which audience members make of media channels and contents] (McQuail & Windahl, 1993: 132).

Evidence of selective exposure, selective perception and selective retention soon accumulated, showing that audiences tend to match their media use – i.e., their choice of media channels and media content – to their own tastes, ideas and informational needs. Thus, the chance of change oriented effects from the media diminished and the chance of reinforcement increased (cf. Klapper, 1960). It was about the time of that insight when Katz (1959:2) suggested mass communication researchers should pay less attention to the question [What do media do to people?] and more to that of [What do people do with the media?]. This is perhaps the most general for-

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