Television and the American Family

By Jennings Bryant | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Families' Social Uses of Television as Extensions of the Household

James Lull
San Jose State University

As a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1970s I was interested generally in how interpersonal communication fits into the study of mass communication and, specifically, in how families negotiate their experiences with television. Several important developments taking place in academic theory and research at the time directly influenced my thinking. First, human communication was finally being considered to be a process of interaction rather than a series of discrete acts of social activity. We may take this perspective for granted now, but it was then an exciting new way of thinking that opened the door for the study of many complex and subtle dimensions of interpersonal and mass-mediated discourses. Second, a specific program of empirical research directed by Steve Chaffee and Jack McLeod at Wisconsin was exploring "family communication patterns." This approach emphasized the explanatory power of differing interpersonal communication environments in family involvement with television and other mass media. Third, what was then a new perspective in sociology-- ethnomethodology--promised great potential in the study of communication as well, especially in micro-analyses of interpersonal interaction. These theoretical developments all occurred at about the same time and inspired my early efforts to investigate family communication as television audience activity.

But more than theoretical inspiration was needed in order to document the forms and processes of interpersonal communication that characterize life inside family homes. An appropriate method was necessary. The approaches that were being used in social scientific and communications research--even with the increased sensitivity that modern multivariate and longitudinal techniques offered--were unable to provide access to the kind of information that I was looking for. I was interested in studying concrete practices of human interaction at home,

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