Apr 22, 2009

L.A. Lievrouw: New media, mediation, and communication study

A nice review of concepts and theories in communication studies: Lievrouw, L. A. (2009). New media, mediation, and communication study. Information, Communication & Society, 12(3), 303.

The article identifies three conceptual moments that define the development of communication studies: theories of media effect that focused on mass communication, concepts of "new media" and mediation, and cultural studies of the uses of ICTs. The trajectory in the development of communication studies is towards convergence.The first conceptual moment is characterized by the focus on media effects and impacts.


Lazarsfeld and Katz proposed the two-step flow process of "media to conversation to opinion" as a critical response to linear models of communication that defined communication as transmission (sender-message-channel-receiver). This opened the way for other mass communication theories that viewed audiences and media as enmeshed in complex interpersonal relations.
Subsequent research followed two directions corresponding to main "intervening variables" involved in two-step flow: decision studies (opinion formation, voting decisions, etc) and diffusion studies.

In decision studies there uses and gratifications theory, expectancy value theory, dependency theory, and reader-response theory. Uses and gratifications theory argues that users make rational choices among media and messages according to their personal needs and interests. Refinements such as expectancy-value theory and dependency theory addressed the overemphasis on audience's rationality and goal-directedness. Reader-response theory is used to study audience reception to media.


Diffusion studies use diffusion of innovations theory (the communication and adoption of new practices through social systems). Diffusion framework focuses on how people share information, adopt technologies and products, etc. It has been criticized for technological determinism and for the tendency to view innovations positively, thus to privilege the interests of their promoters.

The second moment focused on the attempts to incorporate new media in communication studies. One approach was to adapt existing communication theories to the study of new systems. Another - to draw on a mix of methods and concepts from other disciplines.

From science and technology studies the following was adopted: the concept of the mutual-shaping of society and technology as well as ethnographic and ethnomethodological approaches. Computer-mediated communication framework is another strategy that allowed to study interpersonal interactions via computer-based networks. Some analysts began to reconsider the assumptions that f2f interaction is the richest form of interaction and that the introduction of technology degrades the quality. One conceptual move was to frame interaction in terms of 'presence', i.e., the variety and perceived quality of communication afforded by media. Other theories and concepts: media richness theory, social context cues, interactivity (the extent to which media and information technologies foster a sense of reciprocity, mutuality, feedback, etc.)

The third moment reflects the cultural turn to humanistic approaches from cultural/critical studies. Media are viewed as instruments in the reproduction and transmission of dominant ideologies, interests, and power structures. The drawback is that the cultural-transmission approach views new forms of technologies as new mass media, which may ignore their interactive and participatory features. This view began to shift over the last decade. The concept of connected presence describes non-mass flows of information via mobile phones, email, SMS, and chat. Domestication theory (people consume and appropriate new media, which influences subsequent technology development) is a response to the ideas of mutual shaping. Mediation is the concept that can help to bring together multiple strands of communication studies and bridge the gap between studies of mass media and studies of interpersonal communication.

To conclude, the article argues that "any satisfactory theory of communication today must account for its dual social and technical nature, and for the experience of communication as a seamless and continually negotiated web of meaning, practices, tools, resources, and relations. ... we should keep in mind the multilayered meanings of the word mediation itself - both the technological means or forms of expression, and the interpersonal processes of moderation, negotiation, and intervention." (p. 317).