Functions of the Media

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Robert Merton introduced a form of functionalism in his 1949 book Social Theory and Social Structure, and that form has been widely adopted by media researchers. His "functional analysis" detailed how the study of social artifacts (such as media use) could lead to the development of theories explaining their "functions." Merton derived this perspective from earlier forms of structural-functionalist theories that were used in anthropology and sociology. Functional analysis argues that a society can best be viewed as a "system in balance," consisting of complex sets of interrelated activities, each supporting the others. All forms of social activity play a part in maintaining the system as a whole.

The apparent value neutrality of functional analysis appealed to many media scholars because much early media theory characterized media and media consumption as either "good" or "bad." Functionalists reject this good-bad dichotomy, arguing instead that only objective, empirical research can identify the functions and dysfunctions of media, leading to a systematic appraisal of media's overall effect on society. Functionalist theorists believed that scientists had neither the right nor the need to make value judgments about media when they conducted their research.

Functionalists view activity that contributes to maintaining the society as functional, not good. Disruptive activities are, by definition, dysfunctional, not evil. Some social activities might be found to be functional in some respects but dys-functional in others. Functionalists also distinguish between manifest functions (i.e., those consequences that are intended and easily observed) and latent functions (those consequences that are unintended and less easily observed).

Functional analysis provided the foundation for many theories of media effects and of much of the related research during the 1950s and 1960s. Researchers found that functional analysis can be very complicated. Some forms of media content can be functional or dysfunctional for society as a whole, for specific individuals, or for various subgroups in the society. Thus, entertaining network television crime shows might be functional for the viewing audience as a whole but dysfunctional for children who learn that aggression is a good way to deal with problems. The functions for society (the larger audience) may be offset by the dys-functions for an individual child or for a particular group of viewers (children).

This example highlights a major problem with functional analysis. It does not permit the development of definitive conclusions about the overall functions or dysfunctions of media. Researchers can easily avoid drawing controversial conclusions by noting that dysfunctions are balanced by functions. In 1961, for example, Wilbur Schramm, Jack Lyle, and Edwin Parker wrote in their book Television in the Lives of Our Children that although viewing of some forms of violent television content encouraged some children to be aggressive, this was more than offset by the fact that most children show little postviewing aggression. Some kids might even learn how to deal with aggressive playmates. Therefore, as far as the social system is concerned, violent television content does not make much difference despite being dysfunctional for a few children.

Sociologist Charles Wright directly applied functionalism to mass communication in his 1959 book Mass Communication: A Sociological Perspective. He wrote that media theorists "noted three activities of communication specialists: (1) surveil-lance of the environment, (2) correlation of the parts of society in responding to the environment, and (3) transmission of the social heritage from one generation to the next" (p. 16). Wright added a fourth, entertainment. These became known as the "classic four functions of the media."

Wright's particular contribution was to draw a distinction between the intended purpose of media activity and its consequences (its functions). Nonetheless, for most communication scholars, functions became synonymous with the aims or goals of the media industries themselves. As a result, many critics saw functionalism as doing little more than legitimizing the status quo. For example, surveillance of the environment refers to the collection and distribution of information by the media. People know the fate of the government appropriations bill because they saw it on the news. Correlation of parts of society refers to the interpretive or analytical activities of the media. People know from the newspaper that the bill's failure to pass means no raises for teachers this year. Transmission of the social heritage refers to the ability of the media to communicate values, norms, and styles across time and between groups. What were typical attitudes toward racial minorities in the 1950s? People can see them manifested in old movies and television shows. Finally, entertainment refers to the ability of the media to amuse or entertain.

These are obvious aims of the media, but they may not necessarily be the functions served for the people who consume those media. For example, a television network might air a violent police drama with the aim of entertaining, but the actual function served for the audience might be learning how to solve conflicts. In other words, the aim is not always the ultimate or only function. Critics contend that restricting the study of functions to functions intended by media practitioners (their aims) is likely to ignore many negative effects.

Surveillance activity and its effects on democracy offer an example of how functionalism should be applied to media studies. In their intention to survey the environment, the mass media devote significant resources to the coverage and reporting of political campaigns. But if citizens ignore this coverage, the intended function fails to occur—the environment has not been surveyed despite the efforts of the media. But if citizens do consume the reports, then the intended function—surveillance of the environment—does take place. For surveillance to occur, the transmission of news about important events must be accompanied by audience activity that results in learning about and understanding those events. Simply put, aims become functions only when the interrelated parts of the system operate to produce those functions.

This proper use of functionalism opens the media-society interrelationship to more robust questioning. Might not the frequently shallow, entertainment-oriented coverage of politics by the media actually contribute to dysfunctional media use, as citizens become less involved in the political process because they are turned off not only by the nature of the coverage but by its content? Might not the manifest function served by the media and audience interrelationship actually produce a latent function, the pacification of a citizenry that might otherwise demand real change from its government and politicians? This allowance for dysfunctions and latent functions has resulted in a renewed interest in functionalism among researchers who are skeptical of theories that they consider to be too apologetic or forgiving of routine media practice.

See also:Advertising Effects; Arousal Processes and Media Effects; Catharsis Theory and Media Effects; Cultivation Theory and Media Effects; Cumulative Media Effects; Desensitization and Media Effects; Election Campaigns and Media Effects; Ethics and Information; Mood Effects and Media Exposure; News Effects; Parental Mediation of Media Effects; Social Change and the Media; Social Cognitive Theory and Media Effects; Social Goals and the Media; Society and the Media.


Merton, Robert K. (1949). Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Schramm, Wilbur; Lyle, Jack; and Parker, Edwin.(1961). Television in the Lives of Our Children. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wright, Charles R. (1959). Mass Communication: A Sociological Perspective. New York: Random House.

Kimberly B. Massey