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Key Terms

Here is a selective and necessarily concise glossary of key concepts that should only be referred to in conjunction with the extended discussion of these terms in Key Themes in Media Theory. *NOTE* Terms are defined in the context of media theory/media studies – they should not be read as general definitions.


Agenda-setting theory: an ‘effects’ approach that shows how media influence the agenda of public issues around which political campaigns and other matters of public interest are established.

Behaviourism: a theoretical perspective that aims to measure objectively, through controlled observation (e.g. lab tests), how our thoughts, feelings and actions are affected by media communications. In the classic stimulus-response approach, the stimuli of media are deemed to directly affect our cognitive responses. Freudian theories of consciousness and subjectivity – those hidden drives so difficult to measure – are roundly rejected by behaviourist psychologists.

Chain of communication: ‘who, says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effect’ – also known as (Harold) Lasswell’s formula.

Consumer authority: the notion that audiences can claim ownership of and expertise over the meanings of cultural products – such as media or music texts – during intense phases of consumer-led production.

Consumer resistance: the concept of audiences being routinely and directly opposed to the profit-making intentions of capitalist production in their uses of media and cultural commodities (see work of John Fiske).

Consumerism / consumption: a theoretical perspective that seeks to explore and take complex account of the ways in which media production is received and used by audiences. Consumerist perspectives tend to be optimistic about the virtues of media consumption. Consumerism in a general sense also refers to practices of purchasing and using products and services.

Cultivation theory: a longitudinal approach to ‘effects’ research in which television in particular – although the approach is applicable to other mass media – is assumed to be such an important source of information and entertainment that viewers cannot escape its gradual encroachment into their everyday lives (see work of George Gerbner).

Cultural resistance: the argument that the power of mass media and cultural institutions is effectively opposed by audiences in cross-cultural contexts of reception.

Diffused audience: the concept of everyday performative consumption of different media resources in such a way as not to consume any singular text or institutional ideology (see work of Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst). 

Direct effects: an assertion that media texts and technologies impose powerful – and often subliminal – influences on the behaviour and actions of audiences. This perspective is similarly known as the hypodermic syringe, magic bullet or plug-in drug model of media effects. It can be compared to perspectives on ‘indirect effects’ (the idea that media are only one of several influential factors that determine our behaviour and actions) and ‘limited effects’ (in which media are not considered to have any significant influence on how we think, feel and act).

Discourse: a system of signification (like language) governed by rules that structure the ways in which we classify and divide its different meanings. For example, the discourse of television news operates under certain rules and conventions, such as values of newsworthiness and truthfulness. Michel Foucault’s theory of discourse is particularly concerned with issues of power and knowledge, and the ways in which particular discourses function to make certain ideas present while others are made absent.

Everyday life: routine, mundane, ordinary contexts of media and cultural consumption and – less often but increasingly common – production.

Femininity: cultural values, ideas and assumptions about female identities. The term ‘feminine’ describes a gender category; the term ‘female’ is a sex category.

Feminisms: a broad term that encompasses different theories of gender and womanhood. No two feminist perspectives are alike but – for the sake of brevity – all feminist theory seeks to analyse and address inequalities between the sexes, not least by politicizing ‘the personal’ (i.e. what it means to be a woman in contemporary life).   

Field theory: an approach to cultural production as structured by social and economic constraints. A field is the site of positions, possibilities and struggles practised in various arenas of cultural – including media – production (see work of Pierre Bourdieu). See also: habitus theory.

Gender: social and cultural characteristics of sex differences, typically categorized as masculinity and femininity.

Gender trouble: the assertion that masculine and feminine identities can be liberated from social norms by being enacted as performances that blur traditional gender lines. Transvestism is an example of troublesome gender performativity (see work of Judith Butler).

Habitus theory: an approach that considers consumer practices to be culturally diverse and actively empowering, but always socially structured. The habitus is a classificatory system that organizes consumer tastes and predispositions from each individual’s early years (see work of Pierre Bourdieu). See also: field theory.

Hegemony: a process of ‘give and take’ power struggle between ruling elites (e.g. governments) and the masses, in which the rulers offer certain benefits and concessions to their ‘subjects’ in order to win their consent and maintain the political status quo (see work of Antonio Gramsci).

Hyperreality: simulated imagery – for example, media-saturated images of a real entity such as New York City – that becomes more real to human experience than the genuinely real entity being simulated (see see of Jean Baudrillard). See also: simulation / simulacra.

Ideology: a set of ideas, values, tastes and/or beliefs expounded by a particular social group, organization, religion or culture. For example, the ideology of masculinity – at least in most Western countries – is associated with physical strength and prowess, emotional detachment, hard-nosed business, cars, computers, technological gadgets and so on.   

Information society: a theoretical perspective on advanced capitalism as being predominantly concerned with post-industrial, network economies that have passed through an industrial age into a communications age.

Interactionism: a theoretical perspective on the way we, individually and in groups, act in our relation to others in specific co-present and mediated environments.

Intertextuality: the postmodern notion that contemporary media and cultural texts – indeed, all kinds of texts – lack any original, individual style and can only refer back to other, previously produced texts (see work of Fredric Jameson).

Labelling theory: an approach to deviance as a social construction in which certain individuals and groups create labels (i.e. names and classifications, such as ‘junkies’) to exclude or criminalize others.

Language: the general meaning is familiar, but in semiotics this term refers specifically to a system of rules (langue and parole) that structure all the different units of meaning at any particular time. Each and every unit must be different (e.g. in the English language, ‘hat’ is different to ‘bat’, ‘fat’, ‘ham’, ‘hut’ and so on) in order for the system to successfully signify its meanings.

McDonaldization: a feature of advanced modernity in which the corporate structure and practices associated with the fast-food chain (i.e. McDonald’s) are symptomatic of wider global production techniques to do with efficiency, calculability, predictability and control (see work of George Ritzer).

Male gaze, the: a theory about how men in films are represented as ‘bearers of the look’ which is usually directed at physically desirable, sexually submissive female characters who connote ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ and are denied a female gaze (see work of Laura Mulvey).

Masculinity: cultural values, ideas and assumptions about male identities. The term ‘masculine’ describes a gender category; the term ‘male’ is a sex category.

Media and cultural imperialism: the argument that one nation’s media and cultural values are able to infiltrate and potentially colonize the media and cultural infrastructure of other nations.

Media effects: a general term that describes the power of media texts and technologies to function as stimuli for audience responses and reactions.

Media literacy: the notion that uses of media texts and technologies enable the learning of critical abilities, skills and competencies.

Mediated quasi-interaction: the non-reciprocal social relations between media producers/personalities and audiences, predominantly monological in character such that the mediated words and actions of public figures reveal themselves to constant scrutiny from ‘the public eye’ (see work of John B. Thompson).

Medium theory: an approach that emphasizes the importance of media technologies in determining the features of media products and content, as well as their social, cultural, political and economic uses (see work of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan). See also: technological determinism.

Metanarrative / grand narrative: a theory or belief-system that emerges – particularly during processes of modernity – to legitimate its claims to truth and knowledge against the sins of ignorance and superstition characteristic of premodern societies. However, postmodernity is partly defined by the decline of all-embracing metanarratives, such as communism and feminism (see work of Jean-Paul Lyotard).

Minority culture: a modernist notion that describes an elite group of artists and intellectuals capable of appreciating high cultural tastes and values, which they may subsequently transmit to the ill-informed masses.

Modernism: an artistic, literary and critical tradition of experimental work (circa 1890-1940) that cherishes individual creativity in opposition to the hostile consequences of modernity.

Modernity: the social, economic, political and technological developments that have characterized the transition from traditional (pre-modern) to advanced (modern) civilizations.

Moral panic: a concept that describes a situation in which an individual, group, event or condition is posited as a threat to society. Politicians, criminal justice institutions and mass media organizations are usually identified as the main sources for such threats, which are more often than not exaggerated and sensationalized.

Myth: the social and cultural transformation of linguistic meanings – that is, language significations – into a second order of signification (see work of Roland Barthes). For example, ‘hat’ has a distinct linguistic meaning – as an item of headwear – but it can also be associated with myths, such as the flamboyance of high society at Royal Ascot, or the shady villains of gangster movies.

Orientalism: a cultural-historical perspective on how representations of non-Western peoples and places have been mainly conceived and authorized by Westerners. Generally speaking, Western representations of the Orient, meaning the East and especially the Middle East, have amounted to ethnocentric and racist misconceptions (see work of Edward Said).

Para-social interaction: the illusion of intimacy and familiarity between media personalities (personae) and audiences that can be established through routine use of radio and television (see work of Horton and Wohl).

Pastiche: a postmodern style of imitation that denies the existence of – refuses to acknowledge – the original form it appears to be imitating. Pastiche can be contrasted to parody, which is an imitative style that consciously mocks the original form (see work of Fredric Jameson).

Patriarchy: a male-dominated social order that expounds masculine values and excludes women from positions of power and authority.

Phenomenistic approach: the argument that media cannot be viewed in isolation from all the other social, cultural, political and economic factors that cause human beings to change their behaviour, attitudes or actions.

Placelessness: the idea that people are no longer defined by physical boundaries or places (where we are) but rather by networks of information and knowledge (what we know) – facilitated by new media technologies – that have no sense of place (see work of Joshua Meyrowitz).

Political economy: a theoretical approach that analyses the economic and political processes of media ownership and control, with particular emphasis on patterns of economic concentration, conglomeration and globalization.

Postcolonial theory / postcolonialism: an approach that seeks to understand relations between colonising and colonized peoples that are no longer straightforwardly oppositional, but are still marked by uneven and unequal power relations.

Postfeminism: the term given to a popular strand of feminist theory that emerged in the 1980s as a critique of orthodox feminisms and claimed that equality between the sexes had been achieved.

Postmodernism: an artistic, literary and cultural tradition (emerging during the middle of the twentieth century) that has supplanted ‘high’ modernism and embraced ‘the popular’.

Postmodernity: the social, economic, political and technological developments that have characterized the transition from modern to newly-organized ways of life that are typically associated with globalization and the rise of mass culture, media and communications technologies.

Propaganda model: a theory of hegemony in which news reporting tends to be sympathetic to government policies and corporate decisions, and at the same time tends to marginalize dissenting voices (see work of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky). See also: media and cultural imperialism.

Public sphere: an inclusive arena of bourgeois intellectual debate that had weighty influence on the politics of eighteen- and early nineteenth-century Western Europe, but has since declined in importance due in part to commercial expansion of mass media (see work of Jurgen Habermas).

Race: ethnic characteristics of an individual or group. Historically, representation of race in media and cultural texts has been often misguided, at times racist, and always unreflective of ‘real’ racial experiences and identities.

Representation: the construction of reality through language. For example, media construct gender realities – such as differences between men and women – through their own ‘re-presentational’ codes and conventions. The stark difference between ‘the real’ and ‘representations of the real’ cannot be emphasized too much.

Second wave, the: this term refers to the 1960s Women’s Liberation Movement that campaigned for equal rights on issues such as employment, marital relationships and sexual orientation. The second wave follows the first wave of feminist activity typified by the Suffrage Movement that fought to secure the vote for women.

Self-presentation: the dramaturgical techniques deployed by individuals and groups to perform an expression of themselves to others (see work of Erving Goffman).

Semiotics: also known as semiology, this is the study of signs within systems of signification. See also: language and myth.

Sex: biological distinctions between human beings who are male and female.

Simulation / simulacra: a system of signs that no longer represent real things but serve to mask this absence of reality so as to become a substitute for it (see work of Jean Baudrillard). See also: hyperreality.

Standardization: a concept used to characterize the formulaic products of capitalist-driven mass media and mass culture that appeal to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of maximum profit (see work of Theodor Adorno).

Structuralism: the theoretical perspective that seeks to understand how systems work to structure their individual parts at any given moment in time.

Structuration theory: the idea that everyday actions – for example, going to work or surfing the web – both produce and reproduce social structures of power (see work of Anthony Giddens).

Tactics: everyday consumer practices that win time from and escape the strategies (corporate capitalist structures) of powerful institutions such mass media (see work of Michel de Certeau).

Technological determinism: the argument that technologies significantly affect and shape people’s lives independent of social, political and economic factors that may affect how these technologies are invented and adopted. See also: medium theory.

Third wave, the: while it continues to engage in feminist politics and issues associated with the second wave, the third wave – emerging in the 1990s – foregrounds the realization of genuine female pleasure and desire, as well as guarding against the idea of complete feminine autonomy celebrated by postfeminism.

Two-step flow: a behaviourist model of how ideas travel from mass media to opinion leaders (step one), and then from opinion leaders to more passive individuals in a given society (step two).

Uses and gratifications: a behaviourist perspective on how individuals engage with media texts and technologies in order to satisfy certain social and psychological needs.