Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Cultivation theory

core definition

Cultivation theory of the mass media assumes that viewers' behaviour and attitudes are not directly and immediately effected by the media, rather people's general views of reality are gradually affected by exposure to the media.

explanatory context

Alexis Tan's (1979) study of the effect of advertisements is an example of the cultivation approach. She examined the impact that advertisements, which relied on sex appeal and beauty to sell their products, had on the attitudes of young women. She argued that television cultivates certain perceptions of reality through a selective representation of particular themes rather than causes direct responses in individuals, as the behaviourist model of media impact suggests. In this case, what is being cultivated by the media is the desirability of various beauty characteristics.


analytical review

Blog at (undated):

Cultivation theory (aka cultivation hypothesis, cultivation analysis) was an a theory composed originally by G. Gerbner and later expanded upon by Gerbner & Gross (1976 – Living with television: The violence profile. Journal of Communication, 26, 76.), they began research in the mid-1960s endeavoring to study  media effects, specifically whether watching television influences the audiences idea and perception of everyday life, and if so, how. Cultivation theory states that high frequency viewers of television are more susceptible to media messages and the belief that they are real and valid. Heavy viewers are exposed to more violence and therefore are affected by the Mean World Syndrome, the belief that the world is a far worse and dangerous place then it actually is....

Cultivation theorists posit that television viewing can have long-term effects that gradually affect the audience. Their primary focus falls on the effects of viewing in the attitudes of the viewer as opposed to created behavior...

The theory suggests that this cultivation of attitudes is based on attitudes already present in our society and that the media take those attitudes which are already present and re-present them bundled in a different packaging to their audiences. One of the main tenets of the theory is that television and media cultivate the status quo, they do not challenge it. ...The theory suggests that television and media possess a small but significant influence on the attitudes and beliefs of society about society. Those who absorb more media are those we are more influenced.


University of Twente (2017) states:

Cultivation theorists argue that television has long-term effects which are small, gradual, indirect but cumulative and significant...Cultivation theory in its most basic form, suggests that television is responsible for shaping, or 'cultivating' viewers' conceptions of social reality. The combined effect of massive television exposure by viewers over time subtly shapes the perception of social reality for individuals and, ultimately, for our culture as a whole. Gerbner argues that the mass media cultivate attitudes and values which are already present in a culture: the media maintain and propagate these values amongst members of a culture, thus binding it together. He has argued that television tends to cultivate middle-of-the- road political perspectives. Gerbner called this effect 'mainstreaming'. Cultivation theorists distinguish between 'first order' effects (general beliefs about the everyday world, such as about the prevalence of violence) and 'second order' effects (specific attitudes, such as to law and order or to personal safety). There is also a distinction between two groups of television viewers: the heavy viewers and the light viewers. The focus is on 'heavy viewers'. People who watch a lot of television are likely to be more influenced by the ways in which the world is framed by television programs than are individuals who watch less, especially regarding topics of which the viewer has little first-hand experience. Light viewers may have more sources of information than heavy viewers. 'Resonance' describes the intensified effect on the audience when what people see on television is what they have experienced in life. This double dose of the televised message tends to amplify the cultivation effect. ...

Cultivation analysis usually involves the correlation of data from content analysis (identifying prevailing images on television) with survey data from audience research (to assess any influence of such images on the attitudes of viewers). Audience research by cultivation theorists involves asking large-scale public opinion poll organizations to include in their national surveys questions regarding such issues as the amount of violence in everyday life. Answers are interpreted as reflecting either the world of television or that of everyday life. The answers are then related to the amount of television watched, other media habits and demographic data such as sex, age, income and education.


Harvey and MacDonald (1993) state:

Cultivation theory of the media argues that media effects are indirect, gradual, generalised and symbolic. That is, the media does not have a direct effect on people's behaviour but it does affect how people perceive the world and their attitudes towards it. This effect is gradual. People slowly build up a view of the world which reflects what they see on television or read in newspapers rather than what they encounter in real life.
Gerbner et al. (1986) argue that heavy viewers of television have a more distorted view of the world than light viewers. This has been criticised for not taking into account control variables. For example, the relationship between fear of crime and heavy viewing is explained by the neighbourhood in which viewers live. People who live in high crime areas have a higher fear of being a victim of crime but also stay at home and watch more television (Hirsch, 1980).

A major problem with cultivation theory, from a positivist point of view, is that it cannot make causal statements as it provides no controlled environment. Cultivation theory is only able to show correlations


associated issues


related areas

See also

mass media


discourse analysis


Blog at, nd, Mass Communication Theory: Cultivation Theory. Available at, accessed 2 March 2018, still available 2 June 2019.

Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M. and Signorielli, N., 1986, 'Living with television: the dynamics of the cultivation process' in Bryant and Zillman (eds.), 1986, Perspectives on Media Effects, Hillsdale, N.J., Erlbaum.

Harvey, L. and MacDonald, M., 1993, Doing Sociology. A practical introduction, chapter 2. London, Macmillan.

Hirsch, P. M., 1980, 'The 'scary world' of the non-viewer and other anomalies: a reanalysis of Gerber et al. findings on cultivation analysis, Part I', Communication Research, 7(4), pp. 403–56.

Tan, A. S., 1979, 'TV beauty ads and role expectations of adolescent female viewers', 56, Journalism Quarterly, pp. 283–8.

University of Twente, 2017, Comminication Study Theories Available at:, accessed 2 June 2019 (pdf with hyperlink contents).

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