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General Contexts

Intrapersonal Communication (Persuasion)

Interpersonal Communication

Small Group Communication

Organizational Communication

Intercultural Communication

Mass Communication

Applied Contexts

Health Communication

Instructional Communication

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Last updated February 19, 2001


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Explanation of Theory:

There are five functional approaches the media serves users:  surveillance, correlation, transmission, entertainment, and mobilization

Theorists: Harold Laswell and Charles Wright

Date: 1948, 1960

Primary Articles:

    Laswell, H (1948). The structure and function of communication and society: The communication of ideas. New York: Institute for Religious and Social Studies,  203-243.
     Wright, W. R. (1960). Functional analysis and mass communication. Public Opinion Quarterly,(24),  610-613.

Individual Interpretations:

The mass media serves many functions for our society. The five elements the theorists put together describe the audience's use for the media. Surveillance means that the media provides news and information. Correlation means that the media presents the information to us after they select, interpret, and criticize it. The cultural transmission function means that the media reflects our own beliefs, values, and norms. Media also entertains us in our free time and provides an escape from everyday life. Mobilization refers to the media function of promoting society's interest especially in times of crisis.

Metatheoretical Assumptions:

Ontological Assumptions:

This theory assumes that humans have a certain amount of free will.  They can use mass communication for any variety of functions but they have to use it for something.  Humans can make a choice in what to watch for any variety of reasons even if it is just for noise.

Epistemological Assumptions:

The knowledge is universal and it is one truth that mass communication functions as a part of our society.  It is a main source of surveillance, entertainment, correlation, transmission, and mobilization.

Axiological Assumptions:

This theory is objective and value-neutral.  It does not matter what person is going to watch the television because everyone watches it for a reason.

Critique: Scientific Theory 

Explanatory Power: It explains our society's use for media and mass communication.

Predictive Power:   It predicts that people will use the media for specific functions.

Parsimony: It is simple because the audience has a need and the media fulfills that need.

Falsifiability: The theory could be proved false should the media become dysfunctional or nonfunctional.

Internal Consistency: The theory makes sense in that there are several functions of the media and they are not in conflict with one another. Some people can use the media for more than one function at different times.

Heuristic Provocativeness: Is there a way that the media is dysfunctional? Does the media serve the same functions now as it did 30 years ago?

Organizing Power: We know that human beings have needs so we look for ways to fill those needs. This theory organizes how the media fits in to this equation.


You have had a really long day at school and at work. You have ten things to do this week before you go home to see your parents who are convinced that you just pretend to be busy. You can not find any one to work for you and your teachers want everything perfect and now. You turn on the television to your favorite show and for half an hour you are entertained and you have no worries. The media functioned to entertain you and relieve you of your worries (temporarily).

Relevant Research:

  Chesboro, J. W. (1984). The media reality: Epistemological functions of media in cultural systems. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 1, 111-130. 
     Mueller, M. (1995). Why communications policy is passing "mass communication:" Political Economy as the missing link. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 12, 457-472. 
     Zeiler, B. (1993).  Journalist as interpretive communities. Critical Studies in Mass Communications, 10, 219-237.

Location in Eight (8) Primary Communication Theory Textbooks:

     Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.  N/A

     Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. N/A

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. N/A

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. N/A.

      Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. pp. 363-365.

      Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. pp. 338-339.

      West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. N/A

       Wood, J. T. (1997). Communication theories in action: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. N/A