Studies of the impact of the media on people have not produced stable results

Great read tonight: Studying the New Media by Howard Becker (Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2002). The author focuses here on the studies about the "impact of the media on people", the sort of stuff you see popping up in the press on a regular basis (be it about tv, video-games, comic-books or the interwebs). Becker shows that these studies have not produced stable results, because they operate with an unrealistic view of people. He describes how inaccurate the "impact" paradigm is and the fact it never produced any solid findings about the good or bad effects of XXX (where XXX stands for arts experience/TV/video-games, etc.):

"The idea that you could isolate a unique influence of such a thing as TV or movies or video games is absurd on the face of it. Social scientists, operating under the best conditions, have enough trou- ble demonstrating causal relations between any two variables—to tell the truth, I don’t think they ever do, just maybe hint at it. Studying the effect of a commu- nication medium which operates in the middle of ordinary social life, with all its complications, is not working under the best conditions, and the demonstration of cause and effect is, practically speaking, impossible. (...) The “impact” approach improperly treats the public as an inert mass which doesn’t do anything on its own, but rather just reacts to what is presented to it by powerful (usually commercial) organizations and the representatives of dominant social strata."

He exemplifies how "the image of an inert, passive mass audience is a gross empirical error" with various cases where other researchers had shown that "ordinary people" aren't passive: TV-viewing (where "users" explored imaginatively the possibilities of adult relationships), the creation of internet website, or the writing of homosexual pastiches of the Star Trek stories or pornography:

"One of the first uses of any new communication technology has always been to make pornography. Photography was no sooner invented in the mid-nineteenth century than people were using it to make and distribute dirty pictures. (...) I’m talking about the “amateurs” in this field, of whom there have always been a lot. (...) In other words, pornography is a major area of use of digital technology by ordinary folks."

Why do I blog this? reflecting on past paradigms and approaches I used to be taught.