The stories of a culture reflect and cultivate its most basic and fundamental assumptions, ideologies, and values. Mass communication is the mass production, distribution, and consumption of cultural stories. Cultivation analysis, developed by George Gerbner and his colleagues, explores the extent to which television viewers' beliefs about the "real world" are shaped by heavy exposure to the most stable, repetitive, and pervasive patterns that television presents, especially in its dramatic entertainment programs.

Cultivation analysis is one component of a long-term, ongoing research program, called Cultural Indicators, which follows a three-pronged research strategy. The first, called "institutional process analysis," investigates the pressures and constraints that affect how media messages are selected, produced, and distributed. The second, called "message system analysis," quantifies and tracks the most common and recurrent images in television content. The third, cultivation analysis, studies whether and how television contributes to viewers' conceptions of social reality.

First implemented in the late 1960s, by the mid-1990s the bibliography of studies relating to the Cultural Indicators project included over 300 scholarly publications. Although early cultivation research was especially concerned with the issue of television violence, over the years the investigation has been expanded to include sex roles, images of aging, political orientations, environmental attitudes, science, health, religion, minorities, occupations, and other topics. Replications have been carried out in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, Russia, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, and other countries.

The methods and assumptions of cultivation analysis were designed to correct for certain blind spots in traditional mass communication research. Most earlier studies looked at whether individual messages or genres could produce some kind of change in audience attitudes and behaviors; in contrast, cultivation sees the totality of television's programs as a coherent system of messages, and asks whether that system might promote stability (or generational shifts) rather than immediate change in individuals. Whereas most research and debate on, for example, television violence has been concerned with whether violent portrayals make viewers more aggressive, Gerbner and his colleagues claimed that heavy exposure to television was associated with exaggerated beliefs about the amount of violence in society.

Cultivation analysis is not concerned with the impact of any particular program, genre, or episode. It does not address questions of style, artistic quality, aesthetic categories, high vs. low culture, or specific, selective "readings" or interpretations of media messages. Rather, cultivation researchers are interested in the aggregate patterns of images and representations to which entire communities are exposed--and which they absorb--over long periods of time.

Cultivation does not deny the importance of selective viewing, individual programs, or differences in viewers' interpretations; it just sees these as different research questions. It focuses on what is most broadly shared, in common, across program types and among large groups of otherwise heterogeneous viewers. No matter what impact exposure to genre X may have on attitude Y, the cultivation perspective argues that the consequences of television cannot be found in terms of isolated fragments of the whole. The project is an attempt to say something about the more broad-based ideological consequences of a commercially-supported cultural industry celebrating consumption, materialism, individualism, power, and the status quo along lines of gender, race, class, and age. None of this denies the fact that some programs may contain some messages more than others, that not all viewers watch the same programs, or that the messages may change somewhat over time.

The theory of cultivation emphasizes the role that story-telling plays in human society. The basic difference between human beings and other species is that we live in a world that is created by the stories we tell. Great portions of what we know, or think we know, come not from personal or direct experience, but from many forms and modes of story-telling. Stories-from myths and legends to sitcoms and cop shows-tend to express, define, and maintain a culture's dominant assumptions, expectations, and interpretations of social reality.

Television has transformed the cultural process of story-telling into a centralized, market-driven, advertiser-sponsored system. In earlier times, the stories of a culture were told face-to-face by members of a community, parents, teachers, or the clergy. Today, television tells most of the stories to most of the people, most of the time. Story-telling is now in the hands of global commercial conglomerates who have something to sell. Most of the stories we now consume are not hand-crafted works of individual expressive artists, but mass-produced by bureaucracies according to strict market specifications. To be acceptable to enormous audiences, the stories must fit into and reflect--and thereby sustain and cultivate--the "facts" of life that most people take for granted.

For the Cultural Indicators project, each year since 1967, week-long samples of U.S. network television drama have been recorded and content analyzed in order to delineate selected features and trends in the overall world television presents to its viewers. In the 1990s, the analysis has been extended to include the FOX network, "reality" programs, and various new cable channels. Through the years, message system analysis has focused on the most pervasive content patterns that are common to many different types of programs but characteristic of the system of programming as a whole, because these hold the most significant potential lessons television cultivates.

Findings from the analyses of television's content are then used to formulate questions about people's conceptions of social reality, often contrasting television's "reality" with some other real-world criterion. Using standard techniques of survey methodology, the questions are posed to samples of children, adolescents, or adults, and the differences (if any) in the beliefs of light, medium, and heavy viewers, other things held constant, are assessed. The questions do not mention television, and respondents' awareness of the source of their information is seen as irrelevant.

The prominent and stable over-representation of well-off white males in the prime of life pervades prime time. Women are outnumbered by men at a rate of three to one and allowed a narrower range of activities and opportunities. The dominant white males are more likely to commit violence, while old, young, female, and minority characters are more likely to be victims. Crime in prime time is at least 10 times as rampant as in the real world, and an average of five to six acts of overt physical violence per hour involve well over half of all major characters.

Cultivation researchers have argued that these messages of power, dominance, segregation, and victimization cultivate relatively restrictive and intolerant views regarding personal morality and freedoms, women's roles, and minority rights. Rather than stimulating aggression, cultivation theory contends that heavy exposure to television violence cultivates insecurity, mistrust, and alienation, and a willingness to accept potentially repressive measures in the name of security, all of which strengthens and helps maintain the prevailing hierarchy of social power.

Cultivation is not a linear, unidirectional, mechanical "effect," but part of a continual, dynamic, ongoing process of interaction among messages and contexts. Television viewing usually relates in different ways to different groups' life situations and world views. For example, personal interaction with family and peers makes a difference, as do real-world experiences. A wide variety of socio-demographic and individual factors produce sharp variations in cultivation patterns.

These differences often illustrate a phenomenon called "mainstreaming," which is based on the idea that television has become the primary common source of everyday culture of an otherwise heterogeneous population. From the perspective of cultivation analysis, television provides a relatively restricted set of choices for a virtually unrestricted variety of interests and publics; its programs eliminate boundaries of age, class, and region and are designed by commercial necessity to be watched by nearly everyone.

"Mainstreaming" means that heavy television viewing may erode the differences in people's perspectives which stem from other factors and influences. Mainstreaming thus represents a relative homogenization and an absorption of divergent views and a convergence of disparate viewers. Cultivation researchers argue that television contributes to a blurring of cultural, political, social, regional, and class-based distinctions, the blending of attitudes into the television mainstream, and the bending of the direction of that mainstream to the political and economic tasks of the medium and its client institutions.

Cultivation has been a highly controversial and provocative approach; the results of cultivation research have been many, varied, and sometimes counterintuitive. The assumptions and procedures of cultivation analysis have been vigorously critiqued on theoretical, methodological, and epistemological grounds; extensive debates and colloquies (sometimes lively, sometimes heated) continue to engage the scholarly community, and have led to some refinements and enhancements.

Some researchers have looked inward, seeking cognitive explanations for how television's images find their way into viewers' heads, and some have examined additional intervening variables and processes (e.g., perceived reality, active vs. passive viewing). Some have questioned the assumption of relative stability in program content over time and across genres, and emphasized differential impacts of exposure to different programs and types. The spread of alternative delivery systems such as cable and VCRs has been taken into account, as has the family and social context of exposure. Increasingly complex and demanding statistical tests have been applied. The paradigm has been implemented in at least a dozen countries besides the U.S.

The literature contains numerous failures to replicate its findings as well as numerous independent confirmations of its conclusions. The most common conclusion, supported by meta-analysis, is that television makes a small but significant contribution to heavy viewers' beliefs about the world. Given the pervasiveness of television and even light viewers' cumulative exposure, finding any observable evidence of effects at all is remarkable. Therefore, the discovery of a systematic pattern of small but consistent differences between light and heavy viewers may indicate far-reaching consequences.

In sum, cultivation research is concerned with the most general consequences of long-term exposure to centrally-produced, commercially supported systems of stories. Cultivation analysis concentrates on the enduring and common consequences of growing up and living with television: the cultivation of stable, resistant, and widely shared assumptions and conceptions reflecting the institutional characteristics and interests of the medium itself and the larger society. Understanding the dynamics of cultivation can help develop and maintain a sense of alternatives essential for self-direction and self-government in the television age. The cultivation perspective will become even more important as we face the vast institutional, technological, and policy-related changes in television the 21st century is sure to bring. -Michael Morgan


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