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Chapter 1--Introduction and Theory
Why is social identity important? “When an individual identifies him/herself as a
group member, his/her beliefs, interests, and actions tend to become aligned with those of
the group” (Luther, Lepre, & Clark, 2012, p. 3). We also tend to categorize other people into
groups. The groups create a distinction between their members and non-members. Some
core social identities are: gender, age, racial/ethnic, sexual orientation, national, religious,
and class. The mass media transmits information related to these identities and “can play a
part in creating, reinforcing, modifying, negotiating or adding to identities” (Luther et al,
2012, p. 3).
Racial/Ethnic Identity
Race is considered a classification of individuals based on genetics. One the other
hand, “ethnicity encompasses one’s own heredity, national origin and culture” (Luther et al,
2012, p. 3). In 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned anti-miscegenation legislation that
had prohibited people from different races to marry. It wasn’t until 2000 that the U.D.
Census Bureau provided the option for individuals to identify themselves as multiracial.
Gender Identity
Biological sex is genetic. Gender is a social construction. “From a very young age,
individuals learn the roles and attributes that are associated with males and females”
(Luther et al, 2012, p. 5). Socialization of gender roles is reinforced at very early ages.
People who do not fite the norm of any group may be ridiculed or ostracized as being
different. The media portray cultural ideas of masculinity and femininity which may
change over time.
Sexual Identity
Just as our cultural ideas of gender change, so do our ideas about sexual orientation.
Media portrayals of homosexuality were considered taboo in the past; however,
contemporary media now reflect society’s changing attitudes. Television and film today
feature individuals and cast characters of various sexual orientations.
Age Identity
Age schemas are developed when we are young children. They include cultural
notions about “what type of language pattern or behavior is appropriate for certain age
groups” (Luther et al, 2012, p. 7). In 2002 Actress Doris Roberts testified before the U.S.
Senate Special Committee on Aging, “My peers and I are portrayed as dependent, helpless,
unproductive, and demanding rather than deserving. In reality, the majority of seniors are
self-sufficient, middle class consumers with more assets than most young people, and the
time and talent to offer society” (Luther et al, 2012, p. 8).
Disability Identity
An individual with a disability is often defined by that disability. Cultural notions
about disability also exist.
Class Identity
Every society is divided by social stratification and socioeconomic class is also a
form of social identity. Media portrayals of class may reinforce societal attitudes about
social class, but like any portrayal of social identities, portrayal in the media might be
positive or negative.
Chapter 2—Theoretical Foundations of Research in Mass Media Representations
Research on media representations are largely based on content analysis of media
messages and qualitative analysis such as critical or cultural studies. They fall into two
broad perspectives: social psychological and critical/cultural. One construct of diversity
portrayal in media is a stereotype defined as “beliefs about characteristics or attributes of a
social group” (Luther et al, 2012, p. 14). Stereotypes are useful to help us classify
information and stereotyping is a normal process. Mass media play a key role in
transmitting or reinforcing stereotypes that may be either positive or negative.
Framing is a way we process and organize information when we stress certain
aspects of reality and de-emphasize others. This affects our understanding of the world
around us. Framing has been used as a theoretical foundation to study media portrayals of
gender, news stories, race, and many other constructs.
Social Comparison Theory
Social comparison theory tells us that “individuals have a natural drive to compare
themselves with others for self-evaluation purposes” and that “youngsters are being
socialized through the comparison process”(Luther et al, 2012, p. 17). When we consider
the effects of media images on children, it becomes clear that media does shape attitudes,
beliefs, and behaviors of children. Contemporary media researchers have used social
comparison theory on topics such as media consumption and body image.
“Socialization is the means by which individuals, beginning at an early age and
continuing throughout their lives, learn about society norms, values, and beliefs” (Luther et
al, 2012, p. 18). Social learning theory is attributed to psychologist Albert Bandura who
tested his learning theory using children exposed to media violence and the link to
aggressive play behavior with a Bobo doll. You can learn more about this theory at
Cultivation Theory
“Cultivation theory proposes that mass media contour or cultivate the viewpoints of
individuals regarding their surrounding environment” (Luther et al, 2012, p. 20). This
concept of media cultivating a society is attributed to the late journalist and
communications professor George Gerbner. He lead the Cultural Indicators Project
conducting content analysis on violence in television programs. The research project
began as a government committee study in the 1960s following the assassinations of
Present John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King. You can read more
about George Gerbner and the Cultural Indicators Project at
Media Representations: Critical Perspectives
“The critical perspective takes a long-term view of the impact of mass
communication on social notions regarding individuals and groups….it takes a more
holistic approach by examining the role of mass media in sustaining or bringing about
change in our understandings of ourselves, of others, and of the societies in which we live”
(Luther et al, 2012, p. 22). One primary concern of critical media studies is rooted in early
research that looked at ways in which the social elite used popular culture to maintain
control or dominance in society.
Hegemony “refers to the dominance of political and social elites over those with less
power” (Luther et al, 2012, p. 23). Contemporary critics use this theory when examining
how popular media and products produced by the United States help the U.S. maintain
dominance on a worldwide basis.
The Concept of Representation
Representation is how we use language, nonverbal symbols and media to convey
ideas in our society. It is divided into three theoretical approaches—reflective (reflection
of the true meaning), intentional (it considers the intent of the person who created it), and
constructionist (connecting it to a concept based on social conventions). Cultural studies
scholars “have explored how social boundaries can be created, and even broken, through
popular culture in such areas as race, class, sexuality, and gender” (Luther et al, 2012, p.
Feminist Theory and Feminism
Feminist theory acknowledges that the female perspective is needed in theoretical
research. Historically, feminism is considered to have evolved in three waves. The first
wave began in the U.K. and U.S. and was focused on property rights and voting rights; the
second wave focused on reproductive rights and workplace equality, and the third wave
focused on recognizing the unique differences and qualities of women.
Using Identity and Theory to Evaluate Representations
As you progress in this course, you are encouraged to refer to these concepts of
social identity and theory as you read and discuss the chapters and prepare papers and
presentations. Your ability to link the information presented in the course to social identity
and theory demonstrates your ability to critically evaluate it.