Mass Communication Theory by Denis McQuail

This review was submitted to my professor in PhD Communication, Communication 301 subject. Written last semester (March 2009).  Forgive me if it sounds too geeky. Hehe.

      McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory describes how mass communication is quickly evolving and how it affects society and the world.  McQuail begins with the history of mass media, its rise, processes, models and effects. The book can be used both as a guide and as a reference for people who want to study mass communication theories and frameworks.  It gives readers a bird’s eye view of mass media and the themes it encompasses.

      The fifth edition has been fully revised and made to be easily understood by students.  It discusses the essential components of mass communication, which are the sender, the message and the audience.  It also encompasses all contemporary media from television, radio, broadsheets, film, music, and new media.

      Readers are informed of how the book is supposed to be used, focusing on the themes: Time, Place, Power, Social Reality, Meaning, Causation and Determinism, Mediation, Identity. 
      Highlights of the book can be found in the following parts:
    • Theories.  McQuail differentiates media theories into five types: (1) Social-Scientific, which provides explanations about nature based on systematic, objective, tested and validated observation of mass media and its effects; (2) Cultural, which sometimes challenges observations based solely through quantifiable methods; (3) Normative, which analyzes how media should operate within the working conditions of certain social values; (4) Operational, how practical applications are used by media practitioners; and (5) Common-sense, or how we all experience media use.  McQuail mentions several models under these realms but concludes that, because of their diversity, they are difficult to reconcile.

    • Structures.  This part is a three-chapter discussion on media accountability for its use within a social structure, policies with regards to business and political systems, and driving forces on global media governance.  This is the part where  McQuail becomes highly technical as he incorporates not only the economic and sociocultural aspects of media into the equation, he also includes technology-driven mediation.  The concept of “World System” is introduced here.

    • Organizations.  This area focuses on media organizations, how the demands and pressures surrounding these – requirements in the massive production of news and culture, compounded by the personal and professional predilection – are promoting the production of media culture.

    • Content. Covers issues and methods of analysis for content.  McQuail then breaks content down to several genres.  He does not stop citing theories nor does he end with simple descriptions of media in this aspect.  He elaborates that there is no “true meaning” as it is always between the producers (sender), their recipients and the message being sent.  The focal point of this part is always in reference to news.

    • Audience.  The audiences are responsible for the existence of mass communication: the listeners, viewers, readers, those who interact with new media.  This section deals with audience theories and doesn’t stop at answering the whys of media use, it also gets into the measurement of audience – the determinants and correlations in their social and cultural life.

    • Effects. Media Effects seem to be the very core of this book.  It has been emphasized in the beginning and further emphasized by the conclusion.  Theories arise from the researchers’ desire to explain the causation in media effects and many disagreements have also been named.  This is also where public opinion is highlighted, with much weight concentrated upon the negativities resulting from media use, such as sex and violence.

      With so many theories mentioned in so many different aspects of mass media,  McQuail reiterates that it is quite difficult to come up with a reconciled model for all of them.  He does, however, improvise on a theory based on Bruce H. Westley and Malcolm S. McLean’s 1957 model of Communication. In this model, the sender acquires information from various sources, processes them and creates the message.  The message then passes through many layers of editing before they can be passed on to the audience.  Finally, feedback is produced by the audience, but these sometimes would pass through the editorial layers before reaching the sender.   McQuail, however, takes it one step further.  While he focuses on the “mediation of reality”, wherein the media is shown to provide the audience with the message that is guided by motivation, he also draws emphasis on the fact that this experience cannot always be mediated by the mass media.  Channels such as social institutions or direct personal experiences must also be put into the equation.   If there is a summarized view of all the theories that have been mentioned in the book, this would probably be McQuail’s model.

Figure 3.1: McQuail’s model for “Media and Society” theory building, based on Westley and McLean, 1957. (p. 85)

      I highly appreciate the fact that McQuail’s book is easy to read, though it’s not nearly as riveting as the other book we were required to review, Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things.  The theories are well-explained and even somewhat simplified as compared to the ones from nosebleed-inducing tomes by  Jacqueline Fawcett and Florence S. Downs (The Relationship of Theory and Research), Paul Reynolds (A Primer in Theory Construction), and Arthur Stinchcombe (Constructing Social Theories).  The book helps in elucidating disparate theories and models and could serve as a guide for understanding social situations, particularly ones that fall in the areas of communication studies.  McQuail’s explanations are not only concise and straight-to-the-point, they are also supported by illustrations, diagrams, models and other visuals that strengthen the arguments within it.

      I would liken this book to what I’d consider communication bibles like Em Griffin’s A First Look at Communication Theory (2008 edition) and Stephen W. Littlejohn’s Theories of Human Communication (9th edition, 2008). As a reference, McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory introduces a lot of theories and models under many disciplines in a way that is alternative to how Griffin and Littlejohn would categorize them.  Though the topics inside it could not be totally fleshed out, it at least makes one want to delve into further studies of more concentrated levels.

      If there’s one thing that this reading material suffers from is that it crammed what could be an equivalent to three years of study into one massive 600-paged book.  It would have been a lot more helpful if it had been divided into volumes.  McQuail himself seems to be at odds with how the theories don’t seem to reconcile, given that there are paradigms and alternative paradigms in five umbrellas of study: social-scientific, cultural, normative, operational and common sense.  Volumes dedicated to one topic each would have provided a very enriching experience.


  1. AudioBooksRecordingSupport

    September 3, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Thank you for this useful review and visualization. Randall, Salem, Oregon.

  2. AudioBooksRecordingSupport

    September 28, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    Thank you for this useful review and visualization. Randall, Salem, Oregon.

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