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COMM 6001, Theory Paper, Fall 2015

Annie Rosean
DeFleur and Ball-Rokeachs Dependency Theory:
Timeless, Transcendent, and Applicable

Media Systems Dependency Theory, hereafter MSD Theory, was developed in 1976 by

Melvin DeFleur and Sandra Ball-Rokeach. As one that allows the potential to weigh, alternative

courses of action to achieve goals, (Foss & Littlejohn, 2011, p. 30) it is a practical theory. By

Robert Craigs standards, this theory fits into the sociopsychological tradition because it deals

with the impact of the media on individuals (Foss & Littlejohn, p. 348). The following will

explain the theorys origin, major assumptions, and central concepts to qualify why it is a useful,

applicable theory, one that has transcended nearly 40 years and is still in use today.
Knowing the origin of the MSD Theory helps to identify the ways it differs from previous

media theories. The development of the MSD Theory is indebted to Katz's Users and

Gratification's Theory, hereafter UGT (Ball-Rokeach, 1998). UGT focused specifically on the

perspective of the audience as opposed to the media. This emphasis on the audience empowered

a typically powerless group in the eyes of communication theory. In describing the development

of MSD Theory in her 1998 study on media power and use, Ball-Rokeach notes that the

difference between the UGT and MSD Theory was the role of the individual or audience. Ball-

Rokeach describes that while the UGT perspective developed around the "active individual" who

had the ability to "override the influence of creators of media texts," she saw unanimously

ambiguous behavior from individuals instead (p. 9). The change in the role and perception of the

audience served as the stepping stone to MSD Theory.

In her same 1998 paper Ball-Rokeach also attributes the development of MSD Theory to

the Power-Dependence Theory by Emerson. This theory posited dependence as the "flip side of

power . . . meaning power cannot be determined by observing only the relative distribution of

resources controlled by each party to a relation." (Ball-Rokeach, p. 10). Emerson's theory

acknowledges how resources, namely the media, cause dependence which is vital to

understanding dependencys counterpoint, power. The reversal of this principle is seen in the

MSD Theory with its emphasis on dependency versus power.

Melvin DeFleur and Sandra Ball-Rokeach developed a theory that took the two concepts,

audience and dependency, into consideration. However, their 1976 theory does much more than

address audience dependency on media as a bilinear relationship. Rather, the MSD Theory

addresses the interdependence of the mass media, the audience, and society; it seeks to predict

audience dependency on media based on certain needs or goals (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011). The

conceptualization of the three central parties, the audience, media system, and society, not only

highlights audience dependency on the media for information sources, but the ways in which this

dependency has the ability to affect personal and social processes (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach,

1976). These three parties existing and acting in response to one another are what DeFleur and

Ball-Rokeach refer to as the tripartite audience-media-society relationship (p. 5). Highlighting

all three parts of the tripartite design also differentiates DeFleur and Ball-Rokeachs theory from

others. Unlike theories that separated macro and micro systems, the MSD Theory determines a

way to connect these systems with their tripartite design, thereby exemplifying how each has a

significant impact on the others

Like all theories, the MSD Theory is rich with assumptions, some of which have been

ascribed to the theory even after its origination. One epistemological assumption is that

knowledge comes from media, and that this information is a power source (Ball-Rokeach, 1998).

DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1976) refer to the dissemination of knowledge and audience

dependency as a, ubiquitous condition and explain, One finds this condition in many settings,

ranging from the need to find the best buys at the supermarket to more general or pervasive

needs such as obtaining the kinds of information that will help to maintain a sense of
connectedness and familiarity with the social world outside ones neighborhood" (p. 6). Again,

here it is assumed that audiences are dependent on media for information. This theory also

qualifies information as what is produced as both news and entertainment. Audiences make use

of this type of information, no matter what its purpose (Chen, 2008).

Another interesting assumption is that all members of the tripartite design have motives

in influencing the other players. This goal orientation is discussed at a micro level, "In particular,

the action and interaction orientation dependencies assume that people act purposefully in

deciding how they will behave to obtain goals" (Riffe, et. al, 2008, 2). At a macro level, goal

orientation exists as well. DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1976) explain the two objectives of the

mass media, saying they act as economic systems, engaged in deliberate attempts to persuade

and entertain, [and] also as information systems vitally involved in maintenance, change, and

conflict processes at the societal as well as the group and individual levels of social action" (p. 4-

5). The assumptions here pertain to the agenda of all moving parts of the relationship. Ball-

Rokeach (1998) refers to these assumptions as the nature of human beings, and the nature and

power of the media system (p. 15-17).

MSD Theory has an ontological assumption that people make choices both reactively and

proactively. It fits in nicely with the macro-micro systems at play in the MSD Theory. The degree

to which media can affect a person's behavior depends on the strength of their pre-existing

beliefs when confronted with media,

When media messages are not linked to audience dependencies and when peoples social

realities are entirely adequate before and during message reception, media messages may

have little or no alteration effects. They may reinforce existing beliefs or behavior forms.

In contrast, when people do not have social realities that provide adequate frameworks

for understanding, acting, and escaping, and when audiences are dependent in these ways
on media information received, such messages may have a number of alteration effects.

(DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1976, p. 19)

The audience's ability to make decisions about media messages depends on their degree of

dependency and their social realities. It is both a deterministic and pragmatic point of view.
This assumption develops another in MSD Theory that says the nature of human

motivation is need-based. A strong correlation is made between need and dependency. The

greater the need, the stronger the dependency on the media for information (DeFleur & Ball-

Rokeach, 1976). An audiences need might grow as society develops; consequently, as societies

grow, the media take on more unique functions (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1976, 6). This type of

functional growth is coined by DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach as, unique information functions.

These assumptions acknowledge the much broader one that this theory seeks to prove. The

inevitable change in dependency relations between the audience, media, and social system reflect

"evolutionary development," and "changes in social ecology," of those relations (Ball-Rokeach,

p. 15). The assumptions of human motivation and its effects on interdependence are vital to MSD

Theorys framework.
In their conceptual map of the Media Systems Dependency Theory DeFleur and Ball-

Rokeach (1976) identify four major concepts: societal systems, the media system, audiences, and

effects. As the name implies, dependency is their underlying concept measured on audiences. In

the context of this theory, dependency is a relationship in which the satisfaction of needs or the

attainment of goals by one party is contingent upon the resources of another party (p. 6). Ball-

Rokeach (1985) attests that structural dependency is the driver behind the tripartite design,

causing them all to interrelate (p. 489-90). In the subsequent years of this theory, some recent

scholars believe that dependency now evolves as a function of the interrelatedness of the media

system with society and the audience (Fleming, 2014, p. 26).

The audience, societal system, and media system all comprise the tripartite design, Mass

communication, in other words, involves complex relationships between large sets of interacting

variables that are only crudely designated by the terms media, audiences, and society

(DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, p. 5). The audience represents the micro level, the societal system the

meso level, and the media system the macro level. Referring back to the initial conception of

MSD Theory, the audience is not entirely passive, but heavily influenced by media. In turn it

influences the society in which it plays a part which can have an effect on the media system.

Each of these concepts can exchange with and influence another. However, much power is

attributed to the media system, it is the media system that controls information resources, and it

is the media system that has relations with other social systems that shape the dynamics and the

content of individuals' dependency on disseminated media messages" (Ball-Rokeach, 1985, p.

487-488). These types of influential media messages can have effects on the audience, which

determine one of the final concepts in the MSD Theory.

The predictive utility of the MSD Theory is realized by studying the effects of media

messages on the audience. Here, the audience is synonymous with individuals, the micro level,

where effects are measured. Effects is the final major concept from MSD. The effects of media

messages can be broken down as cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects. Cognitive effects

are outlined as the creation and resolution of ambiguity, attitude formation, agenda setting,

expansion of peoples belief systems, and value clarification and conflict (DeFleur & Ball-

Rokeach, 1976). All of these effects respond nicely to the assumptions about human nature and

the nature of the media. The discourse between both parties is evident in these potential cognitive

The second type of effect is affective, which is arguably also one of the most difficult

effects to measure adequately. The most easily drawn example of the affective effect from a
media message is de-sensitization. DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1976) outline fear, anxiety, and

trigger-happiness as potentials for exploration. Their final examples of possible affective effects

are morale and alienation. Of course, as pointed out, almost all effects could be viewed with

affect in mind, since that's what drives a cognitive or behavioral effect from an individual

(DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1976, p. 15).

Behavioral effects are the final type of effect broken down, and an interesting one from a

media systems perspective. Activation or de-activation can occur. An individual may consume a

media message and decode it as an affirmation that they should act a certain way or that they

shouldnt act as they normally would. Taken to the twenty-first century this might translate to an

individual getting a retailers e-newsletter about a boot sale and deciding that instead of

disregarding the e-newsletter as they normally would, they might follow the link about the boot

sale instead and see if there are any good deals. Issue formation and resolution is another

behavioral effect that could take place, particularly potent with regard to news media. A salient

example of this type of effect would be how a person decides to vote during the presidential

campaign after consuming media about the debates. The final behavioral effect is altruistic

economic behavior (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1976). This notion was initially born out of

telethons where audience members would spend an exorbitant amount of money compared to

their usual behavior. The consequence of behavioral effects from MSD Theory transcends to

today easily with so many digital services available via mobile devices and stationary computers

(Chen, 2013).
The MSD Theory is useful in illuminating the dependent relationship among audiences,

society, and the media system. Its scope is wide enough to extend to all types of media, evident

in its easy application to studies on new, digital media today versus those that existed in 1976.

Take for example the various media devices that audiences depend on. Not only are they printed
newspapers and televised newscasts, today media proliferates the audiences emails, web

searches, and apps via their mobile devices (Chen, 2013). In this same vein, there is high

heuristic value in that the MSD Theory is still applied. Again, this is proven by the seemingly

high dependence all demographics have on digital media. From an audience perspective, the

internet today outweighs the usefulness of traditional forms of media such as printed works

(Riffe, et. al, 2008, p. 9). Despite the change in media outlets, the audience is still dependent.

MSD Theory is still applied to new media today.

In further evaluating the MSD Theory its appropriateness, value, parsimony, and

falsifiability should be considered. The assumptions of MSD Theory are appropriate. For

example, if the assumption is that audiences are dependent on and therefore changeable from the

media system, it is not inappropriate to assert that MSD Theory can predict certain effects

(DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach). The MSD Theory has value from various perspectives. Whether

someone wants to alter public opinion on a certain issue from a values standpoint, whether they

want to change audience behavior to benefit them financially, the theory has worth. Finally,

while MSD Theory is more complex than UGT, it does operate at a basic level: audiences can

affect society which can affect the media and any combination of the three. All of these concepts

have an effective power because they are all interdependent. Of course, arguing that any

members of the tripartite design are dependent is arbitrary, thereby making this theory falsifiable,

and open to reinterpretation. The MSD Theory is therefore, useful based on the standard

judgement criteria (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011).

The Media Systems Dependency Theorys history is rich, its assumptions sound, and its

central concepts logical. By all criteria it passes as an informative and applicable

sociopsychological communication theory by which to understand the power of the media today.

For these reasons MSD Theory remains a useful theory from its inception. It is particularly
potent as the digital space becomes the forum where the audience, society, and the media system

communicate. Based on the theorys resilience over the last 40 years, it is reasonable to assume

that as communication spaces develop even further, MSD Theory will highlight the dependency

among audiences, society, and the media.


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