Media and Societal Change

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Since the dawn of mankind and the invention of written and verbal communication, the influence between the two cannot be denied, but the philosophical question is which one is predominant? Philosophers throughout the ages offer up a variety of theories to disseminate the role of media on society and society on media – which one is the cause, and which is the effect. According to Kittler, “media determine our situation” (Mitchell and Hansen, 2010) brings about the connotation that media is the greater influence over culture and society. However, Craig (1999) and others believe that the wide swathe and breath of communications is equally subjected to change from society as is society from media. In reading through some of the large number of media theories, it becomes apparent that the cause and effect between media and society ebb and flow like the waves of an ocean – the tide rolls in and deposits shells, trash, and sea life and as the tide rolls out it takes with it minerals, trash, and other items unable to escape the rush and flow of the sea. By looking at a fixed event or time frame, it can be easily discerned whether media or society was the influencer, but by looking over a course of time, an era or more, it becomes apparent that each is equally influential on the other. A possible theory begins to emerge that both media and society affect each other, change each other, and shape each other rather than one being more dominant or dictating over the other. 

One of the more profound and arguably better media theorists was Marshall McLuhan (Mitchell and Hansen, 2010). His work on the tetrad of media effects examines how any technology or medium effects society by way of a four-category process explaining how the medium enhances, retrieves from obsolescence, makes obsolete, and what does the medium become when pushed to its limits (2010). This four pronged theory can also be used to explain how society changes media – what in society enhances the media, what in society makes part of the media obsolete, what from society retrieves a media obsolete, and what societal changes occur when pushed to extremes from the media. Media can be easily manipulated by society due to cultural ideologies, changes, audience evolution, and influx or infusion of different cultures coming together and conversely, media can and does manipulate how society perceives or interprets an event, past or present. Thus, it becomes more and more advantageous to view the cause and effect of media and society as being reciprocal with each affecting the other time and time again.

In order to flesh out a reciprocal theory of media and society, it also seems apparent that more than one theoretical approach will be necessary. To begin, a descriptive and a critical approach should be undertaken concerning the development of this reciprocal theory as both media and society require an in-depth analysis to determine what causes the reciprocal shift and why. Additionally, a philosophical approach should bring together the relationship between media and society to explain why at different times and situations one becomes dominant over the other.

A new theory of media to explain the engagement and relationship between it and society and how one affects the other or one becomes the dominating force of the other becomes critical to understand the unique reciprocal affect between the two. Similar in nature to the ebb and flow of a sea tide, media and society push and pull each other into new directions, returning to old ideas, ending outdated thoughts such as distorting body image and pushing the idea that "thin is in", and creating entirely new constructs of each. The idea that media is predominant over society or society is over media does not completely examine the way that the two elements intersect and change over time. In the moment, one may be dominant but over the course of time, both are affecting, changing, and shaping each other in ways that can only be explained through a theory that encompasses and embraces this idea of two mutually exclusive yet equally influential entities interacting together. 


Craig, R. (1999). Communication theory as a field. Communication Theory, 9(2), 119-161.

Mitchell, W., & Hansen, M. (2010). Critical terms for media studies, the introduction. The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from