Social Construction of Reality
The Social Construction of Reality is a very basic premise for how and why individuals
view the world in a certain manner and what role the media play in shaping that view. While
reality incorporates the notion of having an objective independent existence or occurring in fact,
the social construction of reality accepts at its very nature a subjective “experience” with reality
either via media coverage or via media dictation.
The concept of Social Construction of Reality targets arguably the most dramatic and
fundamental possible effect of the mass media. To suggest that the media actually represent the
public’s knowledge of an event or, in some cases, to posit that individuals are unable to distinguish
between real and mediated events (Shapiro & Lang, 1991), certainly points to a powerful view of
the media’s role. Inevitably, the media even create an entire culture the pop culture, which
contains the tastes of the majority of the public.
At its core, the social construction of reality “theory” suggests an ontological assumption
that is at the very nature of human existence. This assumption that humans attempt to make
sense out of the world has existed since Greek philosophers debated the meaning of life. In his
allegory of “The Cave,” Plato (The Republic, 1958) demonstrated how men chained in a cave
attempted to give meaning to the world through observing shadows (i.e., construction of reality).
In addition, these men checked their “realities” with other men in their same condition while
assigning meaning (i.e., social construction of reality). The difference in today’s society is that the
mass media can perform the function of bringing different individuals’ meanings into agreement.
In a very simplistic and powerful approach to the social construction of reality, one can posit that
individuals know reality as that which the media both show and tell them. Obviously, we do not
live in such a world.
Social Construction of Theory
Although neither communication nor any specific branch of communication has a “grand
theory,” I believe that social construction of reality theory provides a basic framework from which
many other mass communication theories base their assumptions and research techniques.
Without question, it innately subsumes the ideas of socialization by which individuals make sense
of the world through various variables, one of which is the mass media.
Specifically, three theories can directly be linked to social construction of reality. First,
Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory suggests how mass media consumers can learn
appropriate societal actions. Second, cultivation theory (Gerbner, 1973) demonstrates how people
line their views of the world with those presented in the media. Finally, agenda setting (McCombs &
Shaw, 1972) presents the notion of how the media dictate importance of issues and events to
the public. The latter has powerful ramifications for the establishment of a pop culture. These
theories draw directly from the assumptions of social construction of reality.
Beyond these, many other mass communication theories seem to branch out from either
social construction of reality itself or its ensuing representative theories.
Certainly, any theory or act of communication that assumes a message can be created to
affect the majority of the public takes a social construction stand (i.e., agreement in meaning
across individuals). For example, diffusion of innovations (Rogers & Shoemaker, 1973) and the
development of public communication campaigns feel that the media can instill similar values
and/or attitudes in people in order to persuade them to change (i.e., the social construction of a
need to change).
While not a direct descendent of social construction of reality, the notion of gatekeeping
(White, 1950) directly correlates with agenda setting. Gatekeepers determine what content and
what information in this content will make it to the public. In other words, gatekeepers set the
public agenda or the salience of issues.
The next batch of related theories offer another basic assumption of social construction of
reality. In order to have the capability to construct people’s reality, the media must have
something that the public wants or needs that requirement is filled by information. McQuail and
Windahl (1993) refer to today’s world as an “information society” with increased trends toward
supply and consumption of information. This concept of the “information society” coupled with
social construction of reality leads to the conclusion that if one does not attain media information,
he or she does not know reality. This is quite reflective of Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur’s (1976)
media system dependency theory, which, in this case, suggests how individuals are dependent on
the media to capture reality. Consequently, this line of thinking has implications for knowledge
gap research (Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, 1970), in which some individuals have better means
to ascertaining more information (i.e., media information) than others.
The final slew of relevant research points social construction of reality in a direction to
which will become a major concern of this paper, that of similar media content, particularly in
regard to same media formats/channels or content/subjects. Bagdikian (1985) along with many
other allies reasons why the media are stricken by homogeneity. Basically, he suggests two
distinct reason for media content uniformity, which are (a) ownership-based and (b) advertising-based.
These two variables add to similar content in that the majority of the U.S. media is owned
by large corporations with similar goals and these corporations are competing for the same
advertising revenue (Bagdikian, 1985). Throwing Noelle-Neumann’s (1974) spiral of silence
concept into the equation lends even more support. The spiral of silence suggests that the media
isolate “deviant” individuals and views; thereby, (a) producing similar content across media and
(b) propelling the dominant view or popular or mainstream culture (i.e., keeping the power from
changing or suppressing “radical” viewpoints.
Certainly, social construction of reality and its offspring theories have a direct relationship
with research on news, but this is not the only relevant focus. Pop culture is kept in order
through social construction of reality in the same manner that news is. Many elements of pop
culture are not scrutinized to the degree that the news is with this belief of possible media manipulation.
Socialization and Research
Before closely examining the media’s input in the pop culture, I felt it was necessary to
establish the “goals” and past research of social construction of reality.
The definition of socialization as expressed by DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) states it as:
A complex, long-term, and multidimensional set of communicative changes between
individuals and various agents of society that results in the individuals preparation for
life..and brings all members of a society into sufficient conformity so that social order,
predictability, and continuity can be maintained. (p. 208).
Applying this definition to social construction of reality simply weights the “various agents of
society” phrase to media control.
The media can act as a socializing agent by constructing reality and then disseminating this
reality to the mass public. The “social” element comes into play when upon receiving the media’s
“reality” message, the vast majority agree upon this reality and accept it. Following this pattern,
social construction may be more appropriately referred to as social agreement of reality.
The term construction seems to imply that the media is “making-up” or “creating” reality.
While some would agree with the previous statement, I believe to spout such an assertion is
ludicrous because the media often must report issues that are simply a matter of operating by
typical journalist guidelines/standards. Someone must make decisions concerning what
information passes on to the public. Should this be a government responsibility or the
responsibility of individuals who have a real desire to be in the industry and have studied the
industry? While it is easy to sit back and criticize the media, they are providing a necessary
function to society and individuals need this function (i.e., information providing). The question
one must consider is if social construction of reality rests on media or individual factors?
For instance, the media have an influence on language in that they establish new words
(e.g., Internet, unibomber) and extend meanings of existing words (e.g., surfing surfing the ’Net,
information superhighway). Is it the media’s presentation and airtime given to the introduction of
these terms that determines their usage or is it the decision of the majority to integrate these terms
that determines their usage. In either case, eventually, the minority who are not using the
developed terms must either adopt them or remain ignorant in discussions of which they are a
part. This seems to be a forced construction of reality but where is the origin of the cycle?
I am not positing that the media cannot be held responsible for any socializing effects that
they may have but rather that one must also take into account the individual’s consumption of
media content. Individual’s can utilize the media in an active or passive manner; in addition, they
can utilize a different medium in an active or passive manner as opposed to some other media form.
Most research related to the social construction of reality evolves from the “major” three
theories that were mentioned previously: social modeling, cultivation, and agenda setting. They
all have certain areas for which researchers typically apply them, but all focus on the underlying
concern that individuals accept the view of the world as depicted by the media and the more
media exposure that one has, the more this acceptance is secured.
Social modeling and social expectancy study a lot of TV exposure and consider the degree
to which viewers (a) act according to what they view (based on a rewards/costs ratio) and
(b) come to hold the roles of individuals and norms of society that television portrays. Many of those
studies also focus on the media’s effects on children.
Cultivation researchers attempt to study the contributions that the media (typically TV
viewing) make to viewers’ conceptions of society. Basically, they seek to understand if TV
viewers revert their images, opinions, and beliefs of society to that of television’s. Typical
cultivation studies focus on the differences between heavy and light viewers and their judgments
of violence in the world.
Finally, agenda setting typically deals with the news media’s ability to tell the audience
what issues are important or more specifically what to think about. The rationale is that the media
provide cues to which issues are important; and consequently, audience members accept those
cues regarding salient issues and then adopt them as their own (Becker, 1982). To some degree,
agenda setting can be contributed to by simple “journalistic values” in story selection. Agenda
setting studies can focus on either (a) the “important” messages that the media present or
(b) which messages or issues, news consumers feel are important.
An even more intriguing representation of social construction of reality theory are those
studies that move beyond the more subdued definition reflected in the above theories as best
described by Gamson, Croteau, Hoynes, and Sasson (1992):
We walk around with media-generated images of the world, using them to construct
meaning about political and social issues. And the special genius of this system [the
media] is to make the whole process seem so normal and natural that the very art of
social construction is invisible. (p. 374).
Although Shrum and O’Guinn (1993) state that the construction of social reality is simply
cultivation, studies by Shapiro and Lang (1991) and Shapiro and McDonald (1992) present a
more active role of social construction of reality as a theory in itself.
These studies address the possibility that the media usage may actually become reality for
some individuals (i.e., they will feel that their media usage or images/messages received from the
media were, in fact, an actual experience). Shapiro and Lang (1991) suggest that distinguishing
between memories of mediated events from those of actual events becomes increasingly difficult
as (a) time passes between the event “experience” and recall of the event memory (similar to a
“sleeper effect”) and as (b) mediated events become more like actual events (a result of new
technologies). It is to the latter cause that Shapiro and McDonald (1993) direct their attention.
The researchers posit that the emergence of virtual reality may have dramatic effects on one’s
judgment of reality because (a) it is a new medium with which people do not have experience;
thus, their only experience with things as real as they are in virtual reality is through the real-world;
therefore, they may feel that the virtual reality experience is, in fact, real, (b) the user is
immersed in such an involved sensory experience that they may have no cognitive capacity
available to question this reality, and (c) the mediated event becomes so deeply embedded in an
individual’s mind that it takes on the traits of memories of real-world experiences.
While Shrum and O’Guinn (1993) and many other researchers hold, rightfully so, that
social construction of reality is the use of knowledge gained through the acquisition of media
information to form judgments about the real world, Shapiro and Lang (1991) and Shapiro and
McDonald (1993) add a new element into the equation, that of the media experience actually
being perceived as a real experience by an audience member.
The Media Mainstream
The above discussion focuses on the elements that contribute to the concept of social
construction of reality. As obviously can be deduced from these prior demonstrations, the media
are apt to create a dominate view of the world. It is to this end that this paper will now direct its
attention the media creation of a dominant culture or pop culture. In addition, an issue that is
still open for debate is whether the construction of a pop culture rests more on media
influence/factors or individual reactions/factors.
The term “Popular Culture” can be used interchangeably with the term “Mass Culture.”
The concept of a mass culture suggest explicitly what the term pop culture implies that of
material that is solely and directly created for and distributed for mass consumption (MacDonald, 1957).
There are three ways in which the realm of a pop culture influences public consumption.
First, certain media channels or forms are more popular than others (e.g. TV vs. books, the
Internet vs. radio). Second, within the different channels or forms, genres of content receive the
widest acceptance (e.g., rock music vs. new age, sit-coms vs. documentaries). Finally, within the
genres themselves, certain categorical content becomes more predominant than others (e.g., modern rock vs.
classic rock, sit-coms oriented around a group of friends vs. sit-coms oriented around a family).
Establishing a pop culture seems to be a continuous process representative of a reciprocal
relationship between media content and the popularity of the content with the majority of the
people. Simply stated, the media and the audience establish a self-fulfilling prophecy in regards to
media content. The media are operating from an economic need to provide content that will
appeal to the widest audience. Once an economically successful type of content is found, the
media fulfill their end in establishing a mass culture because all current and future media
organizations copy the successful content formula, which leads to the homogenization of media
content from (a) an economical standpoint [reflected in the spiral of silence (Noelle-Neumann, 1974)].
Through this “standardization” of media content, the audience come to expect certain
types of content from the media. Violà: a self-fulfilling prophecy has been put into motion which
establishes and perpetuates the notion of a pop culture.
A hidden assumption of the media’s role in this process is that certainly the gatekeeping
process will often allow content to pass through that does not necessarily meet the current “pop”
criteria; however, the hope is that this content will become the mainstream; and consequently,
profitably for those who created this new content. I am not suggesting that all the media do is
rehash current or old material, but rather, when a media organization does introduce “fresh”
content and it then receives “mass” appeal, what occurs is rapid imitation by other media; and
consequently, the once novel content has now become nothing more than the mainstream
material. Cagle (1995) describes this process as commercialism’s power to “domesticate” a
subculture. In a sense, the media are now forced to conform to society’s desires, even though
they may have caused the creation of those desires.
These workings of the pop culture are easily explained from an agenda setting perspective.
Although agenda setting research usually focuses on the news, its basic assumption can be easily
applied to the existence of an pop culture. Agenda setting lends itself to the following circular
belief: “If you really matter, you will be at the focus of mass attention and, if you are at the focus
of mass attention, then surely you must really matter” (Lazarsfeld & Merton, 1948, p. 102).
Readers certainly do not need their hands held to see how well this accounts for the phenomenon
of a pop culture.
Pop Culture and the Audience
The media’s role in pop culture creation can be attributed to the same thing that motivates
any organization and any individual within the organization: profits. In the same manner that one
might expect to have organizations operating according to an established economically beneficial
formula, so too, the media operate, and in the media’s case, this has a direct effect on their
content a homogenization of content; and consequently, a pop culture.
A more interesting analysis is what the audience does with this content. Does the
audience even have a choice in content? Do we as MacDonald (1957) posits, accept the notion of
a passive audience that accepts whatever the media throw their way? Or do we take an active
audience approach? Certainly, the media do limit the public’s choice of content to a degree
because of its exposure to certain content, but to suggest that the audience must succumb to the
pop culture values is to conclude that the public are unaware that they even have any other
choices. My position is that the audience’s acceptance of the mainstream is based on (a) their
interest in the content, (b) their direct experience with the content, and (c) the importance of the
content to them.
Lippmann (1922) made an important distinction between reality and perception that comes
into play with people’s choices and the restrictions of pop culture. He differentiates between the
environment (i.e., the world that is really out there) and the pseudo-environment (i.e., the media
depictions of the world or social construction of reality). When creating a pseudo-environment,
individuals will have a portion made up from the environment (i.e., direct experience) and a
portion made up from the media-environment. To what degree each of these will influence one’s
pseudo-environment will depend on the interest, involvement, or salience of the issue or subject to
There are numerous variables that may influence the elements that constitute one’s
pseudo-environment. Perhaps, providing an example from each of the suggested relevant
categories may prove beneficial.
One may consider an issue of utmost importance and seek out more information than the
media provide. For example, suppose that one’s spouse is traveling on an airplane and while
watching the news, he or she discovers that the plane has crashed with no survivors. In this case,
one may not be willing to simply accept the media’s presentation, he or she might verify the story
by some other means like calling the police from the district of the crash site to confirm and find
out the details of what, in fact, transpired.
Consider the scenario in which a country is at war. Would a military officer who was
directly participating in the war seek information concerning the war from the media. Certainly
not, he or she would know from either direct experience or from information gathered from others
directly involved in the war with whom the officer has contact.
The final determinant of degree of interest is probably most reflective on one’s acceptance
or non-acceptance of the pop culture, since pop culture seems to be a term more reflective of
entertainment content. My view is that of a part active and part passive audience that act as their
own gatekeeper in determining which role they will play in regard to which content. An
individual may (a) take the media content as a whole and let it define reality, (b) take part of the
media depiction and part of own experience, or (c) bypass the media altogether and seek out their
own content of choice [often this content may be consumed from a media format (e.g., CD or
book), but the point is that it is not the dominant view or part of the mass or popular culture].
“Pop subcultures” develop in regard to all media forms and those that consume things that
are a part of this or that subculture do so because they actively seek material that lies outside the
mainstream. In other words, the individual has a reason for pursuing a certain type of content
more deeply, which may be viewed as an extension of the uses and gratifications approach (Katz,
Plumler, & Gurevitch, 1974). If one accepts the pop culture’s content on a given media form or
genre, it may only suggest that they are involved more actively with some other material and have
willingly chosen to simply accept the media’s dominant focus on this issue.
For example, before modern rock or alternative music became a part of the pop culture, it
was an underground subculture. Those who were aware of the artists at this time were those who
had a great interest in rock music and actively sought out the best that rock had to offer them
from all facets and in so doing this, they became part of a subculture. The important point is that
not everybody accepted the sounds of the pop culture at this time and whether they did or not was
determined by their interest in rock music and/or their dissatisfaction with what was in the mainstream.
On the other hand, this same person with a high degree of interest in music may be more
prone to accept the pop culture in regards to films. He or she may simply view those films that
receive the most publicity and the ones that everyone else is going to see. While there is certainly
a film subculture, just as there is a music subculture, the individual may relinquish the freedom to
seek out non-mainstream films because he or she has invested his or her energy in seeking out
non-mainstream music or the person simply is not a film buff or fan. The point is that an
individual realizes that he or she has made a choice to accept the mainstream.
There is no question that the media limit an individual’s choices of content, but in no
different way then time does or income does or the individual’s own choice of content focus does.
The media’s establishment of a pop culture is the media setting an agenda and what this agenda
tells the audience is what content is most profitable at this given time.
While the media perform an agenda setting function in setting up a pop culture, the
audience can do what it wants with the elements of the pop culture. It may be easier to
“passively” accept what the media focus on, but what the individual needs to remember is that in
so doing this, it was his or her choice to accept this content for there is other non-mainstream
content available, but it does take a more “active” audience member to attain it.
The social construction of a pop culture is simply content that is (a) exposed by the media
as profitable and then, (b) accepted by the majority of a population based on numerous possible
variables such as: interest, importance, time restriction, etc. A pop culture is not a bad thing for
without it all that would exist are subcultures, which would always require effort in seeking out.
If nothing else, a pop culture serves to unify a society and, in addition, strengthen the ties of subcultures.