Cultivation Theory

George Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory argues that, like cultivating plants in soil, we are cultivated by our context, in which media plays a role. The theory is concerned with the impacts of technology, specifically television, on society, especially given the power dynamics involved.

It is argued that this is not the same as ‘effects’ theory because ‘cultivation is thus part of a continual, dynamic, ongoing process of interaction among messages and contexts’.

‘Mainstreaming’ is the process of people adopting a particular ‘mainstream’ view through access to media messages.

Cultivation theory suggests that exposure to television, over time, subtly “cultivates” viewers’ perceptions of reality. Gerbner and Gross assert: “Television is a medium of the socialisation of most people into standardised roles and behaviours. Its function is in a word, enculturation”. Within his analysis of cultivation, Gerbner draws attention to three entities—institutions, messages, and publics.

Initial research on the theory establishes that concern regarding the effects of television on audiences stem from the unprecedented centrality of television in American culture. Gerbner posited that television as a mass medium of communication had formed into a common symbolic environment that bound diverse communities together, socialising people into standardised roles and behaviours. He thus compared the power of television to that of religion, stating television was to modern society what religion once was in earlier times. Thus, Gerbner’s research focused on the larger meaning of heavy television consumption instead of the meaning behind specific messages.


Heavy viewers of TV are thought to be ‘cultivating’ attitudes that seem to believe that the world created by television is an accurate depiction of the real world. The theory suggests that prolonged watching of television can tend to induce a certain paradigm about violence in the world. Theorists break down the effects of cultivation into two distinct levels: first order – a general belief about the world, and second order – which are specific attitudes, such as a hatred or reverence for law and order, paedophiles, etc.

The theory suggests that this cultivation of attitudes is based on attitudes already present in our society and that the media take those attitudes which are already present and re-present them bundled in a different packaging to their audiences. One of the main tenets of the theory is that television and media cultivate the status quo, they do not challenge it. Many times the viewer is unaware the extent to which they absorb media, many times viewing themselves as moderate viewers when, in fact, they are heavy viewers.

The theory suggests that television and media possess a small but significant influence on the attitudes and beliefs of society about society. Those who absorb more media are those we are more influenced.

These notes are from my semester 2 lectures and seminars.
I do not own the above image, it is from:




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