Social Construction of Reality

Part I: Media Construction of Reality
A Theoretical Building Block

Part II: Social Construction of a Pop Culture
Mainstreaming 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 the individual.

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.


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