Good Reads: Five Media Theories & Theorist to Consider when Studying the Intersection between Theology/Religion & New Media

While attending a recent conference of theology and communication I was struck and frustrated by the fact that over the past decade the media theorist most often evoked in theological discussions of new media is Marshall McLuhan. His medium theory and "medium is the message” dictum is employed as a key lens for discussing the effects of technology on faith communities. While McLuhan provides an interesting starting point for considering how media messages are shaped, I find this can be a limited frame if the conversation does not go beyond this. When voicing this frustration online a colleague suggested the reason for this trend is the fact that McLuhan is the only media theorist most theologians have ever heard of. “He is the total of their experience in the field, until someone shows them there's more’” he argued.

So this blog post is my attempt to briefly highlight several other media theorists whose work I think Theologians in particular might consider as potential conversational partners when looking at the ethical and structural issues related to technological adoption and decision making and their implications for religious communities. While these are not the only media theorists that are useful for such discussions, the following are five I have found useful at different stages in my own work to closely investigate processes technological appropriation and value judgments underlying different choices and strategies. I suggest these theoretical stances from Media Studies offer interesting alternative perspectives and frameworks for reflecting and study how people view, respond and reflect on the affordances of digital media technologies within faith communities and society in general that can deepen the current discourse.

(1) Elihu Katz (with Jay Gurevitch and Michael Haas)-Uses and Gratifications Model
The uses and gratifications model offers and audience center approach to studying the motivations behind media adoption and use. It suggests different people use the media in different ways, in order to achieve certain goals or fulfill types of needs. The uses and gratifications model stresses the importance of what people do with the media rather than what it does to them. UGT assumes audiences are active consumers in their media choices, which are goal driven based on the needs and priority of audience member. It offers an important perspective because it focuses attention on audience value judgments and agendas in relation to how media can meet or gratify certain desires or priorities. Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch approach to UGT is important because it highlights in more detail how audiences use media and contextualize more instrumentalist claims about how media effects on audiences. They found that audience typically uses media for information gathering, to help cultivate their personal identity, as a source of social engagement and interaction or entertainment. Theologians could use this approach to reflect on how and why people use media as a tool for reinforcing personal values, building a sense of connection and belonging and how it can serve as a space for personal and moral reflection.

Key work: Katz, Elihu, Jay G. Blumler, and Michael Gurevitch. "Uses and Research." Public Opinion Quarterly 4th ser. 37 (1973–1974): 509-23. JSTOR. Web. 14 Oct. 2011. .

(2) Everett Rogers-Diffusion of Innovation Theory
Diffusion of Innovation theory seeks to explain how why and at what rate new technologies spread and become adopted within a given context. The theory highlights four main elements that influence the spread of a new idea: the innovation, communication channels, time, and a social system. Rogers defines intrinsic characteristics of innovations that influence an individual’s decision to adopt or reject an innovation as well as the character of key adopter categories. This approach argues that it is not only leaders exert influence on audience behavior via their personal contact, but additional intermediaries called change agents and gatekeepers are also included in the process of diffusion. This approach offers a framework for considering how information flows through networks and the factors that shapes opinions regarding technological decision making. This approach is helpful for reflecting on the consequences for individuals and society of adopting a given innovation.

Key work: Rogers, Everett M. (1962). Diffusion of Innovations. Glencoe/NY: Free Press.

(3) Roger Silverstone and Eric Hirsch- Domestication of media theory
The Domestication of media focuses on the processes by which technological innovations are “tamed” and appropriated by specific user communities, especially families. It offers reflection on how technology choice are informed and constrained by the “moral economy” or a set of values held in common within a household or user community. It seeks to distinguish decision making that occurs at different phases of this process including those of appropriation, objectification, incorporation and conversion of a given technology into the life world of given group. Domestication highlights the need to consider how values and beliefs of a given group constrain and inform technological adoption and innovation. It can also be used as to way to identify what key motivation inform a given user communities technological priorities.

Key work: Silverstone, Roger, Hirsch, Eric (Eds.) (1992). Consuming Technologies: Media and information in domestic spaces. London/New York: Routledge.

(4) Everett Rogers/Jan vanDijk: Social Network Theory
Network analysis (or social network theory) is the study of how the social structures and relationships around a person, group, or organization affects beliefs or behaviors. The network approach recognizes that a shift in society from tightly-bounded social systems and communities formed on the basis of family, institutional and geographic relations to loosely bounded relations based on flexible and dynamic social networks. Rogers characterizes a communication network as consisting of “interconnected individuals who are linked by patterned communication flows” (1986). Network analysis seeks to consider how people connect and relate to one another and thereby create an interpersonal, relational communication structure. This approach is important as it outlines how many people live within multiple loosely connected social networks in contemporary society and how relationships are constituted and maintained within a digitally supported, network based society. The network approach may offer creative possibilities for reimagining relational structures and communication in religious communities.

Key works: Rogers, E.M. & Kincaid, D.L. (1981). Communication Networks: Toward a New Paradigm for Research. New York: Free Press.

van Dijk, J. (2005). Outline of a multilevel approach of the network society. Retrieved from

(5) Henry Jenkins-Participatory Media Culture
Jenkins outline the ways in which new media culture offers audience to simultaneously take on roles of consumer and producer of media simultaneously, resulting in a new category of the “prosumers “. Jenkins argues in our participatory media culture people are able to creatively respond to media content by creating their own cultural commodities in their attempts to decipher and find meaning in media products and messages. Participatory media culture means their are low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement so people are able to more easily respond, contribute and critique media messages and meanings. This process of interaction also creates some degree of social connection with other involved in media consumption and creation. Theologian would benefit from considering the new possibilities and challenges offered by trend towards prosumption that changes audience understanding of authority, agency and interpretative process.

Key work: Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, NY: New York University Press.


After some comments I received on Facebook related to this post, I would also add another possible theoretical approach:

(6) Clifford Christians: Prophetic Resistance/Witness
Christians suggests that religious communicators must have a prophetic aim in their approach and analysis of the technology. The prophetic response is one that does not rail against the existence of the technology, as technology only becomes a problem when it becomes sacralised or seduces our language and being in unethical ways. He argues scholars should “prophetic witness into the existing technological order” by no only to critique or call for reform but have a hand in process of offering a just response and restorative innovations related to technological application and interpretation.

Key Work: Clifford Christians, Eugene Dykema, Aire Leegwater, Stephen Monsma, Egbert Schuurman & Lambert Van Poolne (1986) “Responsible Technology. A Christian Perspective” Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company.

This is a great list of theories to consider other than McLuhan.

I would also add James Carey's "Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society." Carey offers a different perspective than the transmission model of sender-message-channel-receiver. His lens of analysis is on how communication technology shifts society and culture - namely through the changes of space and time.

Key work: Carey, James. (1992). Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. NY: Routledge.