Katz, E. & Lazarsfeld, P.F. (1955) ‘Personal influence: the part played by people in the flow of mass communications’

Katz, E. & Lazarsfeld, P.F. (1955) ‘Personal influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communications‘, The Free Press, New York.

The authors begin by outlining two historic and opposing views of the mass media – either as recreating the “town meeting” of firsthand, informed deliberation of public opinions, or as “agents of evil” capable of undermining democracy by swaying public opinion.

However, Katz and Lazarsfeld suggest these two views are not far apart as both envision a process of mass communications of an atomistic mass of citizens “prepared to receive the message” and each message a “direct and powerful stimulus to action which would elicit immediate response. ” (16)

Both views see the media of communications as a new “unifying force” in a society of diminished interpersonal relations:

a simple kind of nervous system – reaching out to every eye and ear.

Mass media research developed alongside applied psychology and, as it developed, split into three sectors: audience research (who hears what), content analysis (language and logic of messages), and effect analysis (impact of communications).

However, the authors suggest this split obscures that fundamentally all communications research is about studying effect – there is one problem being addressed, which is “what can the media ‘do’?” (18). The over-riding interest is in mass media’s attempts to influence behaviour and opinions in the short-term via “campaigns”.

Between these views of omnipotent media giving out messages and atomised masses waiting to receive the message, are intermediate steps, developed over the period of mass communications research, which modify the effects of the communications: exposure, medium, content, and predispositions. (20)

Katz and Lazarsfeld suggest that each of these contributes to the effects of mass media campaigns and sets the stage for a further intervening variable: interpersonal relations, on which their book focuses.

They are intervening variables because they can facilitate or block the flow of communications. Exposure, research suggests, is mostly voluntarily limited – we choose to tune in. The medium is able to modify the process of persuasion. Content makes use of the psychological techniques to concentrate the stimulus, measure by response. an individuals’ attitudes or predispositions can modify or distort the message, including attitudes towards the media or particular media.

Within these four intervening factors, exposure and predisposition relate to receiving messages, and medium and content to transmission. (24)

Each new variable adds nuance to our understanding of mass media and influence, and the newest – interpersonal relations – may be the most important, and a “key link in the chain of intervening variables. The authors argue:

the response of an individual to a campaign cannot be accounted for without reference to his social environment and to the character of his interpersonal relations. (25)

The next section outlines recent studies on which Katz and Lazarsfeld have based their hypothesis on the role of interpersonal relations in understanding mass communications.

The studies highlight:

  1. the differential effects the same message has on an individual according to their strength of tie to a group,
  2. the importance of social pressure in motivating people to respond to a message,
  3. whether the message seeks to separate someone from their group,
  4. the role of “social mechanism” in making it easy to act on a message (eg buy from a store nearby).

They [these studies] imply that there are consequences for the transmission of communications: first, in the mere frequency of association with peers; second, in association with others who share a particular norm or standard; third, in being a member of a groups which supplements and reinforces the mass media message; fourth, in belonging to a social group which has “hooked up” a human communications system of its own with that of the mass media; and finally, in being “near” enough to an appropriate social outlet to give expression to a motivated social action. (29)

Analogous with FB and SNTs communications, and also the “near” enough ease of using social media for social action.

Chapter two considers the part played by people and notes a study of the (US) presidential campaign of 1940 (Lazarsfeld et al, 1948) which identified that people within each stratum of community “serve relay roles in the mass communication of election information and influence.” (31)

The study found radio and print media had negligible effects on vote decisions, particularly in changes in decision. When the researchers asked people who had changed their mind on how they would vote what had contributed to their decisions, they were told other people:

People tend to vote, it seems, the way their associates vote. (32)

The data also implied that some people exerted a “disproportionately great influence” on others’ voting decisions. These opinion leaders were unexpected and distributed across all social sectors.

The next question was therefore “who or what influences the influentials?” What they found was that opinion leaders said they were influenced by the mass media more than non opinion leaders did. From this, the authors develop their theory of a two-step flow of communication:

that ideas, often, seem to flow from radio and print to opinion leaders and from them to the less active sections of the population. (32)

A further study, presented within the book, attempted to test and extend that idea. That and other studies presented tend to support the opinion leader idea and the need for “people” as the intervening factor between “the stimuli of the media and resultant opinions, decisions and actions. ” (33)

Opinion leadership is part of the give and take of everyday relationships with leaders tied to specific others as a primary group, rather than having general influence beyond that group.

Chapter five considers the role of the group in influencing change. The authors suggest there are “benefits” from conformity within a group and in individuals seeing an issue in the same way that others around them see it. Therefore individuals who do change their opinions “will be likely to change them in the direction of a group norm”. (66)

The group may operate as a medium for change in two ways:

  1. by influencing new members to conform to the group norm in order to be accepted – the “benefits” of conformity, and
  2. by “prestige” suggestions – attributing contrary opinions to individuals or groups that the existing group is minded to be influenced by (eg children being influenced by other children more than by teachers or other adults.)

Katz and Lazarsfeld refer to experiments which show “group think” holds true even in unrealistic situations of right and wrong opinions, and link this to totalitarian states where media monopolization makes the acceptance of propaganda, even of a lie, more likely because opinion promoted by the larger group discourages individual opposition.

Interesting in relation to Russia and annexing of the Crimea and incursions in the Ukraine and how manipulating the media has contributed to mass “group think” by Russians. I wonder whether social media contributed to this or played no significant part?

Further, strong tie, cohesive groups are more likely to exert influence on each other:

interpersonal relations, to the extent that they positively motivated, are continuously active in the preservation of group norms, in the disciplining of deviates, and in the exertion of influence toward conformity. (72)

Be interesting to see who this operates in different online settings – forums of shared interests vs FB friends groups, and how we conform or resist (passively?) group norms when we operate in multiple social or professional groups online.

The next section looks at the group as a target of change and, given that the group might seem to exist to achieve and maintain its norm, how it could be persuaded to change.

Individual change comes about either when the individual attaches lower value to his/her group membership, or where others in the group support him/her in the proposed change.

In experiments with discussion groups vs lecture or one-to-one information sharing, groups which discuss – interact – with each other were always more effective in agreeing and carrying through changes in behaviour.

The authors suggest that it is not the discussions, but the perceived willingness of others in the group of peers t0 go along with the decisions that is the deciding factor – individuals are more willing to accept change when they see others going along with it. And perhaps only when the change appeals to deep-lying values that are also part of the group. norm (eg patriotism, saving money), and objectifying the change to similar groups or peers. In those circumstance “interpersonal relations may act as facilitators of change”. (81)

Chapter six looks at communication within the group and focuses on person-to-person communication in transmitting mass media campaigns.

Studies suggest a) some individuals act as relays transmitting messages from the mass media (and others), and b) personal influence via interpersonal communication has a “reinforcement function“. (83)

 Within these networks, key communications roles – initiators, transmitters and influentials – can be identified and these, in turn, can be related to nomination, social location and cultural certification. (115)

Key point for me to look at whether these people/roles exist in FB networks and whether they serve the same role in changing or reinforcing decisions.

In part two, the authors report on their Decatur study (of 800 women in Decatur, Illinois) and their attempts to locate and identify the transmission of personal influence.

They begin by summarising many types of official and unofficial leaders, before focusing on the opinions leaders (“these everyday influentials” (138)) that are the subject of the study.

What we shall call opinion leadership, if we may call it leadership at all, is leadership at its simplest: it is casually exercised, sometimes unwitting and unbeknown, within the smallest grouping of friends, family members, and neighbors…. It is the almost invisible, certainly inconspicuous, form of leadership at the person-to-person level of ordinary, intimate, informal, everyday contact. (138)

The Decatur study looked at patterns of influence in four everyday arenas – marketing, fashions, public affairs and movie-going.

Within public affairs, they asked the women to name

  1. the people whom they believe to be trustworthy and knowledgeable about matters of public concern;
  2. the people who actually influence them in some specific change of opinion in a matter or current concern, and
  3. the people with whom they most often talk over what they hear on the radio or read in the papers. (139)

They also questioned each women on how influential they believed themselves to be and the specific occasions when they had influenced others.

They divided the influencers as the “generally influential” and the “specific influentials”.

Generally infuentials were the “experts” the women named as competent and trustworthy in news and public affairs, and who they knew on a  face-to-face basis. Katz and Lazarsfeld found that it was the younger, better educated women with an interest in the news and public affairs who were most likely to be able to name a generally influential other.

Awareness of the generally influential is thus in part self-selective. Many women are simply out of the public affairs market; they are not touched by the currents of personal influence in this sphere. (140)

Around half cited husbands, parents or other family members as the influential they listen to, and two-thirds of the women chose men.

Specific influentials were those who had influenced the women into changing their opinion about a current issue. Around half the changed opinions were influenced by the mass media, but of those influenced by another person, 64 percent cited a family member.

Finally, they looked at talk among everyday contacts about current affairs and found that, where this occurred (about half of the women) it was largely within the family circle.

Few women apart from those whose family ties were broken, apparently talk such things over with family or friends. Married women depend mainly on husbands, single women on parents. (143)

Is this still the same today? seems results would be skewed by reduced  number of married women in work at the time of the research – restricted social circles would affect discussion, as would changes in priorities (eg arrival of babies).

However, among the 136 women (our of 800) who were able to name one or more general influential, specific influential and everyday contact with whom they discussed public affairs, there was a difference in trust and acceptance levels. General influentials more likely (51%) to be non-family individuals they see less frequently, and everyday contacts most likely to be family (84%), with specific influentials in the middle (64% family).

The final set of questions were designed to identify “self-detected leaders” who had definitely influenced others. Through a set of interviews and confirmation techniques, the aim was to identify the specific influentials – the opinion leaders able to influence decisions via personal influence.

Chapter 12 explores the public affairs (PA) leaders in more detail. The female public affairs leader is the one who “knows what’s going on” and who other women turn to for information and opinion.

The authors found that high status (19%) women who were also more gregarious and had more leisure time were more likely to be public affairs opinion leaders – high status women were three times more likely to be  PA leaders than low status women, and more likely (72% to 28%) to be informed about PA issues.

Adjusting for this factor,

the highly informed women of high social status is twice as likely to emerge as a public affairs leader as the equally informed woman of low status. (275)

This interesting – how does that differ online where status is less obvious? In addition, K&L’s findings support the criticism of the PS as being dominated by higher status men – higher status women are dominating K&L’s arena of the PS – does that finding transfer online or is the defining element the education, rather than economic status, of the opinion leader and how trustworthy they appear to sound (ie write)?

The “enabling factor” according to Katz and Lazarsfeld, is the leisure time and social climate confered on high status women. Leisure time, the authors suggest, results in greater gregariousness and this is also a quiet women: “The non-gregarious woman rarely is an opinion leader in public affairs”.

They also found high gregariousness improves the chances of a low status woman becoming a PA opinion leader.

Is gregariousness the enabling factor for online influence?

Finally, the authors look at life cycles in relation to women’s ages and involvement in raising a family.

They found less of a difference in this section but noted declining leadership with age – older women are less likely to be PA opinion leaders. Contrasting with (US) studies of political participation which increases with age, suggesting PA opinion leadership is different to political leadership. They suggest:

Thus, it may be that the approach of these feminine public affairs leaders is fundamentally a-political, treating current events as “news”, and community issues in terms of “good” and “bad” rather than part of the realm of political partisanship. (291)

This links to the Jackson paper but may also reflect a feminisation of discussion of public affairs more closely linked to the personal.

Overall, Katz and Lazarsfeld found the typical PA leader is markedly different from opinion leaders in marketing, fashions or movie-going, and is much more likely to be characterized by better educated, wealthier women who “seem to move in a climate which promotes greater participation in public affairs.” (295)

The flow of influence is more often downwards – high to low status, but can be mediated by gregariousness.

Chapter 14 returns to the two-step flow of communication idea and finds that, in all four arenas (PA, marketing, fashion and movies) opinion leaders are more exposed to the media and may therefore be more responsive to its influence. (More so in areas such as fashion)

They also found that in public affairs the “cosmopolitans” – those more concerned with news outside their local community, were also more cosmopolitan in the news they were exposed to, or chose.

Chapter 15 summarises their findings and notes several additional points of interest:

  • that being more interested in a subject isn’t enough to become an opinion leader in it;
  • that factors of status level, life cycle and gregariousness are the determinant (to varying degrees according to the subject).

a woman’s objective position….has a lot to do with whether or not she will be an opinion leader – even when she has a high level of interest. (326)

  • that greater interest in a subject results in opinion leadership on it “primarily when one associates with others who are also interested” (ie people who might want your opinion)

leader ship is not simple a matter or being more interested than others; it is a matter of being interested when others are interested too.

shared interests… appears to be a channel through which communications flow. (327)

There is rarely leadership overlap: “Each arena, it seems, has a corps of leaders of its own.”


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