Denis McQuail: A Personal Appraisal


Adrian Smyth offers a personal assessment of the ideas of the cultural theorist Denis McQuail who died recently.

Denis McQuail, who has died, will be known to countless students of media and communications studies through his seminal primer Mass Communications Theory. Writing in the preface to the 6th edition of the book, he readily acknowledged that mass communication – in all its dynamic amorphous glory – will always have the capacity to outpace attempts by any book to grasp its full meaning; rather his solution in assembling his work was to construct a chart of sorts to offer, in his words, “some relatively firm theoretical islands or platform from which to observe and understand what is happening around us”.

Origins: Denis McQuail started out studying history, but dissatisfied with what he saw as its lack of new ideas turned to sociology where he became drawn to communication research – he was particularly influenced by the works of cultural theorists Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams. Interestingly, he cites the dawn of commercial television in the UK in the 1950s as a particularly important spur to his enquiries – Granada TV had founded a fellowship at Leeds University (from where McQuail obtained his PhD in Social Studies in 1969) partly as a public relations move, but partly also because the founder of Granada, Sidney Bernstein was, says McQuail, “a socialist with a mission to contribute to and improve society” (note: Granada was home to the ground-breaking investigative current affairs series World in Action and that enduring legend of British working class drama, Coronation Street). From this moment, McQuail focussed his research on the political and cultural effects of television.

In one sense, for McQuail, communication studies was liberated in the 1960s from the strictures of the previous decade from where it was recruited in the struggle to understand what were then assumed to be a panoply of “personal and social problems” wrought by the effects of mass media. The ‘liberation’ of communication studies came in the form of what he refers to as an “intellectual autonomy” – through the critical perspective – in which the field could “define its own view of what it’s problems are”. On reflection however, McQuail expresses some disillusionment with the critical perspective which became, for him, too narrowly political. As for the position of technology in such studies, he acknowledges its validity as a subject of enquiry, but reveals, perhaps, his left-of-centre perspective that over-emphasis of technology and the medium in analysis “draws attention away from the underlying factors in culture and society that are going to be responsible for what people get out of communication and how they use it”.

Predictions: At the time of the above reflections (2012), it is clear that the notion of ‘convergence’ of media channels and platforms was one that was emerging, and in this regard he predicted a “fragmented” media landscape would eventually become a “single landscape”.

From the contemporary viewpoint of new – versus so-called ‘legacy’ – media operators, it is clear McQuail correctly foresaw questions of accountability, responsibility, and ethics in media production: “There will be a lot of revision”, he suggests, “about what is appropriate or desirable or necessary in relation to various problems that arise – what communicators might or might not accept as their responsibility”. The ‘revision’ of which he spoke may take the form of “alliances between communication science and communication professions.” In digression, evidence for this prediction may be found in recent comments by Mark Little that social media companies want to work with journalists to help them provide, especially, news content:

“these platforms are serious in looking for help and looking for partnerships. When they say they want to work with journalists and news companies they do mean it because they know they can’t solve the ‘problem’ [of news production/publishing/distribution]  themselves” (@firstdraftnews, @marklittlenews).

Despite what McQuail suggests as the seeming confidence of the media to achieve its intended effects, he also warns that “considerable areas of uncertainty remain”. Presciently, in the 6th edition of Mass Communication Theory, he offers:

under some conditions – for instance, of consistency and consensus of  message, prominence of news reports from trusted sources, coupled with large   audiences – we can expect there to be certain effects on public knowledge and on opinions, but we cannot be sure of the degree of change that will occur, nor of which sectors of the audience will respond most, never mind the case of one individual. The media are rarely likely to be the only necessary or sufficient  cause of an effect, and their relative contribution is extremely hard to assess.

Ultimately, he reminds us, the media – in their multifarious guises – are merely “carriers of an enormously diverse set of messages, images and ideas”,    sending material back and forth to society, and that any ensuing ‘effects’ are likely to be determined as much by the receiver as by the sender.

In the concluding chapter of Mass Communication Theory in which he ponders the future of mass communication, he briefly stands outside of the frame by asserting that even though mass communication may be a contested – even disproved notion – it has, precisely because of this, been a useful catalyst for thought in that the research it has generated has “led to a much firmer understanding of key principles underlying human communication” – especially if we are reminded, once more, that processes of communication rely on the [tangled]conditions of reception as much as, or rather than, any intent of the transmitter or indeed the means of transmission.

According to McQuail, amongst those who continue to cling to the ‘dream’ of the mass audiences are “advertisers and propagandists” – adapting to survive as the old “centre-peripheral” mode of communication has clearly been superseded by the “networking” of the Internet age – ways of survival which might include providing “highly differentiated range of content targeted towards innumerable subgroups and segments in the public”; and in this ‘new’ world of interaction, the system is sustained, at least partially, by “the voluntary engagement of the public in its own immersion in a rich and varied world of mediated experience”. This, it might be argued, is contributing, in meta-political narratives, to realignments in the relationships between individuals and those who may have hitherto controlled or sought to control them, namely legislators and their enforcers.

But more than this, and this is where McQuail returns to his ‘roots’: the urge to communicate must not always be situated in the political or the economic, but may fundamentally reside where it has always been: in the personal and the social – which, of course, may not either be completely divorced from the political or economic, but such is the ‘tangle’. Nevertheless, and this is McQuail’s view:

there are strong, spontaneous tendencies that underlie the emergence of shared public culture and this applies no less to the apparently ‘machine-made’    culture developed by the newly-invented mass media of the twentieth century…evidence enough of a deep attraction towards the wider sharing of   interests, emotions and experiences.

This article is based on an interview Denis McQuail gave to Social Science Space about his career in social science, and also the preface and final chapter of his book McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory (SAGE, 2010).

Adrian Smyth is a PhD candidate with the Dublin Institute of Technology School of Media where he is currently researching the digital lives of older people in Ireland.