An historical example of research into the social dimension of television


Between 1978 and 1980, James Lull (1980) conducted a study of 85 families (including 150 parents and nearly 180 children (Lull, 1980, p. 324)), which attempted to ask the question: how do families use television? More importantly, do their uses differ depending on parental attitudes?

Lull (1980, p. 320) argues that communication within families can be divided into two “dimensions”. The first is “socio orientation”, which emphasises amicable dispute resolution, “avoid[ing] controversy”, and the repression of strong feelings (such as anger) (Lull, 1980, p. 320). This framework ”correlates positively with all forms of parental control, verbal and restrictive punishment” (Lull, 1980, p. 321), and children raised with socio orientations are (unsurprisingly) rabid consumers of violent TV programs (Lull, 1980, p. 321). On the other hand, “concept orientation” encourages children to express their own ideas and “challenge others’ beliefs” (Lull, 1980, p. 320), which results in a preference for news programming (Lull, 1980, p. 321).

Of course, uses were found to differ considerably between the two dimensions. For concept-oriented families, using TV for social purposes (“conflict reduction”, “agenda for talk”, “companionship”) was far less common (Lull, 1980, p. 326). In fact, “concept-oriented family members were particularly strong in their personal rejection of these behaviors (sic) as a basis for family communication” (Lull, 1980, p. 331). Since concept-orientation was connected to a higher socioeconomic status (at the time of the study) (Lull, 1980, p. 321), perhaps Lull was suggesting – in a contrary manner to the oft-cited 1950s photographs of perfect nuclear families, sitting in semicircles and basking in the glow of monochrome CRTs – that families who watch together may be physically close, but mentally distant…


Lull, J. (1980). Family Communication Patterns and the Social Uses of Television. Communication Research, 7(3), 319-334.


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