The Decatur Study and Personal Influence

Conducted in 1950 by scholars Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfield, the Decatur Study surveyed hundreds of women with hopes in discovering the main influencers on their decision-making. Katz and Lazarsfield published the results in 1955 in their work, Personal Influence. The study concluded that face to face exchanges are more influential than mediated interactions in the shaping and formulation of opinions, and confirmed the indirect effects paradigm’s two step flow model of communication

Figure 1: The two step flow theory is often
compared to water ripples,
to show how opinions “flow” among people

The Decatur Study is closely related to the field of media effects, which attempts to explain how media consumption shapes or changes human behavior. (Laughey, 2007). Within the media effects field, there exists two paradigms: the direct effects paradigm, which views media texts as forces that immediately cause changes in behavior; and the indirect effects paradigm, which does not view the relationship between media consumption and behavioral changes as cause-and-effect, but rather mediated and complex  (Laughey, 2007). Under the direct effects paradigm, the hypodermic needle theory claims that media ‘inject’ ideas and messages into those who consume it (Laughey, 2007). This theory is often criticized for its lack of recognition of the context in which people consume media messages (Gitlin, 1978). It is a stark contrast to a theory in the indirect effects paradigm, the two step flow model of communication, which claims that information flows from media text to ‘opinion leaders,’ who then relay the information back to the public (Gitlin, 1978). 

Although the Decatur study was groundbreaking for media research, the study had many flaws and faced much criticism as a result. When the first edition of Lazarsfield’s first piece was published,  The People’s Choice, the first work to theorize the concepts of the two step flow model of communication and opinion leading, much interest was generated among the McFadden Publications company, and the company’s founder, Bernarr McFadden, sponsored Lazarsfield’s and Katz’s Decatur study. (Gitlin, 1978).  The bias affected the entire structure of the study; the subjects were all women who were avid readers of True Story, one of McFadden Publications’ magazines. The results of the study may have also been skewed by the questions of the survey, which were concerned with issues such as product buying and commercialism. (Gitlin, 1978). 

Figure 2 Panel at a blogger influencer conference

Another flaw of the Decatur study is that in Personal Influence, Katz and Lazarsfield, “fail in important ways to confirm the theory [they] claim to be confirming” (Gitlin, 1978. p 210). One way in which this occurs is through the authors’ failure to interpret the significance of the discrepancies in which they reported having occurred in their study, which takes away from the legitimacy of their proposed theoretical framework. For example, one of such discrepancies is how in the study, the opinion changes that occurred among the subjects, did not all necessarily involve personal contact with opinion leaders. (Gitlin, 1978).  As a result, this discrepancy of the survey study actually supports the hypodermic needle theory of the direct effects paradigm, the exact theory Katz and Lazarsfield were trying to demote at the time (Gitlin, 1978).  

Figure 3: Summer 2015 Edition of
fashion magazine Lovely.

Other flaws of the Decatur survey study include: the narrow definition of the study’s dependent variable. Within the study, if attitudes remained unchanged it was assumed they were not influenced; and the study’s limits with respect to time. The study took place before the introduction of the popularization of television, which could have had a more direct result than radio or print. A manifestation of the two-step flow model of communication beyond the Decatur survey study is when companies or businesses turn to the help from bloggers or social platforms in attempt to influence speculation over subject matter. Another example of how opinion leaders relay information to the public is in the fashion industry. Magazines and fashion outlets provide information about the latest trends, brands, and styles to their audiences.

References:

Gitlin, T. (1978). Media sociology: The dominant paradigm. Theory and society. Vol 6. No 2. pp 205-203.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/657009  

Laughey, D. (2007). Key themes in media theory. Berkshire: Open University Press 

Image Attribution:

“Mossack Fonseca en el Blogger & Influencer Week” by Mossack Fonseca is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

“Lovely the mag #5” by Pablo Abad is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

“11soto beach 016” by felizfeliz is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Written by Natalie Mansfield, 2019

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