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The term media refers broadly to the range of tools that humans have used throughout history to communicate with each other about a shared reality. The most common reference is to the set of modern technologies – from the printing press to the Internet – which facilitate communication across space, time, and social collectives.

History of The Concept

The Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED) notes that while classical Latin medium referred to some middle entity or state, in postclassical Latin and in British sources from the twelfth century onward, medium and media also came to denote the means of doing something. On the one hand, a medium could be understood as a more or less incidental presence, linking natural phenomena of this world and some metaphysical realm. On the other hand, a medium can serve as an intentional instrument of human action in a modern sense. In the latter respect, the OED distinguishes two conceptions – medium as an artistic modality, material, or technique; and medium as a channel of mass communication – both of them from the mid-nineteenth century. This was the period when a general idea of communication took hold (Peters 1999), partly in response to new technological means of communication with important social and aesthetic implications, from telegraph and telephone, to film, radio and, later, television. It was not until the 1960s, however, that media came into general use as a term covering diverse technologies and institutions, most commonly in the sense of mass media, communicating from one center to a mass of dispersed and anonymous receivers.

By the mid-twentieth century, medium in the sense of “any physical material (as tape, disk, paper, etc.) used for recording or reproducing data, images, or sound” (OED) also had become common, as represented by digital media with diverse input and output options. In the course of the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, the terminology of mass media increasingly was replaced by one of media, in everyday as well as research contexts, this time in response to more differentiated digital media. The shift was registered in the naming of one of the main international communication associations – the IAMCR. Founded in 1957, at a time when the “old” mass media, with television at the forefront, were consolidating themselves as social institutions, it originally was known as the International Association for Mass Communication Research. As of 1996, it came to be called the International Association for Media and Communication Research. In the intervening period since the 1950s, when the field of media and communication research has been taking shape, three main concepts of media have informed theory development and empirical work.

Three Disciplinary Roots

Each media concept implies a particular understanding of the basic communication model of sender, message, and receiver. The first concept, articulated in Lasswell’s paradigm (Lasswell 1948) – who says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effect – approached the medium as a neutral conduit for the dissemination of information of all kinds. In order to assess the effects and implications of a given medium, such as a newspaper or a radio station, scholars might focus their attention on the strategies of the sender, the selectivity of the communicated message, the reach of the medium in question, or the susceptibility of the receivers to particular ideas. A great deal of subsequent work has questioned Lasswell’s focus on separate stages of communication, as associated with separate forms of media analysis. In fairness, Lasswell further emphasized the function of media as mechanisms of surveillance at a macro-level. Media are means of monitoring a society as well as its surroundings with a view to self-protection, self-regulation, and long-term stability. In this regard, media can be understood in social scientific terms as a particular set of institutions in society.

The second variant was stated in the mathematical theory of communication. Its basis was Claude Shannon’s research and development regarding the physical and technological conditions for the transfer of signals in telephone systems. A number of the insights were presented in a joint publication with Warren Weaver (Shannon & Weaver 1949), and it was this volume that influenced a good deal of theory development on media. In fact, Shannon was addressing the material aspects of how to design a communication system. In its popularized form, however, the underlying model of engineering was applied to humans as a description of social interaction. Although such applications have regularly been criticized as metaphorical and imprecise, the model has remained an important part of the heritage of communication theory. This may be due, in part, to the obvious point that media are concrete vehicles whose affordances and constraints condition their potential role in human communication. The attempt to account for media as material technologies with social implications has continued to occupy communication researchers.

The third concept derives from humanistic perspectives on media as aesthetic means of expression and as carriers of cultural and historical meaning. Rooted in centuries of rhetorical and hermeneutic scholarship, this discursive media concept received an influential formulation in Roman Jakobson’s (1960) model of communication. While carrying an outward resemblance to the models of Lasswell and Shannon and Weaver, Jakobson’s model grew out of literary theory, highlighting the various communicative functions of different linguistic and aesthetic choices by authors. Jakobson further made a distinction between the channel (what he termed contact – the material relation, such as book, newspaper, or Internet) and the code (the modalities or forms of expression, such as speech, writing, music, moving images, etc.). Compared to both Lasswell and Shannon and Weaver, however, Jakobson stayed entirely within the boundaries of the text or message, calling for an immanent analysis of how communicative functions manifest themselves in concrete textual structures, and bracketing the social contexts and uses of, for instance, literature or advertising. Much humanistic scholarship, accordingly, has approached media as forms of expression that are externalized and available for study in the form of discourses.

An Interdisciplinary Concept

Particularly since the 1980s, much media research has been characterized by efforts at combining and integrating these concepts as dimensions within some form of theoretical systematic. A common position is that all three perspectives are necessary, and none of them sufficient, for a scientifically valid and socially relevant field of media studies. Interdisciplinary research and debate has explored not least the relationship between social sciences (media as institutions) and humanities (media as discourses) (for overview, see Jensen 2002b). Until recently, there appears to have been relatively less theory development devoted specifically to the interrelations between media as material technologies and media as institutions and discourses – despite the wealth of research on new media technologies as well as a growing interest in the distinctive affordances of different media technologies and their historical uses. Digitization has provided an impetus for reconsidering how, concretely, the materiality of media shapes, and is shaped by, culture and society.

The individual media can be understood as characteristic configurations of the human potential for communication at a given historical time. These configurations are organized along three dimensions – materials, modalities, and institutions – as identified in the three conceptions of a medium.


Media are physical materials which – in a particular cultural shape – enable forms of communication that previously had not been possible. Sound recordings, from the late 1800s, made possible the preservation of parts of the cultural heritage that until then had disappeared into the air. From the 1910s, recorded sound became mobile with the introduction of portable gramophones. And, from 1979, media users wearing a Walkman were able to create soundscapes that were at once mobile and private.


It is through specific forms of expression and experience that media enable human communication – language, music, moving images, etc. These modalities, on the one hand, are grounded biologically in the human senses. On the other hand, modalities have been subject to millennia of differentiation and cultivation. In modern media technologies, the modalities have entered into shifting and evolving genres – from novels and radio serials, to music videos and virtual worlds.


Media, finally, constitute distinctive institutions in society: through media, individuals and collectives can describe and reflect upon themselves as well as the rest of society. Media and other social institutions have jointly reproduced each other under changing technological and cultural circumstances. Print and electronic media extended cultures in space and sustained nation-states over time; nation-states and international treaties regulate the legal limits of public communication and the economic bases of each new medium. Television, for example, was developed as a consumer good for the home, financed by advertising or license fees, even though the material technology might have been framed socially on the model of cinema as a public or community activity.

In comparison with other meaningful cultural artifacts and social arrangements – from interior decorating to business transactions – the media that constitute the objects of analysis in media and communication research, are distinguished by their programmability, being uniquely flexible resources for the articulation of information and communicative interaction as part of an ongoing social structuration (Giddens 1984).

Whereas programmability is most commonly associated with the various levels of the digital computer, other communication platforms also lend themselves to combinatorial configurations. First, the modalities of media amount to semiotic registers of language, music, images, etc., allowing for an immense repertoire of genres and discourses, and engaging the human senses in selective and culturally conventional ways. Thus, media make possible the rendering of and interaction with worlds past and present, real and imagined. Second, the technologies of media provide the material substratum of such representations, not as fixed conduits, but as resources for accomplishing particular social and aesthetic ends. Third, media communicate to, about, and on behalf of social institutions, which, again, are shaped and reshaped through communication. As combinatorial systems, media and societies can be said to mutually program each other – a notion that, for example, systems theory has elaborated and formalized. The degrees of freedom that condition this entire process, in three dimensions, help to account for the relative indetermination of the structures and outcomes of mediated communication, and continue to challenge research on the question of what difference the media make.

Media of Three Degrees

The coming of digital media has stimulated renewed research interest in the duality of mediated and nonmediated communication. For one thing, ordinary human conversation, while nonmediated by technologies, is mediated by aural–oral modalities, in addition to body language, broadly speaking. For another thing, computer-mediated communication – email, chat, online gaming – often carries a stronger resemblance to interpersonal than to mass communication. In order to assess the implications of digital media as emerging social and cultural institutions, much ongoing work has begun to address the interrelations between different media types (Bolter & Grusin 1999; Manovich 2001; Lievrouw & Livingstone 2002). One explanatory framework would distinguish between media of three degrees (Jensen 2002a).

Media of the first degree can be defined as the biologically based, socially formed resources that enable humans to articulate an understanding of reality, for a particular purpose, and to engage in communication about it with others. The central example is verbal language, or speech, as constitutive of oral cultures and subcultures – additional examples include song and other musical expression, dance, drama, painting, and creative arts generally, often relying on mechanical techniques such as musical instruments and artistic or writing utensils as necessary elements. Importantly, such media depend on the presence of the human body in local time–space. While one might identify (spoken) language, or the human voice, as the medium, it is helpful to differentiate between, for instance, speech and song as media with reference to their different modalities, sharing the same material substratum, but commonly addressing different social institutions, contexts, and practices.

Media of the second degree come under the classic definition by Walter Benjamin (1936/1977) of the technically reproduced and enhanced forms of representation and interaction which support communication across space and time, irrespective of the presence and number of participants. Whereas Benjamin emphasized photography, film, and radio, media of the second degree range from early modern examples, including the standardized reproduction of religious and political texts by the printing press, to television and video. The common features are, first, one-to-one reproduction, storage, and presentation of a particular content and, second, radically extended possibilities for dissemination across time and space. These technologies had important consequences for major social institutions – from the breakup of the Catholic church to the rise of the nation-state. Also, modalities from media of the first degree were refashioned. In radio talk shows, conversation took on new conventions, just as acting styles were adapted from the theater stage to cinema and television.

It is debatable whether manuscripts, which fix speech, drawing, music, and other human communication in a stable format, should be considered a separate media category, partly in view of their epochal significance. In historical perspective, Meyrowitz (1994, 54) suggested that its comparatively inefficient forms of reproduction and distribution made handwriting a transitional cultural form. For a systematics of media, and from the perspective of media and communication research as a field, it can be argued that the production of manuscripts, like other media of the first degree, is embodied and local, laborious and error-prone; that their distribution is commonly selective rather than public, within established institutions, as supported by oral commentary; and that the constitutive role of handwriting in the reproduction of cultural tradition and social institutions has been taken over by media of the second degree.

Media of the third degree are the digitally processed forms of representation and interaction. Digital technology enables reproduction and recombination of all media of the second degree on a single platform: computers, thus, can be understood as metamedia (Kay & Goldberg 1977/1999). The central current example is the networked personal computer, although this interface, like that of mobile telephones, is likely to change substantially as technologies are adapted further to the human senses, and integrated into both common objects and social arrangements. Whereas classic mass media, such as illustrated magazines and television, combined modalities to a considerable degree, the scale and speed with which digitalization facilitates their incorporation and reconfiguration suggests that digital media may represent a qualitative shift from media of the second degree that is comparable to the shift from first-degree to second-degree media. The media types have not replaced each other – they recirculate the forms and contents of shifting cultural traditions in social contexts. They do, however, offer distinctive and ascending degrees of programmability in terms of adaptable technologies, differentiated modalities, and institutions transcending time, space, and social collectives.

The Double Hermeneutics

The development both of the concept of media and of media studies indicates that media are understood in historical context. The modern, general concept of communication was, in part, a response to nineteenth-century analog technologies (Peters 1999); current debates about the concept of media may be a response to twentieth-century digital technologies. This interplay of social and conceptual changes has been called a double hermeneutics (Giddens 1984): changing social realities challenge research to deliver new interpretations and explanations – which, in turn, may change society, for example, through the design and regulation of media.


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  3. Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  4. Jakobson, R. (1960). Closing statement: Linguistics and poetics. In T. A. Sebeok (ed.), Style in language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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  10. Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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