James Watson and Anne Hill see functional theory as a component of the Hypodermic Needle model of communication, in which "the mass media have a direct, immediate and influential effect upon audiences by 'injecting' information into the consciousness of the masses" (1997, p.105). One would then think that functional theory, generally, is a model of communication which views audiences of mass media as impressionable groups primed and ready for whatever message one wishes them to receive. But the simplistic view of early communications research, according to Watson and Hill, is what doomed early communication theories to failure (1997, p.105).


This, then, is where functional theory has its origins. Functional theory is rooted in the realm of sociology, and seems to serve as a counterbalance to Hovland's psychologically-based effects theory. Hovland argued that the mass media had 'strong effects' on its audience, that is, that the media compelled an individual to act in a specific way in response to a given message. Hovland's effects theory fits the simplistic Hypodermic Needle model, where the media is a massive force and the audience is a cluster of helpless marionettes waiting for the media to pull the strings.


Functional theory is "a refinement of the Hypodermic Needle model" (Watson and Hill 1997, p.162) in which the audience is not influenced simply by the 'strong effects' of the media, but rather by opinion leaders in different segments of society that serve as information filters and culture brokers to specific populations in a given society.


For more on the origins and specific workings of functional theory, click here.


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