The Theorist of Mass Communication: Denis McQuail, 1935-2017


Denis McQuail, the British social scientist and foundational theorist in mass communication both through his scholarship and his hugely influential textbook McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, died on June 25. He was 82 years old.

A condolence message from Janet Wasko, president of the International Association for Media and Communication Research, notes that he died peacefully – and mentally active. “According to a note from his family, Denis McQuail remained sharp as ever, scribbling notes and thoughts about academic theory on the back of envelopes and scraps of paper right up to the end.”

As an academic, he came of age at the same time that mass media, specifically television, was taking on a role in daily life that exceeded any other past media. That created a fallow field for his research and theorizing. McQuail, reads a tribute from the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA), “met the standards of that old cliché ‘founding father’ better than almost anyone. …. Denis’ importance in our field cannot be overstated.” Piet Bakker, once a student of McQuail’s and now a lecturer at the J-Lab at the School of Journalism in Utrecht, wrote that his mentor put the subject “on the map.”

McQuail was born in London on April 12, 1935. He began his studies in history, earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Oxford in 1958. “I started out studying history but became quite dissatisfied by its seeming lack of relevance and lack of new ideas and impetus,” he told Social Science Space in 2012. “I discovered sociology and took a post-graduate conversion course to become a social scientist.”

That decision didn’t immediately position him as a communications researcher. “I went on to get a job in communication research, more or less accidentally (though I was interested in forms of media and had been influenced by the work of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams and by ideas emerging in the New Left movement). The opportunity to be a communication researcher was directly linked to the coming of commercial television in England. Granada TV founded a fellowship at Leeds University – partly for PR, and partly because Sidney Bernstein, the owner of Granada, was a socialist with a mission to contribute to and improve society. My first research interests focused on the political and cultural effects of television.” He earned his PhD from Leeds in 1967, with his thesis on “Factors affecting public interest in television plays.”

McQuail lectured on sociology at Leeds until 1977, when he took position as professor at the University of Amsterdam. (He also, according to Bakker, did work for the British government during the Cold War, studying Russian media. He spoke fluent Russian in addition to his native English and acquired Dutch.)

A stint at the Annenberg School of Communication in the United States, he told an interviewer with the Ideas Roadshow in 2013, sharpened his focus. “I got preoccupied with the possibility of pushing forward the idea of a sort-of communication science – a hopeless idea, really.” This preoccupation led him to first write about communication as a social process. Pressed on why the idea was a hopeless one, McQuail answered with a smile, “No one really wanted it; there was no home for it.”  Since the first question arose in the 1930s, academe had yet to agree on what communication really was, he explained, plus the subject itself didn’t fit neatly within existing disciplinary lines.

From this chaos McQuail helped created order, and was integral in defining the nascent communications discipline’s boundaries, which the ECREA eulogy noted:

“His overview volume Towards a Sociology of Mass Communications, published in 1969, and the collection he put together in Sociology of Mass Communications which came out in 1972, were both seminal in forging the field, then so rudimentary, in the UK. At some distance now we can see not only how original these books were but also how what in retrospect looks easy to accomplish was achieved when no clear oversight of the field existed, and in that sense their originality and influence are immense.”

As he would tell Social Science Space, “The development of sociology as a social science flowered in the 60s and enriched the study of communication in a number of important ways, as did the new critical perspective that was also injected into the study of communication.” Before that time, what research there was into mass communication in the 1950s depicted a landscape where “the media were somehow harmful,” and so communication research focused on abating that harm. “The field now,” he concluded, “has a certain intellectual autonomy in which it can define its own view of what its problems are.”

One of his key contributions centered on refining theories on the understanding of uses and gratification of and from the media – information, personal identity, integration/social interaction, and entertainment. His views took on added gravitas as the Internet made its culture-changing inroads. New media, he observed, ultimately adopted most of the techniques for persuasion and exploitation common in the old media.

It is worth noting that when McQuail went to Amsterdam in 1977 he was unusual at the time in being a British academic taking a permanent post on the Continent. He would cement that cross-Channel tie in 1986 when he, Karl-Erik Rosengren and Jay Blumler co-founded the European Journal of Communication (published by SAGE Publishing), which has been described as “a key shop window for so much that is best in scholarship and research in our field.”

In the journal’s introductory editorial, McQuail and his co-editors wrote presciently that “we do appear to be entering a new stage in the development of techniques of reproducing, storing, distributing, exchanging and accessing messages. The changes under way promise or threaten to disturb the established order of public communication based on print and conventional radio and television broadcasting.” The journal’s debut, they said, was “not completely unrelated” to this sea change.

At the time of his death McQuail was editor emeritus of the journal. He had also been a founding member of the Euromedia Research Group.

The capstone of his academic contributions was his Mass Communication Theory (later renamed McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory), a textbook first released by SAGE Publishing after SAGE’s founder, Sara Miller McCune, herself commissioned the first edition – by telegram!

“It was first published in 1983,” noted ECREA, “subtitled ‘an introduction,’ and ran to a modest 245 pages, compared to the daunting 621 pages of the current edition. The book reigns supreme, and is almost certainly never to be paralleled, not just in our field but as a guiding and insightful text for any field in the social and human sciences.” The book, said Mark Deuze, a former student of his and now a media professor at Indiana University, “is not just a seminal text in the study of media and society – it is a benchmark for understanding and appreciating the long and winding road people and their media have taken to get us here.” Deuze has been working on  – with McQuail’s’ blessing – a seventh  edition for McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, expected to publish at end of 2018.

Now in its sixth edition, McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory has sold more than 120,000 copies and been translated into 22 languages. “This is a unique work tested by time and generations of students around the world – north, south, east and west,” said Kaarle Nordenstreng of the University of Tampere.

Those who worked with McQuail, such as his publishers at SAGE, were struck by his demeanor as much as his scholarship. “Denis McQuail,” said Stephen Barr, president of SAGE International, “was not only one of the most distinguished scholars in the social sciences but also one of the most friendly and modest. Working with Denis was always a pleasure, whether on a new edition of Mass Communication Theory or on the editing of the European Journal of Communication. He combined a deep commitment to excellence in academic research with an easygoing manner, which made his formidable intelligence seem approachable and accessible.

“We at SAGE are grateful to have had the chance to work with Denis over many years.  We will miss him.”

The textbook was by no means McQuail’s only influential writing – recall his sociology-oriented texts — nor even his only influential book for SAGE. He wrote widely on political communication, media policy and on audiences, and apart from his most recent edition of McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory his most recent book for SAGE was Journalism and Society from 2013. Other notable texts included 1982’s Communication Models (co-authored with Sven Windahl) and 1997’s Audience Analysis and 2003’s Media Accountability and Freedom of Publication.

As some of those titles suggest, McQuail maintained a lively interest in wider issues of mass communication is politics and the role of media as an honest broker. His 1961 book with Joseph M. Trenaman, Television and the Political Image: A Study of the Impact of Television on the 1959 General Election, set the template for the lifetime of practical work he conducted concurrently with his theorizing. SAGE’s Barr said McQuail recognized the profound importance of the media to the functioning of a healthy democracy and was a strong advocate of an independent media to preserve a robust public sphere. Demonstrating that commitment was McQuail’s work for the 1977 Royal Commission on the Press in the UK. “His analysis of press content conducted remains one of the most thorough and indicative of its kind,” recalled the ECREA tribute.

While he took early retirement in 1997, he continued as emeritus professor at Amsterdam and was a visiting professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Southampton. In 2006, the Amsterdam School of Communication Research created the Denis McQuail Award to recognize the best peer-reviewed article in communication theory each year.

In his last years, and in particular after the death of his wife Rosemary in 2014, McQuail found travel difficult yet still maintained an active academic presence through digital media, such as giving lectures via Skype and his iPad.

“This ‘friendly giant’ in the field of media and communication research has had (and will continue to have) a profound impact on many students and scholars all around the world,” Dueze wrote in a Facebook post.”In part, this is because of the scope of his work. Particularly his books count as encyclopedic, while always impeccably organized and structured. In perhaps even greater part, this is because of his personality.”


Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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