Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Lasswell and Hall – Power and Meaning in Media

Posted on | March 6, 2019 | No Comments

Harold Dwight Lasswell was one of the founding influences on the formation of the study of communication, media studies, and sociology. Stuart Hall was a Rhodes Scholar from Jamaica who helped pioneer an area of research at Birmingham Open University coined “British Cultural Studies.” Both contributed significantly to media studies during their tenures, and some of their contributions can be discussed by examining the phrase, first stated by Lasswell:

“Who, says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effect?”

Lasswell Model of Communication

Published in his 1948 essay, “The Structure and Function of Communication in Society,” the Lasswell model was easy to understand and works for various communication and media activities.[1] Noted for its emphasis on effects – how a message influences an audience member- psychology-oriented scholars picked it up to examine the media’s influence on human behaviors, including consumption, violence, and voting. It was coined just after the Second World War, when radio was still dominant, and social scientists were interested in the dramatic impacts of propaganda and advertising. Radio was important in mobilizing Allied and Axis populations during the 1930s.

The Lasswell model was often criticized for stressing linear, one-way information flows. Feedback and message-disturbing “noise” were not stressed, as they would be in new areas of study called cybernetics (Wiener, Forrester) and information theory (Shannon and Weaver). Hall offered another criticism: the Lasswell model minimized the role of power in the communication process.

Hall reworked Lasswell’s formula: “Who has the power, in what channels, to circulate which meanings, to whom (with what effect)?” He wanted us to examine the meanings of images in such a way as to show how different interests work to hold a preferred interpretation of that image. What organizations (news media, industry boards, advertising, government, etc.) and areas of specialization (journalism, medicine, finance, etc.) have the power to enforce and police such meanings?

Drawing on the academic area of semiotics, Hall emphasized that because the meanings in images are fundamentally flexible and fluid, “power” works to arrest or fix the meanings associated with the image. Brand management, political communication, and public relations are primarily about establishing a set understanding of media images and continually policing their interpretations.

Here is some of a lecture by Stuart Hall (see entire video) where he discusses how culture gives meaning to things. He argues that the human tendency to build maps of intelligibility and create classification systems jointly, works to create “commune”-ication. What he calls “signifying practices” in media production, such as image composition, narration, and editing work to make meaningful narratives and stories. At the end of this clip, he challenges the Lasswell model. (See the Media Education Foundation (MEF) for the video’s transcript)[2]

Hall’s work was especially interested in the relationship between language, power, and social structures. One way power operates to secure preferred meanings is through systems of classification. Classification often involves the establishment of standards and norms. Standardized classification systems ensure consistency and comparability, promoting uniformity in practices, measurements, or descriptions. One of the most powerful returns from generative AI are sets of categories or classifications.

Organizing the world into categories helps maintain order by discerning distinct differences in things and making sure they stay in certain boxes. He was interested in how language and media contribute to classifying and categorizing individuals and groups, reinforcing or challenging power dynamics. It is important to realize that culture creates and maintains these categories through differentiation and control processes. These include antidotes, jokes, memes, metaphors, stories, etc.

For Hall, classification is generative. Once a system of classification is created, it provides a framework that simplifies the understanding and management of diverse elements by grouping them together. Items fall into place or out based on shared or dissimilar characteristics. Classification provides a framework that simplifies the understanding and management of diverse elements.

Classification serves to maintain the order of the overall structure. In the US, the category of the presidency has recently been challenged by a series of elected candidates that upset traditional notions of who is eligible. George W. Bush was the son a previous president, raising issues of nepotism. Barack Obama, being black, challenged many Americans’ sense of who was racially eligible to be in the “Oval Office.” More recently, Donald Trump, who never held elected office or ran a large organization, was considered by many to be unfit and unqualified to hold the office. These category fits are important to people and a major source of social strife in modern society.

Hall’s primary interest was cultural studies. He helped shift the the study of culture from high culture to popular culture. “Culture, he argued, does not consist of what the educated élites happen to fancy, such as classical music or the fine arts.” The value in such studies is that they can tell about other parts of society that have been marginalized. They can tell us things about how race, gender, and economic classes are rendered in modern society.[3]

His work on Race: The Floating Signifier is a classic on the fluidity of meanings associated with representations of race. Here he expands his work on classification, drawing on the area of semiotics. Semiotics is based on the study of signs, divided into signifiers and signified; the thing and its meaning. He used this approach to examine how culture influences the way we see race as part of a system of classification that is used to order society and the types of people within it.

For Hall, race has physical characteristics, primarily, hair and skin color. But a range of meanings and values are associated with races. He uses a concept by Mary Douglas, “matter out of place” to describe the implications of those classifications. In her Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), she argued that we constantly construct symbolic orders that evaluate and rank items and events. Hall recounts her example of dirt in the bedroom and dirt in the garden. One is “dirty” the other is natural. One is problematic and needs to be addressed at once, the other is invisible. A related example is the “back of the bus” that was allocated for black people during the height of segregation in the southern states of America.

For Hall, this is part of the Enlightenment’s project to bring all experience into observation and understanding. The panoptic view of Hall reiterates Michel Foucault’s admonition in Power/Knowledge (1980) that it is not so much that information is power, but rather, it is power that shapes information.[4][5]

Stuart Hall died on February 10, 2014. He was a major contributor to the creation of cultural studies, specifically the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies. He engaged the study of signs – semiotics – and warned that power secures preferred meanings. This keeps the understanding of images from sliding into other interpretations and thus empowering alternative groups or individuals who would benefit from another set of meanings.[6]


[1] Lasswell, H. D. (1948). “The Structure and Function of Communication in Society.” In L. Bryson (Ed.), The Communication of Ideas. (pp. 37-51). New York: Harper and Row.
[2] The transcript and the video Representation & the Media Produced & Directed by Dr. Sut Jhally. Edited by: Sanjay Talreja, Sut Jhally & Mary Patierno. Featuring a lecture by Stuart Hall Professor, The Open University and introduced by Sut Jhally University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Distributed by Media Education Foundation (MEF) that produces and “distributes documentary films and other educational resources to inspire critical thinking about the social, political, and cultural impact of American mass media.”
[3] Hsu, Hua. “Stuart Hall and the Rise of Cultural Studies.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 17 July 2017,
[4] Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Trans. Colin Gordon et al. New York: Pantheon.
[5] Mason, Moya K. Foucault and His Panopticon. 2019. Accessed March 6, 2019.
[6] Chandler, D. (2017) Semiotics for Beginners. Routledge.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2019, Mar 6). Lasswell and Hall – Power and Meaning in Media.


Note: Chat GPT was used for parts of this post. Multiple prompts were used and parsed.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2019, Mar 6). How Do Artificial Intelligence and Big Data Use APIs and Web Scraping to Collect Data? Implications for Net Neutrality.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea teaching broadband policy and the visual rhetoric of ICT. From 2002-2012 he was on the faculty of New York University where he taught digital media and information systems management. He also taught digital media at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, where he lives when not in the Republic of Korea.


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