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In 1964, when Canadian educator and social theorist Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media appeared, the terms medium and media were generally understood in the sense of intermediary or intermediate. The media were not recognized as a subject of study; reviewers and teachers cautioned that the word was obscure and needed definition. McLuhan’s radical observation was that it is the medium (not the program content) that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action:
The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium. (McLuhan 1964, p. 8)
This is essentially a sociological outlook, though it has not been adopted by that field. Yet Understanding Media did serve to found the field of media study in North America and ultimately throughout the world.
Among its groundbreaking insights were that some media involve the user deeply (“cool media”), while others (“hot media”) do not: The involvement takes place on the sensory level, below consciousness. For example, the movie viewer must supply all of the movement that occurs on the screen between frames while the screen is black. The television viewer or computer user supplies most of the mosaic image from moment to moment and nearly all of the color. These effects, which occur independently of the content or uses, shape the sensory preferences of the users and supply new perceptual biases that affect how they construe their cultures and societies.
McLuhan was the first to study advertising seriously: In his first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), he called advertising the “Folklore of Industrial Man.” This work applies then-new critical techniques (practical criticism, developed in England) for the first time to ads and other facets of North American popular culture. McLuhan followed it with Culture Is Our Business (1970), a companion study of advertising after television.
The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) delved into the manner in which print and the press reshaped culture and sensibility in the centuries that followed their introduction and showed how to study the social-environmental actions of new media. Take Today: The Executive as Dropout (1972) examined the effects of electric media on management practice and business culture.
Laws of Media: The New Science (1988), written with his son Eric, sought to place McLuhan’s style of environmental media study on a scientific basis for the first time. In it, the authors proposed that four invariable laws govern the action of all media—and also of all human artifacts. Briefly, every human artifact extends or amplifies some process or faculty; obsolesces some established pattern; reinvigorates or retrieves some older, previously obsolesced form that now returns in a new shape or guise; and reverses its characteristics when pushed to its limit. The four laws exhibit an inner relation to each other as A is to B as C is to D.
During his life, McLuhan was a controversial figure, not least because his techniques of media study departed so radically from the established methods, which focused on content analysis and research into the desires and motivations of audiences. McLuhan, in contrast, approached media study from the angle of perception and changes in sensibility occasioned by media as forms and as extensions of the users’ senses. Although McLuhan’s work remains controversial, his techniques work as well now as they did in his time, to the chagrin of those who have tried to apply them superficially, without first understanding how perception is modified by media.
- McLuhan, M 1951. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: Vanguard.
- McLuhan, M 1962. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
- McLuhan, M 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- McLuhan, M 1970. Culture Is Our Business. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- McLuhan, M 1999. The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, eds. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek. Toronto, ON: Stoddart.
- McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fior 1967. The Medium is the Massage. New York: Random House.
- McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fior 1968. War and Peace in the Global Village: An Inventory of Some of the Current Spastic Situations That Could Be Eliminated by More Feedforward. New York: Random House.
- McLuhan, Marshall, and Eric McL 1988. Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
- McLuhan, Marshall, and Barrington N 1972. Take Today: The Executive as Dropout. New York: Harcourt.
- McLuhan, Marshall, and Harley Parker. Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. New York: Harper.
- McLuhan, Marshall, and Wilfred W 1970. From Cliché to Archetype. New York: Viking.
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