Open Access

Media studies, Le Bon’s psychology of crowds, and qualitative-normative research on propaganda, 1880–2020

   | Jun 21, 2023


The unexpected change in the way media researchers frame the Internet – from a utopia of free speech in the 1990s to a nightmare of spreading propaganda and disinformation in the 2010s – is reminiscent of the founding period of the field in 1880–1920. It was then that, because of the birth of the modern cultural-industrial media system that was put into large-scale propaganda use by governments and other social actors, the foundations of propaganda studies were laid. This is why the work of Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931) acquired new actuality. In Psychology of Crowds, first published in 1895, Le Bon suggested an explanation for why some people resort to propaganda and why others believe in it. This paper tracks the development of this research tradition from Le Bon to Walter Lippmann, Theodor W. Adorno, and – following the interlude of cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s – the present day. In conclusion, a methodology for explaining the evolution of media studies is advanced, using qualitative-normative propaganda analysis as an illustration.