Gatekeeping Theory

Lewin's Theory of Channels and Gate Keepers

A basic premise of gatekeeping is the selection process by which some items are selected and others rejected.— Kurt Lewin

The theory of channels and gate keepers was devised by social psychologist Kurt LewinOpens in new window (1947b, 146) in the late 1940s to explain both the movement of items through multiple in-or-out decision points and the changes made in the process.

Lewin used the concept of gatekeeper to illustrate how widespread social changes could be achieved in a community. He emphasized about changing a population’s food habits, but his purpose more generally was to understand how psychologists can effect widespread social changes (1947a, p. 146).

In his analysis of food eating, LewinOpens in new window posits that not all members of the population are equally important in determining what is eaten, and he showed how influencing the person who orders or shops for food could change the food habits of the entire family. He concluded that social change can best be accomplished by concentrating on those people with the most control over food selection for the home.

Lewin conceptualized two channels by which food reaches the family table. One channel begins at the grocery store, and another might begin in the family garden.

The Figure underneath depicts Lewin’s Gatekeeping Model. It illustrates how channels may be subdivided into sections, and the beginning of each section represents an action point. For example, in the grocery channel, the first three sections involve discovering the food at the grocery store, buying it, and transporting it home. These sections include multiple decision points.

chiasmus diagram showing abba pattern
Lewin’s gatekeeping model shows how food items pass through two channels on their way to the family table. Channels are divided into sections, and at the front of each is a gate that regulates movement through the channel. Forces on both sides of the gate can either constrain or facilitate the movement of items through channels (Lewin 1947a, p. 1440).

Food traveling along the garden channel begins with buying choice seeds or plants from a garden store and planting them. As the fruits and vegetables grow, some are weeded out, some are eaten in the garden by insects or hungry children, and others may fail from lack of rain or inadequate fertilizer.

Therefore, of the tons of fruits and vegetables available to the household; a bunch of them languish on the vine or branch; only fewer proportions are ultimately harvested and delivered to the kitchen table.

At this decision point, food from the grocery and garden channels merge and flow into the kitchen channel—here, there are series of sections and gates which prompts new decisions.

Should the food be refrigerated or put in the pantry?

The cook must consider that choosing an improper storage facility may cause food to rot in the refrigerator or languish in the deep recesses of the pantry.

Next, from the available food, the cook decides what to select for a given day—as some food varieties may get spoilt if not consumed immediately. The cook also decide whether (and how) to cook the food or to pass it through raw to the next section, preparation for the table. Finally, the cook places and stages the food on the table, ready for the family to eat (Lewin, 1947a, p. 144).

Ultimately at every section, some food is bound to be selected or rejected, but even more importantly the process of moving down the channel changes the food. Vegetables are cut up, steak is prepared rare or well done, potatoes are fried or baked.

We conclude, therefore, that gatekeeping involves not only the selection or rejection of items, but also the process of changing them in ways to make them more appealing to the final consumer.

If we think of the final decision point as whether the food is eaten, we can see that even the colors of food items and how they are placed on the platter can affect whether they are eaten. Even their environmental context is important. A nice tablecloth, candles and low lighting create a context in which food may be more appreciated.

As indicated in the Figure above, channels are divided into sections. Lewin named the entrance to each section of a channel a gate. At the front of each gate is a gatekeeper or a set of impartial rules that regulates movement within channel sections (Lewin, 1951, p. 186).

For example, some food never gets into the grocery channel because of the buying decisions or policies of the store manager/gatekeeper, and each shopper/gatekeeper walks down some rows and so misses some items.

From among those items that the shopper sees, some items are bought and others rejected, perhaps because of a family custom about eating certain food items.

Although most purchased food is transported successfully to the household (transportation section), part of it may be eaten along the way and some perishables may be ruined in transit.

Once in the home, the cook/gatekeeper evaluates whether the food should be cooked, how to prepare it, and whether to offer it to the family.

An important aspect of Lewin’s theory is his idea that forces are at work controlling access to all sections within all channels by determining whether an item passes through a gate, a section of a channel.

These forces work for or against selection and also influence the processing of items. When a grocery shopper considers a food item for purchase, both positive and negative forces influence whether the food is put in the cart.

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Attractiveness is a positive force that encourages purchase, whereas high expense is a negative force that makes the shopper less likely to buy the item.

Lewin postulate further that forces can change polarity (from positive to negative or the reverse) once an item passes through the gate. A negative force on one side of the gate can become positive on the other and actually facilitate movement of the item through subsequent gates.

In addition, Lewin hypothesized that forces vary in strength, with stronger forces being more likely to move an item through a gate.

Therefore the concept of force is central to the theory: Forces occur throughout the channel, they range from positive to negative and can change polarity, plus they vary in strength between and within items.

For example, the decision to buy an expensive cut of meat may be difficult, because the decision is constrained by the high cost of the meat—It’s very expensive; should I buy it?

Once bought, however, the negative force can become positive and create a strong probability that the shopper makes sure that the meat will successfully pass through the remaining gates and reach the table—It’s so expensive; I must take extra care to transport, store, cook, prepare, and serve it carefully and well.

Because the forces before and following a gate differ in strength and polarity, whether an item passes through the channel depends on the forces on both sides of each gate.

Again, looking at the Figure above, arrows show how forces act to facilitate or constrain the passage of items either within a channel section or on both sides of a gate.

Forces are designated in italics; for example, ƒP EF1 represents the force associated with the attractiveness of the food within the buying section, and it helps the food move through the next gate into the transporting-to-home section.

Other forces are also present within the buying section, however, such as the force ƒP EF2, which represents the expense of the food item.

As the Figure shows, the high-expense force yields to a countervailing force of equal strength against spending money, ƒP, SpM, and thus it is unlikely that the food item will pass through to the next section.

Foods that do get into the “on way to home” section leave it with a force against wasting money, ƒP WM, which helps ensure that the food passes into the appropriate icebox or pantry section.

Lewin maintained that this gatekeeping model could be applied generally:

“This situation holds not only for food channels but also for the traveling of a news item through certain communication channels in a group, for movement of goods, and the social locomotion of individuals in many organizations” (Lewin, 1951, p. 187).

Gatekeeping is obviously an important concept used not only in communication but in a variety of disciplines. For example, primary care physicians are sometimes called gatekeepers for their role in controlling access to specialized physical and mental health care (Roberts & Greene, 2002).

Important Hint!  

Although the terms channel, section, and gate imply physical structures, it is clear that they are not objects at all but represents a process that describes when and how some items pass on their way, step by step, from discovery to use.

  • Sections correspond to things that occur in the channel, such as the copy-editing process.
  • Gates are decision or action points.
  • Gatekeepers determine both which units get into the channel and which pass from section, exercising their own preferences and/or acting as representatives to carry out a set of pre-established policies. They also decide whether to make changes in the item
— (From Gatekeeping Theory, Pamela J. Shoemaker, Timothy Vos).
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