Schema theory seeks to explain our interpretation of
the world from a psychological perspective which stems
from cognitive science.
Schemas (or schemata) are cognitive structures, rather like
mental templates or 'frames', that represent a person's knowledge
about objects, people or situations.
Schemas are derived from prior experience and knowledge.
They simplify reality, setting up expectations about what
is probable in relation to particular social and textual
We use schemas to organize our knowledge, to assist recall,
to guide our behaviour, to predict likely happenings and to help
us to make sense of our current experiences.
According to schema theory, our interpretation of television
programmes is guided by our application of relevant social and
A schema can be envisaged as a kind of framework with 'slots'
for 'variables', some of them filled-in and others empty.
The slots are either filled in already with compulsory
values (e.g. that a dog is an animal) or 'default values' (e.g.
that a dog has four legs) or are empty (optional variables)
until 'instantiated' with values from the current situation (e.g.
that the dog's colour is black).
When what seems like the most appropriate schema is activated,
inferences are generated to fill in any necessary but inexplicit
details with assumed values from the schema.
If no relevant schema is retrieved from long-term memory a
new schema is created. Explicit events and inferences, as well
as new schemas, are stored in long-term memory.
Schema-driven processing is a top-down perceptual process
which guides a selective search for data relevant to the expectations
set up by the schema.
Schema-driven processing interacts with bottom-up data-driven
processes (which may lead to the activation, modification or generatation
of a schema).
Schema theory is consistent with the notion of both perception
and recall as constructive and selective cognitive
Schemas are culturally-specific: schemas for common routines
vary socio-culturally - even within a single country.
There are several kinds of schemas. In relation to television,
these are most commonly divided into those relating to either
knowledge of the world (social schemas concerning events,
places and people) or knowledge of the medium (textual
schemas including 'formal features' of television such as cuts).
Narrative and genre conventions are sometimes offered
as a third category (e.g. Collins 1981), but it is difficult to
justify separating knowledge of these from knowledge of formal
features of the medium.
I will promote to my own third category ideological schemas
(the concept itself being derived from Biocca, 1991).
The most well-known kind of schema is that for a familiar
event (such as going to a restaurant).
This is usually called a script (sometimes an event
schema or a scenario).
Scripts consist of a sequential list of the characteristic
events involved in a common routine.
They also include related props (such as menus), roles
(such as waiter), enabling conditions (such as having
money) and outcomes (such as feeling less hungry).
Scripts are sometimes subdivided into 'scenes' (such as entering,
ordering, eating and leaving a restaurant).
Scripts are, of course, culturally-variable.
Role schemas embody knowledge about sets of behaviours
that are expected of people in particular social positions (e.g.
occupation, age, race, gender). Stereotypes can be seen
as role schemas for members of an identifiable group. They include
gender stereotypes and racial stereotypes, but are not always
Person schemas contain knowledge about different types
of people, including their personality traits and goals. They
often refer to associated contexts.
There are schemas for places such as an office or a
kitchen (Mandler confusingly calls these scene schemas).
Such location schemas include inventories of typical
contents and conventional layouts or spatial relationships.
A story schema represents our expectations about the
way in which narratives (of various kinds) conventionally proceed.
Story schemas are sometimes distinguished from story grammars
- the underlying textual structures of formulaic narratives
(stories consist basically of settings and episodes).
Genre schemas organize knowledge about related kinds
of texts (such as news bulletins and advertisements), including
their structures and functions (such as to inform or persuade).
Individuals differ in their familiarity with what semioticians
call the 'codes' of particular genres (according to such factors
as age, ethnicity and social background).
In relation to television (as with any other medium), there
are also schemas for the 'formal features' (editing and camerawork
conventions) of the medium (such as cuts and zooms).
Mediating, in my view, between 'real-world' (social) and 'textual'
schemas are ideological schemas (see Biocca 1991).
Ideological schemas may also be closely linked to self-schemas
(usually classified as one of the social schemas); people use
self-schemas to organize knowledge about themselves. The
self-schema is part of a viewer's own primary ideology (Biocca
Ideological schemas involve inferences about ideological assumptions
implicit in media texts.
They relate to the perceived intentions of programme-makers
(within generic functions such as to inform, educate, persuade
In applying ideological schemas viewers assess whether or
not the inferred world-view and ideology of a programme reflect
For children a parallel here is perhaps in assessing the reality
status of texts.
Biocca, Frank (1991): 'Viewers' Mental Models of Political
Messages: Toward a Theory of the Semantic Processing of Television'.
In Frank Biocca (Ed.): Television and Political Advertising,
Vol. 1: Psychological Processes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum, pp. 27-89
Collins, W Andrew (1981); 'Schemata for Understanding Television'.
In H Kelly and H Gardner (Eds.): New Directions for Child Development:
Viewing Children Through Television, No. 13. San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, pp. 31- 45