Surveying the Field

While you're working on your intellectual biography, which is your attempt to situate yourself within the field, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the ideas that others have thought and the work that others have done before you; the theories that have inspired research, and the research that has generated new theory; the places and communities in which that research has taken place; and the uses to which it has been put. Surveying the field and studying its history not only enable you to build on the work that others have already done and open your eyes to the possibilities -- scholarly and creative -- that lie before you, but these tasks are also imperative if you are to be taken seriously as a scholar and an artist; inadvertently reinventing the wheel is a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot. And that would hurt.

Speaking of reinventing the wheel: Let's say you find an annoucement for an open call for an exhibition themed "Transportation," and you submit a piece that, in your mind, offers "new commentary on the blurred boundaries between static and the mobile"; your piece -- a bicycle wheel perched atop a stool -- unfortunately bespeaks your ignorance of art history (ever hear of Duchamp?), and brands you a dilettante (unless, of course, you claim to be "quoting" Duchamp, or reworking his work, as Dali did with the Mona Lisa). Or let's say you submit to Critical Studies in Mass Communication, a highly respected journal in the field, an article on women's consumption of romantic fiction without citing Janice Radway's Reading the Romance, one of the canonical texts in audience studies. The editorial board is likely to send back your paper with a big, red "reject" stamp on the front.

This isn't intended to scare you. You needn't fear history and precedent because there's so much of it to grapple with. Rather, think of it this way: knowing your "stuff" earns you credibility, and knowing how strong a foundation you're standing on helps you to build even higher than those who preceded you.

The point is that you've got to know what's already been done so you don't needlessly duplicate work that already exists. And by knowing what already exists, you know what holes still exist, what room remains for your contribution -- and you're therefore better equipped to make the case that your own project deserves funding, publication, and/or distribution.

In Chapters 3, 9, and 10 from Jensen's book -- the chapters on the relationships between social science and media studies, media effects, and audience research -- provided an overview of media and communication studies' relationships with the nascent mass media industry and social sciences, and the humanities -- and how those relationships evolved since the late nineteenth century.

Yes, these chapters focus primarily on academic and policy-based research -- but I challenge you to link the ideas presented here to work in media production and management. How has the work done within the academy impacted the world outside those hallowed halls (especially those "slap a coat of primer on the drywall" halls on the 12th floor @ 2 West 13th!). And if you think that there hasn't been enough cross-pollination between the academy, art, production, and management, do these chapters identify some lost opportunities? Is there "classical" or new work in the academic field that producers/managers/artists should tap into?

What follows are some of the key concepts and themes that Murdock and Jensen address:

[[Please note that I will occasionally pose questions that may inspire the comments you post to the online course. These "response prompts" will be identified with an "RP."]]

1) The difference between positivist and constructivist ways of understanding (J p. 42) and the difference between qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

Egon Guba and Yvonna Lincoln, in their "Paradigmatic Controversies, Contradictions, and Emerging Confluences," included in the The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd ed. (2005), identify the "basic beliefs" and "paradigm positions" of various forms of qualitative inquiry: positivism (objective accounts of the real world can be given), postpositivism (only partially objective accounts of the world can be produced, since all methods examining such accounts are flawed), critical theory, constructivism, and participatory action research (defined by "shared ownership of research projects, community-based analysis of problems, and an orientation toward community action) (Stephen Kemmis & Robin McTagart, "Participatory Action Research: Communicative Action and the Public Sphere In Denzin & Lincoln, Eds., The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd ed. (2005): 560) (Guba and Lincoln, pp. 195-6). I've combined Guba and Lincoln's chart with another offered by Dr. Karen Keifer-Boyd, of Penn State University, in her "Intro to Research in Art Education" course, to help us analyze the different ontologies, epistemologies, methodologies, criteria for evaluation, etc., of these various paradigms. Click on the thumbnail image to access a full-sized pdf of the chart.

2) The different roles played by those who study the media -- researchers, reporters, analysts, and activists -- and the different sectors in which those roles are played out (J pp. 41-4, 281-285). RP: How might these roles be intertwined in any given media "activity": producing a documentary, conducting research on media representations of minorities, studying the digital divide, reporting on the concentration of media ownership, developing media policy, etc.? Consider some of your own media projects: what role(s) do you play in those particular cases?

3) Some of the larger social and philosophical concerns that have inspired media research -- including the place of media in a democracy; the role of media in promoting dominant ideologies, both domestically (e.g., immigrant media) and abroad (e.g., cultural imperialism); media's role in cultivating particular worldviews or epistemologies (J pp. 150-151, see question 8 below); and the media's ability to affect audiences psychologically, physically, etc. (J p. 51, Ch. 9, see question 8 below). RP: Are there any social or philosophical concerns that are unique to the late 20th-early 21st centuries that media researchers or producers do, or should, concern themselves with? What might be the best strategies to address those concerns?

4) Various methodologies or techniques used to address particular questions in media research, e.g., eye-tracking (J p. 143) and other experimental methodologies (J p. 151), "natural" experiments (J p. 154), "semi-automatic" techniques (p. 143), quantitative content analysis (J pp. 49, 146), surveys (J p. 141), diaries (J p. 143), discourse analysis (J p. 155), case studies (J p. 50), focus group (J p. 53), interviewing (J p. 161), participant observation (J p. 161), ethnomethodology (J p. 56), thick description (J p. 51). RP: What has the rise of media "ethnography" contributed to the discipline -- theoretically and methodologically? Are we, in media studies, justified in calling ourselves ethnographers (J pp. 164-166)? We'll address these questions later in the semester, in two lessons on media ethnography.

5) The shift from macrosocial analysis (e.g., mass society theory, political economy [J pp. 46, 56-7], structural functionalism [J p. 55]), in which researchers look at the media's role in and impact on large social bodies or communities, to microsocial analysis (e.g., audience studies, cultural studies [J pp. 52, 57]), in which researchers address the relationship between media and individidual audience members, readers, listeners, etc. Mills's claim that the social sciences are unique in their ability to examine phenomena at both the social and the individual scale, and the field's focus on providing social and historical context (J p. 55). RP: How might we explain this shift in focus? What methodologies lend themselves best to the macrosocial and microsocial approaches?

6) The history of theories central to the study of audiences: social and cultural capital (J p. 52), uses and gratifications (J p. 53), situated experience & phenomenology (J pp. 54, 56, 160-162, 163-164, 169), "the text" (J pp. 167-169), open/closed texts (J p. 167), decoding (J pp. 162-3), polysemy (J p. 167), interpretive communities (J p. 167), refusal and resistance (J p. 57), media as "objects-to-think-with" (J p. 169). RP: How, and for whom, might the insights this research generates be used... to improve media content and incite changes in media policy? improve advertisers' effectiveness and effciency (see Shutt, "Research and the Movies")? inform media producers' creative process? empower media consumers? support activist efforts?

7) RP: Which of these three foci of reception studies -- "the everyday contexts of media use; the decodings or textual interpretations of media content; and audience uses of this content as a resource in other social contexts" -- lend themselves to qualitative or quantitative approaches? What kinds of questions could you answer with each kind of methodology, and what kinds of answers could those methods provide?

8) The history of media effects research (J pp. 139-140, 158-160) and its component theories: diffusion (material and discursive availability) (J pp. 138-142, 148-9), agenda-setting (J pp. 145-146), framing (J pp. 146, 149-150), priming (J p. 146), cultivation (J pp. 150-1), "media logic" (J p. 155), propaganda & campaigns (J pp. 147-8), recall (J pp. 144-5), uses and gratifications (J pp. 142-4), socialization (J pp. 151-2). RP: Again, how, and for whom, might the insights this research generates be used?

For more information on how media research has been applied in particular industry contexts, see the following:

  • Roger D. Wimmer and Joseph R. Dominick, “Research in the Print Media,” “Research in the Electronic Media,” “Research in Advertising,” “Research in Public Relations,” “Research in Media Effects,” “Mass Media Research and the Internet” In Mass Media Research: An Introduction 7th Ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003): 305-443.


Image Credit: Robert Mankoff, Ed., The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2004).