COMS 441: CULTURAL STUDIES IN COMMUNICATIONS surveys the major approaches to the study of human communication in the Critical Theory and Cultural Studies traditions, including (a) ideology critique, (b) political economy, (c) ethnography, and (d) narrative inquiry, with a view to understanding how meaning or understanding is produced and reproduced in our society. We consider the theoretical and the methodological issues at the heart of the field, emphasizing the intellectual context in which the scholars we study developed these research approaches and apply them to specific cultural texts and activities. This unit offers an introduction to the course, starting with a review of a number of truisms about "inquiry" and "knowing," themes that run through the course. Ultimately, our goal is to understand how selected scholars working in the Critical Theory and the Cultural Studies traditions came to "know" and to "explain" the social and cultural phenomena they studied. We then focus on distinguishing quantitative research from qualitative research. In this way we will sharpen our skills, making us more conscious, rigorous, and explicit in our inquiries.
Source: Babbie, 1986, pp. 5-25
As we have seen, the term "inquiry" means the systematic, disciplined ordering of experience that leads to the development of knowledge. The word "know" in knowledge includes knowing that something is the case (philosophers distinguish between knowledge and belief); knowing some person or feeling; and knowing to how do something. What interests us is the first usage. The conduct of inquiry involves a planned method. We should note that inquiry has an expected outcome (see Littlejohn, 1992, p. 8; hereafter cited by page number only). It has been argued (Miller and Nicholson, 1976) that most scholars move through the following stages when they engage in inquiry:
Experience shows that this process is interactive, that is, inquiry does not move from one stage to another in a linear fashion (p. 9).
Of course, different methods of observation lead to different kinds of theories or explanations of phenomena. For convenience, we can group these approaches into the following forms of scholarship: scientific, humanistic, and social scientific.
Scientific scholarship is associated with objectivity, by which we mean standardization. The scientist tries to look at the world in such a way that other observers, using the same methods, see the same thing in a given situation. The replication of a study is supposed to yield identical results. Typically, science sees the world as having structure apart from differences between individual observers. As well, scientists assume that the world sits in wait of discovery. If all trained observers report the same results, we can conclude that the phenomenon has been accurately observed.
By contrast, humanistic scholarship is associated with subjectivity. Science aim to standardize observation; the humanities seek creative individuality. Typically, humanists are more interested in individual cases than in generalized theory. Science focuses on the discovered worlds; the humanities focus on the discovering person. The humanities scholar tends not to separate the knower from the known; thus, she believes that who one is determines what one sees. It should be pointed out that the differences mentioned here relate to the primary thrust of the two groups of scholarship; we can always find points of crossover.
Social Scientific Scholarship
Social Scientific scholarship includes elements of science and the humanities, yet it differs from both. Social scientists study human behavior, that is, they try to interpret patterns of human behavior. To understand human behavior, the scholar must observe it. If behavioral patterns do exist, then observation must be as objective as possible. Once the behavioral phenomena are accurately observed, they must be explained. Controversy about the nature of inquiry into human life is common in social science. Can scientific explanation of human behavior take place without a consideration of the humanistic knowledge of the observed person?
In the following sections, we develop the distinctions between "quantitative" research and "qualitative" research, as it has been practised by researchers working in the Critical Theory and the Cultural Studies traditions. Scholars working in these traditions borrow the research methods or analytical techniques employed by social science scholars primarily.
Source: Littlejohn, 1992, pp. 9-11
hard / soft
fixed / flexible
objective / subjective
value-free / political
survey / case study
hypothesis testing / speculative
abstract / grounded
Source: Silverman, 2001, p. 26
One might well get the impression that quantitative research was superior, because it is value-free, but clearly these terms signify different things to different people.
Most researchers in the social sciences, i.e., anthropology, communications studies, economics, geography, political sciences, psychology, and sociology, employ a line of inquiry that is (a) public, (b) objective, (c) empirical, (d) systematic and cumulative, and (e) predictive in nature. Around the turn of the twentieth century, John Dewey (1859-1952), the philosopher of pragmatism, devised six steps for developing (in a logical way) sound solutions to problems.
1. recognize the problem
2. formulate the research question and deduce a possible explanation or hypothesis
3. select the appropriate approach or plan of action for measuring the data
4. implement the plan of action
6. readjust the planned solution in light of the feedback accumulated in step 5.
Source: Silverman, 2001, p. 27
Source: Silverman, 2001, p. 31
Many scholars use the terms quantitative research and qualitative research as if they were positive and negative labels, the one suggesting that the researcher uses statistical techniques and the other suggesting that the researcher uses interpretive techniques.
As David Silverman (2001, p. 25; hereafter cited by page number only) puts its, these terms are misleading, and choosing between these research methods should depend upon what the research is trying to discover. That is,
What the researcher has to bear in mind is the fact that, ultimately, scholars evaluate quantitative and qualitative research methods differently. Table 5 (below) features some of the terms employed to evaluate research methods.
Qualitative researchers remind us that we should not assume that the techniques used by quantitative research are the only ways of establishing the validity of findings from qualitative or field research (p. 32). That is, a number of practices which originate from quantitative studies may be inappropriate to qualitative research. These include the assumptions that social science research can be valid only if based on experimental data, official statistics, or the random sampling of a population.
Source: Silverman, 2001, p. 38
an overall framework for looking at reality, e.g., behaviorism, feminism
Source: Silverman, 2001, pp. 3-4
Models provide an overall framework for how we observe reality. They identify the basic elements ("ontology") and describe the nature and the status of knowledge ("epistemology"). We think of models as "paradigms." In some research, these can be
Concepts are clearly defined ideas deriving from a particular model. They include
Concepts offers researchers ways of looking at the world.
Theories arrange sets of concepts for the purpose of defining and explaining some phenomenon. A theory consists of plausible relationships between concepts and sets of concepts. A theory enables us to understand such phenomenon as "gender," "personality," "talk," or "space." That is, a theory provides a framework for critically understanding phenomena and a basis for considering how what is known might be organised.
Researchers test hypotheses, e.g., how we receive advice is linked to how advice is given. In many qualitative studies, researchers produce hypotheses during the early stages of a project. We assess a hypothesis by its validity or truth.
By methodology we mean the choices researchers make regarding data-gathering methods. The term defines how we will go about studying a given phenomenon. We think of qualitative and quantitative methodologies.
By methods, we mean specific research techniques. These include quantitative techniques, such as statistical correlations, as well as qualitative techniques, such as participant observation. Behaviorists tend to favor quantitative methods and interactionists tend to favor qualitative methods, e.g., observation, depending upon the hypothesis being tested.
Two major tendencies make life difficult for would-be social scientists: (1) failing to distinguish research problems and the social problems that are discussed in the media and (2) taking on impossibly large research problems.
In the experimental examination of attitudes such as prejudice, e.g., an audience is shown a film and asked to respond to a questionnaire--we face a special practical problem relating to validity. It is possible that the subjects in this experiment would respond to our questionnaire differently the second time, even if their attitudes remained unchanged. That is, the subjects may have been unaware of the purpose of the study the first time. By the time of the second measurement, the respondents may have figured out that the researchers were interested in measuring their prejudice. Since no one wishes to be perceived as prejudiced, the subjects may well "clean up" their answers.
Reliability problems crop up in many forms in social research. Survey researchers have known for a long time that different interviewers get different answers from different respondents as a result of their own attitudes and demeanor. If we were to conduct a study of editorial positions on some public issue, we might create a team of coders to take on the job of reading hundreds of editorials and classifying them in terms of their position on the issue. Different coders would code the same editorial differently (pp. 109-11).
The German sociologist Max Weber (1946) pointed out that all research is contaminated to some extent by the values of the researcher. From an ethical perspective, Weber was fortunate in that much of his empirical research was based on documents and texts already in the public sphere (p. 54).
In many other kinds of research, researchers confront difficult ethical issues. Both quantitative and qualitative researchers studying human subjects ponder the dilemma of wanting to give full information to the people they study while trying not to "contaminate" their research by telling subjects too much about the research. The researcher's responsibility is to protect the human subject, physically and psychologically.
Source: Silverman, 2001, p. 55
As Silverman puts it, dichotomies or polarities in the social sciences can be highly dangerous. At best, they are pedagogic devices for introducing a difficult field; at worst they serve as excuses for not thinking (p. 40).
Babbie, Earl. 1986. The Practice of Social Research. 4th edn. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Miller, Gerald E., and Henry Nicholson. 1976. Communication Inquiry. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Silverman, David. 2001. Interpreting Qualitative Data: Methods for Analyzing Talk, Text, and Interaction. 2nd edn. London: Sage Publications.
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