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.


  1. Inquiry is a natural human activity; that is, people seek a general understanding about the world around them. We recognize that present circumstances affect future circumstances. We learn that getting an education will determine the amount of money we earn later in life.

  2. Much of what we know we know by agreement--rather than by experience. That is, we inherit a culture made up, in part, of accepted knowledge about the way the world works. (Our culture tells us who we are, so that we know where to go.) We learn from others that eating too much candy ruins our teeth. We learn from others that, by studying hard, people do well in their exams. We test some of the "truths," but accept the majority as things "everybody knows."

  3. By accepting what everybody knows, we save ourselves the task of starting from scratch. Tradition and authority are important sources of understanding. But tradition can be detrimental to human inquiry. If we seek a fresh understanding of something everybody already understands, we may be called fools. By the same token, authority can hinder human inquiry. We do well to trust the judgment of people who have special training and expertise in particular matters, especially in the face of contradictory positions, but sometimes experts err.

  4. The key to inquiry is observation. We can never understand the way things work without first having something to understand. Understanding through experience means making observations and seeking patterns or regularities in what we observe. For the most part, we move through life at an intuitive level, unconscious of particularities.

  5. In day-to-day inquiry, we often make mistakes. We "misread" signs, as it were. Science (our "model" for making these observations) offers some protection against such mistakes. Scientists try to avoid mistakes by making careful and deliberate observations, e.g., experiment, questionnaire, interview survey, and content analysis. Thus, making our observations more deliberate will reduce the number of errors we make.

  6. When we look for patterns among the things we observe around us, we often jump to conclusions on the basis of only a few observations. Scientists avoid overgeneralization via replication, the repeating of studies to determine their strengths and weaknesses. This means repeating a study, checking to see if we reach the same conclusions.

  7. Sometimes, after we've reached a conclusion, we ignore evidence that contradicts that conclusion, only paying attention to evidence that confirms it. That is, one danger of overgeneralization is that we engage in selective observation. As Babbie puts it, racial and ethnic prejudices grow out of selective observation. By contrast, scientists commit themselves in advance to a set of observations to be made, regardless of whether a pattern seems to be emerging early. They specify in their research designs the kind and the number of observations to be made.

  8. When confronted with contradictory evidence, we usually make up explanations to explain away the contradictions. Often, this involves making assumptions about facts not actually observed. As Babbie puts it, people often doubt the femininity of the woman who is tough-minded, logical, and unemotional in getting the job done. Concluding that she is not a "real" woman reaffirms the general conclusion that women are irrational and flighty. Scientists make further observations to test those assumptions.

  9. Sometimes, people simply reason illogically. One of the most remarkable creations of the human mind (Babbie) is the notion that "the exception proves the rule," an idea that makes no sense. An exception can draw attention to a rule, but in no system of logic can it "prove" the rule it contradicts. People often use this pithy saying to brush away contradictions--with a simple stroke of faulty logic. Scientists avoid this problem by being as careful and deliberate in their reasoning as in their observations. The public nature of science means that as a community scientists act as watchdogs, testing the work of other scientists.

  10. People often decide they understand some phenomenon and stop looking for explanations. The search for patterns and regularities is not a trivial intellectual exercise. It is tough. Our understanding of events often has psychological significance for us. That is, we want to be perceived as competent--socially and professionally. By contrast, scientists individually and as a community regard all issues as open. Science has been characterized as logico-empirical. That is, two pillars have defined science: (a) logic or rationality and (b) observation. Scientific theory deals with the logical aspect and research deals with the observational aspect of science.

  11. Traditionally, (social) scientific research has addressed what is, not what should be. These scientists have said that theory should not be confused with philosophy or belief. Taking their cue from eighteenth-century social philosophers, who mixed their observations of what happened around them with their ideas about how things ought to be, researchers working in the Critical Theory and the Cultural Studies traditions have challenged these notions.

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

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.

Humanistic Scholarship

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

Table 1

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.

Table 2

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.

Table 3
method / features / advantages

  1. Social survey / random samples; measured variables / representative; tests hypothesis

  2. Experiment / experimental stimulus; control group not exposed to stimulus / precise measurement

  3. Official Statistics / analysis of previously collected data / large datasets

  4. Structured Observation / observations recorded on predetermined schedule / reliability of observation

  5. Content Analysis / predetermined categories used to count the content of media products / reliability of measures

Source: Silverman, 2001, p. 27


  1. Quantitative research can amount to a "quick fix," involving little or no contact with people or the "field."

  2. Statistical correlations may be based on "variables" that, in the context of naturally occurring interaction, are arbitrarily defined.

  3. After-the-fact speculation about the meaning of correlations can involve the very common-sense process of reasoning that science tries to avoid.

  4. The pursuit of "measurable" phenomena can mean that unperceived values creep into research by simply taking on board highly problematic and unreliable concepts such as "delinquency" or "intelligence."

  5. While it is important to test hypotheses, a purely statistical logic can make the development of hypotheses a trivial matter and fail to help in generating hypotheses from data.

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.

Table 4
the main features of qualitative research

  1. A preference for qualitative data--understood simply as the analysis of words and images rather than numbers.

  2. A preference for naturally occurring data--observation rather than experiment, unstructured as opposed to structured interviews.

  3. A preference for meaning as opposed to behavior--attempting to document the world from the point of view of the people studied.

  4. A rejection of natural science as a model.

  5. A preference for inductive, hypothesis-generating research as opposed to hypothesis-testing, research.

Source: Silverman, 2001, p. 38

Social scientists view research problems through particular prisms or theoretical frameworks and they employ appropriate analytical methods or techniques to uncover the data needed to answer the research questions they have posed.

Table 5
term / meaning / relevance

  1. model

    an overall framework for looking at reality, e.g., behaviorism, feminism

  2. concept

  3. an idea deriving from a given model, e.g., stimulus-response

  4. theory

  5. a set of concepts used to define and/or explain some phenomenon

  6. hypothesis

  7. a testable hypothesis

  8. methodology

  9. a general approach to studying research topics

  10. method

  11. a specific research technique
    good fit with model, theory, hypothesis, and methodology

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.


  1. The term validity refers to the extent to which an empirical measure adequately reflects the real meaning of the concept under consideration.

    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.

  2. In the abstract, reliability is a measure is a matter of whether a particular techniques, applied repeatedly to the same object, yields the same result each time. Estimating a person's age by asking his or her friends would be less reliable than (a) asking the person or (b) checking his or her birth certificate.

    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).

  3. Researchers should not ignore the ethics of research.

    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.

Table 6

  1. Decide the purpose(s) of your research, e.g., self-advancement, political advocacy, and so on.

  2. Determine which individuals or group might be interested or affected by your research topic.

  3. Determine what the implications are for these parties of framing your research topic in the way you have.

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).

Works Cited

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.


  1. Why is it important to reflect on what one knows and how one knows it?

  2. Discuss the ways--positive and negative--tradition and authority impact our understanding. Give examples.

  3. What meanings does the term "inquiry" convey to you?

  4. Why can one say that "observation" is the key to any inquiry?

  5. What has "the search for patterns" got to do with inquiry?

  6. Distinguish scientific scholarship from humanistic scholarship. Give some examples.

  7. Identify some of the features that distinguish quantitative methods of research from qualitative methods of research.

  8. Define the following terms: concept, theory, hypothesis, theoretical framework, and analytical method. Give some examples.

  9. Why should we as researchers think about "validity" and "reliability" when designing and undertaking research projects?

  10. Why should we as researchers think about "ethics" when designing and undertaking research projects? Give some examples.

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