Temporality and Political Communication Research

by Daniel Kreiss

In “Politics as Cultural Practice” Michael Schudson stated that one of his methodological precepts is to locate things in time.  The question that Schudson says students of social life should ask themselves is: “Is the conclusion I am coming to about this phenomenon true generally, or is it caused by something peculiar to this time and place?”

While Schudson’s magisterial history of political practice stops before the era of the Internet, he offers especially sage advice for scholars today.  Dave Karpf has recently and powerfully argued that:

“The Internet is unique among Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) specifically because the Internet of 2002 has important differences from the Internet of 2005, or 2009, or 2012. It is a suite of overlapping, interrelated technologies. The medium is simultaneously undergoing a social diffusion process and an ongoing series of code-based modifications. Social diffusion brings in new actors with diverse interests. Code-based modifications alter the technological affordances of the media environment itself…What was costly and difficult in 2004 is cheap and ubiquitous in 2008. That leads, in turn, to different practices. The Internet’s effect on media, social, and political institutions will be different at time X from that at time X + 1, because the suite of technologies we think of as the Internet will itself change within that interval.”

Karpf makes his argument in relation to the particular practices and affordances of the medium of the Internet, but as Schudson shows there is a broader point to be made about locating social and technological practices in time.  And yet despite works such as these, history, or modes of historical thinking, are generally absent from much of political communication research.  The center of the field is generally and resolutely concerned with uncovering universal laws (although few espouse that language directly) relating to psychological or sociological political communication processes, rather than considering how particular political communication practices and processes are rooted in a specific cultural context at a particular moment in time.

In this post, I want to think more explicitly about and add an additional dimension to locating political communication practices in history, suggesting the need to look closely at sequences and events as a methodological approach. Thomas Sewell has written eloquently about the need to bring historical thinking to bear on the theories and methods of social science, and vice versa.  In Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation, a brilliant book that compiles essays crafted over twenty years, Sewell compellingly argues that while social scientists have a rigorous understanding of social theory and an impressive array of methods for empirical inquiry, their explanations of social life often fail to account for the importance of temporality in the shaping of social processes.  Historians, by contrast, see heterogeneous time, where certain events are highly consequential in shaping the course of what comes after.  A related point is that sequences matter; the order of events and the processes that constitute those events shape outcomes. By implication, while the social scientist is at her best at explaining order and structure, accounting for change is often more difficult.

Sewell’s work has a number of implications for political communication research, particularly in terms of enabling scholars to construct richer objects of analysis. Sewell distinguishes between three conceptions of time in historical work – “teleological,” “experimental,” and “eventful” temporality – and argues in favor of the latter.

“Teleological” temporality “is the attribution of the cause of a historical happening neither to the actions and reactions that constitute the happening nor to concrete and specifiable conditions that shape and constrain the actions and reactions but rather to abstract transhistorical processes leading to some future historical state” (84). In general, this approach assumes that sociological and psychological laws will lead inexorably to some future state, that in turn explains the presence of the past.  For example, in much political communication research technological change and even changes in social structure often “are essentially assumed as ever-present and ever-rising forces, a kind of eternal yeast” (91).  On the other hand, an “experimental temporality” is a comparative method that freezes history “by cutting up the congealed block of historical time into artificially interchangeable units” (95).

An “eventful history,” by contrast, “recognizes the power of events in history”; it “is one that takes into account the transformation of structures by events” (100). There are three aspects of eventful histories in Sewell’s account: path dependence, causal heterogeneity, and contingency.   Path dependence means, generally, that earlier happenings affect the following sequence of events and outcomes (also see recent theoretical work on path dependence).  Causal heterogeneity means that causal mechanisms are not uniform and can be altered by events: “because the causalities that operate in social relations depend at least in part on the contents and relations of cultural categories, events have the power to transform social causality” (101).

Contingency means that outcomes cannot be deduced from general laws; they are dependent upon everything that came before and therefore are inherently unpredictable. For historians much of social life is contingent – whether a cause has an effect, and what that effect is, depends on the context within which it is introduced.  In political communication, for instance, whether a message has an effect not only depends on what the psychological characteristics of the recipient are, but when a person encounters that message, in what sequence with other messages, the context it is received in, the capacities the person has to act at a given moment, etc. Another way of saying this is that the causes are not inherent in the agent (or message) itself. There is what Sewell calls “causal heterogeneity”: “the consequences of a given act are not intrinsic in the act but rather will depend on the nature of the social world within which it takes place” (10).

Methodologically, this means that each ‘case’ that we might take as our object of analysis is, fundamentally, one that proceeds through a temporal sequence.  If we are to compare between cases in political communication research, we must adopt a method that accounts for temporality – sequence and events, in other words.  The goal of political communication research – under this theoretical approach to temporality – is not causal law, but explanation and the development of categories that may be applied in analysis of other, temporally unfolding cases.  Comparison of temporally bound cases can “generate propositions whose potential generality is tested by their ability to illuminate the conjunctural unfolding of analogous causal processes in the cases at hand” (99).

While Sewell is primarily concerned with large-scale events, throughout his writings there are the possibilities of other time scales. Indeed, the “theoretical category of the ‘event’ is not self-evident but rather must be constructed theoretically in relation to the time-scale of the processes being studied” (121-122).  The broader claim is fundamentally that “the course of history as determined by a succession of largely contingent events” (ibid).

As I have often found, sometimes works such as Sewell’s help you understand and provide a language for what you have been up to for a while. In my book Taking Our Country Back, in constructing a historical case I implicitly argued that time matters, but I never explicitly stated that case theoretically or methodologically. In my in-progress book that seeks to explain the differences in the Republican and Democratic parties in terms of their infrastructures to contest elections, temporality is much closer to the surface as a mode of explanation. I am very much struck, for instance, by how things could have unfolded differently.

For example, in a recent blog post for Culture Digitally and a paper that is currently under review for ICA I discuss “political prototypes” as providing models for future campaign practice and a set of claims about how the world is that is actionable for campaigners.  What is striking to me through the early stages of research and writing the book is the possibility of the two parties’ recent histories unfolding differently.  If the Dean campaign was not performed as a technological success, for instance, Howard Dean would likely not have been elected chair and the considerable investments in technology across the party would likely not have taken shape.  Conversely, if the Bush campaign was narrated as the technological success it was, we could imagine a very different calculus on the Republican side after his re-election.  Similarly, developing what I call a “culture of testing” within the Democratic Party network after 2004 was not a historic inevitability, it was contingent upon a particular constellation of cultural understandings and interests that converged after the 2004 general election and met with a favorable institutional environment that enabled it to take root.

All of which is to say that events and sequences matter in social life, and methodologically need to be accounted for in political communication research.