“I think the quantitative scholar and I are both engaged in an allied effort at spotting patterns”-QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Michael Serazio is working a paper called “Producing Viral Politics: Technological Strategies, Cultural Production, and Campaign Consultants” for the ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research. In it, he looks at political campaigns through the lens of cultural production studies as a “media-making” industry.

The full abstract is below the jump and on the conference page.

Here are questions and answers from an email interview I did with him about his research.

RKN: You work on how the backstage work of campaign consultants in producing political communications. As you note in your abstract, this is not often done, as focus has been on contents and effect over production. How would you say your work connects to core concerns of political communication research? Are there particular researchers or schools of thought you see yourself as being in a dialogue with?

With this particular paper, I’m interested in exploring questions like how new communication technologies have impacted the pacing of political output as well as their use in practices like opposition surveillance and grassroots message seeding.  These, I think, do relate to long-standing topics in political communication like agenda setting, partisan mobilization, and reductive imagery and sound-bites, but, as you note, the project is more about the strategic logic of behind-the-scenes professionals rather than causative outcomes on citizens and audiences.  To that end, the works of Philip Howard, Daniel Kreiss, and Kristen Foot and Steven Schneider, among many others, have been helpful in orienting myself to the literature on new media and politics.

RKN: Your work is partly rooted in political communication research, but also seems to go beyond it—where else did you find theoretical and methodological inspirations?

I’ll be the first to acknowledge I’m something of a dilettante when it comes to the world of political communication research.  I come from a media studies background more oriented to popular culture; advertising was the subject of my first book and I’ve also published on social media, sports, and mash-up culture, among other subjects.  But I’ve studied those various subjects with the same qualitative methodological tools – and cultural production orientation – that I wound up applying to political campaigns (which are, frankly, as entertaining as any fictional text).  So Henry Jenkins, Mark Deuze, Stuart Ewen, Thomas Frank, Matt McAllister, and Joseph Turow – again, among others – have been inspirations that I’ve borrowed from on that front.  Moreover, a recent term that circulated, “critical media industry studies,” is, I find, a helpful way to define the aspirations of this kind of approach.

RKN: Few scholars challenge that qualitative research excels at depth, detail, and precision in terms of understanding particular cases or processes. But some would question whether findings based on, for example, interviews can be generalized. Do you see your own findings as generalizable? If so, how and under what conditions? If you don’t, does it matter to you, or do you think about the reach and validity of your work in different terms?

I do aim for generalizability, but I understand that the often flexible, heterogeneous means by which I assemble my “data” precludes that generalizability on purely quantitative terms.  Because I label this work “exploratory,” in theory, another researcher could perhaps come along after the fact and check out its validity using more closed-ended, numerically convertible questions.  But I’m not sure that such an approach could necessarily tackle the scope of themes contained in a more sprawling qualitative endeavor in as short of a space as a single paper.  There are methods textbooks – by, say, Lindlof or Hammersley and Atkinson, as I usually rely upon – that probably make this case more convincingly and elegantly that I’m capable of here.  I think the quantitative scholar and I are both engaged in an allied effort at spotting patterns; it’s just a matter of whether you define those patterns before or after you sift through the social phenomena you’re interested in examining.  Put differently, I suppose, it’s a bottom-up versus top-down contrast in that regard.  And, honestly – and this is probably the former journalist in me – I’m still kind of a sucker for a powerful, revealing quote; when I start to hear echoes of such a quote across multiple interviewees, I feel like I’m approaching something generalizable.  But there is, again, an intuitive, improvisational aspect that precludes generalizability on quantitative terms.

RKN: Imagine you are talking to a colleague at a conference who does mainly fairly conventional forms of behavioralist, quantitative political communication research, i.e., studies agenda-setting in lab experiments or frame effects on attitudes through survey research. Is your research on news sharing relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

I’d certainly hope so.  I’d like to think that my work in this area explores the conditions that give rise to the political communication that those more traditional researchers then pursue from that behavioralist, effects perspective.  I’m cautious here not to over-assume I know or could characterize the nature of their work and, thus, mistakenly make any big claims about what the conventional approaches have been missing.  In that sense, I’ll again stress that I’m pretty new to this subfield.  But it did appear, in my reading up on the subject, that there was some opportunity to take stock of the perspectives and practices of campaign professionals who write the speeches, make the ads, and pitch the reporters – in other words, the folks (besides journalists) who create the political communication that is then assessed through those lab experiments and attitudes surveys.  The more conventional research that you describe seems concentrated on audiences; I’m also interested in those audiences, but through the lens of how consultants think about them.  It’s that thinking that then shapes the forms and discourse and I’m hoping to map that thinking.  Admittedly, these folks are not always the easiest to get access to (which is probably why there’s less research on them as opposed to other categories within political communication), but their position and power as elites makes them worth studying.

Full abstract below.

Producing Viral Politics: Technological Strategies, Cultural Production, and Campaign Consultants

By Michael Serazio (Fairfield University)

Paper for ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research, Seattle, May 2014

To scholars, critics, and lay observers alike, political campaigns have long been inextricable from mediated representation – impacted by new technologies in a way that seems to only grow stronger with each passing election cycle.  And, yet, research on the production of political campaigns from that vantage point of practitioners has less often matched its increasing pervasiveness.  Political communication has long seemed synonymous with the study of “content and effects” rather than the “behind-the-scenes” analysis of how that content and those audiences get constructed.  On the media studies side, ample research has looked at cultural production through “political” prisms – here broadly construed – but the sites for such inquiry tend to be film studios, TV networks, or newsrooms as opposed to Beltway insiders.  It is time to address that oversight and treat campaigns as a “media-making” industry worth studying as such – an approach ideally suited for qualitative tools of inquiry.
This paper therefore takes a cultural production approach to political communication.  It looks specifically at how consultants attempt to create and “encode” the “texts” that circulate during campaign season – including speeches, advertisements, and news coverage.  Moreover, these efforts are specifically considered in light of the advent and expansion of new digital media over the past decade as they restructure “time, space, and place in daily work processes.”  During the 2012 U.S. elections, I conducted 38 one-on-one, semi-structured, in-depth interviews with political media consultants, digital specialists, press secretaries, and advertising producers – an elite population considered especially well-suited to (if not only reachable via) this methodological format.  The majority of participants were Washington, D.C.-based and operated at the higher echelons of campaigning; their clients included individual candidates and national parties at the presidential and congressional level in state and national races.  This paper illuminates their roles in managing news cycles, designing campaign output, and utilizing social media opportunities.  This behind-the-scenes study concludes with a critique of these efforts to engineer increasingly “viral politics” – that is, public discourse digitally formatted toward brevity, imagery, and, in turn, superficiality.