Qualitative Political Communication Research

"Methodology is intuition reconstructed in tranquility" – Paul Lazarsfeld

Month: February, 2014

Our Methods Reveal Social Structures and Media Effects

by Daniel Kreiss

In their influential article, W. Lance Bennett and Shanto Iyengar trace the history of scholarship on political communication and suggest that we may be moving into a new era of ‘limited effects’ given changes in social structure. Bennett and Iyengar sketch a “premass communication media system” that gave rise to the minimal effects findings in the literature. Social structure in this premass communication system consisted of “relatively dense memberships in a group based society networked through political parties, churches, unions, and service organizations” (707).  Accordingly, the authors argue that research findings during this premass era – which the authors never quite define but we can infer lasts up to the early 1960s – related to the two-step flow model and social influence theories more broadly.  As these scholars argue about the precursors to the contemporary field as it formed in the 1970s:

“These and other early thinkers [such as Lippmann] all helped position the field of political communication to address the rise of mass society and to grapple with the related understanding of mass communication processes and effects.  In this context, the minimal effects and two-step flow models can be explained in retrospect as the result of the studies conducted before the conditions defining mass media and mass society were fully in place. It does not seem particularly surprising that research dating from the 1940s – a time of high social cohesion, before television swept the land, or advertising and polling had become sophisticated – would have produced mixed results about direct attitude change through media messages. Even so, evidence for relatively strong direct effects of political messages in those studies might have warranted more probing analysis.” (715)

Bennett and Iyengar then argue that we see the rise of a “mass society” spanning the 1960s through the 1990s. Research during this era finds “strong media effects” and “direct, mass-mediated, ‘impersonal’ influence processes” (716). Indeed, for these scholars, social structure during this era is characterized by “declining group memberships and the rise of broadcast technologies that made vast audiences accessible via relatively few channels” (716).  This sets the stage for their argument that we are now in a new era:

“In addition to the proliferation of channels and fragmentation of the audience, it also makes sense to address in our new political communication models the decline of social conformist identity processes that formerly defined individuals as message receptors in the group membership society that some observers lament losing (Putnam, 2000), along with the decline of the mass audience of “impersonal” social cue takers that defined the mass media social structure (Mutz, 1998; Zaller, 1992).” (716)

Even with the qualifier that early works needed “more probing analysis,” the underlying assumption of the Bennett and Iyengar article is that scholars are actually measuring empirical realities in the world; that research findings were not just an artifact of particular analytical and methodological toolkits marked by different paradigms of communication research. This comes despite Iyengar’s own writings from the early 1980s which argued for more experimental research given the likelihood that cross-sectional surveys were only picking up ‘limited effects’.  Even more, other models of both ‘social structure’ and ‘effects’ were always present in the literature. W. Russ Neuman and Lauren Guggenheim, using a citation analysis, show that there were co-existing theories and models of effects (and indeed social structure), and that these are better tracked to different paradigms that have their own analytical and methodological orientations. Scholars who see social contexts as being important, for instance, bring to bear an analytical lens and a set of methods that have continued to find strong interpersonal and group-based communication effects well into the era of ‘mass communication.’ One needs to look no further than studies of diffusion or social networks, or Tamotsu Shibutani’s wonderful, and under-read, study of rumor Improvised News published in 1966.

All of which is to say that it is hard to see the products of theory and method providing, somehow, an unfiltered look at the ontological state of the world. The “methodological pluralism” that has come to dominate the field since the early 1980s – experiments and nationally representative surveys – are simply ill-suited to reveal whether and how social contexts matter in political communication. As such, social contexts have the tendency to disappear from representations of social reality (a point on the performativity of method which John Law forcibly made in “Seeing Like a Survey”; for instance, while social media analyses in recent years have made social ties particularly visible again in political communication research, it is not as if we ever stopped being ‘networked’ or relying on social contacts for our understandings of political life – even if there may be qualitative differences in our social and cultural practices today.) Indeed, even the idea of a ‘mass society’ that posited atomized individuals particularly susceptible to media influence was not uncontested in its time.  Raymond Williams famously stated that “there are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” But perhaps the most forceful statement is by Daniel Bell in 1960 (who, after all, noted the coming of post-industrial society in 1974):

“What strikes one first about these varied uses of the concept of mass society is how little they reflect or relate to the complex, richly striated social relations of the real world….Behind the theory of social disorganization lies a romantic notion of the past that sees society as having once been made up of small “organic,” close-knit communities.

A great weakness in the theory (of mass society) is its lack of history-mindedness. The transition to a mass society, if it be such, was not effected suddenly, explosively, within a single lifetime, but took generations to mature.  In its sociological determinism, the hypothesis overlooks the human capacity for adaptiveness and creativeness, for ingenuity in shaping new social forms. Such new forms may be trade unions whose leaders rise form the ranks…or the persistence under new conditions of ethnic groups and solidarities.”

In other words, there is no reason to believe that the break between ‘premass’ and ‘mass’ was radical.  Even more, as Bell argued, that it could be achieved so quickly. Note, for instance, the lovely Middletown study that made a set of empirical claims for the dissolution of group life and local communities in 1929. Indeed, my seminar, ‘A History of the Study of Mass Communication,’ just wrapped up reading what we began collectively referring to as the ‘Communication Bible’ – John Durham Peters and Peter Simonson’s magisterial Mass Communication and American Social Thought. Common tropes that course through work all the way through the 1950s is the dissolution of communities, individualization, and strong media effects – and, the idea of ‘effects’ is far more broadly (and refreshingly) defined than in the contemporary literature (consider Middletown’s claim that once music entered the “machine stage” it “almost ceased to be a matter of spontaneous, active participation and has become largely a passive matter of listening to others”.) For example, in The Public and its Problems, published in 1927, John Dewey argued that there was a proliferation of associations, the dis-embedding of social life, multiplication of publics, and erosion of local, community life:

“One phase of the workings of a technological age, with its unprecedented command of natural energies, while it is implied in what has been said, needs explicit attention. The older publics, in being local communities, largely homogeneous with one another, were also, as the phrase goes, static. They changed, of course, but barring war, catastrophe and great migrations, the modifications were gradual. They proceeded slowly and were largely unperceived by those undergoing them. The newer forces have created mobile and fluctuating associational forms. The common complaints of the disintegration of family life may be placed in evidence. The movement from rural to urban assemblies is also the result and proof of this mobility. Nothing stays long put, not even the associations by which business and industry are carried on. The mania for motion and speed is a symptom of the restless instability of social life, and it operates to intensify the causes from which it springs.”

This seems precisely the social structure that would be conducive to strong media effects. Even more, in 1948 Louis Wirth declared that “In modern urban industrial society, our membership in each of the multiple organizations to which we belong represents our interests only in some limited aspect of our total personal life.  There is no group which even remotely professes to speak for us in our total capacity as men or in all of the roles we play.”  This was, of course, during the same time period that Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues were arguing for the importance and role of social groups and attachments in mediating the effectiveness of mass media; which of course was also a claim that Todd Gitlin famously critiqued on both theoretical and empirical grounds.

All of which suggests that social structures are lumpy (or differentially distributed), historically evolving, and revealed differently according to the analytical and methodological approaches through which we approach the social world.  These are not original thoughts. A little more than ten years after Wirth, in 1961, Thelma McCormack argued that social life is differentially structured and pointed to the fact that mass media has varying effects depending on the social context – with traditional communities looking very different from urban environments. Indeed, McCormack’s point is that we cannot look for universal media effects, or generalize from studies in one locale, given that they are conditional on social structures, not just the psychology of individuals. The field would look very different, for instance, if we took seriously Michael Burawoy’s argument that:  “Insofar as meaning, attitudes, and even knowledge do not reside with individuals but are constituted in social relations, then we should be sampling from a population of social situations and not a population of individuals.”

This is not to say that social structures do not change, of course.  I agree with Bennett and Iyengar that we may be seeing significant shifts in social and media structures over the last few decades as well as different practices for creating social and cultural attachments – but our analytical emphasis and methodological tools also reveal different aspects of the world. Consider the fact that Kurt Lang and Gladys Engel Lang found quite strong media ‘effects’ throughout the 1950s through their groundbreaking empirical research.  Through an innovative mixed methods design, their MacArthur Day study of 1952 catalogued how the mass media shaped perceptions of the event for mediated spectators; how anticipatory coverage shaped both the expectations of live spectators and brought them to the event in the first place (a particularly nice recursive finding); and, finally, that the presence of television cameras actually helped create the event itself: “the cheering, waving, and shouting was often largely a response to the aiming of the camera.”

The argument that political communication research tracks changes in social structure means that our theories and method rather unproblematically reveal the empirical world. This idea essentially ignores a number of anomalous works that do not fit the received narrative of limited to strong effects – a point which Neuman and Guggenheim note so forcefully. And, oftentimes these anomalous works provide examples of how different methods reveal not only different social structures but also different kinds of effects. The broad takeaway here is that methods shape how we understand the world and what types of things we think exist, and that there are many kinds of ‘effects’ that have historically been considered in the field of political communication.

“All research methods are imperfect, so methodological opportunism seems like a good idea”—ICA QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Ulrike Klinger, Stefan Rösli, and Otfried Jarren are working on a paper dealing with how and why Swiss city governments use participatory online tools for the ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research.

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

Here are questions and answers from an email interview I did with them about their research.

RKN: You work on how city governments use participatory online tools. How would you say your work on this 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?

Besides the obvious connection – a research project about how city governments and their administrations seek to engage citizens via participatory online communication – there are two aspects that we could underline here: First, we believe that social media and other participatory tools have been around for too long to still discuss their “potential”. Our project connects with scholars who empirically investigate if and how they are really changing political communication, whatever the “potential” might be. Secondly, what do the empirical bits and pieces tell us about digital public spheres? Andrew Chadwick made a good point with his hybrid media systems. We need to factor in local mass media, and also local non-political public debate.

RKN: Your work is partly rooted in political communication research, but also seems to go beyond it—are there other fields or disciplines that have been important sources of theoretical and methodological inspirations?

The project is basically rooted in actor-centered institutionalism and ideas about the formation of political legitimacy. It is a research project of communication scholars, but includes perspectives from other social sciences, e.g. from political science or relational sociology. We combined a quantitative approach (our “inventory” of participative communication in Swiss cities) and a qualitative design to go beyond a descriptive account.

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 work in this paper as pointing towards generalizable findings? 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?

It is certainly important to be aware of the limitations that your methodological design entails, and it is also a question of resources. Saturation is a key issue when working with interviews, and we were able to reach this point with 22 interviews, because the experiences in Swiss cities did not vary too broadly. However, Switzerland is quite a special case, with very high levels of internet usage and infrastructural development, elevated position of municipalities in the political system (such as tax autonomy, right to grant citizenship etc.) and of course the strong traditions of direct democracy – all this is hardly generalizable. But other studies found similar results in different contexts, that participative tools tend to be underexploited in political communication. Thus, we need to compare, and maybe we need more meta-analyses binding results from different contexts together.

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 relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

We do not see qualitative and quantitative methods as opponents, but they inform each other. Qualitative research can be much more explorative in new or under-studied fields, and helps to formulate categories for quantitative designs. All research methods are somehow imperfect, which is why both multi-method designs and political scientist Adam Przeworski`s “methodological opportunism” seem a good idea: “I am a methodological opportunist who believes in doing or using whatever works. If game theory works, I use it. If what is called for is a historical account, I do that. If deconstruction is needed, I will even try deconstruction. So I have no principles.”

Full abstract below. Read the rest of this entry »

“What does it mean to be a citizen in a digital era?”—QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Jessica Baldwin-Philippi is working a paper called “Bringing Qualitative Methods and Action Research to Civic Innovation” focusing on how city governments adopt to and create new technologies of government. It will be presented at the ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research in Seattle this summer.

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

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

RKN: You work on how city governments engage in civic innovation. As you note in your abstract, this is not a common topic in political communication research, where more focus has been on political campaigns, social movements, and news media use of digital technologies. How would you say your work connects to core concerns of political communication research, then? Are there particular researchers or schools of thought you see yourself as being in a dialogue with?

Whether I’m researching campaigns or municipal governments, the central question that my work is concerned with is “What does it mean to be a citizen in a digital era? How ought we to be political in contemporary democratic society, and how are digital tools currently mediating our political/civic actions?” And those questions are quite traditional! From Michael Schudson to Lance Bennett to Phil Howard, and even more quantitative-based discussions, that question has been important to political communication. I just think we need a wider, understanding of what citizenship looks like now, because it doesn’t look the same as it did 10 years ago, and we need inductive work to investigate that question of what citizenship and civic action looks like and means today. In addition to merely taking these same questions to spaces of research beyond campaigns/social movements (as is often the difference between the disciplinary terms of policomm vs civic media), municipal/civic innovation is where a lot of the most interesting uses of digital media are occurring. This space therefore has the potential to more deeply explore–and even foster–new ways to engage citizens using digital tools, as well as study what that means for engagement on a broader scale.

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

I’ve always had a more qualitative side to me, and even when engaging in more “traditional” (though not for policom!) methods like participant observation and interviews, the idea of studying politics and digital media as something that was living—understanding texts and media tools as things that are both created and used and studying them as they are used—was important to me. Taking that a step farther, action-research is the way to really focus on tools as they are used “in the wild.”

Another part of this is that I think an important follow-up to the big question “What does citizenship look like today?” is “Well, how can we make that better–less transactive, more meaningful, reflective, and overall better?” Since coming to Emerson College, I’ve collaborated with Eric Gordon on many projects at the Engagement Game Lab, and he brings much more of a background in making or developing tools for engagement to my strengths. Additionally, we partner directly with the City of Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, called MONUM. MONUM has been a leader in municipal innovation, and together, we’ve developed what we call a research-based approach to innovation that involves developing tools, researching them, iterating accordingly, and researching again. This is meant not only to open up new approaches to academic research, but to encourage local government to rigorously and meaningfully assess their tools.

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, individual case studies can be generalized. Do you see your own work in this paper as pointing towards generalizable findings? 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?

For me, the more important divide is between inductive/deductive, rather than qualitative, quantitative. In addition to excelling at depth, etc., qualitative research is important for its ability to get at inductive questions. In that case, it can certainly be generalizable, revealing broader, emergent concepts or happenings, which are really important for this moment in political communication and civic media research.

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?

Certainly! The process of designing, researching, iterating, researching, etc. is ripe for collaboration and multi-methodological inquiry. Studying questions concerning how citizens use new tools for civic engagement can certainly involve experimental methods, surveys, or analytics, as well as deeper questions that get at the “why” of some of these behaviors, and can tell us more about the intricacies of the tools themselves and civic engagement generally. In fact, one of the ongoing projects with one of the city’s tools, Citizens Connect, involves just this kind of collaboration between Dan O’Brien (a quantitative researcher), Eric Gordon, and myself (more qualitative researchers). Additionally, more inductive work provides deductive researchers with new variables and metrics to test moving forward.

Full abstract below.

“I see research as a pragmatic endeavor designed to answer questions about how the world works”-ICA QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Melissa Aronczyk is working a paper on how political communication strategies around the controversial issue of oil exploitation in Canada are being developed both by pro-industry and anti-industry actors, and how different “promotional brokers” identify and partner with clients and conceive of their intervention into the political process.

The paper is called ““Ethical” Oil and Other Strategies: Understanding the Impact of the Transnational Promotional Class on Political Communication” and will be presented at the ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research.

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

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

RKN: You work on how promotional brokers work and develop strategies. How would you say this connects to core concerns of political communication research? Are there particular researchers or schools of thought you see yourself as being in dialogue with?

Research on opinion formation has long concerned itself with the tensions between those who propose to measure and those who propose to manufacture public opinion. The question of how and to what degree public opinion is shaped by promotional brokers—a term explored also in my book Branding the Nationand what impact this has on democracy, has preoccupied the field since the early days of political consulting in the 1930s. It’s important to me to draw on this legacy of research, first, because it reminds me that many aspects of the promotion of politics today are neither new nor surprising; and second, because histories of the relationship between promotion and politics provide a trove of insights about the methods used and questions posed by earlier researchers that I can then draw on in my own work.

I am also strongly influenced by the debate over the validity of the “marketplace” metaphor in political communication, a debate that some argue goes at least as far back as Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1919 vision of a “marketplace of ideas” (whereby the most valid ideas win out via competitive exchange in the public sphere). This metaphor, as Charles Salmon and Theodore Glasser have pointed out in Public Opinion and the Communication of Consent, was central to Gallup’s development of public opinion polling, rooted in techniques of commercial marketing research. The implications of treating politics like commercial marketing were clear long ago: focused on spectacle, personal preferences, prestige and character identification rather than on discourse and substance; and on the (dis)approbation by the public of preformed ideas on offer instead of public participation for the sake of transformation. The extent to which this is true today, and the effects of promotional brokers on this process, are central to my inquiry.

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?

At the risk of restating what has already been written elsewhere on this blog, I see research as a pragmatic endeavor designed to answer questions about how the world works. Disciplinary commitment is less important to me than feeling like I’ve adequately answered the questions I’m asking. Since I am interested in the social and cultural conditions that give rise to promotional politics, I draw heavily on historical and sociological methods and on theoretical positions in cultural studies. Recently I’ve drawn on social movement studies to understand the motivations and mechanisms of collective mobilization.

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, ethnography and 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?

It seems to me that research findings are generalizable in different ways to different people, and for rather diverse reasons. I began working on the topic of oil exploitation out of a sense of personal outrage at the thin justifications offered by government and industry actors for their commitment to economic gain over environment and citizen protections. My hope, then, is that my research contributes to ongoing conversations within and beyond the academy on the political consequences of tar sands exploitation. I also hope that the work is generalizable to scholars working on issues of media coverage of political contests, or on the role of advertising in political communication. In this regard the method is less important than the narrative in accumulating and aggregating diverse viewpoints on an issue.

That said, I think the best research makes use of multiple methods and approaches. To me, interviews are invaluable but insufficient sources of data. They do provide compelling narratives, but to be widely applicable they need bolstering from documentary or other evidence. I also think that it is more fair to one’s interview subjects to support ethnographic or interview material with additional sources, as it allows the reader to contextualize interviewees’ positions on an issue rather than rely solely on the author’s interpretation.

RKN: Imagine you are talking to a colleague at a conference who does 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 relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

To the extent that social science is devoted to extending understandings of the social, we have to hope that quantitative and qualitative research can be mutually relevant. Agenda-setting and framing (to take your two examples) are of interest to both qualitative and quantitative researchers. The real question is, how are these research paradigms relevant to reality? This is the question W. Lance Bennett and Shanto Iyengar pose in their 2008 article on the “changing foundations of political communication”, and it’s at this level that I think qualitative work can be of value to colleagues invested in quantitative research as well as to broader publics. My hope is that my work speaks to people who are interested in learning more about collective behavior, movement/countermovement relationality, political legitimacy, branding, ethical consumption, or organizational strategy. These topics engage researchers from multiple disciplines, employing all kinds of methods.

Full abstract below.

Read the rest of this entry »

Politics and Television—notes from a reading group

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

By Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Chris Anderson, Matt Powers, and Dave Karpf.

Reading Kurt Lang and Gladys Engels Lang’s Politics and Television (published in 1968) more than sixty years after the research was done is an interesting and rewarding experience. The book collects the Langs’ pioneering sociological studies of television news, its implications for political processes, and its relation with its audience.

It contains their landmark study of the 1952 MacArthur Day Parade in Chicago, where they develop their argument about the “unique perspective of television” and in simple, clear, and evidence-based fashion show how television news does not simply transmit information about the parade, but transforms it. More generally, they show how television does not simply convey news but constitutes events and changes how processes unfold.

On the basis of an impressive piece of field research combining observation of MacArthur’s tour through Chicago with observation of the television coverage and interviews with both people watching the general and his motorcade as it moved through the city and people watching him on television, the Langs distinguish between the “crowd perspective” of those who turned out on the streets of Chicago and caught only a glimpse of the general, and often expressed their disappointment with the absence of spectacle, with the experience of the television viewer, who by virtue of the then relatively new mobile television cameras, the hard work of television reporters on the ground, the reaction of people on the ground to the cameras, editing in the newsroom, and running commentary was presented with the spectacle they had expected (p. 75). They develop the notion of a landslide effect where “media coverage of events and public responses to that coverage reinforce each other.”

This is a terrific study, clearly written, great research design, persuasive, and a fresh read even so many years later—a deserved classic, and a powerful illustration of what a good case study can lead to.

Other, less famous chapters of enduring interest concern what the Langs call “The Intimate View of Politics” (chapter 5) and “The Question of Actuality” (chapter 8). Both chapters develop more general, theoretical ideas for understanding what it means for political communication that there is television rather than no television.

In their chapter on the intimate view of politics, they explore the performative dimensions of being a politician on TV. They argue that it involves simultaneously (1) performing “being on TV”, (2) playing a political role, and (3) conveying a personal image, and suggest that the viewer will experience and evaluate each of these aspects of the performance in relatively separate terms, and that one or the other (“being” a partisan debater, or “doing” television, or “seeming” like a particular kind of person) can overshadow other aspects of the performance. This work foreshadows some current cultural sociological interest in the performance of politics (such as the work of Jeffrey Alexander and Jason Mast) and it is interesting to note that it predates Richard Fenno’s influential study of how congressmen present themselves in Washington versus their home district by ten years.

In raising “the question of actuality”, the Langs suggest that the television viewers they have studied in their fieldwork, interviews, and surveys generally compare what they see on television to (1) personal experience and already held beliefs (checking for what the Langs call “affective congruence”) and (2) other second-hand sources of information (“consistency”), but also note that when watching television, (p. 302), “People do not actually ‘see for themselves,’ but many still believe that they do.” (Surely an empirical point worth testing out sixty years later after many discussions of pseudo-events and media spectacles and much concern over “media literacy”.)

The book positions itself in opposition to Marshall McLuhan’s notorious assertion that “the medium is the message” and focuses on how a combination of technological properties, editorial practices, political logics, and audience responses together constitute what we call television and shapes its social consequences. Scholars interested in practice theory, institutional theory, or science and technology studies as approaches to news and journalism can find many precursors in this book, often couched in clear and straightforward English. Much of what the Langs do here is close to what is part of the contemporary mainstream of journalism studies, even as their approach is somewhat different from how political communication is most often studied today.

The Langs themselves were trained in Chicago School of sociology (the MacArthur Day parade study started in a seminar taught by Tom Shibutani) and worked, amongst other places, at Columbia University (and later SUNY Stony Brook and the University of Washington). They do not place themselves in opposition to the “limited effects” tradition of the 1950s and the 1960s represented by the influential work of Paul F. Lazarsfeld and his collaborators, but they do argue that media scholars need to move beyond the tendency to focus on media’s short-term effects on attitudes and behavior if they are to understand the full social implications of new media like television, and the studies collected in this book provide a series of concrete examples of how one can approach the question of the broader, more long-term, experiential and institutional cumulative effects of television in an empirical fashion (p. 305).

As they write—in a passage that could have written today—“Every time a new medium appears on the scene, we seem to expect revolutionary change. The optimists stress its potential for education the pessimists the possibilities for abuse. For every expectation, it seems, there is an equal and opposite expectation. Exorbitant claims are balanced by dire predictions, but most commentators agree that things will never be the same again.” (p. 14)

Against this extremes of utopianism and pessimism (tropes we recognize today), the Langs offer their own more modest and empiricist disposition, their basic view that “it’s complicated” and their interest in unfolding how it is complicated and what it means, their interest in the nuances of the long-term “structuring” effects of the emergence of television (and particular institutionalized forms of television) on American political processes and the relations individual American citizens maintain to these processes, and the way they experience them on the basis of evidence-based and nuanced analysis.

This basic disposition is worth highlighting today as we discuss the rise of digital media, often in terms of impacts on electoral outcomes or consumer choice, and helped the Langs produce a book with a heavy empirical emphasis that is still very much worth reading sixty years later—no small feat!

These are some of the highlights of the book. Half a century is a long time though.  Like all scholarship, other chapters of the book reveal its age. There are chapters on television debates, on the live reporting of election returns, and on the everyday practices of television news reporting that feel dated.  Other scholars have built on the Langs in the intervening years, and now seem more relevant to contemporary researchers.

This doesn’t change that Politics and Television is a classic in the study of political communication, of “new media” (then television), and of journalism, and a highly respected book. It offers examples of how nuanced empirical work on critical case studies can be done in a way that can help make more general and theoretical arguments. It also, upon closer scrutiny, seems slightly less conventionally influential than one might expect. A Google Scholar search (imperfect as it is) suggests about 300 citations, far fewer than for example Joseph Klapper’s The Effects of Mass Communication. Citations is a crude and incomplete indicator of academic influence, as providing examplars of how to do scholarship, personal conversation, and mentorship of graduate students and junior colleagues arguably often is more important, but it does suggest the Langs’ impact, even if great, has perhaps not extended as far as it could have.

Why? Why has Politics and Television, an early landmark study by respected scholars shedding genuine theoretical and empirical light on phenomena that has since become widely studied by hundreds of scholars around the world not been cited more often? Part of the reason seems to be that the book has been superseded by more detailed empirical and theoretical treatments of the subject matter. Herbert Gans’ Deciding What’s News, for example, offers a richer empirical engagement with the practices of news reporting—television or otherwise—than does the Langs’ single chapter sketch (and cites the Langs). Raymond Williams’s Television does the same for the larger theoretical account of television’s social impacts (Williams does not cite the Langs).

Another part of the story is simply that the academic study of communication has become more specialized – and that Politics and Television does not fit neatly into any of the current subfields. Is it a part of political communication research? Is it a part of journalism studies? Is it audience research? Yes on all accounts, but it does not fit fully within either, and specialists in each field will find some chapters of the book fascinating but will be inclined to ignore others. A final reason would seem to be that the specialized field—political communication—in which the book is arguably most at home has largely moved away from the kind of mixed-method mostly qualitative work represented here in favor of research examining the behavioral and attitudinal effects of media mostly on the basis of quantitative research. Sixty years on, Politics and Television offers an important complement to such approaches, a model of how mixed-method research can shed light on substantial problems, help develop theoretical understandings, and point towards more general findings, while also showing how hard it is to do so in practice.

References

Lang, K., & Lang, G. E. (1968). Politics and television. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

“The EU is this very distant thing; if it ever works I’ll have to see it working on the ground”–QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Francisco Seoane Perez has submitted a paper called “How to study the European public sphere? Network ethnography meets the challenge” for the ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research. In it, he focuses on how (elite) members of the European public think about and develop lay theories for why the European Union seem to be so distant and apolitical for many citizens. It builds on his wider work on Political Communication in Europe, an issue he published a book on last year.

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 individual informants who appear as sources in regional coverage of the European Union in Galicia (Spain) and Yorkshire (England) think about the public they are part of. How would you say this topic 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?

One of the great challenges of studying the European Union (EU) as apolitical system is that the breadth of the institutions (continental), their set-up (pseudo-confederal, with a mix of technocracy and inter-state diplomatic relations) and the public sphere where this is debated (mostly national and not continental) are not of equal size. So what you have more or less perfectly assembled in any liberal-democratic nation-state (political institutions, the media, and the public) is dislodged when seen from a European scale. None of them are commensurate with each other. So, instead of studying if this particular message gets across to a particular public, I had to go to a very basic level, to the DNA of political communication. Whenever you study exceptions (like the EU) you are in an exceptional position to study the essence of things. The exception defines the ‘normal’. So studying the EU, where the political institutions, the media system and the public are not commensurable (of the same size and breadth) is a great chance to look at what is it what makes a political system familiar or domestic (the EU is the most distant thing one could ever think of) and political (as in the sense of amenable to traditional left vs right choices, and not just mere management or technocracy). It’s ironic how much valuable research we miss when you have wonderful books that do not get translated into English. So, in order to explain what exactly does journalism to society, how it makes a political system familiar, closer, domestic and political, I found of great help the books by Géraldine Muhlmann, a French scholar whose books have recently been translated. She talks about journalism playing a contradictory role in democracies: centering (building a we) and de-centering (allowing for, and encouraging, the expression of dissent within that community). That’s precisely what we don’t have in Europe at the EU level: it’s not something we relate with (we are not part of the we) and whatever is decided is done at a very technocratic, ‘beyond the people’ level. This brought me to Carl Schmitt, a controversial political theorist who nevertheless helped me build my two main theoretical concepts (domesticisation: identifying with the political institutions) and politicization (either in an antagonistic form, friend vs. enemy, or in an agonistic form, left vs. right). Obviously I linked up with Habermas (for whom Schmitt is a sort of bette noir to whom nevertheless he gets much inspiration) and Chantal Mouffe, the contemporary interpreter of Schmitt. So the peculiarities of my object of study (the EU) forced me to go to the DNA of political communication.

RKN: Your work is partly rooted in political communication research, but also seems to go beyond it, in particular in terms of your reliance on network ethnography—where else did you find theoretical and methodological inspirations?

For me the great inspiration was Philip Howard and his network ethnography of the e-politics community in the US in his book New Media and the Managed Citizen. Social network analysis had been used before to select ethnographic informants, but this had been done traditionally, as far as I know, on very localized communities. That is, doing ethnography meant going to a particular place, spending some time there, observing, interviewing… I could have done this in Brussels, where EU institutions are based, but this was ‘contra-natura’, as the EU is a multi-level political system where you have ‘substitute bureaucracies’ at the state and sub-state regional level. So I made the following heuristic move after reading Howard’s book: both of us were dealing with a decentralized community of continental spread (the e-politics community and the EU), but we had documents that we could analyze to identify the movers and shakers of these respective communities (brochures of conference in his case, regional press in mine). My basic question was: OK, if the EU is this very distant thing, if it ever works I’ll have to see it working on the ground. So at the ground level I can also try to tease out the reasons why this is not working. I had access to two contrasting regions as regards to their view of the EU (Eurosceptic Yorkshire and pro-EU Galicia) so took their regional newspapers, made a social network analysis (SNA) of the sources quoted, and went out to chase them. I did far more interviews than observations, so I also found of great help a book which is mostly based on interviews, Susan Herbst’s Reading Public Opinion.

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?

Network ethnography, the method I employed in my research, is a sort of ‘squaring of the circle’ in that sense. The community that you study is linked by some practice, or by their belonging to a particular institution, but it may not be necessarily local or very particular. As a political and bureaucratic system, the EU creates a set of “structural opportunities” that are there, up for grabs, by actors from several different countries. These actors are, to an extent, shaped by those structural opportunities, so the funniest thing to me was to see farmers or environmentalists from Yorkshire and Galicia, who have never met each other, speaking the same administrative lingo due to their exposure to EU legislation and opportunities. So network ethnography, in the sense that it expands the reach of the community you are studying, is both challenging and rewarding. Challenging because you have to fund very expensive research (my fieldwork was done in three different countries, Spain, UK, and Belgium), but rewarding because the ‘saturation’ you find in the discourse is not attributable to a very localized community, but to a community that might be of continental spread. Establishing generalizability, like establishing causality, is what any social scientist is looking for most of the time, but we all know that this has to be done with much care and all caveats, even when you employ surveys as your method. I see network ethnography as a methodological approach to study communities of practice that are physically separated but linked by their professional practice. For example, you could make a wonderful study on the health care reform in the US by looking at the networks that compose the public health system in the US. You would have to find the proper documents (policy papers, newspapers, or whatever) to sample for your informants. And these could be spread all over the US, but you could square the circle of having depth (ethnographic interviews) and breadth (a sampling of the whole community of practice, with informants in the most varied places). The good thing is that, as Howard discovered, these people get together on conferences and meetings, and you can observe them all at once, or have them there in a single setting for interviewing.

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 have a great respect for all political communication research, and actually I find inspiration for my own projects by looking at the unsolved problems in surveys or experiments. Instead of seeing qualitative research as the groundwork for more refined, precise, quantitative designs, I see qualitative and quantitative research inspiring each other in an iterative way. That is, I don’t see the quantitative and qualitative dialogue as sequential: “Ok, do a focus group to refine a questionnaire”, but as iterative: “Ok, the findings in this survey were great here, but here we have this area that cannot yet be explained… could we do a qualitative project to know why?” Let’s take a current example: news consumption among the youth. We need to know how young people (and by young I’m including here also mature people in their thirties) relate to public affairs, and which role traditional and alternative media play in this. So we need all approaches, quantitative and qualitative: we need interviewers asking respondents to show us their smartphones and tablets, we need respondents to tell us their media diet, the enmeshing of news into the flow of social media discourse. But we also need surveys to tell us how spread is a particular media practice, or experiments to tell us what citizens do when they want to find more about a particular subject of public interest.

Full abstract below.

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