“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.

“Ethical” Oil and Other Strategies: Understanding the Impact of the Transnational Promotional Class on Political Communication

By Melissa Aronczyk (Rutgers University)

As the “third age” of political communication evolves (Blumler and Kavanagh 1999), it becomes increasingly apparent that lobbyists, consultants, public relations practitioners and marketers are powerful brokers in the communication of politics to its publics. These promotional elites, members of what I term a “transnational promotional class” (Aronczyk 2013a), professionalize, mediatize and manage the process of communication and policy making between elected officials and the public. This group is not a self-conscious collective entity but rather a loosely affiliated coalition of actors and institutions who are dedicated to managing international and domestic public opinion as well as the conditions in which public attitudes and values are sought and collected. If we consider the degree to which citizens’ understanding of the political agenda at all spatial scales is mediated by the activities of these communication managers, it is vital that critical scholars develop a set of tools and techniques to investigate these brokerage strategies and work to understand their lasting effect on the practice of democracy. Some recent work has moved us in this direction. Edward Walker’s (2009; forthcoming) research has brought to light the behind–‐‑the–‐‑scenes work of “grassroots lobbyists” who “incentivize” public participation in civic life by developing campaign messages, sponsoring “citizen” groups, organizing movement infrastructures, and hosting media events for these groups to present their claims. Davis (2002; 2013), Kantola and Seeck (2011), and Howard (2006), among others, have also highlighted the implications of promotional mediation for pluralism and the management of conflict. The central question these scholars have sought to address is whether the professional marketing of specific actors, interests and issues has the potential to weaken the role of public participation in attempting to bring about social change. This article attempts to make both methodological and empirical contributions to this line of research. My empirical case is a three-year investigation (currently entering its second year) into the communication logistics and strategies of social activists and their detractors concerning oil exploitation in Canada (i.e., the Athabascan tar sands) and the United States (i.e., the planned Keystone XL pipeline, which would import the oil derived from the tar sands). My methodology combines ethnographic and interview material with document and frame analysis. A rich data source resides in the professional and educational materials developed by and for industry actors, such as PR strategies, media management briefs, and corporate branding literature, regularly overlooked by critical scholars because of the false but persistent belief that this material is not worthy of serious consideration. On the contrary, given the increasing interpenetration of business and politics, it is crucial to explore the gestation of political communication within corporate settings (and vice versa). Two of my recent articles make use of this methodology (Aronczyk 2013b; Aronczyk and Auld 2013). The next stage of this research will try to evaluate how political communication strategies—both pro-industry and anti-industry—are developed, how promotional brokers identify and partner with clients, and how both activists and promotional brokers conceive of their intervention into the political process.