“When we focus solely on an elite group of actors, whether politicians, journalists or even the Twitterati, we risk ignoring key political participants who are off the radar”-QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Jen Schradie is working on a paper focusing on how different labor unions in the US use social media as part of their organizing work 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 her about her research.

RKN: You work on labor unions and social media. As you note in your abstract, this is not a common topic in political communication research, where more focus has been on electoral politics and news media, including their 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, or are you simply looking where few have looked before you?

A lot, yes, and yes. Oh, wait. This isn’t a survey.

Political communication theorists are foundational for my research on social class, social movements and social media, as well as this Preconference paper on labor unions and digital technology.

When I was an undergraduate, I majored in public policy. I soon became frustrated with most of the coursework, which had a narrative that went something like this: mostly rich white men come up with a new policy idea, and they convince another group of mostly rich white men on a subcommittee in Congress to make it into a proposed bill, and then Congress, which consists of mostly….you get the idea. Even with the massive corporate influence on American politics, if you look at any major piece of social legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act, each would never have happened without the political, social and labor movements that forced elite politicians to act. Similarly, I have the same critique of some of the political communication literature, which often looks at how the political elite use the media and how journalists cover the political elite to shape political opinions and actions. When we focus solely on an elite group of actors, whether politicians, journalists or even the Twitterati, we risk ignoring key political participants who are off the radar.

Some communication theorists, ranging from Jurgen Habermas to Phil Howard, or mediatization scholars, such as Nick Couldry, Charles Ess, Andreas Hepp and Knut Lundby, speak to some of these broader societal and structural factors in communication. More specifically, I am in dialogue with scholars who have done two things First, extend media into social media – which automatically disrupts the traditional pathways of news elites + political elites = influencing voters. This includes you, Rasmus, as well as Daniel Kreiss and Katy Pearce. Two, examine organizations outside of the traditional beltway powerholders, similar to the work of Lance Bennett, Dave Karpf, or Matt Powers. All of these scholars look at political communication more wholistically and, in turn, take a small part of that whole and study it in-depth.

I see my work as part of this trend by studying an understudied part of political communication, in this case southern labor unions and their relationship to theories of digital democracy. Just as importantly, however, I am evaluating more than the traditional unions who are part of the AFL-CIO. I am also studying emerging worker centers and other rank-and-file unions, as well the broader political movements in which they are situated.

RKN: Your work is partly rooted in political communication research, but you come at this also as a sociologist—are there parts of your own disciplines that have been particular important sources of theoretical and methodological inspirations in how you approach this project?

Absolutely. As a sociologist, I am a scholar of stratification—inequality—social movements, and labor movements, a scholar of political sociology and culture. All of these fields shape how I approach political communication. Rather than ask how communication shapes politics, my sociological research offers the reverse. How does politics shape communication? I switch around the independent and dependent variables. The independent variable becomes in-depth contextual analysis of inequality, ideology and hierarchy, which all shape communication practices. For instance, in my Qualitative Political Communication Preconference paper, I find that differing ideologies create different levels and types of digital engagement. Ideology, I contend, is more than a left/right perspective but also includes political strategies and views of the state.

Considering who inspires me sociologically feels like a kid in a candy store, as I have been influenced by so many sociologists. One theorist is Antonio Gramsci. He’s the guy who introduced the concept of hegemony as a way of explaining this articulation of the state, ideology, civil society (i.e. NGO’s, non-profits, labor unions, etc.), and the media for social change.

My mentor Kim Voss, who is a labor and social movements scholar, has been critical to my situating and comparing these political movements and their communication practices. Methodologically, I conduct multi-methods, so I have been influenced by Kathy Edin with in-depth interviewing and coding, Jenna Burrell for ethnography in a digital context, and Mike Hout for quantitative analysis that goes beyond basic regression. I have also been inspired by computational methods from Neal Caren. But what really defines my work is the concept of public sociology a la Michael Burawoy. He has been a leading advocate for making our scholarship relevant, not only to the broader public but also to the communities we study.

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?

Really? Are we still having these debates? Actually, I know this is a real issue in many disciplines, even sociology at times. I’m a multi-methods researcher and *love* talking, teaching and debating about methods. What does that mean? It really comes down to methods 101: What is your research question? The question drives the method. Pure and simple. Ok, it may not always be that easy, but if we want to understand mechanisms and practices, for instance, in-depth interviewing and ethnography are key. No, participant observations of labor union media practices are not generalizable to the general population, but neither is a lab-based study using elite college students generalizable either. All of our research methods have strengths and weaknesses.

The problem with this debate is that quantitative and qualitative research is coming from different epistemological points of view. Each has different sets of criteria to evaluate research, as Howard Becker has pointed out. Quantitative researchers evaluate studies based on reliability—that is, replicability—and validity. Qualitative researchers evaluate studies based on accuracy, precision and breadth. Both lead to building knowledge and theory.

In addition to my qualitative work, I have also published three articles based on survey data, so I clearly see the value of quantitative  research – especially with my interest in digital inequalities and questions around who exactly *is* engaged with political communication activities – and who isn’t. I recently got into an open scholarly debate with a researcher who had conducted survey research in Britain. He came up with findings different from most every other digital divide study in the United States, including mine. Rather than pick apart our various methods, I argued that it is more useful to look at what broader structural differences exist between the two countries and suggested more qualitative research.

Indeed, in our social science era of an increasing reliance on Big Data, we need to look at what is happening in the context of these data points. For instance, in my work, I created a data set of 50,000 Facebook posts, Tweets and Web site metrics across 34 political, labor and social movement organizations. I found that two unions had dramatically different rates of online activity. It was only through ethnography and in-depth interviews that I was able to see how these differences largely arose from different political practices and ideologies.

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 labor unions relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

Scholars who use different methodologies complement each other. I am adamant, however, that qualitative research is not simply a way to discover “real” quantitative research questions. If we are really honest with each other, we all cite each other because we each have something to contribute. We also offer each other triangulation of findings.

This is more than a binary offline/online debate, as well. I can provide what Geertz called “thick description” to more conventional communication research.  For instance, qualitative research can resolve quantitative puzzles, such the one in my research in which I found that one union uses the Internet less frequently and with lower levels of participation than another union. I spent time at union meetings, protests and other events and was able to ask probing, follow-up questions to union members and activists. I discovered that the union who had a bottom-up grassroots approach to organizing saw the Internet as simply one of many tools to organize their members and, therefore, de-emphasized the Internet. The union who had a top-down approach and looked to political and media elites embraced Internet technologies and had high levels of digital engagement.

The bottom line is that we, as qualitative scholars, should not be in a defensive position. We should all be asking how others’ work is relevant not only to our own work but also, in this case, to a union activist in the rural South.

Full abstract below.

Labor Unions, Social Media, and Political Ideology: Using the Internet to Reach the Powerful or Mobilize the Powerless?

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

Jen Schradie, UC Berkeley

How can we account for two similar labor unions using Internet platforms at dramatically different rates? Scant research has examined social media use among labor unions. Despite their decline over the last two decades, unions continue to have an impact politically. However, scholars of political communication tend to overlook the role of labor unions in the public sphere. This study addresses this gap by comparing the online activity levels of two labor unions in North Carolina. In-depth interviews, ethnographic observations, and online content analysis reveal the mechanisms of how these unions use the Internet at different rates and in different ways. Both unions represent public employees in the state, primarily state workers. One union, SEANC, the State Employees of North Carolina, uses their Web site, Facebook page and Twitter feed with great frequency. On the other hand, UE 150, the public service workers union of North Carolina, has a static one page Web site, infrequent Facebook use and no Twitter account.  While SEANC is, indeed, a larger union with more white collar members, I find that neither membership size nor socioeconomic class makeup fully account for these differences in how much each union uses the Internet, especially social media tools.

Instead, distinct political ideologies between the two unions act as a critical mechanism for the differences.  SEANC dedicates one of four communication staff people to social media. They use the Internet in the same way that they approach their organizational activity: top-down communication with their members. At the same time, their social media strategies, especially Twitter, are focused more on external communication to reach lobbyists, politicians and the mainstream media. In effect, their political strategy is to influence decision-makers, rather than to mobilize their base. As a result, they often endorse Republicans, as well as Democrats. On the other hand, UE 150’s Internet use reflects their strategy of organizing their members, so the Internet simply becomes one of many organizing tools to mobilize workers.  None of their staff members focuses on social media. Instead, their staff members are all organizers first and communication is folded into that role. They have a bottom-up strategy with their communication, like they do with their political strategy. Rather than seeing the Internet as a way to reach the powerful, as SEANC does, they see it as just one of many tools to organize the powerless.

This study harnesses the power of qualitative research to understand the ideological mechanisms of differential social media use between these two labor unions.  By examining everyday organizing and communication practices, as well as a focused analysis of the unions’ differential approaches to the North Carolina “Moral Monday” civil disobedience movement over the summer of 2013, this research demonstrates the critical role of multi-method data collection and analysis in the digital era.