“The old idea of bifurcating research into qualitative and quantitative is entirely unproductive” – ICA preconference preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Kevin Barnhurst and Leopoldina Fortunati are working on a paper focusing on “emerging citizenship” amongst university students in Europe for the ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research. It is part of a larger collaboration with Stephen Coleman, Birgit Eriksson, Víctor Sampedro, and Slavko Spichal.

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 emerging forms of citizenship, with a special emphasis on students. This is not a common topic in political communication research, where more focus has been on political actors and news media, and perhaps citizens seen as voters and people with political attitudes. 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?

Our project asks where political actors, ranging from citizens to journalists and politicians, come from, a basic question because political communication usually treats their emergence as a given. Our focus of research is not new in political communication but responds to a long history of political socialization studies that assume the preexistence of “the political.” Civic life and political engagement exist full-blown and then correlate so that the first is usually a necessary if not sufficient condition of the second. Although the notion of citizenship has clear roots in political research, the emerging digital conditions demand looking at the pre-political, at how young people, especially those who enter universities and are likely to become engaged voters, media workers, and leaders, come to understand ways to coordinate their lives.

RKN: Your work is partly rooted in political communication research, but also draws on other fields—are there disciplines that have been particularly important sources of theoretical and methodological inspirations in how you approach this project?

In mobile and networked platforms alongside face-to-face interactions, young adults begin to work out what it means to do the right thing politically. So our work draws most on social science theories of the early 20th century, including the British mass observation studies and Chicago sociology—Mead, Park, Blumer, and others—but also on critical and cultural thought from later in the century—Foucault, Raymond Williams, and others. Judgments of “the good” also lead into the sociology of emotions and recent work on embodiment of action. Some examples include Vincent and Fortunati’s Electronic Emotion, the new materialism of Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, and other works like Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, which call for understanding the physicality of what scholars investigate. Emergent work on citizenship studies (including the journal of that name) are another influence, particularly the theoretical work by Isin, Bennett, Alexander, and Ranciere on “the political.”

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 toward 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?

Political communication as a field tends to keep qualitative methods at the margins and treat them as subordinate by asserting they cannot reach generalizations of fact. But all research involves comparisons of different kinds and arrives at general observations of patterns when comparison is sufficient. The fundamental way that qualitative work establishes facts is by continuing to compare until reaching “saturation.” It’s the product of a recursive process of going back to carefully selected sources, “grounded” with an aim to disprove patterns observed, until it’s clear that the patterns (and pattern of differences) hold. At the point of qualitative saturation, the resulting knowledge is as strong and general as any resulting from quantitative tools. Our project compares different countries facing different issues related to citizen involvement, such as the 15 May movement in Spain and the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo in Italy, but doing it on the ground in universities that claim to prepare citizens. In national case studies, our partner teams will be testing the results of our shared methods (traces of young adults’ digital lives, “teach-ins” among faculty, and targeted searches of university documents) by comparing other groups like non-students, super-political students, and national samples using a range of methods (including surveys, for instance, in Spain).

RKN: Imagine you are talking to a colleague at a conference who mainly 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 on news sharing relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

We would probably start by suggesting the analogy of economics. Economists are now recognizing that the formal economy can tell only part of the story because it grows from and constantly intersects and interacts with the informal economy—consider for example the work by Lobato et al. In a sense, privileging “hard” data is a way of ignoring the “soft” politics of communication now emerging. When conditions of citizen engagement change as profoundly as they have with the creation of the EU cross-national polity and they are now in the digital era, going back to intensive studies with people can bring new insights to political research. In analogy with the formal and informal economies, a nuanced understanding of citizenship today requires a careful analysis that integrates all levels of comparison. The cross-cultural research project we have designed can go deeply in understanding the lived experience of citizenship in the digital era and also grasp the main similarities and differences among the five universities—in Denmark, Italy, Slovenia, Spain, and the United Kingdom—to see how citizenship emerges in the EU.

We find the old idea of bifurcating research into qualitative and quantitative entirely unproductive. One vicious circle asks, “Which comes first?” Should qualitative work precede quantitative work, and does quantitative work fall short unless it follows up on findings by returning to its sources? Or worse, one side will claim the other works from an epistemology at fundamental odds with the other. The lack of integration is the main problem here. All quantitative and qualitative work involves many hands: the work of the human mind in asking questions of others (who “handle” their responses) and then looking for and finding patterns. Political communication must search for a way to integrate its methods and reject the binary. Think about it: quantity and quality are not opposites or axes but fully meshed ideas. A unifying concept is what McCloskey and Ziliak calls “oomph” in their The Cult of Statistical Significance.

Finally we would make an ecumenical argument, expressing our interest in their research and the kind of results they produce and encouraging the same interest in our research. In a virtuous circle of scholarship, all kinds of methods are necessary to depict a wide and detailed fresco of political communication and to find new questions for our range of methods to address.

Full abstract below.

Good citizens as a premise for a good life: Methods for studying citizenship, journalism, and political communication

Kevin G. Barnhurst, University of Leeds, UK and Leopoldina Fortunati, University of Udine, Italy

Paper for ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research

How do young adults today become citizens? Higher education claims to train them, but universities mostly tout the ideal. The distance between institutional ideals and what citizens’ experience calls for new ways to study journalism and political communication for the democratic life. But how? This presentation describes methods being developed for a multi-country project on emerging citizenship.

A team of researchers from five EU countries aims to develop theory on how societies produce good citizens through higher education in the digital communication era. We explore new features, dimensions, and living experiences in the social body, with universities as a central case in citizen formation.

Emotion, embodiment, identity, and online/offline life might describe the emerging “good citizen” better than modifiers like information-seeking, rational-choice, and political-action. Emerging citizens have emotional exchanges online, embody actions in the style of Occupy and flash mobs, do positional check-ins, status updates, instant messages, affective follows and likes, and personal tweets, comments, blogs, and posts.

Universities claim the education of citizens among their objectives. But how do they cultivate civic qualities in students and communicate “citizenship.” And how do students learn to become citizens in the digital era? A view from the other side might reveal students acquiring benevolent, egalitarian, and skillful identities and teaching each other to communicate as citizens. Beyond the politics of campus unions or governments, students learn to be good “citizens” of the classroom, flat-shares, and app-space. Building a new theory of citizenship requires casting a wider net beyond formal citizenship. Digital interaction blurs the boundaries; so theory must grow in new terrain of everyday life.

Our investigation proposes using three qualitative tools. The first is “traces” collected from students, their writing but also tweets, snap-chats, and other artifacts they leave about themselves and their judgments of “good” others. The second is “teach-ins” with faculty invited to talk freely among themselves about expectation of “good” behavior for academic well being. And the third is digital searching of official documents universities produce, to find allusions to citizenship, good behavior, and the commons. All three allow encapsulated answers to an open question. All three admit a maximum in self-expression and openness with minimal outside influence.

Qualitative data analysis software will then allow thematic analysis across different modalities: mediated, face-to-face, textual, visual. The results can provide insights on the experience of citizenship among students, teachers, and institutions, bridging three zones key to a theory of citizenship today. Researchers cannot “interview” institutions, and academics might not snap-chat, but the different modalities can form a corpus of common potentially expansive research material.

Knowing how universities communicate citizenship and their faculties and students police each other’s “good” actions in digital and physical daily life can help build citizenship theory not on abstract, received wisdom but on how new citizens emerge today.

The presentation will show examples of citizen “traces” and “teach ins” and seek further discussion to develop the tools, along with reporting insights on the concept of citizenship in an ongoing project for political communication and journalism.

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