Currents in Political Communication Scholarship, judged on the basis of the 2013 and 2014 ICA conferences

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Jesper Strömbäck served as the programme planner for the ICA Political Communication Division in both 2013 (London) and 2014 (Seattle), coordinating review of over 300 submission each year.

He has written an interesting overview over his impression of the material submitted those two years for the Political Communication Report (the division newsletter, shared with our APSA cousins). As he notes, dealing with all these hundreds of submissions “offers a unique opportunity to get an overview of contemporary political communication scholarship”.

Strömbäck’s overview notes the rise of comparative research, an increased interest in notions of selective exposure in media use, and of course a boom in research on various forms of digital media.

He highlights advances in the field’s understanding of micro-level effects, especially questions concerning the correlations between particular kinds of media use by individuals and things like political participation and political knowledge, long core concerns for the field.

He also notes how framing research, which has for years been a central current in the field, seems to be waning, and is increasingly concerned with frame effects, and less and less with frame building (and, relatedly, agenda building). Similarly, he sees less content analysis than in the past.

I don’t want to highjack Strömbäck and you should really read his essay yourself, but I can’t help but be struck by the similarities of what he takes to be the overall tenor of the field on the basis of the 2013 and 2014 ICA submissions, and what Dave Karpf, Daniel Kreiss and I found in our survey of the articles published in Political Communication from 2003 to 2013. (You can read the original paper here, and in a revised form in this book.)

Here is what Strömbäck writes about methods.

“Methodologically, it is clear that vastly more papers rely on quantitative rather than qualitative methodologies. The most often used methodologies are surveys and experiments, with content analyses at a distant third place.”

Here is what he writes about the dominance of methodological individualism, the focus on the citizenry, and on behaviroral effects research in the field.

“If political communication ultimately is about various aspects of the triangular relationship between political actors, media and citizens, another observation that can be made is that there appears to be less research focusing on political actors as communicators than on the media and on citizens, and less research focusing on the relationship between political actors and the media than on the relationship between the media and citizens.”

Strömbäck continues

“While there are certainly some exceptions, the overall picture is that there are quite few papers on, for example, political campaigning, political public relations or government communication, and that holds for the strategies and tactics of political communicators as well as the content of how and what they communicate. There are also fewer papers on agenda- or frame-building than on agenda- or frame-setting.”

“Although there are exceptions, there are quite few papers that investigate how political actors, organizations, institutions, or processes are influenced by the media, while there are plenty of papers on how people are influenced by the media. Phrased differently, there is a stronger focus on media effects than on media influence in a more general sense.”

Strömbäck’s analysis is broadly in line with my own sense of where political communication research is at today.

One can see some of this as a weakness in the field, in terms of the breadth of the theoretical and methodological tools it brings to bear, in terms of the limitations of what it can tell us about political communication and its role in the world.

I would phrase it differently and say it is also an opportunity for new research pursuing new questions that can complement what we already know (along the lines of what I argued in a 2012 talk later published here). Hence–onwards!