Qualitative Political Communication Research

"Methodology is intuition reconstructed in tranquility" – Paul Lazarsfeld

Why We Like Pinterest for Fieldwork

by Daniel Kreiss

This is a guest post by Nikki Usher, GWU and Phil Howard, UW and CEU


Anyone tackling fieldwork these days can chose from a wide selection of digital tools to put in their methodological toolkit.  Among the best of these tools are platforms that let you archive, analyze, and disseminate at the same time.  It used to be that these were fairly distinct stages of research, especially for the most positivist among us.  You came up with research questions, chose a field site, entered the field site, left the field site, analyzed your findings, got them published, and shared your research output with friends and colleagues.

But the post-positivist approach that many of us like involves adapting your research questions—reflexively and responsively—while doing fieldwork.  Entering and leaving your field site is not a cool, clean and complete process.  We analyze findings as we go, and involve our research subjects in the analysis.  We publish, but often in journals or books that can’t reproduce the myriad digital artifacts that are meaningful in network ethnography.  Actor network theory, activity theory, science and technology studies and several other modes of social and humanistic inquiry approach research as something that involves both people and devices. Moreover, the dissemination of work doesn’t have to be something that happens after publication or even at the end of a research plan.

Nikki’s work involves qualitative ethnographic work at field sites where research can last from five months to a brief week visit to a quick drop in day. She learned the hard way from her research for Making News at The New York Times that failing to find a good way to organize and capture images was a missed opportunity post-data collection. Since then, Nikki’s been using Pinterest for fieldwork image gathering quite a bit.  Phil’s work on The Managed Citizen was set back when he lost two weeks of field notes on the chaotic floor of the Republican National Convention in 2000 (security incinerates all the detritus left by convention goers).  He’s been digitizing field observations ever since. 

Some people put together personal websites about their research journey.  Some share over Twitter.  And there are plenty of beta tools, open source or otherwise, that people play with.  We’ve both enjoyed using Pinterest for our research projects.  Here are some points on how we use it and why we like it.

How To Use It

  1. When you start, think of this as your research tool and your resource.   If you dedicate yourself to this as your primary archiving system for digital artifacts you are more likely to build it up over time.  If you think of this as a social media publicity gimmick for your research, you’ll eventually lose interest and it is less likely to be useful for anyone else.
  2. Integrate it with your mobile phone because this amps up your capacity for portable, taggable, image data collection.
  3. Link the board posts to Twitter or your other social media feeds.  Pinterest itself isn’t that lively a place for researchers yet.  The people who want to visit your Pinterest page are probably actively following your activities on other platforms so be sure to let content flow across platforms.
  4. Pin lots of things, and lots of different kinds of things.  Include decent captions though be aware that if you are feeding Twitter you need to fit character limits.
  5. Use it to collect images you have found online, images you’ve taken yourself during your fieldwork, and invite the communities you are working with to contribute.
  6. Backup and export things once in a while for safe keeping.  There is no built-in export function, but there are a wide variety of hacks and workarounds for transporting your archive. 


What You Get

  1. Pinterest makes it easy to track the progress of the image data you gather.  You may find yourself taking more photos in the field because they can be easily arranged, saved and categorized.
  2. Using it regularly adds another level of data as photos and documents captured on phone and then added on Pinterest can be quickly field captioned and then re-catalogued, giving you a chance to review the visual and built environment of your field site and interrogate your observations afresh.
  3. Visually-enhanced constant comparative methods: post-data collection, you can go beyond notes to images and captions that are easily scanned for patterns and points of divergence. This may be  going far beyond what Glaser and Strauss had imagined, of course.
  4. Perhaps most important, when you forget what something looks like when you’re writing up your results, you’ve got an instant, easily searchable database of images and clues to refresh your memory.

Why We Like It

  1. It’s great for spontaneous presentations.  Images are such an important part of presenting any research.  Having a quick publicly accessible archive of content allows you to speak, on the fly, about what you are up to.  You can’t give a tour of your Pinterest page for a job talk.  But having the resource there means you can call on images quickly during a Q&A period, or quickly load something relevant on a phone or browser during a casual conversation about your work. 
  2. It gives you a way to interact with subjects.  Having the Pinterest link allows you to show a potential research subject what you are up to and what you are interested in.  During interviews it allows you to engage people on their interpretation of things.  Having visual prompts handy can enrich and enliven any focus group or single subject interview.  These don’t only prompt further conversation, they can prompt subjects to give you even more links, images, videos and other digital artifacts.
  3. It makes your research interests transparent. Having the images, videos and artifacts for anyone to see is a way for us to show what we are doing.  Anyone with interest in the project and the board link is privy to our research goals. Our Pinterest page may be far less complicated than many of our other efforts to explain our work to a general audience.
  4. You can disseminate as you go.  If you get the content flow right, you can tell people about your research as you are doing it.  Letting people know about what you are working on is always a good career strategy.  Giving people images rather than article abstracts and draft chapters gives them something to visualize and improves the ambient contact with your research community
  5. It makes digital artifacts more permanent. As long as you keep your Pinterest, what you have gathered can become a stable resource for anyone interested in your subjects. As sites and material artifacts change, what you have gathered offers a permanent and easily accessible snapshot of a particular moment of inquiry for posterity.


Pinterest Wish-list

One of us is a Windows Phone user (yes really) and it would be great if there was a real Pinterest app for the Windows Phone. One touch integration from the iPhone, much like Twitter, Facebook, and Flicker from the camera roll would be great (though there is an easy hack).

We wish it would be easier to have open, collaborative boards. Right now, the only person who can add to a board is you, at least at first.  You can invite other people to join a “group board” via email, but Pinterest does not have open boards that allow anyone with a board link to add content.

Here’s a look at our Pinboards: Phil Howard’s Tech + Politics board, and Nikki Usher’s boards featuring newsrooms.  We welcome your thoughts…and send us images!

Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.  Her project is Post Industrial News Spaces and Places with Columbia’s Tow Center on Digital Journalism.  Phil Howard is a professor at the Central European University and the University of Washington.  His project is a book on Political Power and the Internet of Things for Yale University Press.

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.

Temporality and Political Communication Research

by Daniel Kreiss

In “Politics as Cultural Practice” Michael Schudson stated that one of his methodological precepts is to locate things in time.  The question that Schudson says students of social life should ask themselves is: “Is the conclusion I am coming to about this phenomenon true generally, or is it caused by something peculiar to this time and place?”

While Schudson’s magisterial history of political practice stops before the era of the Internet, he offers especially sage advice for scholars today.  Dave Karpf has recently and powerfully argued that:

“The Internet is unique among Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) specifically because the Internet of 2002 has important differences from the Internet of 2005, or 2009, or 2012. It is a suite of overlapping, interrelated technologies. The medium is simultaneously undergoing a social diffusion process and an ongoing series of code-based modifications. Social diffusion brings in new actors with diverse interests. Code-based modifications alter the technological affordances of the media environment itself…What was costly and difficult in 2004 is cheap and ubiquitous in 2008. That leads, in turn, to different practices. The Internet’s effect on media, social, and political institutions will be different at time X from that at time X + 1, because the suite of technologies we think of as the Internet will itself change within that interval.”

Karpf makes his argument in relation to the particular practices and affordances of the medium of the Internet, but as Schudson shows there is a broader point to be made about locating social and technological practices in time.  And yet despite works such as these, history, or modes of historical thinking, are generally absent from much of political communication research.  The center of the field is generally and resolutely concerned with uncovering universal laws (although few espouse that language directly) relating to psychological or sociological political communication processes, rather than considering how particular political communication practices and processes are rooted in a specific cultural context at a particular moment in time.

In this post, I want to think more explicitly about and add an additional dimension to locating political communication practices in history, suggesting the need to look closely at sequences and events as a methodological approach. Thomas Sewell has written eloquently about the need to bring historical thinking to bear on the theories and methods of social science, and vice versa.  In Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation, a brilliant book that compiles essays crafted over twenty years, Sewell compellingly argues that while social scientists have a rigorous understanding of social theory and an impressive array of methods for empirical inquiry, their explanations of social life often fail to account for the importance of temporality in the shaping of social processes.  Historians, by contrast, see heterogeneous time, where certain events are highly consequential in shaping the course of what comes after.  A related point is that sequences matter; the order of events and the processes that constitute those events shape outcomes. By implication, while the social scientist is at her best at explaining order and structure, accounting for change is often more difficult.

Sewell’s work has a number of implications for political communication research, particularly in terms of enabling scholars to construct richer objects of analysis. Sewell distinguishes between three conceptions of time in historical work – “teleological,” “experimental,” and “eventful” temporality – and argues in favor of the latter.

“Teleological” temporality “is the attribution of the cause of a historical happening neither to the actions and reactions that constitute the happening nor to concrete and specifiable conditions that shape and constrain the actions and reactions but rather to abstract transhistorical processes leading to some future historical state” (84). In general, this approach assumes that sociological and psychological laws will lead inexorably to some future state, that in turn explains the presence of the past.  For example, in much political communication research technological change and even changes in social structure often “are essentially assumed as ever-present and ever-rising forces, a kind of eternal yeast” (91).  On the other hand, an “experimental temporality” is a comparative method that freezes history “by cutting up the congealed block of historical time into artificially interchangeable units” (95).

An “eventful history,” by contrast, “recognizes the power of events in history”; it “is one that takes into account the transformation of structures by events” (100). There are three aspects of eventful histories in Sewell’s account: path dependence, causal heterogeneity, and contingency.   Path dependence means, generally, that earlier happenings affect the following sequence of events and outcomes (also see recent theoretical work on path dependence).  Causal heterogeneity means that causal mechanisms are not uniform and can be altered by events: “because the causalities that operate in social relations depend at least in part on the contents and relations of cultural categories, events have the power to transform social causality” (101).

Contingency means that outcomes cannot be deduced from general laws; they are dependent upon everything that came before and therefore are inherently unpredictable. For historians much of social life is contingent – whether a cause has an effect, and what that effect is, depends on the context within which it is introduced.  In political communication, for instance, whether a message has an effect not only depends on what the psychological characteristics of the recipient are, but when a person encounters that message, in what sequence with other messages, the context it is received in, the capacities the person has to act at a given moment, etc. Another way of saying this is that the causes are not inherent in the agent (or message) itself. There is what Sewell calls “causal heterogeneity”: “the consequences of a given act are not intrinsic in the act but rather will depend on the nature of the social world within which it takes place” (10).

Methodologically, this means that each ‘case’ that we might take as our object of analysis is, fundamentally, one that proceeds through a temporal sequence.  If we are to compare between cases in political communication research, we must adopt a method that accounts for temporality – sequence and events, in other words.  The goal of political communication research – under this theoretical approach to temporality – is not causal law, but explanation and the development of categories that may be applied in analysis of other, temporally unfolding cases.  Comparison of temporally bound cases can “generate propositions whose potential generality is tested by their ability to illuminate the conjunctural unfolding of analogous causal processes in the cases at hand” (99).

While Sewell is primarily concerned with large-scale events, throughout his writings there are the possibilities of other time scales. Indeed, the “theoretical category of the ‘event’ is not self-evident but rather must be constructed theoretically in relation to the time-scale of the processes being studied” (121-122).  The broader claim is fundamentally that “the course of history as determined by a succession of largely contingent events” (ibid).

As I have often found, sometimes works such as Sewell’s help you understand and provide a language for what you have been up to for a while. In my book Taking Our Country Back, in constructing a historical case I implicitly argued that time matters, but I never explicitly stated that case theoretically or methodologically. In my in-progress book that seeks to explain the differences in the Republican and Democratic parties in terms of their infrastructures to contest elections, temporality is much closer to the surface as a mode of explanation. I am very much struck, for instance, by how things could have unfolded differently.

For example, in a recent blog post for Culture Digitally and a paper that is currently under review for ICA I discuss “political prototypes” as providing models for future campaign practice and a set of claims about how the world is that is actionable for campaigners.  What is striking to me through the early stages of research and writing the book is the possibility of the two parties’ recent histories unfolding differently.  If the Dean campaign was not performed as a technological success, for instance, Howard Dean would likely not have been elected chair and the considerable investments in technology across the party would likely not have taken shape.  Conversely, if the Bush campaign was narrated as the technological success it was, we could imagine a very different calculus on the Republican side after his re-election.  Similarly, developing what I call a “culture of testing” within the Democratic Party network after 2004 was not a historic inevitability, it was contingent upon a particular constellation of cultural understandings and interests that converged after the 2004 general election and met with a favorable institutional environment that enabled it to take root.

All of which is to say that events and sequences matter in social life, and methodologically need to be accounted for in political communication research.

Things That Can’t be Coded

by Daniel Kreiss

by Sarah Sobieraj 

Our family photos from the last decade are tucked snuggly in their digital home; I can’t remember the last time I made an actual print. But when it comes to research, I like to touch the data I collect. I still print out transcripts and field notes. They clog my cabinets alongside stacks of blog posts, newspaper articles, print advertisements, and screen shots for content analyses. Flyers, newsletters, and brochures? I have those too. Their files are not only thick, but also disorderly — 11×14 posters, newsprint, and glossy direct mail postcards competing for limited space in their densely packed hanging folders. A dedicated external drive and a scanner could end this, but some part of me needs those hard copies.

Those piles and files are daunting, but your data don’t need to be physically bulky in order to overwhelm; even if you manage them digitally, there is something about the sheer volume of information generated by qualitative research that intimidates.

This is even more true for me now at midcareer than it was when I was a graduate student. As a student, the data gave me validation. They served as proof that I was working as hard as I felt I was working, and also offered a sense of security, because those stacks reassured me that I would make it to the end of the road eventually. I felt I could do it because the answers were there somewhere, I just needed to excavate them.

But as I look at the new heap beginning to accumulate, I have to make peace with the uncomfortable reality that very often the answers are not in there.

I will still go through the pages with a fine-tooth comb. I will underline, highlight, and bookmark. I will repeatedly write words like “interesting” and “important.” There will be asterisks and exclamation points in the margins. I will leave myself pdf sticky notes that say, “think more about this” and “what is going on here?” And, inevitably, I will code the pages within an inch of their lives. But I know from past experience that many of the most valuable insights can’t be coded.

In qualitative research on political communication, much is embedded in things that are left unsaid, conversations that never take place, behaviors that are not part of the repertoire.  Managing the data you have is demanding, but the real challenge is in identifying what’s missing.

Some of my favorite sociology exposes these gaps and silences. I love the way Eduardo Bonilla Silva identifies the verbal gymnastics whites use to avoid speaking about race. And Nina Eliasoph’s fabulous Avoiding Politics, captures the way voluntary association members work to prevent political conversations. I initially thought that such instructive gaps were unique, but have come to realize that they are always there. We always need to fill in the blanks.

My first book, Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism, focuses on the relationship between journalists and activists as they wrangle over what will become news. After the field research, I found myself with thickly detailed notes about the media trainings that activist groups planned and implemented for their participants. Organizers also talked about the trainings in our interviews. I had the luxury of knowing the backstories about why they were running them in particular ways and how participants and even journalists felt about the trainings.

As interesting as those details were, the absence of analogous trainings designed to help activists speak with lay people was equally important. There were no sessions to strategize about how to approach pedestrians who happened upon their protests or marches or street theater.  But swimming in a sea of information about what happened – the conversations, body language, behaviors – it was hard to get out of the weeds. It took a long time for it to even cross my mind that there could have been such trainings. My realm of possibility was circumscribed by that of my participants.

Similarly, for our new article in Poetics, my collaborators and I interviewed fans of outrage-based political opinion media to better understand the relationship between someone such as Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck and their audience. We asked evocative questions about the programming and the personalities. We asked respondents to parse the differences among the content they enjoyed, and to tell us about the context in which they listened and watched.

The first transcripts were peppered with colorful stores as one would expect with in-depth interviews, but something was incomplete. There were hints. In talking about the hosts, the respondents sounded as though they were describing people they knew. And in reflecting, it started to feel as though their experiences with these “friends” were implicitly being compared to something else, something beyond the abundant comparisons to other political opinion programming or conventional news. We had a hunch that the most significant reference point was not other political media, but unmediated political conversations. But our interview guide contained no questions about everyday political talk.

And so we revised our interview guide, and went back to the well.

Once we added questions about talking politics, it became clear that the warmth, validation, and faux-intimacy that outrage-based programs offer their fans serve as a safe haven, where the risks and discomforts associated with political conversations in everyday life were bracketed. Respondents’ fears about political conversations – trepidations about social conflict, being judged negatively, or appearing uneducated poured out and stood in sharp contrast to the reassurance, camaraderie, and flattery offered by the programs. In the envelope of outrage, the fan is invited into a community and praised for their righteousness – a welcome reprieve from neighbors or co-workers who might belittle their views, poke holes in their arguments, talk about them behind their backs, or write them off as ignorant.

Fandom proves to be about the engaging formats and charismatic hosts, but even more so it is about the value these shows offer in this particular political milieu. And we nearly missed it. Respondents don’t answer the questions we fail to ask.

And so, each new project brings with it a mountain of data. Trying to make sense of what is in there is no small challenge, but knowing that the silences must also be explored sometimes feels like enough to stop me in my tracks. If there is a way to be sure that you’ll be able to see the negative space around your data, I have not found it. I just underline, highlight, bookmark, code, and wait.

The Obligations of Field Research

by Daniel Kreiss

by Nikki Usher

Today I stood in the newsroom as a much-beloved editor told his newsroom that he would be leaving. It was a surprise announcement- a newsroom memo went out over email with a red ! announcing a newsroom meeting at 4:30 pm around 4 pm. The political reporter I was chatting with conferred with his colleagues and a rumor started… David Boardman of the Seattle Times was leaving…for….academia?

The newsroom staff, including some of those who had left earlier in the day had even come back for the meeting. They converged in the center of the newsroom. Boardman announced, fighting back tears, and then succumbing to them, that after 30 years he’d be leaving the Seattle Times to be Dean at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication. Publisher Frank Blethen, calling Boardman his best friend at the newspaper, told the newsroom he vowed to continue the Blethen family’s commitment to journalism.

I watched. This was my job, right? To watch. This was a newsroom in change. Actual visible change. Leadership change. But I wanted to fade into the background as grown men teared up along my sides, gave weepy hugs, and a teary photographer grabbed her camera and started capturing every image. True to our mobile journalism age, one reporter recorded everything on his iphone.

There’s a lesson here – about the position of the researcher – and the responsibilities we have now, more than ever, to share with our research participants.

In this particular instance in Seattle, I wanted to melt. This was their moment. I don’t want to have this experience seared in my field notes, my memory, my experience of this city. Those few minutes were not observational data to be chopped up into papers, but a time to be respectful of the extreme weight of this announcement on this newsroom. Yet I know I will feel compelled to mention it, and will mention it probably more frequently then I even know now, not because it fits any particular project, but because it showcases the importance of having leaders you can trust through uncertainty. Publisher Blethen talked about how masterfully Boardman had managed painful layoffs and lead the paper from the brink of obsolescence back into the presence of the city (capturing the breaking news story of 2009 for a Pulitzer didn’t hurt). Newsroom morale upon my arrival was confident and proud of the strong enterprise tradition in a snake bite news world.

Were I more invested in the discourse of meditating on the presence of the ethnographer (which now takes on a rote note in many academic sociology books), maybe I’d be equipped to know what to do with this. But here’s the thing that we have to remember when we do qualitative research: we are taking people’s memories, people’s lives, people’s experiences, and we are mapping on to them the patterns, routines, and processes they might not immediately see for hopes of telling a broader story or answering a core question–for research–and putting it into dialogue with theory and literature these people have likely never read or will never ever read.

I don’t think there’s a significant need to ponder the place of the researcher all the time, in every piece, but I do think that we need to remember that this data is not “ours” – it is tied to people, and the stories belong to them. We do not exist in a simple exchange of observation to academic article that dies beyond a paywall. Or we should not.

To me, this means that we have certain obligations, particularly in an age where we can have a more continual conversation with the people we study. I think we owe it to the people we study to share preliminary findings in plain language. I think we owe it to them to publish something in a place they can read about what we’ve studied. It means being present and visible and find-able. It means keeping your participants up to date with where you are in your work as it churns through the process.

I honestly don’t know how good I am at this when it comes to writing stuff people aren’t going to like. I had to send a particularly scary thing to a newsroom that had served me with a huge NDA that my lawyer-wife read for me and then sent me off to someone else for advice. It wasn’t fun. But it was right–the data supported the thesis, it was legitimately collected, I could supply evidence. Everything ended with a pat on the back, and thanks for my good job on a hard topic. I did this post-proof.

I have to send something to another newsroom that I should have sent them earlier, maybe. I felt pressured to over-disclose people’s beats to please reviewers. Before I did, I read and reread the data to insure that it was indeed innocuous support to a larger institutional point  backed up by methodically collected data respectful of people’s jobs. But I don’t love my choice here. And with people coming and going and remembering two years later what they said, was this practical to go back and recheck everything?

Should I do this all earlier? I don’t know. My dissertation was read by the NYT (thank you Kevin McKenna), but not my book draft. When’s the right time to share? Some people never share. I think that’s lame.

Then there is the question of whether there ought to be an intervention point, particularly, I think for things in motion, in my case newsrooms and news “things” and for others, campaigns, elections, etc. I think we owe it to these people to, when appropriate, to use our expertise to inform their work – and this is tricky, but if I see another newsroom using Twitter in a really effective way, and another newsroom using it particularly badly, can’t I chat about the differences with people and suggest best practices, assuming that the end is indeed constructive? [pretend a newsroom has never seen a hashtag for sake of example]. If management has a radically different view that ordinary employees, and this would go overlooked and strategy planned ahead, is an intervention justified?

I am torn here. But I care deeply, deeply about the fate and future about what I study. I am not a neutral observer; I want newsrooms to iterate, innovate, survive, make better products, keep and gain readers. This doesn’t make my research cheerleady or nostalgic (check my work) – but I am a partisan for the survival of the news industry in a myriad of forms – institutional and non-traditional. I think that’s OK, just as I know my colleagues here have hoped for gay marriage bans to fail, or even worked along campaigns.

A New Era of Field Research in Political Communication?

by Daniel Kreiss

by Daniel Kreiss

A highlight of a wonderful ICA this year was conversations with a number of scholars and graduate students about the need for more collaboration and resource-sharing among qualitative political communication researchers.  While the boundaries are fuzzy, I take ‘qualitative research’ to be rigorous inquiry into political communication processes through an established set of empirical methods including (but not limited to): participant observation, ethnography, interviewing, archival research, and content analysis.  While the borders around ‘political communication’ are also ill-defined (rightfully so), this term broadly encompasses studies of the institutional (campaigns, legislative bodies, the presidency, the press, civil society organizations) and extra-institutional (movements) actors, events, and processes that constitute democratic life.

I hope that this new, collaborative blog will provide a language for what a diverse community of scholars are doing in the course of their research and create an identifiable community of scholars working on similar substantive concerns and using a shared set of qualitative methods for empirical inquiry.

To this end, this blog will provide a forum for this community to publicize new articles/books, share syllabi and resources, and discuss the field and note developments in theory/methodology in and outside of it.  In addition, I hope this blog will provide others with a sense of the institutions that support and foster this work.

To get things started, I wanted to post my 2013 ICA paper with Dave Karpf and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen that provided the inspiration for this blog, “A New Era of Field Research for Political Communication?” Here is the abstract:

Since the publication of W. Lance Bennett and Shanto Iyengar’s 2008 critique of the state of the field, more and more political communication researchers have called for a move beyond the testing and extending of existing theories and towards theory-building aimed at improving our understanding of processes of political communication in rapidly changing social and technological contexts. While we agree with this call, we will argue that too little attention has been paid to the methodological issues that plague the field, and suggest that the dominance of quantitative methods—despite all their analytical and empirical contributions—to the exclusion of other ways of investigating social phenomena may have contributed to the problems confronting the field today. In this paper, we sketch out the history of an older tradition of interdisciplinary and mixed-methods research on political communication in the United States from the 1930s to the 1960s and chart the rise of the currently dominant methodological consensus from the 1970s onwards. We do so to highlight key examples of how this older mixed-methods tradition used field research as an integral part of both empirical work and theory-building during a time of rapid change, and to outline ways a new wave of field research can contribute to the study of contemporary political communication, supplement quantitative work, and move the field forward.