Qualitative Political Communication Research

"Methodology is intuition reconstructed in tranquility" – Paul Lazarsfeld

The Many Realities of Media and Politics – Adrienne Russell’s talk from QualPolComm preconference

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Adrienne Russell (U of Denver) served as a respondent at our conference on Qualitative Political Communication Research in May at ICA in Seattle.

We are happy she has agreed to share the text of her talk, posted below. It’s a thoughtful response to some of the many good papers presented at the conference.


Adrienne Russell

“The Many Realities of Media and Politics”

Remarks at Qualitative Political Communication Research Pre-Conference

International Communication Association

University or Washington Seattle, 22 May 2014

During the first panel slot of the day, we heard a set of papers that either explicitly or implicitly addressed Lance Bennett and Shanto Iyengar challenge in 2008, in A New Era of Minimal Effects? The Changing Foundations of Political, to develop methods and tools of analysis that are more appropriate to citizens’ everyday experience of media and politics.

Melissa Aroncyzk argues in her paper that the task of researchers is not to reconciling research with reality but rather to analyzing the multiplicity of realities developed in different spaces by different actors.

And in fact, each of these papers looks at a very different reality.

Melissa looks at legitimacy, and specifically legitimating devices used by the oil and gas industry to promote the XL pipeline. She treats promotional discourse, which is often considered by researchers as faux political communication, “not as a barrier to political communication but as a constitutive element of it.” Genevieve Chacon looks at the reality of journalists covering politics—the reality of traditional journalism, which holds close in the case she presents, to the longstanding news traditions and practices. Jill Hopke explores the reality of the network and the relationships among actors or nodes, and among local and global dynamics, around the Global Frackdown. And B. Theo Mazumdar and Andrea Wenzel (in a paper co-written with Yasuhito Abe, Bryony Inge, Erin Kamler and Sarah Myers) look at affect or political communication at the level of narratives developed within an Iranian diasporic community.

So what does this say about the political communication landscape that there are vastly different realities coming together to shape discourse about issues of common concern?

I think it is useful to draw on Andrew Chadwick’s book The Hybrid Media System to make sense of the emerging environment. He describes this system as exhibiting a balance between the older logics of transmission and reception and the new logics of circulation, recirculation and negotiation. Actors in these overlapping fields of media and politics both shape and are shaped by this hybridity.

Journalists, politicians, and corporations used to have the corner on the market but today, as several of these papers have illustrated, there are new, or newly acknowledges sources of power including the narratives formed in communities and circulated via social media; the relations among environmental justice actors; the propaganda-style campaigns of the cool and gas industries; the new types of journalist flows of information via twitter.

Clearly, the call by Bennett and Iyengar to better understand what is really going on in political communication signaled an acknowledgment that the political that most of us experience, demands new approaches and new ways of thinking about the various sources of power at play in the contemporary media landscape.

These papers demonstrate, I think, a positive move in the field away from looking exclusively at the usual suspects—journalist, politicians, and moneyed interests. In order to continue to create useful theories that help make sense of the interplay among these various realities we need to develop and refine ways of looking at relationships among these various realities, network nodes and actors.

One central element of this is to work toward developing a more sophisticated dialogue –about the tools and platforms being used, about what sort of communication and relations they afford or enable, and what kind they discourage or disable. This can bring us closer to being able to theorize how different realities shape and are shaped by the new hybridity media landscape, where various actors, institutions, attributes of old and new tech are duking it out to gain material and symbolic upper-hand in the political realm.


Suggested citation

Russell, Adrienne. 2014. “The Many Realities of Media and Politics.” Presentation at Qualitative Political Communication Pre-Conference, International Communication Association, Seattle, May 22, 2014,



Challenging the ‘New Descriptivism’ – Rod Benson’s talk from QualPolComm preconference

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Rod Benson (NYU) served as a respondent at our conference on Qualitative Political Communication Research in May at ICA in Seattle.

His response created quite a stir (it has become known in some circles as his “ANT-takedown”) and was clearly aimed at more than the four particular papers on the panel.

We are happy he has agreed to share the text of his talk, posted below. It’s very good, provocative, and we hope it will spur debate.

Rodney Benson

“Challenging the ‘New Descriptivism’: Restoring Explanation, Evaluation, and Theoretical Dialogue to Communication Research.”

Remarks at the Qualitative Political Communication Pre-Conference,

International Communication Association

Seattle, May 22, 2014


Given time constraints, I will cut to the chase. I’ve been asked to stir things up a bit, so I’ll see what I can do.

We’ve just heard two excellent ANT (actor-network theory) papers (Joshua Braun; Burcu Baykurt) and two excellent systems/institutional theory papers (Hannah Middendorf; Lucas Graves and Magda Konieczna).

This seems like a good opportunity to put these different approaches in dialogue. And to do so, I’d like to raise four big meta-questions:

First, where is the explanation?

Second, why should we care – what is at stake?

Third, how should we see society – as settled or unsettled?

And fourth, is it possible for ANT and institutional theories to work productively together – or are we faced only with the choices of mutual indifference or all-out-war?


(1) Let’s start with the first question. Where is the explanation?

In other words, as we saw with some of the papers in this session, the research starts and ends with a descriptive account. We wait in vain for the explanatory analysis. Why? Why these findings and not others? The answers never arrive.

I call this the “new descriptivism.”

I can’t prove it with quantitative evidence, but I’ve begun to notice a widespread tendency of more and more research offering descriptions and nothing else: very detailed, very sophisticated, very interesting descriptions, but at the end of the day, just descriptions. What has happened to explanation? (And, related, as I’ll ask in a moment: what has happened to critique?)

I can think of several reasons, not necessarily good reasons, but reasons nonetheless for the lack of explanatory analysis in so much of our contemporary research:

First, people are overwhelmed with “big data” or they’re geeking out on the new computer tools they can use to map and track this data. In this context, it makes eminent sense to begin with description and get around to explanation later. But there is so much to describe – and so much to turn into nifty visual graphs and charts – that the moment for explanation never seems to arrive.

Second, there is a lack of variation incorporated into research design. To explain, you need variation. When we explain, usually what we’re doing is saying that more or less of x contributes to more or less of y. And if you don’t have variation built into your research design, you can’t do that.

Third, people are working with theories that are antithetical to explanation, understood as I’ve just defined it, such as:

-Holistic, totalizing theories, like Foucault’s neo-liberal governmentality – in this case, the description and explanation are basically the same; or

-Theories of contingency and chaos and flux, heterogeneity (to use the ANT term), and unpredictability – in which case, everything is so unstable and unpredictable that nothing can be explained; or

-Epistemologically relativistic theories, such as ANT: in other words, to explain, some accounts must be privileged over others, and this is precisely what ANT not only will not but cannot do, given its epistemology.

Let me expand on this last point about epistemology, specifically in relation to actor-network theory. As Joshua Braun mentioned in his talk, there is a strong link between ANT and STS “controversy studies.”

What does ANT mean by controversy studies? Well, it has a close cousin in sociology – and that cousin is what is called the social construction of “social problems” or “social constructionism” (or sometimes social “constructivism”) for short.

There are two broad strains of social constructionism:

1) Strict constructionism (represented most notably by Stephen Woolgar, who not coincidentally has co-authored with Bruno Latour): social reality in media and other public forums is constructed by discourses or in turn by interpretive communities; given that we know that all knowledge is constructed, no construction can be privileged over another; hence, the role of the analyst is to try to faithfully catalogue the array of constructions.


2) Contextual constructionism (represented most notably by Joel Best): social construction of public problems in media and other public forums has to be situated in a context. For example, the social construction of the immigration problem, as with research for my book Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison, should be understood in relation to the economy, political events, unemployment, immigration flows, etc. Of course, these kinds of official and expert discourses are also constructions, and contested ones, but nevertheless we privilege some of them (with all due skepticism) as part of the explanation of why some constructions win out over others in the public debate.

Now there are many varieties of contextual constructionism. There is the almost ad hoc kind favored by Best, the value-added model of William Gamson (social movement strategies, media logics, cultural resonances, objective factors), and there is the “structural constructionism” represented by institutional and field theories. What all of these “contextual” accounts have in common is that they do not “level” the social world and treat all accounts equally; they privilege some accounts over others in order to arrive at explanations.

So to bring this back around to ANT and institutional/field theories.

Clearly, ANT is a version of strict constructionism. ANT does not privilege one account over another. Latour, and John Law, are very explicit about this. It’s part of their credo of keeping the world flat. And this is one of the key reasons why ANT is so unsatisfying to anyone who reads it looking for anything in the way of explanation. It’s just not there and it’s not there by design.

On the other hand, institutional/field theories are versions of contextual constructionism – with the virtue of offering the kind of systematic “systemic” context needed for effective cross-national research.

ANT has the virtue of raising epistemological questions directly and of offering a consistent epistemology. ANT shifts the burden of justification to those who do want to explain, who do want to judge. If we want to explain and judge, we have to make the case for how any particular disposition from a position – how any socially-produced form of knowledge – is superior to someone else’s. Bourdieu makes the case with his notions of autonomy and reflexivity. Most of us simply bracket or ignore the question and carry on with our research.

For the moment, ANT-style relativism seems to be in vogue. In terms of epistemological consistency, again, there is an argument for such relativism. But, let’s be clear, there is a cost:

The cost is: First, no explanations – that would privilege some accounts over others. And second, no evaluations – nothing is better or worse than anything else.


(2) Which leads me to my second big question, very briefly. Why should we care – what’s at stake?

ANT studies don’t – won’t – answer this question. In return, one might respond: Why should we care about ANT?

(There might still be some reasons – I’ll return to this at the end.)


(3) Moving on quickly, third big question: What is our basic understanding of society?

Is society’s default position settled or unsettled?

Most institutional and field approaches presume settledness. What has to be explained is how things ever get unsettled.

There are periodic moments of crisis and contestation. Somebody’s solution wins out. The solution is anchored in institutions over time through path dependency; it gets naturalized so no one can imagine an alternative – until the next crisis appears and then there is the small possibility of change. Fligstein and McAdam (A Theory of Fields) are very explicit about this.

We see this presumption in the research question posed by Lucas Graves and Magda Konieczna’s paper: Under what conditions is it possible to “unsettle previously stable arrangements”?

Alternatively, ANT presumes unsettledness: society is fundamentally unsettled and the production of order is the miracle we have to explain.

Braun, quoting John Law: “How is it that some kinds of interactions appear to succeed in stabilizing and reproducing themselves”?

So is the glass half-full or half-empty? The two approaches differ in which half of the glass they want to call attention to.

This would be okay if there were occasional nods to the other half, but in fact, the accounts tend to be one-sided.


(4) Which leads me to my fourth and final question: Can ANT and institutional/field theories play nice – or not?

Yes, I think they can play nice. We’ve played nice this afternoon and all of these papers in this panel stress the need to bring multiple strains of theory together.

I want to close by listing four possible ways in which ANT and institutional/field theories can be complementary to each other: 1) temporal, 2) spatial, 3) topical, and 4) analytical.

The first is a temporal division of labor. The argument is that historical conditions make one approach more appropriate than another. We hear this argument often made for ANT but actually I think it’s the weakest possible argument.

In effect, when times are settled, we need institutional theories; when times are unsettled, as they are now, we need an unsettled theory like ANT.

For instance, Josh Braun argues that ANT is the best model for studying certain kinds of media work that now seem on the ascendance, the kind described by Mark Deuze as “project-based” liquid journalism.

Again, I’m not convinced by this argument. Things seem unsettled – at least to some scholars and journalists – but are they really that unsettled, overall, for other people, for most people?

Several studies have shown in fact that journalistic norms and practices have not changed that much in the aggregate.

So we need to keep this question of the unsettledness of this historical moment “open” – and not let our theories prejudge the answers.

In fact, far from historical conditions demanding a certain theory, I would caution that the seeming appropriateness of some new theory might mask “ideological effects.” ANT may actually be the least appropriate theory to analyze new developments in media, precisely because it valorizes and legitimizes a view of the world – of rapid change, innovation, agency – consistent with the worldview and interests of powerful interests in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Washington, D.C.

Maybe, either way, we just find what we’re looking for – settledness or unsettledness. But going in, if possible, rather than presuming the correctness of one or the other theory, we should see ANT and institutional/field theories as competing hypotheses and then try to let the evidence speak for itself.

Now, second, to the spatial dimension – and I find this a much more compelling way to parse out distinct roles for ANT and institutional/field theories. Gil Eyal makes this argument in his essay “Fields and the Spaces Between.” He argues that society is composed of settled fields and unsettled actor-networks that are not fields or just not yet fields. I find this argument much more convincing, but we need more research to try to prove that there are actually such differentiated social spaces and that they operate according to different logics.

Third, we have the topical dimension. Fred Turner, Nick Couldry, Chris Anderson and Daniel Kreiss, and others argue that we need a theory like ANT because it calls attention to phenomena ignored by other theories, namely technical artifacts and objects, which have their own form of “agency.” I’m not entirely sure about the idea of non-human, object-based agency. But I am persuaded that ANT has played an important role in focusing attention on the power of new technologies, and in ways potentially quite useful and distinct from McLuhanist technological determinism.

Fourth, and finally, as I’ve already alluded to, there can be an analytical division of labor. We can use different theories for different purposes: descriptive, explanatory, and normative analysis. ANT may only be descriptive, but as long as we are not relying only on ANT, this isn’t a fatal flaw. We see this use of multiple types of theories in Chris Anderson’s Rebuilding the News. He draws on ANT in the first part of his book, which has a more descriptive focus in order to call attention to the ways in which new technologies are transforming the ecology of media. Then, in the last half of the book, he uses institutional theory for explanation (explanation of persistence and lack of change in many cases) and democratic normative theory to make judgments about whether these developments are good or bad.

All such combinations of course presume heterodox rather than orthodox interpretations and uses of theory. I had a French colleague who was once introduced at some French conference as a “Bourdieusienne heterodox,” the implication being that there was something almost wrong or weird about this. In America, maybe, we can more easily get away with being heterodox. Still, we need to be mindful of the kind of heterodoxy we pursue.

The danger with heterodoxy is taking theoretical concepts out of context and totally distorting their meaning.

The potential benefit of heterodoxy is putting theory to work so that it can open up rather than close down a dialogue with other scholars. To me, that makes a lot more sense than just staying inside our churches and speaking only to our co-religionists.

Thank you.


Suggested citation

Benson, Rodney. 2014. “Challenging the ‘New Descriptivism’: Restoring Explanation, Evaluation, and Theoretical Dialogue to Communication Research.” Presentation at Qualitative Political Communication Pre-Conference, International Communication Association, Seattle, May 22, 2014,

Qualitative Political Communication preconference at ICA14

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

The qualitative political communication research preconference at the 2014 International Communication Association’s annual meeting in Seattle was a great success.


A success first and foremost intellectually in terms of the rich and diverse range of work presented.

A success also just in terms of the sheer turnout of people–more than 30 papers presented and more than 100 people signed up just to attend. We sold out, which we gather is not a common problem at academic conferences.

Those present in person–attendees, those who gave papers, respondents, plenary speakers–represent an important part of a community of people interested in the role of qualitative research in understanding political communication processes.

As do the people who were with us in spirit, and digitally, as witnessed by the lively stream of tweets around the #qualpolcomm hashtag throughout the day.

David Domingo has storified the digital parts of the conversation, which you can check out here to get a sense of the presentations, discussions, and remarks made by plenary speakers.

It gives a good sense of the flow of the day for those who couldn’t be there.

We hope that this website and future initiatives can help sustain that community and keep the conversation alive.

We are already working on the special issue of the International Journal of Communication that will collect some of the best papers from the conference, as well as on gathering some of the respondents’ and plenary speakers’ remarks and other material to publish here on the site.

Stay tuned.

Special section of IJoC on qualitative political communication research

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

We are happy to announce that the International Journal of Communication (IJoC) has agreed to publish a special section on qualitative political communication research based on our forthcoming ICA preconference.

The IJoC is the premier international, interdisciplinary open access journal in media and communications research.

A special section there provides us with the perfect opportunity to publish the best work from the preconference in a timely and accessible manner and make it available to the wider academic community.

The four ICA preconference organizers, David Karpf, Daniel Kreiss, Matthew Powers, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen will select the best papers from the conference which will be submitted for peer review through the IJoC review system. (As we already have such an international and strong set of submissions for the preconference itself, there will be no separate call for papers.)

On this basis, the final special section on qualitative political communication research is expected to be published in the early summer of 2015, in advance of next year’s ICA conference.

We are grateful to Larry Gross, the IJoC editor, for providing us with this opportunity.

“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. Read the rest of this entry »

Susan Herbst’s Reading Public Opinion: Further notes from a reading group

by Matthew Powers

By Matthew Powers, Dave Karpf, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Chris Anderson

 In politics, “public opinion” represents something of a catchall term: politicians claim responsiveness to it; journalists assert a professional duty to help shape it; and activists often profess acting on behalf of it. Yet as Susan Herbst shows in her important book, Reading Public Opinion, no single “public” lay behind the claims of these various parties. Instead, the term means different things to different participants in the political process – and the social spaces and communication environments that actors occupy shape these differences in important ways. A key task for scholars of political communication, therefore, is not simply to understand “public opinion” on a given issue (e.g., via opinion polling) but to understand how different participants construct and understand what public opinion is and what role it ought to play in the democratic process.

At the heart of Herbst’s book is a call for taking seriously the “lay theories” of participants in political process. By lay theory, she refers to the experientially based ideas actors hold about what public opinion is, how it operates and why it matters. She acknowledges that such theories have no scientific basis (in terms of external validity), yet argues that they nonetheless exert important effects on the political process by shaping political actors’ views of whose opinions count as public. Reading Public Opinion is thus an attempt to gather these various lay theories together, show how they interact and analyze what they mean for the democratic process.  

The book takes the Illinois capitol of Springfield as its site of empirical inquiry. Herbst conducts interviews with over 40 policymakers, journalists and activists to learn what they understand public opinion to be. She finds that policymakers – concerned as they are with crafting legislation – first look to lobbyists and interest groups for views on what is required in their constituencies. At the same time, policymakers also use the news media as proxies for a citizenry to which they have little direct access: they try to anticipate and respond to news coverage, as that coverage serves as a stand-in for the public opinion of the citizenry at-large. By contrast, journalists reporting on legislative affairs understand something different by the term. To them, public opinion refers to the news audience. The reporter’s task is to provide that audience with the information they need in order to form opinions about legislation. In Herbst’s analysis, policymakers and journalists conflict with one another precisely over questions of which party best represents “the public”: journalists express skepticism of the “spin” policymakers and communication directors put on news, while policymakers see journalists as biased against government. Both views, she suggests, stem more or less directly from their lay theories of public opinion.

Herbst’s chapter on how activists view public opinion shifts away from the state-level and draws on national survey data of party delegates to the national Republican and Democratic conventions. Unlike policymakers and journalists, she finds activists more likely to see public opinion as aggregate-level individual views rather media coverage or interest groups. Much more than the other two groups, activists are likely to see opinion polling as a legitimate expression of public opinion. It’s worth noting that her definition of activist here refers primarily to party activists – it would be interesting and useful to expand the inquiry to include groups with an interest in shaping the political process but without any clear party affiliation.

The book’s final chapter aims to tease out the normative implications of the various lay theories her research unearths. Drawing on her interview data, she shows how different actors maintain different views on democratic theory – some more elitist, others more representative and still others more participatory. She then connects these views with long-standing scholarly debates – stretching back as far as classical antiquity – on what the political process ought to entail.

Reading Public Opinion stands out as an important piece of political communication scholarship and its qualitative research design is key to its importance. Rather than assuming public opinion to have a fixed meaning, Herbst begins from the premise that the concept is essentially contingent. As such, public opinion is not so much a fact awaiting discovery so much as a fact that must be built, maintained and contested. The book offers a key account of some of the ways that happens at a key level of politics. At the same time, transformations to our contemporary communication environments raise interesting questions about whether the lay theories of actors are changing. The emergence of new techniques – audience metrics, consumer data, etc. – that bring “public opinion” into being raise important questions how political actors view the democratic process today and how they go about reading public opinion into it. Written more than 15 years ago, Reading Public Opinion provides an important exploration of the construction of public opinion at a specific point time. The time now is perhaps ripe for further empirical exploration.


Herbst, Susan. 1998. Reading Public Opinion: How Political Actors View the Democratic Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


“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. Read the rest of this entry »

“How does communication infrastructure organize the campaign?”—QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Fenwick McKelvey and Jill Piebak are working a paper called “Porting the Good Campaign” on how U.S. campaign technology is imported and used in Canada 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 them about their research.

RKN: You work on the import and translation of political technologies across borders, political cultures, and contexts. 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 a dialogue with?

FM & JP: We’re looking at the spread of political campaign software, so far, from the United States to Canada. By political software, we mean the technology that runs the back-end databases, keeps track of donations or manages voter contact. We’re still working on a survey of the field to give a sense of the features offered.

JP: The industry ranges across from marketing to large-scale, big-budgeted campaigns to non-profit, low-budget advocacy groups with products ranging from customizable and expensive to one-size fits all or open source.

FM & JP: Encoded in this software is a lot of the processes of political communication.  The good practices that make winning campaigns, if you read the sale brochure. We’re interested in what practices travel with software from one political culture to another.

FM: If you look at the advertisements, this software usually promises political players greater control over their messaging and organization. These are core tasks of political communication. How does communication infrastructure organize the campaign? I am very intellectually indebted to the work of the organizers of this pre-conference who have focused on the different ways of organizing through digital technology either as passive democratic feedback, computational management and mundane technologies. This branch of organizational communication — one that I am slowly learning — connects to issues of framing and agenda setting in political communication. Keeping the voters in the system to ensure you can craft the right message. Software stabilizes — or as Kreiss & Anderson claim make durable — these two aspects of political communication.

JP: Another term rather than control that they offer is to target and speak directly to individual donors, voters, potential volunteers. The company’s stress that it’s not just about controlling a message it’s about having the ability to reach out to each person and getting the information about what their stake is in the election or campaign. Segmenting the population down to the individuals rather than speaking to the broadest base of voters. “Reach the voters that matter with the right messages” according to CampaignGrid or “Reach the right people with the right message at the right time in the right place” as SalsaLabs says.

FM: I hope this work compliments what I would call the literature of digital political communication. Philip N Howard, Andrew Chadwick and Lance Bennett introduced me to how changes in political communication relate to the Internet. Howard, in particular, helped me start thinking about the potential of digital technology to increases the control of the voter in the communication system. What he would call managed citizenship. Whether you buy this claim or not, Howard put me on a question that Lance Bennett and Jarol B. Manheim pose nicely as a shift from a two-step to one-step flow of communication. Their basic claim is that the social conditions of political communication differ enough from the assumptions of Lazarsfeld and Merton to require more observation and attention to the practices of political communication.

FM: It’s a period then of change and experimentation into the techniques of control in political communication. The United States, for reasons likely to do with size and the ongoing campaigns across the country, has created a whole industry attempting to master this one-step flow. With great work already on this American context, I thought it would be helpful to then look at how these new practices circulate as software products from the USA and abroad.

FM & JP: If some strategies and tactics have proven effective in the United States, will they work elsewhere? It always struck me as an interesting question to look at this process of adaptation of this software. Can you store the data in the same way? Do the same best practices hold true? What products can make this international transition? What is the work involved in a party adopting this technology? How can this help with reflecting on the nature of political communication in a digital era? How have these practitioners in outside of the US adapted or made-do with the product in order for it to work best in a Canadian political environment?

RKN: In your abstract for the conference, you make it clear you draw on work from well beyond traditional political communication research. In addition to those mentioned above, where did you find the main theoretical and methodological inspirations for your work?

FM: I have always seen myself as an interdisciplinary researcher for better or worse and I have been inspired by a few sources. I’d point to the concept of the political and media studies embedded in web archiving.

FM: I think of the field as it relates to the concept of the political — a word I came to understand through Laclau & Mouffe. The political refers to the irresolvable differences inherent in society. Republicans or Democrats or in my own Canadian way, New Democrats, the Bloc, Liberals and Tories all have different ways of seeing the world or the future that cannot be resolved. Their differences create antagonisms that play out in the democratic campaign with winners and losers. Mouffe especially rejects the idea of a rational deliberative democracy with its promise in consensus. Instead, campaigns and elections resolves these differences in very contingent ways and imperfect ways. This is never settled and its what I’ve called a Permanent Campaign in my work with Greg Elmer and Ganaele Langlois.

FM: I’d also point out that my interest in software from an applied media studies necessary for web archiving. I began my research in political communication at the Infoscape Centre for the Study of Social Media in 2006. There I joined a project looking at the discussion of candidates for the leadership of the Liberal Party in blogs. We were looking at these platforms as intersections between traditional elites and new elite actors. (This I would add distinguishes political communication from the more narrow interest of political science with politicians).

FM: Methodologically, we drew on the work of Kirsten A. Foot and Steven M. Schneider on political web archiving. Their work in retrospect included a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods. One can’t really separate these quantitative results from the very qualitative studies of the platform or even in interpreting the quantitative results. An example of this approach is that we could find the most popular links among Canadian partisan bloggers. From this quantitative count we’d then have a reason to dig into a part of the data and be able to tell a certain story about blog activity during the campaign.

FM: At the Centre, we began to notice that as social media developed, the platforms became more complicated and I had to spend more time studying how that platform worked in order to scrape it. Eventually, these questions of a very applied media study had me start wondering about the back-end of technology. What was the software running behind the scenes? This research looking specifically at the political campaign software is part of answering that question. So while, I see a direct relation to the study of software in political communication, there is also a component of media studies or Internet studies in the work.

FM: There is some tremendous work being done on platform studies that looks at channels of communication and interaction online such as Tania Bucher, Ganaele Langlois, Robert W. Gehl and Carolin Gerlitz to name a few of the scholars I really try to follow.

FM: I’d add that as a junior scholar I’m learning about my own education as a Canadian researcher and how its national communication studies diverged from the American tradition. The Canadian field has then always had a strong qualitative side perhaps best summarized in the ‘dirt research’ of Harold Innis. While that emphasis has a convoluted history before it reaches me, it still encourages an attention to things. It’s good to play around with it as much as I can. I’m excited to be integrating interview with this attention to software to understand the processes of adaption and internationalization.

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 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 you think about the reach of your work in different terms?

FM & JP: We’re not, at this point, aiming to make a generalizable claim, but rather make a focused observation about the flow of American political technology to Canada. That process, while specific and unique, speaks to a broader phenomenon. American political technology firms have been active across the globe, especially in the lead up to the  European Union elections. We assume that these technologies will need to become more internationalized, staff will need to be trained and data imported will need to be added the new system. Further research will be looking at how this work will be comparable to the work being done in Canada.

FM & JP: We’d say it matters because its analyzing changes in the nature of campaigning and democracy in a Canada. We’re talking about a small part of this change, but one that could inform comparative work globally. So we’re not worried about being generalizable because I see this process as being really specific and focused, but common to many other countries.

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 advertising effects on attitudes through survey research. Is your research relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

FM: I would cite Bennett and Manheim that I really think offer a way to work across these fields. To instrumentalize, we need to understand the present context. How might we be able to identify some new techniques that will be used in the next election based on knowing the changing political infrastructure? Blue State Digital sold a feature in the last US election called Quick Donate. They suggested that a campaign could not only target voters, but at particular emotional moments such as “right after a campaign rally, in response to a Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan speech and so on”. It’s a whole other approach to targeting, not just the segments, but targeting specific emotional moments. Does this work? Is this effective? I’d really appreciate quantitative work that discusses this issue and also helps us understand — here I put on my hat as a policy researcher — whether its something that requires new regulation or governance. Door-to-door sales have a ‘cooling-off period’. Would political donations require that too? It’s something that both qualitative and quantitative political communication could answer.

Full abstract below.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

“All research methods are imperfect, so methodological opportunism seems like a good idea”—ICA QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Ulrike Klinger, Stefan Rösli, and Otfried Jarren are working on a paper dealing with how and why Swiss city governments use participatory online tools 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 them about their research.

RKN: You work on how city governments use participatory online tools. How would you say your work on this connects to core concerns of political communication research? Are there particular researchers or schools of thought you see yourself as being in a dialogue with?

Besides the obvious connection – a research project about how city governments and their administrations seek to engage citizens via participatory online communication – there are two aspects that we could underline here: First, we believe that social media and other participatory tools have been around for too long to still discuss their “potential”. Our project connects with scholars who empirically investigate if and how they are really changing political communication, whatever the “potential” might be. Secondly, what do the empirical bits and pieces tell us about digital public spheres? Andrew Chadwick made a good point with his hybrid media systems. We need to factor in local mass media, and also local non-political public debate.

RKN: Your work is partly rooted in political communication research, but also seems to go beyond it—are there other fields or disciplines that have been important sources of theoretical and methodological inspirations?

The project is basically rooted in actor-centered institutionalism and ideas about the formation of political legitimacy. It is a research project of communication scholars, but includes perspectives from other social sciences, e.g. from political science or relational sociology. We combined a quantitative approach (our “inventory” of participative communication in Swiss cities) and a qualitative design to go beyond a descriptive account.

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?

It is certainly important to be aware of the limitations that your methodological design entails, and it is also a question of resources. Saturation is a key issue when working with interviews, and we were able to reach this point with 22 interviews, because the experiences in Swiss cities did not vary too broadly. However, Switzerland is quite a special case, with very high levels of internet usage and infrastructural development, elevated position of municipalities in the political system (such as tax autonomy, right to grant citizenship etc.) and of course the strong traditions of direct democracy – all this is hardly generalizable. But other studies found similar results in different contexts, that participative tools tend to be underexploited in political communication. Thus, we need to compare, and maybe we need more meta-analyses binding results from different contexts together.

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 relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

We do not see qualitative and quantitative methods as opponents, but they inform each other. Qualitative research can be much more explorative in new or under-studied fields, and helps to formulate categories for quantitative designs. All research methods are somehow imperfect, which is why both multi-method designs and political scientist Adam Przeworski`s “methodological opportunism” seem a good idea: “I am a methodological opportunist who believes in doing or using whatever works. If game theory works, I use it. If what is called for is a historical account, I do that. If deconstruction is needed, I will even try deconstruction. So I have no principles.”

Full abstract below. Read the rest of this entry »