Module 1 : Unit 2 : Media Research as Social Science



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Module 1 : Unit 2 : Media Research as Social Science


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Author

James Halloran

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University of Leicester

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V1.0

Date

09 Feb 2010

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1. Introduction
This unit looks at the relationship between media research and social science, focusing in particular on the early days of media research in the U.K. and in the U.S.A. It recounts (from the position of one who was closely associated with it) the experience of the Television Research Committee in the U.K. in helping to establish a new research agenda and in generating sociological research into the media. It distinguishes between conventional research (drawing on the methods of natural science, but often making no reference to social theory), administrative research (mainly serving the communications industry) and critical research (often inspired by social concerns, but independent of industrial interests in the questions which it asks, and relating the media to broader social, economic and political questions and concerns).
1.1 The nature of social science
One of the aims of this unit is to look at the part played by social science in the study of the media and the communication process. We might start by asking “What is Social Science?” Many definitions are available, but here we need not trouble to debate the relative merits of these. Let us settle for a fairly simple one that encompasses the chief characteristics of social science - characteristics which will receive more detailed attention as we examine research into communications and the media.
1.2 What is scientific about social science?
“Social science, which is generally regarded as including psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics and political science, consists of the disciplined and systematic study of society and its institutions, and of how and why people behave as they do, both as individuals and in groups within society. At a minimum it would appear that to be “scientific” entails a systematic and disciplined method of acquiring knowledge, and that knowledge must be verifiable knowledge.
So, we enter a problem area at the outset for it may be argued (Gareau, 1987) that society, its institutions and social relationships are not susceptible to scientific study, and that the methods of the natural sciences should not be applied to social phenomena. That the terms “social” and “scientific” may not sit comfortably together was illustrated by the decision of the British

Government in the early nineteen eighties to change the name of the Social Science Research Council (which included mass communication research in its remit) to the Economic and Social Research Council. The message seemed to be: if it's social it can't be scientific!” (J.D. Halloran, Social Science, communication research and the Third World, Media Development (1998) Vol. 2, WACC).


The humanistic affinity of social science needs to be recognized, as do its overlaps with philosophy, law, geography and literary criticism, but even amongst those who consider themselves to be social scientists, we are likely to find many different approaches to the study of the media and communications. As we shall see later, these may range from those who strive to be scientific, adopting or adapting models from the natural sciences, to those who, in studying the same subjects, rely more on imagination and insight unfettered, as they see it, by scientific paraphernalia. Just to complicate matters, there are also those who attempt to blend the two approaches.
Who and what should we include, then, in our overview of the social scientific contribution to mass communication research? My approach is inclusive rather than exclusive, although selections and preferences will become obvious in the course of the following discussion. The unit does not set out to provide a comprehensive and balanced history of mass communication research (this is the task of Module 1 as a whole). My main purpose is to draw attention to and describe how social scientists have studied the media and the communication process, and to examine the various factors - economic, political, cultural and disciplinary - which have facilitated or impeded the development and maintenance of these different approaches.
Although our focus is on social science, social scientists are not the only scholars with a contribution to make to a debate which certainly pre-dates the advent of social science. The debate about the media and their influence and role in society has been carried on by literary critics, social philosophers, moralists, artists and educators who, judging from their comments, often feel that the social scientists are so preoccupied with research techniques and methodological devices that their works lack immediate social relevance, tending to concentrate only on the questions for which they have the `scientific' means at their disposal to answer rather than the questions which are the most interesting and important. The social scientists in turn query the usefulness of evidence produced without the benefit of scientific approaches and criticize what they consider to be the undisciplined nature of the generalizations, interpretations and speculations which abound in this field (McQuail, 2005, chapter 3).
1.2.1 Cultural studies
Some years ago I drew attention to the nature and extent of this conflict as it existed in the 1960s (Halloran, 1964). In recent years, with the burgeoning of cultural studies, the issue has taken on an added significance. It has re-emerged in new forms, and is relevant to our discussions in this unit.
The term `cultural studies' covers a multitude of positions. As James Carey, an outstanding scholar in this field, has written, “[cultural studies] does not represent a homogeneous point of view; it is not a body of propositions or methods commanding universal assent from those who practice scholarship under its banner” (Carey, 1992). (As part of Activity 5 of this unit you will be asked to read Chapter 5 of the Course Book by McQuail, 2005, which is an introduction to cultural studies).
Carey's wing of cultural studies shares with many social scientists a faith in liberal democracy and in reformist measures to make society more just and open (Gouldner, 1955). It represents a revolt against the extreme scientific approach referred to above, and is interested “in charting and explaining social conflict, in uncovering the meanings embedded in social practice (and) in laying out the dimensions and politics of social struggle” (Carey, 1992). Carey is quick to remind us, however, that there are those working in cultural studies who are far removed from his approach. These tend to equate pretentious speculation and interpretation with theory, adopt a selective approach to the use of evidence, and appear to have abandoned, or perhaps have never even embraced or understood, a systematic approach to knowledge. But far more serious than this, according to Carey, is the failure of such writers to understand history, economics, organizations, power and, above all, social relationships and the nature of social reality in contemporary society. In other words, their work reflects an ignorance of the social scientific perspective and an absence of intellectual analysis and political understanding (Carey, 1992).
So, even in our relatively inclusive approach not everything goes. In fact, in searching for guidelines for our inclusions we could do worse than follow the advice of the sociologist, John Rex. Some thirty years ago he emphasised the need for systematic and accurate observation, a respect for evidence, careful examination and description, caution and the consideration of alternatives. Rex saw these qualities as the sine qua non of social scientific endeavour, and he rejected dogma, doctrinaire assertions, selectivity and the work of those who were either unable or unwilling to make the distinction between ideology and social science, and who often promoted the former in the shape of the latter (Rex, 1978).
Because I want to prioritize disciplined, systematic study over speculation and assertion I do not want to imply indifference to values and social concerns, nor to discourage people from advocating and working towards preferred futures, or having their our own specific aims and objectives. However, it is essential to recognise that others may have different preferences and objectives. To some it is the commitment, the social concern and the wish to use results to produce change that gives research not only its dynamic quality, but also its justification. As Alvin Gouldner maintained, the critical, moral component is a vital part of an endeavour which is essentially purposive, and in which social scientists might be likened to “clinicians striving to further democratic potentialities (Gouldner, 1955. Ideally, the pursuit of theoretical refinement need not be incompatible with either methodological rigour or social objectives.
1.3 The limitations of social science
We might usefully conclude this section by drawing attention to the limitations of social science. It is important to do this because some social scientists have created false expectations by suggesting that clear answers and successful formulae may be produced at short notice. In doing this they over-simplify by omitting that which does not fit into their neat schema, and this tends to lead to a failure to recognize what really amounts to the intrinsic unpredictability of our field.
When he was Chairman of the Social Science Research Council in Britain, Andrew Schonfield wrote:
“In the social sciences it is rarely possible to pose questions and provide answers in the manner of some of the natural sciences, and it is a refusal to recognize this that has often led us up the wrong path. It is the nature of most of our work that it tends to produce useful ideas and an increasingly firm factual base, rather than clear-cut answers to major policy questions. We must try to tease out the relationships which have a crucial effect on policy and, in doing so, provide not so much widely applicable generalizations as a sound, informed basis for decision-making and, at the same time, cut down the area of reliance on guesswork and prejudice.” (Schonfield, 1971).
This is the framework within which we have to operate.
Activity One (Allow 30 minutes)
What do you consider to be the essential features of a social scientific approach to mass communication research?
How do you react to the statement “If it's social it can't be scientific”?
What approach, if any, would you exclude from a systematic study of the media, and why?
2. The Context of Mass Communication Research
“We need the knowledge that only research can provide before we can develop adequate communication policies”. (UNESCO, 1971 )
“If they can get you to ask the wrong questions they don't have to worry about the answers you provide”. (Halloran, 1991)
“Information is a necessary but never a sufficient cause of social action, although there are some instances where it may be used as a substitute for action”. (Halloran, 1981)
2.1 Influence, internal and external
Although the myths of objectivity die hard in certain media circles, in journalism in particular, over the last quarter of a century there has developed a wider acceptance that what appears on our screens and in print (including “hard” news) is influenced by a range of factors economic, organizational, political, cultural, technological and professional. In other words, media material is not produced in a cultural/political vacuum. There has also been a gradual realization in social science that the questions asked, the methods employed, the interpretation of results - in fact the overall approaches of those who study the media and the communication process - are similarly subject to a wide range of influences.
In tracing some of the developments in the short history of mass communication research, and in examining some of the main approaches, one of our aims will be to identify these influences - internal and external to social science - and see how they have helped to set the research agenda by facilitating or impeding specific lines of enquiry.
The UNESCO quotation which opens this section dates from the early 1970s, and was based on the recognition that while wide-ranging developments in communication, at national and international levels, were taking place, little thought had been given to, and little was known about, the wider economic, cultural and political implications of these developments. It formed part of a plea for more research and for the development of communication policies and related research policies which might remedy this state of affairs.
Despite these developments in communication, however, we are still short on information - the sort of information on the wider social and cultural implications of developments in communication that ideally should provide a reliable base for policy formulation and decision- making. This becomes particularly evident when we are called upon to address the communication process within the wider international setting. We need to ask why this is so.
Because of the way research has been defined, initiated, supported and organized, and because of the tasks it has been called on to perform, not only do we not have enough information but the information we have is partial and unbalanced. We know far more about some parts of the world than about others; we know far more about some aspects of the communication process than about others; and we have more analyses and interpretations from certain value positions than from others. An additional complication is that the implications of these imbalances are not properly understood and, as a result, we frequently encounter universal generalizations and cross-cultural applications which are just not valid.
I want to emphasize the point, therefore, that research is not initiated, organized, executed or applied in a social/political vacuum. Appreciation of the nature of research and its application calls for an understanding of the historical, economic, political, organizational, disciplinary, professional and personal factors which impinge on the research process in so many ways.
Put briefly, these are the general factors that govern what research is carried out and, perhaps more importantly, what research is not carried out. In some way or other the questions we ask in research are indications of what we consider to be important or problematic. They reflect our interests, our priorities, our values and our concerns. They also reflect our compromises with regard to what is allowed or is otherwise possible.
Unfortunately, it would appear that there are still researchers, wherever the media and the communication process are studied, who do not recognize this situation. They accept as given, or take for granted as an unquestioned assumption, what ideally they should regard as problematic, and this, not surprisingly, is reflected in their work, what they do, how they interpret their research findings, and how they seek to apply the knowledge their research generates.
Research is essentially a conditioned or circumscribed attempt to construct a representation of reality and, in a way, a method of social control. The outcome is a version of reality - maybe the most accurate version available, but still a version. The version is constructed by the selection of areas or topics, and by the use of concepts, techniques, categories, systems of classification and categorization, and the positing of relationships within these areas. Again, these concepts, categories and relationships do not develop in a vacuum - they are not neutral - therefore, in this unit we need to ask about the framework within which they have developed and are being applied. This is particularly important when comparisons are being made between different approaches.
The unbalanced or uneven distribution of research internationally is a reflection of other areas of economic and informational imbalance which characterize the international scene. Research does not exist independently of these. Even today, despite changes and critical developments in recent years, at least as far as quantity is concerned, the imbalance still exists. Research approaches and thinking that stem from western industrialized experiences are still very much in evidence, and this applies to research which deals with international communications, media and development, and Third World problems generally.
Activity Two (Allow 20 minutes)
Read chapter 4 by Halloran in Boyd-Barrett and Newbold, 1995, Approaches to Media. Summarize the factors that may impinge on the research process. Does the fact that research is not carried out in a social and political vacuum invalidate it?
3. Factors that Influenced the Development of Media Research in the U.K.
We have seen that research into the communication process and the mass media can be influenced by many factors. These might range from the needs of the market place, through social concern (e.g. about media violence), to the character and stage of development of the disciplines (e.g. sociology, psychology) involved in research. This section provides a specific example of the factors that influenced the development and direction of mass communication research in one country, i.e. Great Britain.
The way in which research is influenced will differ from country to country, different combinations of factors applying in different places. Additionally, the situation is far better documented in some places than in others, so again our knowledge is not evenly distributed. Nevertheless, the same general principle applies in all cases, namely that research is not free from constraints, and its development and operations must be studied within the wider historical and social contexts.
3.1 Lack of research
Mass communication research does not have a long history. If we focus on disciplined, systematic, social scientific approaches to the study of the media as social institutions and communication as a social process, then in Great Britain the research story does not really start until the early 1960s.
The first review of the field undertaken in Great Britain, and published in 1963 (Halloran, 1963) was able to refer to very few research exercises, and these concentrated on media effects (i.e. the impact of media on attitudes and behaviour of individuals) within the experimental framework of social psychology, and/or were associated with the market and media institutions. The few general text-books published by British sociologists ignored the subject, and references to “media”, or “communication” were not even to be found in the indexes of these books. University teachers such as Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams were writing and asking pertinent questions about the mass media, but the subject was not formally taught in universities. It would appear that the first U.K. course on the sociology of the mass media was provided by the Extra-Mural Department of the University of Leicester in 1962.
The Committee on Broadcasting (The Pilkington Committee), when it reported in 1962 (H.M.S.O., 1962) confined its remarks on research to two paragraphs, and these were not particularly informative or relevant to our remit in this unit nor, for that matter, to the future of broadcasting - the Committee's remit.
3.2 Social concern
In November 1961 the Home Secretary (a senior government minister), responding to expressions of concern about the alleged harmful influence of television, held a conference of representatives of religious, educational, social service and other interests to discuss juvenile delinquency and, in particular, the extent to which the incidence of delinquency derived from the general state of society. Arising from this conference the Independent Television Authority (ITA), the non-governmental body with responsibility for the regulation of commercial television services in the UK at that time, offered to finance research into the impact of television on society, with particular reference to its effect on young people - in the hope, although not directly expressed, that it would be established that there were no adverse effects stemming from television,
Following discussions with the ITA and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the publicly funded counterpart to the ITA, the government arranged, as a first step, for a group of experts in the fields of psychology, sociology, social studies and statistics to hold a conference. This conference recommended, among other things, that research should be carried out, but that it should not be primarily concerned with the direct study of the effect of television on delinquency. It was felt that the scope should be wider and should deal with the part that television plays, or could play, in relation to other influences in communicating knowledge and fostering attitudes. The conference also recommended that a committee should be set up to give further consideration to the whole problem, to initiate and co-ordinate research, and to administer the funds that were made available.
The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester accepted the Home Secretary's invitation to become Chairman of the committee, and in July 1963 the committee had its first meeting, and began its work with the following terms of reference:
“To initiate and co-ordinate research into the part which television plays, or could play, in relation to other influences, as a medium of communication and in fostering attitudes, with particular reference to the ways in which young people's moral concepts and attitudes develop, and on the processes of perception through which they are influenced by television and other media of communication; and to administer any funds made available to it for such research”.
Although the committee was appointed by the Home Secretary and, strangely enough, was responsible to the Prison Department (thus denoting the association of television with crime and delinquency), the government was unable to provide for its servicing because it was clear that a secretary would be required who was familiar with the media and with research in mass communications. Neither the ITA nor the BBC could meet this need or the need for independence, so the chairman invited a member of the staff of his own university, a sociologist who was familiar with and had published work in the field of mass communications (the aforementioned review) to become secretary of the committee.
It was originally envisaged that, after an initial period of discussion and negotiation with researchers, the committee would make contracts for research and then spend a relatively quiet time awaiting the outcome of the commissioned research before making any public statement. Although under no specific obligation to produce a formal report, or make recommendations - its main task was to co-ordinate and initiate research - the committee was expected to arrange for the publication of research reports and, where appropriate, to comment on the findings.
However, when the committee had surveyed the research interests and the plans of social scientists in Great Britain it found that very few of them were working on research topics which related to the terms of reference, even when these were most widely interpreted. A number of proposals were received but, with one exception, these were judged to be unlikely to contribute substantially to an understanding of the problem area.
The publication (Halloran, 1963), which had led to the appointment of the secretary of the committee consisted of “a study of the mass media and their challenge”, particular attention being given to the validity of the claims about media influence - positive and negative - in the light of systematic research. The book, based on articles written in 1962 was published in 1963, and as already indicated contained few references to British research. Neither the base from which to construct a research strategy nor the researchers capable of executing a strategy were available in Great Britain.
The committee decided that it would have to proceed slowly, clarifying by its own interpretation of work in other countries, particularly in the USA, both the significance of the terms of reference and its own ultimate objectives. It would have to identify the problem areas amenable to social scientific research, assessing the social relevance of the specific questions that could be formulated within these areas, seeing what methods, skills and resources were available and could be used in attempts to answer these questions, and then finally establishing its research priorities.
Fortunately, perhaps, for the future of mass communication research the committee recognised that it had been presented with an unusual opportunity to promote scientific research in a relatively new, fascinating and important area in which fact and objectivity were urgently required to inform an increasingly spirited and continuous public debate. In the circumstances the committee soon saw that it would be a mistake to dissipate this opportunity by premature decisions to commission the first proposals put forward. To confine its activity to the acceptance and rejection of research proposals was not desirable when the substantial expertise and experience of the members could be directed to the creation of a sound base- line for future research at a much more comprehensive level.
The importance of this committee, its policy and strategy, in the development of mass communication research in Great Britain and beyond cannot be over-estimated (Television Research Committee 1966). Its decisions led to the establishment at the University of Leicester in 1966 of the first independent institutional base for mass communication research in the country and, for quite a number of years after that, Leicester led the field in research innovations and publications. It is worth noting that the terms of reference given to the Leicester Centre by the Television Research Committee were considerably wider than those given to the committee by the Home Office. The committee made a conscious decision to go beyond what some saw as its crime and delinquency remit, which it regarded as far too narrow and restrictive. Needless to say, this was not welcomed by some of those who had expressed the concern in the first place, and were looking to research to show that their fears were justified.
The policy adopted by the committee enabled the Centre to develop a comprehensive, sociologically oriented research policy at national and international levels, in which the media as social institutions, and communication as a social process were studied within the wider social context.
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