On Defining Communication Research

One of my colleagues, Dr. Gina Castle Bell, has asked her students in our undergraduate introductory course in communication research to go on a “scavenger hunt” asking professors in our department for the answers to some basic questions about communication research.  Some of these questions are similar to those included in an activity that another one of my colleagues, Dr. J. Kanan Sawyer, has been using for years in one of the courses she regularly teaches.  Just as I found it useful to respond to Dr. Kanan’s students in a blog post, I thought it would be useful to do the same for Dr. Castle Bell’s students.  So below are the questions students are asking, and my responses.

•What is the difference between Communication & Communications?

For the average person, these two terms may seem  interchangeable.  Indeed, many of my students will say they are communication majors and in the next breath say they major in communications.  But for many who are serious about studying communication, there is a significant difference.

When scholars of communication use these terms, they generally use the singular term to refer to the process of communication, and the plural term to refer to the products of communication.  Communication is the process of creating and sharing meaning.  Communications are the tangible “things” produced as a result of that process, and in particular, the things produced by industries that make money by selling those things (like newspapers and magazines and movies) and/or sell advertising in those things.

Let me quote from my earlier blog post

The term “communications” typically is used to describe the products of communication: things like newspapers, radio programs, TV shows, films, etc. Within the discipline of communication, there are those who take offense when an “s” is added to the end of the term. This is especially true among those who don’t study media, since the term “communications” implies a focus on media and media products. In common use, when people refer to communications as a discipline, they typically mean some kind of applied media study, such as that offered by journalism schools and radio-TV-film programs. As you might imagine, I’m not too bothered by students who say they are “communications” majors, but some of my colleagues cringe when they hear that.

This last point, about colleagues who take offense at the term “communications,” reflects a fundamental belief by some scholars that studying the process of communication is a “purer” area of study then is the study of media products.  As someone who studies media, I find this bias toward process rather narrow-minded.  It reminds me of the heated but often pointless turf wars in the English discipline between those who teach writing and those who teach literature.  Quite often, composition teachers don’t get the same level of respect in English departments that literature professors enjoy.  I find it ironic that in the English discipline, the study of products (literary criticism) is often considered “purer” than is the study of process (how to write).

But in all honesty, this distinction between communication and communications is rarely made by the average person, or even the average undergraduate student.  And I can’t say I blame them.  Academics often take themselves too seriously.

•What is communication research? How would you define it?

Let my start by defining research.  Research can be defined as a systematic investigative process, where a scholar seeks to use broadly accepted methods for uncovering new information which can contribute to the effort of expanding public knowledge.  Research can refer to both the process of doing scholarly inquiry (i.e., to “do research”) and the results of that inquiry (typically, but not always, as published in scholarly literature, including books, journals and presentations at academic conferences).  I like to think of the “re” in “research” as suggesting a repeated form of searching for truth: scholars search for the truth, but more importantly, they “re-search” for the truth, searching again, and again, over and over, re-looking and re-examining their subject of interest, looking for any new bits of information that can increase understanding.

Defining communication is something I at least tangentially addressed in my earlier blog post.  And I’ve defined it above as “the process of creating and sharing meaning.”  Actually, I often give my students an even simpler definition of communication — the process of creating meaning — since I like to focus on the creative act of communication, and I believe that all meaning is shared (at least all expressed meaning is shared) so it’s a bit redundant to include “sharing” in the definition.  But it certainly doesn’t hurt to include the concept of sharing in a definition of communication.  After all, the Latin root of the word, communis, means “to share” (or literally, to make common) and is the root of other “sharing” words, like community, commonality, commune and communicable.

Stated simply, then, communication research is scholarly inquiry into the process of creating meaning.  But that’s still too broad to be of much practical value.  In practice, communication researchers tend to study different contexts for communication, such as interpersonal communication, group communication, organizational communication and mass communication.  Communication researchers also tend to vary in the methods used (more on that in the last question asked, below).  And communication researchers also vary in their devotion to expanding public knowledge; there are many applied communication researchers, especially in the communication media industries, who devote most of their work at expanding the private knowledge of their clients.

•What types of communication research do you study?

First, I’m going to assume that the real question here is not what types of communication research I study; but rather what kinds of communication research I have done.  After all, most communication researchers study communication, not communication research (although there are a few methodologists who primarily study research methods — who study how to study).

I suppose this would be a good place to reference my vita.  Professors often list all the academic work they do in such a document; it’s like an academic resume.  Of particular relevance for this question is the section entitled “Scholarly Publications, Papers and Presentations,” starting on page 6.  Here I list all of the journal articles, book chapters, research papers, and conference papers I have authored (or co-authored) during my academic career.

If you browse through this section, you’ll see that my research agenda has evolved quite a bit over the years.  When I was just getting started in academic work back in the 1980s, most of my research efforts focussed on broadcasting.  My very first formal research publication was the thesis I wrote for my Master’s degree back in 1983.  It was entitled, “Future Radio: Video Music and Its Effects on Radio Listening.” This study examined how the then-new medium of music videos impacted listening to music on radio.  MTV was just getting started back then, and a lot of people in radio were concerned that once people got used to watching their favorite music performed on television, they would listen to music on the radio less.  It sounds a bit silly now, but there really were people afraid that MTV would put pop/rock radio stations out of business.  My study concluded that in fact, just the opposite was happening: the more people watched music videos on MTV, the more time they spent listening to music on radio.  And indeed, MTV had a significant influence on the evolution of pop music radio during the 1980s and early 1990s.

The 1990s was one of my most productive decades in terms of what I would call traditional scholarship.  My vita lists nearly 40 different publications and papers during this decade.  Many of these studies looked at various research questions related to broadcast media, including one of my most quoted articles, “Enhancing the Electronic Sandbox” which examined student-operated college radio.  Other broadcast-related topics I researched during this period included shortwave radio news, local television news, and public broadcasting.

It was during this decade that I began to focus more on digital communication technologies, and the emergence of what back then was called “new media.”  This included a number of journal articles, book chapters and papers on the topic of “flaming.”  Most people aren’t even familiar with this word anymore, but the “flame wars” that characterized much of the online communication of the 1990s was fascinating to me, and this phenomenon occupied a lot of my research time back then.  I wanted to understand why people could be so rude to each other in online communication, and what specific factors contributed to such aggressive communicative behaviors.  My research led to a “social influence model” to help explain flaming, which was the basis for the chapter I wrote for the 1997 book “Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment.”

During the first decade of this century, my research efforts became more focused on issues related to public broadcasting, and in particular, the efforts of noncommercial broadcasters in expanding their mission of public service to online communication.  I wrote a rather extensive history on noncommercial radio (for the book “The Radio Industry”) that some of my colleagues have kindly referred to as the most authoritative work on the subject.  I also did a lot of research into college radio, reflecting the years when I was chair of the Student Media Advisors division of the Broadcast Education Association.

My most recent scholarship has focused on the use of technology in teaching.  I’ve examined the use of clickers in large lecture classes, the educational value of online discussion, the use of social networks in education, and the use of music and recorded audio in lectures (something I’ve been doing for years in my introductory mass communication course).  And a lot of my work has looked at the trend of “hybrid” learning, which combines classroom instruction with online learning.

That may be a longer answer than most students want, but in reality, I’ve only touched upon a few of the highlights of my scholarly journey.  My research over the years has covered a lot of different areas.

•How would you explain the difference between quantitative and qualitative research?

The distinctions between quantitative and qualitative research are mainly at the methodological level.  That is, just about any research question can be approached from either quantitative or qualitative methods.  And often the best research efforts combine both quantitative and qualitative considerations.  I think our understanding of communication benefits from seeing things in terms of both quantities and qualities.

Quantitative research methods are fundamentally based on the counting of empirical data.  A quantitative research effort typically begins with a precise definition of what counts as a “unit” of data in the realm of interest.  Careful and deliberate observational methods are used to count those units, yielding various measures that can be documented and analyzed.  Rather than count every single possible unit of data, most social scientific researchers use statistical methods to make inferences from a sample from the data population, and the strength of those statistical inferences depends on random selection when drawing the sample.

A fairly straightforward example of quantitative research is audience measurement.  If you are a manager of a radio station, you want to know how many people are listening to your station, because you want to charge your advertisers a fair price for reaching those listeners.  The more people listen, the more you can charge for an ad.  Now unless you live in a very small town, you can’t ask every person who could be a potential listener whether they actually listened.  Instead, you randomly select people to measure their radio listening.  You establish precise rules for what “counts” as listening; for example, radio listening is typically measured in quarter-hours, and you count someone as a listener as long as they listen for at least 5 minutes out of a quarter-hour.  And you employ statistical methods for making inferences from your randomly selected sample of people to the entire population of the radio market you’re studying.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, focuses on identifying and understanding  observable qualities.  Rather than assuming that we can best understand something by breaking it down into countable units, qualitative researchers try to deeply understand as much as they can about the whole, in order to provide satisfying answers to “why” and “how” questions (as opposed to the more quantitative questions of “how much” or “how many”).  Qualitative research methods vary widely, but some of the most widely used in communication studies include ethnography, participant observation, case studies, and interviews.  Qualitative research methods are often employed in critical scholarship and cultural studies.

To continue with the example of the radio station owner, suppose he or she wanted to not only know how many people listened to the radio station, but also wanted a deeper understanding of the reasons they listen, and the environment in which they listen, and the functions radio listening serves for them.  In other words, to not just answer questions related to the quantity of listeners, but to answer questions about the qualities of listeners and “listenership.”  While these kinds of questions could be approached quantitatively, it’s likely that qualitative research methods would provide more satisfying answers.  A qualitative researcher might spend days or weeks just observing radio listeners in their “natural environment,” making careful notes of what they do, trying to capture every observable detail.  Building from this, they could compose a rich narrative of a “day in the life” of a radio listener.  Or perhaps interviews of radio listeners could be used to create a detailed inventory of their reasons for listening.

Now I have to say that I’ve greatly simplified the distinctions between quantitative and qualitative research methods here in order to provide a more vivid contrast.   In practice, quantitative researchers often count qualities, and qualitative researchers often seek to draw inferences from their specific observations to a broader population.

•Do you identify as asking more quantitative or qualitative questions?

I would say neither.  I have used both quantitative and qualitative research methods during my career, and I don’t identify myself in one methodological camp or the other.  I suppose if I was forced to make a choice, I would probably lean a bit toward quantitative.  That’s not because I value quantitative more than qualitative methods, but rather, because applied media research has tended to employ quantitative methods.   But in reality, I let the questions I want to answer drive the choice of method.

I suppose at a very basic level, people who are comfortable with math and statistics are more likely to use quantitative research methods, while those who hate math and prefer a good story prefer qualitative methods.  I’ve never been particularly uncomfortable with math; indeed, I rather enjoyed the math classes I had in college.  But at the same time, I recognize that a quantitative perspective can only take one so far in understanding the process of communication.  I think it’s a good idea for anyone studying communication to acknowledge the value of both quantitative and qualitative research methods, and to be willing to use both to advance understanding.

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