Communication Research: It’s All In The Action

De opdracht was simpel: lees twee artikelen over de geschiedenis van de communicatiewetenschap en schrijf er een kort essay over. Zo heb ik gedaan. Maar wat ben ik geschrokken over veel van wat ik las: de manier waarop in de communicatiewetenschappen theorieën opgebouwd worden kwam op mij, zacht gezegd, nogal lukraak over. Zeelieden hebben in iedere stad en ander liefje, communicatiewetenschappers in ieder artikel weer een andere theorie.

Ik betoog dan ook, dat dit zo niet langer kan. Uiteraard leg ik uit waarom én geef ik een advies hoe tot (verdere) integratie gekomen kan worden in de discipline. Een ambitieus essay dus en misschien zelfs een beetje pretentieus. Maar, het is dan ook een essay. Het is geschreven om de discussie aan te wakkeren, vandaar de scherpe toon.

Voor zij die geïnteresseerd zijn in een theoretische verhandeling over een wetenschappelijke discipline, heb ik het essay hieronder weergegeven. Het is in het Engels. Ik ben benieuwd naar reacties, vooral natuurlijk van mensen die ervaring hebben met het onderzoek in de communicatiewetenschap.

Communication Research: It’s All In The Action

Introduction: a great many theories

Communication research is a relatively new field of scientific study, which is closely tied to the rise of the mass media. Ideas of very strong influences of these mass media on the public originated from a world-view which is best described as the ‘Mass Society’. In later stages, the influence ascribed to the mass media was diminished when survey-research was developed, to rise again in later stages. During this century-long development a great many theories were proposed. Bryant and Miron (2004) showed, based on an analysis of three major journals in the field of communication research over approximately the last fifty year, that in the 1393 articles they examined, references were made to a total of 604 theories, general scientific paradigms, and schools of thought ((Unfortunately, the authors (Bryant and Miron, 2004) did not show how many of these theories could stand the rigor of thorough testing of the central hypotheses derived from these theories )).

Although a slight tendency toward an increasing number of references to (central) theories and paradigms is to be seen in the analyses of Bryant and Miron (2004), these numbers appear to me to be very problematic for a discipline that, as I believe it does, wants to make scientific progress. One of the keystones of scientific progress is generally seen to be a tendency toward the generalization of findings, under which a myriad of more detailed findings and specialized theories is subsumed (Dooremalen et al., 2007; Chalmers, 1999; Derksen, 1996). Due to this great variety of theories we risk losing sight of what we really want to do: finding explanations. Similarly, Bryant and Miron (2004) show, that although some theories are referred to relatively often in comparison with other theories and that four schools of thought are deemed central to the discipline by the authors, are referred to very scarcely when related to the total number of articles written in the discipline. To facilitate future advancement in the field of communication research, central issues of the discipline need to be selected. As we will see, this helps to discern the main issues from the matters of minor

Dominant Division: a study of society

While describing many theoretical schools or movements within the field of communication research, McQuail (2002) describes that a central division lies beneath the different paradigms in the field of communication research. He describes these as ‘media-centric’ and ‘socio-centric’. Basically, these two positions can be summarized as ‘What do media do to people?’ and ‘What do people do with media?’ respectively. From this, it follows that communication research is a societal science primarily. Reason for this is that the main interest does not seem to be individual responses to media, but the social processes of societal changes that are brought about through the development and use of the mass media.

Generally, these questions are treated separately. Progress in the discipline is only made when these two central questions are combined, for only exposure to media of some sort cannot be a complete explanation of changes in behavior of people. Neither can a content-analysis that shows a skewed image of reality, explain why simply the broadcasting or even existence of this image brings about changes on the social level. Based on the premise that communication research is a discipline of societal research and based on the combination of the two central, above-mentioned, questions, a first shifting in the relative worth of the great many theories is possible. Theories on the content of the messages contained in the media or the descriptions of the history of (technological) advancement made in the media, can now be interpreted as auxiliary to the theories on the effects or consequences that media have on their audience. Similarly, theories that describe the effects of media-usage, as well as the reasons for this usage, need to take into account the content of the media.

The change the actor brings about

When explanations of societal processes are sought, obviously a proper and general explanatory model is necessary. Hedström (2005) argues, that when one wants to explain processes, no universal laws should be stated, nor should statistically relevant factors be sought and then interpreted as explanation. One needs to describe the behavior of the elements that bring about the explained process.

The only factors thought relevant, are those that can act themselves. When studying social processes or phenomena, this means that we should investigate only individual people. Hedström refers to this as action-, or actor-based mod-
eling. According to this type of reasoning, mass-media and audiences cannot act and therefor cannot bring about social processes or phenomena. Directors, editors and documentary makers – to name just a few – can act though, as can people who consume media. Together, so sounds the basic premise of this explanatory model, they bring about social processes.

Based on this actor-based explanatory model, another selection in the many theories can take place. Normative theories should be held at a distance when holding on to this interpretation of the discipline. No matter how important interpretation or a moral positioning might be, they do add nothing to the explanation of social processes. An interesting example of this, coming from political economy theory on mass media, is given by Smythe (1997) as is cited in McQuail (2002). Smythe describes that “even audiences can be considered as products of the media” and that “audiences can be viewed as ‘working’ for advertisers when they watch their ‘free’ television”. How right Smythe might be when he warns us for the powerful influence of the advertisers or media-broadcasters in general, his statement does not explain anything.

At least not from an actor-based explanatory perspective.

Nevertheless, it would be a shame to lose all the potential explanatory power of all those highly specialized theories. This is not necessary though, for if we select a general, explanatory, model (which needs to be actor-based, as described
above), it almost immediately becomes clear how these many theories can be related to one another and there relative worth (whether small or large) can be retained.

A powerful example of such an explanatory model, is the Desire, Beliefs, and Opportunities (DBO-) model (Hedström, 2005). The DBO-model states, that individual behavior (of people) can best be explained by their actions based on their Desires, Beliefs, and the Opportunities. The desires one has defines what an individual wants to do intentionally, while the beliefs of an individual indicates the general world-view of that person, but more specific things as expectations on the attainability of desires as well. Together, the desires and beliefs of a person form the motivational force behind people’s actions. The opportunities are all the action alternatives available to a person. Together, the desires, beliefs, and opportunities can form a full explanation of the actions a person undertakes. However, it is not stated that all three elements need to be addressed in order to give a sufficient explanation of actions.

Let us examine this explanatory model to the extent to which it can gather different theories and bring them together. Due to the available space here, we’ll need to confine ourselves to the side of the individuals who consume media, not
giving attention to the side of the creators of the media. Nevertheless, it should be clear that on the side of the creators of media, only actors bring about changes as well. According to the analysis of Bryant and Miron (2004), three theories are central to the discipline of communication research. These are ‘uses and gratifications’, ‘agenda setting’, and ‘cultivation theory’. Here an attempt is made to interpret these theories from the DBO-perspective.

The uses and gratifications theory lies at the origin of the question ‘What do people do with media’. Study is made of the motivations people have to use media – what they expect to gain from it -, in which the acknowledgment of an active audience is to be seen. The use of the media is easily interpreted as what is explained in the DBO-perspective: the actions people take. The gratifications people (expect to) attain using media are their Desires. Their expectation itself is a Belief. Here we see the integration with many theories on the development of (the reach of ) mass media, such as , since this enriches the Opportunities of people to use (certain types of ) media.

While the old magic bullet theory (Baran and Davis, 2003; Lowery and DeFleur, 1995) can be interpreted as a statement on the (inescapable) influence of mass-media on the B eliefs of people, the statement of agenda setting theory that mass media influence what people think or talk about (instead of how they think or talk about it) can be seen as the influence mass-media has on the Desires of people on what they want to talk about. Also, agenda setting theory can be interpreted as altering the Opportunities people have, since if they want to talk to somebody, they will have to close up to the topics others will want to talk about.

Finally, cultivation theory (Gerbner et al., 1978, 1980) is an excellent example of how the two general questions ‘What do media do to people’ and ‘What do people do with media’ can be integrated. The analyses in this research program show that the world-view presented in the media is biased to the ‘real’ world. Additionally it is shown that that people who take the action to use these biased types of mass-media over a long period over time, change their world-view, or Beliefs and possibly even Desires, according to the presented world-view. An often used theory of how this is possible and why these formed changes in world-view are resistant to change even when exposed to real-life experiences, is given by the cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957). Cognitive dissonance is explicitly named by Hedström (2005) as a strategy to bring the Desires and Beliefs of people in accordance to each other or with the Opportunities a person has or Believes to have.


Some of the issues I addressed are of relatively less importance than others. I have argued for a rephrasing of existing theories. Obviously this does not add to the explanatory power of this theory, only to the clarity of it in the light of an overarching framework. Of a much greater importance is the call for more integration and a more formal manner of theoretical reasoning.

Summarizing that line of reasoning, progress to the field of communication research is proposed in two ways. First of all, the imperative to focus on central questions is made. For communication research, this should be societal processes that are related to the creation or the usage of media. Secondly, from this it follows that the only proper way of reasoning is by using actor-based theories. The DBO-model is an example of such an actor-based model. Additionally, this helps to identify the relative importance of many of the readily available theories. Such a general theoretical framework does not do injustice to the theoretical variety in the discipline or its history. On the contrary: the importance of specific theories remains when restated in actor-based terms and it clarifies the position of the theories of minor importance in relation to the most influential theoretical movements of the discipline.


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