Survey of Communication Study/Chapter 6 - Communication Research
- 1 Chapter 6
- 1.1 Communication Research
- 1.2 Doing Communication Research
- 1.3 Motivational Factors for Research
- 1.4 Rhetorical Methodologies
- 1.5 Quantitative Methods
- 1.6 Qualitative Methods
- 1.7 Summary
- 1.8 Discussion Questions
- 1.9 Key Terms
- 1.10 References
f you have traveled on planes before, you have likely encountered some of the frustrations that go along with airline travel. One day, one of your authors wanted to see if he could fly first class without paying for it. He hypothesized that there were certain communicative actions he could perform to achieve this goal. When the day of his flight arrived, he showed up nicely dressed for his flight, spoke with kindness to the ticket agents (remember, they deal with irritated people throughout the day), stated his preference to sit toward the front of the plane in an aisle seat, and simply asked if any free upgrades were available. To his amazement, he got a free upgrade to first class! He flew first class on many other flights after the day of the initial experiment. While he doesn’t get to fly first-class every time, this ongoing experiment indicates that there might be certain communicative actions that will result in a free upgrade. This is an example of informal Communication research that most of us do on a regular basis.
It’s likely you have engaged in basic levels of Communication research. Remember our discussion in the last chapter that theory is, “a way of framing an experience or event—an effort to understand and account for something and the way it functions in the world” (Foss, Foss & Griffin, 1999, p. 8). Well, we generally don’t understand how something functions in the world unless we’ve had some level of experience with it, and evaluate the outcome of that experience. Have you ever planned out what you would say and do to persuade your parents to give you money? Have you ever intentionally violated the communicative expectations (such as arriving late or forgetting to do a favor) of a friend, “just to see what would happen?” While we do not consider these to be examples of formal Communication research, they do reveal what Communication research is about. Remember our discussion in Chapter 1, those of us who study Communication are interested in researching “who says what, through what channels (media) of communication, to whom, [and] what will be the results?” (Smith, Lasswell & Casey, 1946, p. 121).
The term “research” often conjures up visions of a mad scientist dressed in a white lab coat working through the night with chemicals, beakers, and gases on his/her latest scientific experiment. But how does this measure up with the realities of researching human communication? Researching communication presents its own set of challenges and circumstances that must be understood to better conceptualize how we can further our understanding of the ways we communicate with one another.
Doing Communication Research
tudents often believe that researchers are well organized, meticulous, and academic as they pursue their research projects. The reality of research is that much of it is a hit-and-miss endeavor. Albert Einstein provided wonderful insight to the messy nature of research when he said, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” Because a great deal of Communication research is still exploratory, we are continually developing new and more sophisticated methods to better understand how and why we communicate.
Researching something as complex as human communication can be an exercise in creativity, patience, and failure. Communication research, while relatively new in many respects, should follow several basic principles to be effective. Similar to other types of research, Communication research should be systematic, rational, self-correcting, self-reflexive, and creative to be of use (Babbie, 1973; Bronowski, 1965; Buddenbaum & Novak, 2001; Copi, 1968; Peirce, 1957; Reichenbach, 1938; Smith, 1988).
Seven Basic Steps of Research
While research can be messy, there are steps we can follow to avoid some of the pitfalls inherent with any research project. Research doesn’t always work out right, but we do use the following guidelines as a way to keep research focused. Let’s look at seven basic steps that help us conduct effective research.
- Identify a focus of research. To conduct research, the first thing you must do is identify what aspect of human communication interests you and make that the focus of inquiry. Most Communication researchers examine things that interest them; communication phenomena that they have questions about and want answered. For example, you may be interested in conflict between romantic partners.
- Develop a research question(s). Simply having a focus of study is still too broad to conduct research, and would ultimately end up being an endless process of trial and error. Thus, it is essential to develop very specific research questions. Using our example above, what specific things would you want to know about conflict in romantic relationships? If you simply said you wanted to study conflict in romantic relationships, you would not have a solid focus and would spend a long time conducting your research with no results. However, you could ask, “Do couples use different types of conflict management strategies when they are first dating versus after being in a relationship for a while? It is essential to develop specific questions that guide what you research.
- Define key terms. Using our example, how would you define the terms conflict, romantic relationship, dating, and long-term relationship? While these terms may seem like common sense, you would be surprised how many ways people can interpret the same terms and how a particular definition shapes the research. Take the term long-term relationship, for example, what are all of the ways this can be defined? People married for 10 or more years? People living together for five or more years? Those who self-identify as being monogamous? Important to consider are populations who would be included and excluded from your study based on a particular definition and the resulting generalizability of your findings. Therefore, it is important to identify and set the parameters of what it is you are researching by defining what the key terms mean to you and your research.
- Select an appropriate research methodology. A methodology is the actual step-by-step process of conducting research. There are various methodologies available for researching communication. Some tend to work better than others for examining particular types of communication phenomena. In our example, would you interview couples, give them a survey, observe them, or conduct some type of experiment? Depending on what you wish to study, you will have to pick a process, or methodology, in order to study it. We’ll discuss examples of methodologies later in this chapter.
- Establish a sample population or data set. It is important to decide who and what you want to study. One criticism of current Communication research is that it often relies on college students enrolled in Communication classes as the sample population. One joke in our Field is that we know more about college students than anyone else. But in all seriousness, it is important that you pick samples that are truly representative of what/who you want to research. If you are concerned about how long-term romantic couples engage in conflict, (remember what we said about definitions) college students may not be the best sample population. Instead, college students might be a good population for examining how romantic couples engage in conflict in the early stages of dating.
- Gather and analyze data. Once you have a research focus, research question(s), key terms, a method, and a sample population, you are ready to gather the actual data that will show you what it is you want to answer in your research question(s). If you have ever filled out a survey in one of your classes, you have helped a researcher gather data to be analyzed in order to answer research questions. The actual “doing” of your methodology will allow you to collect the data you need to know about how romantic couples engage in conflict.
- Interpret and share results. Simply collecting data does not mean that your research project is complete. Remember, our research leads us to develop and refine theories so we have more sophisticated representations about how our world works. Thus, researchers must interpret the data to see if it tells us anything of significance about how we communicate. If so, we share our research findings to further the body of knowledge we have about human communication. Imagine you completed your study about conflict and romantic couples. Others who are interested in this topic would probably want to see what you discovered in order to help them in their research. Likewise, couples might want to know what you have found in order to help themselves deal with conflict better.
Although these seven steps seem pretty clear on paper, research is rarely that simple. For example, one of your authors conducted research for his Master’s thesis on issues of privacy, ownership and free speech as it relates to email at work. He had reached the step of sharing his results with a committee of professors, the last step before obtaining his Master’s degree. The professors began debating the merits of the research findings. Two of the three professors felt that the research had not actually answered the research questions and suggested that your author re-write his two chapters of conclusions. The other professor argued that your author HAD actually answered his research questions, and suggested that an alternative to re-writing two chapters would be to re-write the research questions to more accurately reflect the original focus of the study. It was your author’s first exposure to the reality that, despite trying to account for everything by following the basic steps of research, research is always open to change and modification, even toward the end of the process.
Motivational Factors for Research
e think it is important to discuss the fact that human nature influences all research. While some researchers might argue that their research is objective, realistically, no research is totally objective. What does this mean? Research is done by humans who have to make choices about what to research, how they will conduct their research, who will pay for their research, and how they will present their research conclusions to others. Many of these choices are determined by the motives and material resources of researchers. The most obvious case of this in the physical sciences is research sponsored by the tobacco industry that downplays the health hazards associated with smoking (Muggll, Forster, Hurt & Repace, 2001). In 2006, for example, the tobacco industry funded research that examined infertility. Their goal was to convince smokers that taking vitamin supplements would improve their chances of having children. The study failed to mention that any positive gains in fertility would be nullified by smoking. Intuitively, we know that certain motivations influence this line of research. Realistically though, all researchers are motivated by certain factors that influence their research.
We will highlight three factors that motivate the choices we make when conducting communication research: 1) The intended outcomes, 2) theoretical preferences, and 3) methodological preferences.
One question researchers ask while doing their research project is, “What do I want to accomplish with this research?” The answer to this question is as varied as the people who ask it. We represent possible answers to this question in what we call the Continuum of Intended Outcomes.
A great deal of Communication research seeks understanding as the intended outcome of the research. As we gain greater understanding of human communication we are able to develop more sophisticated theories to help us understand how and why people communicate. For example, one of your authors researches the communication of registered nurses to understand how they use language to define and enact their professional responsibilities. He discovered that nurses routinely refer to themselves as “patient advocates” and state that their profession is unique, valuable, and distinct from being an assistant to physicians. One way to enact change with this research is to educate physicians and nurses about the impacts of their language choices in health care.
A second intended outcome of Communication research is prediction and control. Ideas of prediction and control are taken from the physical sciences (remember our discussion of Empirical Laws theories in the last chapter?). Many Communication researchers want to use the results of their research to predict and control communication in certain contexts. This type of research can help us make communicative choices from an informed perspective. In fact, when you communicate, you often do so with the intention of prediction and control. Imagine walking on campus and seeing an acquaintance approach. You predict that if you say “hi” to her, she will respond back with a greeting. As a result of your prediction, you decide to say “hi” in order to control the exchange at some level. This same idea motivates many Communication researchers to approach their research with the intention of being able to predict and control communication contexts. For example, research into those who are scared to give public speeches often has as its intended outcome the ability to predict when and how people get scared in order to develop (control) ways to help them cope with that (Harris, Sawyer & Behnke, 2006).
A third intended outcome of Communication research is positive critical/cultural change in the world. Scholars often perform research in order to challenge communicative norms and effect cultural and societal change. For example, research that examines health communication campaigns seeks to understand how effective campaigns are in changing our health behaviors such as using condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases or avoiding high fat foods. When it is determined that health campaigns are ineffective, researchers often suggest changes to health communication campaigns to increase their efficacy in reaching the people who need access to the information (Stephenson & Southwell, 2006).
As humans, researchers have particular goals in mind. Having an understanding of what they want to accomplish with their research helps them formulate questions and develop appropriate methodologies for conducting research that will help them achieve their intended outcomes.
Remember that theoretical paradigms offer different ways to understand communication. While it is possible to examine communication from multiple theoretical perspectives, it has been our experience that our colleagues tend to favor certain theoretical paradigms over others. Put another way, we all understand the world in ways that make sense to us.
Which theoretical paradigm(s) do you most align yourself with? How would this influence what you would want to accomplish if you were researching human communication? What types of communication phenomena grab your attention? Why? These are questions that researchers wrestle with as they put together their research projects.
As you’ve learned, the actual process of doing research is called the methodology. While most researchers have preferences for certain theoretical paradigms, most researchers also have “favorite” methodologies for conducting research. As with theories, there are a large number of methodologies available for conducting research. As we did with theories, we believe it is easier for you to understand methodologies by categorizing them into paradigms. Most Communication researchers have a preference for one research paradigm over the others. For our purposes, we have divided methodological paradigms into rhetorical methodologies, quantitative methodologies, and qualitative methodologies.
e encode and decode messages everyday. As we take in messages, we use a number of criteria to evaluate them. We may ask, “Was the message good, bad, or both?” “Was it effective or ineffective?” “Did it achieve its intended outcome?” “How should I respond to the message?” Think about the last movie you watched. Did you have a conversation about the movie with others? Did that conversation include commentary on various parts of the film such as the set design, dialogue, plot, and character development? If so, you already have a taste of the variety of elements that go into rhetorical research. Simply stated, rhetorical methods of research are sophisticated and refined ways to evaluate messages. Foss (2004) explains that we use rhetorical approaches as a way “of systematically investigating and explaining symbolic acts and artifacts for the purpose of understanding rhetorical processes” (p. 6).
Types of Rhetorical Methods
What do rhetorical methods actually look like? How are they done? While each rhetorical methodology acts as a unique lens for understanding messages, no one is more correct over another. Instead, each allows us a different way for understanding messages and their effects. Let’s examine a few of the more common rhetorical methodologies including, 1) Neo-Aristotelian, 2) Fantasy-Theme, 3) Narrative, 4) Pentadic, 5) Feminist, and 6) Ideological.
- Neo-Aristotelian. In Chapter 2 you learned quite a bit about the rhetorical roots of our field, including a few of the contributions of Aristotle. The neo-Aristotelian method uses Aristotle’s ideas to evaluate rhetorical acts. First, a researcher recreates the context for others by describing the historical period of the message being studied. Messages are typically speeches or other forms of oral rhetoric as this was the primary focus of rhetoric during the Classical Period. Second, the researcher evaluates the message using the canons of rhetoric. For example, the researcher may examine what types of logic are offered in a speech or how its delivery enhances or detracts from the ethos of the speaker. Finally, the researcher assesses the effectiveness of the message given its context and its use of the canons.
- Fantasy Theme. Fantasy Theme analysis is a more contemporary rhetorical method credited to Ernest G. Bormann (1972; 1985; 1990). The focus of this methodology is on groups rather than individuals, and is particularly well-suited for analyzing group messages that come from social movements, political campaigns, or organizational communication. Essentially, a fantasy is a playful way of interpreting an experience (Foss, 2004). Fantasy theme research looks for words or phrases that characterize the shared vision of a group in order to explain how the group characterizes or understands events around them. Fantasy theme analysis offers names and meaning to a group’s experience and presents outsiders with a frame for interpreting the group’s rhetorical response.
- Narrative. Much of what you learned as a child was probably conveyed to you through stories (bedtime stories, fables, and fairy tales) that taught you about gender roles, social roles, ethics, etc. For example, fairy tales teach us that women are valued for their youth and beauty and that men are valued when they are strong, handsome, smart, and riding a white horse! Other stories you remember may be more personal, as in the telling of your family’s immigration to the United States and the values learned from that experience. Whatever the case, narrative rhetorical research contends that people learn through the sharing of stories. A researcher using this method examines narratives and their component parts—the plot, characters, and settings—to better understand the people (culture, groups, etc.) telling these stories. This research approach also focuses on the effects of repeating narratives. Think about Hollywood romantic comedies such as When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, Pretty Woman, and Maid In Manhattan. When you see one of these movies, does it feel like you’ve seen it before? For example, the movie Maid In Manhattan contains similar plot and social-class themes as the earlier released movie, Pretty Woman. Why does Hollywood do this? What is the purpose and/or effect of retelling these story lines over and over again? These are some of the concerns of researchers who use narrative analysis to research rhetorical acts.
- Pentadic. Kenneth Burke (1966; 1969; 1974) developed the idea of the pentad using the metaphor of drama. As in a dramatic play, the pentad contains five elements—the act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose. The act tells what happened, the agent is who performed the act, agency includes the tools/means the agent used to perform the act, the scene provides the context for the act, and the purpose explains why the act occurred. By using the elements of the pentad to answer questions of who, what, when, where, and why, a rhetorical researcher may uncover a communicator’s motives for her or his rhetorical actions.
- Feminist. Most feminist perspectives share the basic assumptions that women are routinely oppressed by patriarchy, women’s experiences are different then men’s, and women’s perspectives are not equally incorporated into our culture (Foss, 1996). We can use feminist rhetorical research to help us determine the degree to which women’s perspectives are both absent and/or discredited in rhetorical acts. Thus, feminist rhetorical research, “is the analysis of rhetoric to discover how the rhetorical construction of gender is used as a means for oppression and how that process can be challenged and resisted” (Foss, p. 168). Although many think of “women” in reference to feminism, it is important to note that many men consider themselves feminists and that feminism is concerned with oppression of all forms—race, class, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and gender.
- Ideological. Ideology is a collection of values, beliefs, or ethics that influence modes of behavior for a group or culture. Rhetorical scholars interested in understanding a culture’s values often use ideological methods. Ideologies are complex and multifaceted, and ideological methods draw from diverse schools of thought such as Marxism, feminism, structuralism, deconstructionism, and postmodernism. This research often uncovers assumptions and biases in our language that provide insight into how dominant groups and systems are maintained rhetorically, and how they can be challenged and transformed through rhetoric. Artifacts of popular culture such as movies, television shows, etc. are often the focus of this research as they are the sites at which struggles about meanings occur in the popular culture.
Outcomes of Rhetorical Methodologies
What is the value of researching acts of communication from a rhetorical perspective? The systematic research of messages tells us a great deal about the ways people communicate, the contexts in which they communicate, the effects of communication in particular contexts, and potential areas to challenge and change messages to make society better.
Rhetorical research methodologies help us better determine how and why messages are effective or ineffective, as well as the outcomes of messages on audiences. Think about advertising campaigns. Advertising agencies spend millions of dollars evaluating the effectiveness of their messages on audiences. The purpose of advertising is to persuade us to act in some way, usually the purchasing of products or services. Advertisers not only evaluate the effectiveness of their messages by determining the amount of products sold, they also evaluate effectiveness by looking at audience response to the messages within the current cultural and social contexts.
The term quantitative refers to research in which we can quantify, or count, communication phenomena. Quantitative methodologies draw heavily from research methods in the physical sciences explore human communication phenomena through the collection and analysis of numerical data. Let’s take a simple example from the physical sciences before applying it to communication. If we wanted to know how often gravity worked when we let go of a pen, we could set up an experiment where we would let go of a pen repeatedly until we determined that it falls 100% of the time. While this example is ridiculously simple, imagine applying this same methodology to researching human communicative behavior. What communicative acts do we count? How do we go about counting them? Is there any human communicative behavior that would return a 100% response rate like the falling pen? What can we learn by counting acts of human communication?
Suppose you want to determine what communicative actions illicit negative responses from your professors. How would you go about researching this? What data would you count? In what ways would you count them? Who would you study? How would you know if you discovered anything of significance that would tell us something important about this? These are tough questions for researchers to answer, particularly in light of the fact that, unlike laws in the physical sciences, human communication is varied and unpredictable.
Nevertheless, there are several quantitative methods researchers use to study communication in order to reveal patterns that help us predict and control our communication. Think about polls that provide feedback for politicians. While people do not all think the same, this type of research provides patterns of thought to politicians who can use this information to make policy decisions that impact our lives. Let’s look at a few of the more frequent quantitative methods of communication research.
Types of Quantitative Methods
There are many ways researchers can quantify human communication. Not all communication is easily quantified, but much of what we know about human communication comes from quantitative research.
- Experimental Research is the most well-established quantitative methodology in both the physical and social sciences. This approach uses the principles of research in the physical sciences to conduct experiments that explore human behavior. Researchers choose whether they will conduct their experiments in lab settings or real-world settings. Experimental research generally includes a control group (the group where variables are not altered) and the experimental group(s) (the group in which variables are altered). The groups are then carefully monitored to see if they enact different reactions to different variables.
One of your authors was involved in a study that sought to determine if students are more motivated to learn by participating in a classroom game versus attending a classroom lecture. Our hypothesis was that students would actually be more motivated to learn from the game, but we wanted to be able to “prove” it. Our next question was, “do students actually learn more by participating in games?” We conducted an experiment to find out the answers to these questions. In a number of classes we had instructors give their normal lecture over certain content (control group), and in a number of other classes we had instructors use a game we developed to teach the same content (experimental group). We tested the students at the end of the semester to see which group retained the information better, and to find out which method most motivated students to want to learn the material. We determined that students were more motivated to learn by participating in the game, which proved our hypothesis. The other thing we learned was that students who participated in the game actually remembered more of the content at the end of the semester than those who listened to a lecture. While this was a simple study, it used an experiment to find out a little more about how college students learn (Hunt, Lippert & Paynton, 1998).
- Survey Research is used to ask people a number of questions about particular topics. Surveys can be mailed, handed out, or conducted in interview format. After researchers have collected survey data, they represent participants’ responses in numerical form using tables, graphs, charts, and/or percentages. On our campus, anonymous survey research was done to determine the drinking and drug habits of our students. This research demonstrated that the percentage of students who frequently use alcohol or drugs is actually much lower than what most students think. The results of this research are now used to educate students that not everyone engages in heavy drinking or drug use, and to encourage students to more closely align their behaviors with what actually occurs on campus, not with what students perceive happens on campus. It is important to remember that there is a possibility that people do not always tell the truth when they answer survey questions. We won’t go into great detail here due to time, but there are sophisticated statistical analyses that can account for this to develop an accurate representation of survey responses.
- Content Analysis. Researchers use content analysis to count the number of occurrences of their particular focus of inquiry. Communication researchers often conduct content analyses of movies, commercials, television shows, magazines, etc. They then count the number of occurrences of particular phenomena in these contexts to explore potential effects. For example, Harwood and Anderson (2002) used content analysis to show that minorities were largely underrepresented, while middle-aged, male, and white characters were overrepresented by comparison in prime-time dramas and comedies of the major networks. Fink and Kensicki (2002) did a content analysis to demonstrate that women are underrepresented, in comparison to men, in both Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated for Women. Content analysis is extremely effective for demonstrating patterns and trends in various communication contexts. If you would like to do a simple content analysis, count the number of times different people are represented in photos in your textbooks. Are there more men than women? Are there more Caucasians represented than other groups? What do the numbers tell you about how we represent different people?
- Meta-Analysis. Do you ever get frustrated when you hear about one research project that says a particular food is good for your health, and then some time later, you hear about another research project that says the opposite? Meta-analysis analyzes existing statistics found in a collection of quantitative research to demonstrate patterns in a particular line of research over time. Meta-analysis is research that seeks to combine the results of a series of past studies to see if their results are similar, or to determine if they show us any new information when they are looked at in totality. Kamhawi and Weaver (2003) performed a meta-analysis of the quantitative research done in mass communication to determine trends over a twenty-year period. In 2001, Sherry examined quantitative studies that examined the relationship between violent behavior and video games. This meta-analysis determined that violent video games have less impact on violent behavior than viewing violence on television. These studies highlight general patterns and trends of past research that may remain unnoticed to scholars who only read individual studies.
Outcomes of Quantitative Methodologies
Because it is unlikely that Communication research will yield 100% certainty regarding communicative behavior, why do Communication researchers use quantitative approaches? First, the broader U.S. culture values the ideals of quantitative science as a means of learning about and representing our world. To this end, many Communication researchers emulate research methodologies of the physical sciences to study human communication phenomena. Second, you’ll recall that researchers have certain theoretical and methodological preferences that motivate their research choices. Those who understand the world from an Empirical Laws and/or Human Rules Paradigm tend to favor research methods that test communicative laws and rules in quantitative ways.
Even though Communication research cannot produce results with 100% accuracy, quantitative research demonstrates patterns of human communication. In fact, many of your own interactions are based on a loose system of quantifying behavior. Think about how you and your classmates sit in your classrooms. Most students sit in the same seats every class meeting, even if there is not assigned seating. In this context, it would be easy for you to count how many students sit in the same seat, and what percentage of the time they do this. You probably already recognize this pattern without having to do a formal study. However, if you wanted to truly demonstrate that students communicatively manifest territoriality to their peers, it would be relatively simple to conduct a quantitative study of this phenomenon. After completing your research, you could report that X% of students sat in particular seats X% of times. This research would not only provide us with an understanding of a particular communicative pattern of students, it would also give us the ability to predict, to a certain degree, their future behaviors surrounding space issues in the classroom.
Quantitative research is also valuable for helping us determine similarities and/or differences among groups of people or communicative events. Representative examples of research in the areas of gender and communication (Berger, 2003; Slater, 2003), culture and communication (McCann, Ota, Giles, & Caraker, 2003; Hylmo & Buzzanell, 2002), as well as ethnicity and communication (Jiang Bresnahan, Ohashi, Nebashi, Wen Ying, Shearman, 2002; Murray-Johnson, 2001) use quantitative methodologies to determine trends and patterns of communicative behavior for various groups. While these trends and patterns cannot be applied to all people, in all contexts, at all times, they help us understand what variables play a role in influencing the ways we communicate.
While quantitative methods can show us numerical patterns, what about our personal lived experiences? How do we go about researching them, and what can they tell us about the ways we communicate? Qualitative methods have been established to get at the “essence” of our lived experiences, as we subjectively understand them.
ualitative research methodologies draw much of their approach from the social sciences, particularly the fields of Anthropology, Sociology, and Social-Psychology. If you’ve ever wished you could truly capture and describe the essence of an experience you have had, you understand the goal of qualitative research methods. Rather than statistically analyzing data, or evaluating and critiquing messages, qualitative researchers are interested in understanding the subjective lived-experience of those they study. In other words, how can we come to a more rich understanding of how people communicate?
In an attempt to define qualitative methods Thomas Lindlof (1995) states that qualitative research examines the “form and content of human behavior…to analyze its qualities, rather than subject it to mathematical or other formal transformations” (p. 21). Anderson and Meyer (1988) state that qualitative methods, “do not rest their evidence on the logic of mathematics, the principle of numbers, or the methods of statistical analysis” (p. 247). Dabbs (1982) says that qualitative research looks at the quality of phenomena while quantitative methods measure quantities and/or amounts. In qualitative research researchers are interested in the, “what, how, when, and where of a thing….[looking for] the meanings, concepts, definitions, characteristics, metaphors, symbols, and descriptions of things” (Berg, 2004, p. 2-3). Data collection comes in the form of words or pictures (Neuman, 1994, p. 28). As Kaplan (1964) provides a very simple way of defining qualitative research when he says, “if you can measure it, that ain’t it” (p. 206).
Types of Qualitative Methods
While qualitative research sounds simple, it can be a “messy” process because things do not always go as planned. One way to make qualitative research “cleaner” is to be familiar with, and follow, the various established qualitative methods available for studying human communication.
- Ethnography. Ethnography is arguably the most recognized and common method of qualitative research in Communication. Ethnography “places researchers in the midst of whatever it is they study. From this vantage, researchers can examine various phenomena as perceived by participants and represent these observations” to others (Berg, 2004, p. 148). Ethnographers try to understand the communicative acts of people as they occur in their actual communicative environments. One way to think of this is the idea of learning about a new culture by immersing oneself in that culture. While there are many strategies for conducting ethnography, the idea is that a researcher must enter the environment of those under study to observe and understand their communication.
- Focus Group Interviewing. Researchers who use focus group interviewing meet with groups of people to understand their communication characteristics. (Berg, 2004). These interviews foster an environment for participants to discuss particular topics of interest to the group and/or researcher. While we are all familiar with the numbers that we encounter in political polls, every so often television news organizations will conduct focus group interviews to find out how particular groups actually feel about, and experience, the political process as a citizen. This is an applied version of focus group research techniques and provides insight into the ways various groups understand and enact their realities.
- Action Research. A qualitative method whose intended outcome is social change is action research. Action research seeks to create positive social change through “a highly reflective, experiential, and participatory mode of research in which all individuals involved in the study, researcher and subject alike, are deliberate and contributing actors in the research enterprise” (Berg, 2004, p. 196; Wadsworth, 1998). The goal of action research is to provide information that is useful to a particular group of people that will empower the members of that group to create change as a result of the research (Berg). An example of action research might be when researchers study the teaching strategies of teachers in the classroom. Typically, teachers involve themselves in the research and then use the findings to improve their teaching methods. If you’ve ever had a professor who had unique styles of teaching, it is likely that he/she may have been involved in research that examined new approaches to teaching students.
- Unobtrusive Research. Another method for conducting qualitative research is unobtrusive research. As Berg (2004) points out, “to some extent, all the unobtrusive strategies amount to examining and assessing human traces” (p. 209). We can learn a great deal about the behavior of others by examining the traces humans leave behind as they live their lives. For instance, in a research class offered at our university, students investigated the content of graffiti written in university bathrooms. Because our campus has an environmentally conscious culture, much of the graffiti in bathrooms reflects this culture with slogans written on paper towel dispensers that read, “Paper towels=trees.” The students who conducted this research were using unobtrusive strategies to determine dimensions of student culture in the graffiti that was left behind in bathrooms.
- Historiography. Historiography is a method of qualitative research “for discovering, from records and accounts, what happened during some past period” (Berg, 2004, p. 233). Rather than simply putting together a series of facts, research from this perspective seeks to gain an understanding of the communication in a past social group or context. For example, the timelines in the history chapter of this text are an attempt to chronologically put together the story of the discipline of Communication. While there is no “true” story, your authors have tried to piece together, from their own research, the important pieces that make up what we believe is the story of the formation of Communication study.
- Case Studies. Case studies involve gathering significant information about particular people, contexts, or phenomena to understand a particular case under investigation. This approach uses many methods for data collection but focuses on a particular case to gain “holistic description and explanation” (Berg, 2004, p. 251). Those who use case study approaches may look at organizations, groups within those organizations, specific people, etc. The idea is to gain a broad understanding of the phenomena and draw conclusions from them. One example of a case study occurred surrounding the first space shuttle explosion as an example of what can happen as a result of group-think. Many people looked at this case as a way to understand how, why, and where communication broke down that led to this tragedy.
While there are other qualitative research methodologies, the methods one chooses to examine communication are most often decided by the researcher’s intended outcomes, resources available, and the research question(s) of focus. There are no hard rules for qualitative research. Instead, researchers must make many choices as they engage in this process.
Outcomes of Qualitative Methodologies
What can we learn by using qualitative research methods for studying communication? Qualitative Communication researchers often believe that quantitative methods do not capture the essence of our lived experience. In other words, it is difficult to quantify everything about our lives and therefore, we need different strategies for understanding our world. Think of the various ways you experience and communicate in your relationships? It’s highly unlikely that you spend the bulk of your communication quantifying your daily experiences. However, through methods like observation, interviewing, journaling, etc., we might be able to get a better understanding of the ways people experience and communicate their feelings.
Another value of qualitative research is that it resonates with readers who are able to identify with the lived-experiences represented in the research (Neuman, 1994). Statistical studies often seem detached from how we experience life. However, qualitative studies contain “rich description, colorful detail, and unusual characters; they give the reader a feel for social settings (Neuman, p. 317, emphasis added). It is this rich description that allows us to identify with the communication experiences of others, and learn through this identification.
Over the years, women scholars have demonstrated a greater frequency in the use of qualitative approaches (Grant, Ward & Rong, 1987; Ward & Grant, 1985), producing significant contributions to our understanding of human communication using these methods. From understanding to social change, feminist scholars demonstrate the importance of qualitative inquiry for strengthening the body of scholarship in our discipline. While researchers who use quantitative approaches tend to value prediction and control as potential outcomes of their research, those who use qualitative approaches seek greater understanding of human communication phenomena, or evaluate current pragmatic uses of human communication to help identify and change oppressive power structures.
ommunication research is important because it focuses on a common goal—to enhance our interactions with others. In this chapter we highlighted how research is done and the basic steps that guide most research projects—identify the topic, write a research question, define key terms, select a methodology, establish a sample, gather and analyze the data, and finally, interpret and share the results. When conducting research, three factors motivate the choices we make: our intended outcomes, theoretical preferences, and methodological preferences. Depending on these factors, research may lead us to greater understanding, allow us to predict or control a communication situation, or create cultural change.
Conceptualizing Communication research can be done more easily by understanding the three broad methodological approaches/paradigms for conducting Communication research: Rhetorical Methodologies, Quantitative Methodologies, and Qualitative Methodologies. The rhetorical approach evaluates messages in various contexts such as political discourse, art, and popular culture. A variety of methods are available such as neo-aristotelian, fantasy theme, narrative, pentadic, feminist, and ideological criticism. Quantitative methods are characterized by counting phenomena and are useful for predicting communication outcomes or comparing cultures and populations. They include experimental research, surveys, content analysis, and meta-analysis. Qualitative methods offer the opportunity to understand human communication as it occurs in a “natural” context rather than a laboratory setting. This is accomplished through ethnography, focus groups, action research, unobtrusive research, historiography, and case studies. While these approaches share similarities, their focus and specific methods are quite different and produce different outcomes. No research methodology or method is better than another. Instead, approaches to Communication research simply reveal different aspects of human communication in action.
- If you were going to conduct communication research, what topic(s) would be most interesting to you? What specific questions would you want to ask and answer? How would you go about doing this?
- Of the three broad research methodologies, do you find yourself having a preference for one of them? If so, what specific type of research method would you want to use within the area you have a preference for?
- If you were going to conduct research, what outcome would you want to gain from your research? Are you more interested in understanding, prediction/control, or creating social change? What is the value of each of these approaches?
- action research
- case studies
- content analysis
- continuum of intended outcomes
- control group
- critical/cultural change
- experimental group
- experimental research
- fantasy theme
- focus group interviewing
- key terms
- methodological preferences
- qualitative methodologies
- quantitative methodologies
- research focus
- research questions
- rhetorical methodologies
- survey research
- theoretical preferences
- unobtrusive research
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