Friday, September 15, 2006


A couple posts ago, I promised I'd say something about Sari Thomas' piece in the critical forum section of Critical Studies in Media Communication 23(2). Here goes:

Thomas addresses Matt Carlson's piece on journalists KIA in Iraq. She critiques what she seems to see as a broader theme in communication research. Working from Robert Merton's ideas regarding the attractiveness of 'middle range' propositions/theories, Thomas suggests that media scholars pay more attention to how theory is generated in the field. As Thomas puts it: "If theory is as important as we write and teach, it is ironic that it is the least overtly regulated aspect of scholarly inquiry--that it is the one activity in which everything seems to cleave to authorial and/or editorial choices."

I'm ready to stop right here and point out that I don't think "ironic" is the word for this. Indeed, it is the autonomy of the profession that encourages us to find new interpretations, to seek out theoretical approaches that do not line up so closely with what has already been established. Already, Thomas seems to be asserting a classic hypothesis-driven approach to comm research.

This idea that Thomas is doing battle for a hypothesis-driven approach is given further support by Thomas' next point, that 'progressiveness', as found in the sciences (Thomas provides the example of Kepler --> Galileo --> Newton --> Einstein), could be generated/mimicked/attempted in media scholarship by making sure that "contextualization includes all reasonable work challenging one's position." Thomas stops short of saying that media research should be as progressive as physics. But she wants an approach to the media that can at least establish what it is NOT saying. Makes sense to me.

Thomas' other rationale here is 'administrative'. She argues that media researchers would become stronger in academe if it could "develop whatever intrinsic strengths they can to remain as competitive as possible in the academic corporation." As she puts it, "the development of methodology for theory could be part of this process--if only because, again, it is something we can do. It has the potential to enhance our disciplinary oeuvre, in general. Moreover, extending our work to, or integrating it with, more established theory might help our literal 'corporate' extension." The point here is that we'll become an academic juggernaut if we bake our cookies the old fashioned way: with the kind of elbow grease the other disciplines will respect.

Thomas then goes on to show how Carlson's piece on KIA journalists lacks some of the things that might make media research more of a success. The criticism is measured, intelligent, and mostly persuasive.

Still, I challenge Thomas' critical standpoint. My first critique deals with Thomas' preference for more 'progressiveness' in media research. I will warn you: my critique will be weak, because I largely agree with her. However, it is a telling moment when she says that enhanced progressiveness in media research will "[throw] theorizing off the endless cycle of paradigm repetition." Here we see Thomas subtly asserting a social science identity for media research. In essence, the humanities would favor the kind of endless cycle (i.e. hermeneutic circle) Thomas describes. That's what humanities do well. In this sense, Thomas is subtly claiming all media research for the social sciences. Not an indefensible point of view, but let's keep in mind that this critical forum is printed in a publication of the National Communication Association, which has frequently been run/edited by rhetoricians. This is significant. Would all humanities-based media scholarship fail to advance media research? I'm not so sure.

My other critique addresses Thomas' peculiar belief that a more rule-oriented kind of theorizing would make media research a stronger discipline/field/whatever. I'm not sure about this. Thomas herself makes clear that the current predicament of media studies is what it is largely because of factors outside of the control of the field. Exogenous factors have been terrifically important to the contours of media research, and they will continue to be. More rule-directed theorizing will not change that. Additionally, I'm reminded of John Durham Peters' comments regarding the state of communication research when I read of Thomas' concerns for media research. Peters laments that communication is populated by so many priests, and so few prophets. Might not the prominence and autonomy of media scholarship be assisted employing BOTH a bunch of scholars who take Thomas' suggested careful approach to theorizing AND a bunch of more free-wheeling grand theorists who give 'em hell? I'm going to end on this not-very-controversial note.


Post a Comment

<< Home