DEFINING THEORY – Post Positivism-hermeneutic-critical-normative

Defining Mass Communication Theory

Scientists, physical or social (however narrowly or broadly defined), deal in theory.“Theories are stories about how and why events occur…. Scientific theories begin with the assumption that the universe, including the social universe created by acting human beings, reveals certain basic and fundamental properties and processes that explain the ebb and flow of events in specific processes” (Turner, 1998, p. 1). Theory has numerous other definitions. John Bowers and John Courtright offered a traditional scientific definition: “Theories … are sets of statements asserting relationships among classes of variables” (1984, p. 13).

So did Charles Berger:

“A theory consists of a set of interrelated propositions that stipulate relationships among theoretical constructs and an account of the mechanism or mechanisms that explain the relationships stipulated in the propositions” (2005, p. 417).

Kenneth Bailey’s conception of theory accepts a wider array of ways to understand the social world: “Explanations and predictions of social phenomena … relating the subject of interest… to some other phenomena” (1982, p. 39).

Our definition, though, will be drawn from a synthesis of two even more generous views of theory. Assuming that there are a number of different ways to understand how communication functions in our complex world, Stephen Littlejohn

and Karen Foss defined theory as “any organized set of concepts, explanations, and principles of some aspect of human experience” (2008, p. 14). Emory Griffin also takes this broader view, writing that a theory is an idea “that explains an event or behavior. It brings clarity to an otherwise jumbled situation; it draws order out of chaos…. [It] synthesizes the data, focuses our attention on what’s crucial,

and helps us ignore that which makes little difference” (1994, p. 34). These latter two writers are acknowledging an important reality of communication and mass communication theories: There are a lot of them, the questions they produce are testable to varying degrees, they are situationally based, and they sometimes seem contradictory and chaotic. As communication theorist Katherine Miller explained,

“Different schools of thought will define theory in different ways depending on the needs of the theorist and on beliefs about the social world and the nature of knowledge” (2005, pp. 22–23). Scholars have identified four major categories of communication theory—

(1) post positivism,

(2) hermeneutic theory,

(3) critical theory,

(4) normative theory

and although they “share a commitment to an increased understanding of social and communicative life and a value for high-quality scholarship” (Miller, 2005, p. 32), they differ in

• Their goals

• Their view of the nature of reality, what is knowable—their ontology

• Their view of how knowledge is created and expanded—their epistemology

• Their view of the proper role of values in research and theory building—their axiology

These differences not only define the different types of theory, but they also help make it obvious why the definition


When communication researchers first wanted to systematically study the social world, they turned to the physical sciences for their model. Those in the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy, and so on) believed in positivism, the idea

that knowledge could be gained only through empirical, observable, measurable phenomena examined through the scientific method. But as we saw earlier in this chapter, people are not beakers of water. As a result, social scientists committed to the scientific method practice postpositivist theory. This theory is based on empirical observation guided by the scientific method, but it recognizes that humans and

human behavior are not as constant as elements of the physical world.

The goals of postpositivist theory are explanation, prediction, and control (and in this you can see the connection between this kind of social science and the physical sciences). For example, researchers who want to explain the operation of political advertising, predict which commercials will be most effective, and control the voting behavior of targeted citizens would, of necessity, rely on postpositivist theory.

Its ontology accepts that the world, even the social world, exists apart from our perceptions of it; human behavior is sufficiently predictable to be studied systematically.

(Postpositivists do, however, believe that the social world does have more variation than the physical world; for example, the names we give to things define them and our reaction to them—hence the post of postpositivism). Its epistemology argues that knowledge is advanced through the systematic, logical search for regularities and causal relationships employing the scientific method. Advances come when there is intersubjective agreement among scientists studying a given phenomenon. That is, postpositivists find confidence “in the community of social

researchers,” not “in any individual social scientist” (Schutt, 2009, p. 89). It is this cautious reliance on the scientific method that defines postpositivism’s axiology— the objectivity inherent in the application of the scientific method keeps researchers’ and theorists’ values out of the search for knowledge (as much as is possible). Postpositivist communication theory, then, is theory developed through a system of inquiry that resembles as much as possible the rules and practices of what we traditionally understand as science.


But many communication theorists do not want to explain, predict, and control social behavior. Their goal is to understand how and why that behavior occurs in the social world. This hermeneutic theory is the study of understanding, especially through the systematic interpretation of actions or texts. Hermeneutics originally began as the study or interpretation of the Bible and other sacred works. As it evolved over the last two centuries, it maintained its commitment to the examination of “objectifications of the mind” (Burrell and Morgan, 1979, p. 236), or what Miller calls “social creations” (2005, p. 52). Just as the Bible was the “objectification” of early Christian culture, and those who wanted to understand that culture would study that text, most modern applications of hermeneutics are likewise focused on understanding the culture of the users of a specific text. There are different forms of hermeneutic theory. For example, social hermeneutics has as its goal the understanding of how those in an observed social situation interpret their own lot in that situation. As ethnographer Michael Moerman explained, social hermeneutic theory tries to understand how events “in the alien world make sense to the aliens, how their way of life coheres and has meaning and value for the people who live it” (1992, p. 23). Another branch of hermeneutics looks for hidden or deep meaning in people’s interpretation of different symbol systems—for example, in media texts. As you might have guessed from these descriptions, hermeneutic theory is sometimes referred to as interpretive theory. Another important idea embedded in these descriptions is that any text, any product of social interaction—a movie, the president’s State of the Union Address, a series of Twitter tweets, a conversation between a soap opera hero and heroine—

can be a source of understanding.

The ontology of hermeneutic theory says that there is no truly “real,” measurable social reality. Instead, “people construct an image of reality based on their own preferences and prejudices and their interactions with others, and this is as true of scientists as it is of everyone else in the social world” (Schutt, 2009, p. 92). As such, hermeneutic theory’s epistemology, how knowledge is advanced, relies on the subjective interaction between the observer (the researcher or theorist) and his or her community. Put another way, knowledge is local; that is, it is specific to the interaction of the knower and the known. Naturally, then, the axiology of hermeneutic theory embraces, rather than limits, the influence of researcher and theorist values. Personal and professional values, according to Katherine Miller, are a “lens through which social phenomena are observed” (2005, p. 58). A researcher interested in understanding teens’ interpretations of social networking websites like Facebook, or one who is curious about meaning-making that occurs in the exchange of information among teen fans of an online simulation game, would rely on hermeneutic theory.


There are still other scholars who do not want explanation, prediction, and control of the social world. Nor do they seek understanding of the social world as the ultimate goal for their work. They start from the assumption that some aspects of the social world are deeply flawed and in need of transformation. Their aim is to gain knowledge of that social world so they can change it. This goal is inherently political because it challenges existing ways of organizing the social world and the people and institutions that exercise power in it. Critical theory is openly political (therefore its axiology is aggressively value-laden). It assumes that by reorganizing society, we can give priority to the most important human values. Critical theorists study inequality and oppression. Their theories do more than observe, describe, or interpret; they criticize. Critical theories view “media as sites of (and weapons in) struggles over social, economic, symbolic, and political power (as well as struggles

over control of, and access to, the media themselves)” (Meyrowitz, 2008, p. 642).

Critical theory’s epistemology argues that knowledge is advanced only when it serves to free people and communities from the influence of those more powerful than themselves. Its ontology, however, is a bit more complex. According to critical theory, what is real, what is knowable, in the social world is the product of the interaction between structure (the social world’s rules, norms, and beliefs) and agency (how humans behave and interact in that world). Reality, then, to critical theorists, is constantly being shaped and reshaped by the dialectic

(the ongoing struggle or debate) between the two. When elites control the struggle, they define reality (in other words, their control of the structure defines people’s realities). When people are emancipated, they define reality through their behaviors and interactions (agency). Researchers and theorists interested in the decline (and restoration) of the power of the labor movement in industrialized nations or those interested in limiting the contribution of children’s advertising to the nation’s growing consumerism would rely on critical theory. Some critical theorists are quite troubled by what they view as the uncontrolled exercise of capitalist corporate power around the

world. They see media as an essential tool employed by corporate elites to constrain how people view their social world and to limit their agency in it.


Social theorists see postpositivist and hermeneutic theory as representational. That is, they are articulations—word pictures—of some other realities (for postpositivists, those representations are generalizable across similar realities, and for interpretive

theorists, these representations are local and specific). Critical theory is nonrepresentational. Its goal is to change existing realities.

There is another type of theory, however. It may be applied to any form of communication but is most often applied to mass communication. Its aim is neither the representation nor the reformation of reality. Instead, its goal is to set an ideal standard against which the operation of a given media system can be judged.

A normative media theory explains how a media system should operate in order to conform to or realize a set of ideal social values. As such, its ontology argues that what is known is situational (or, like interpretive theory, local). In other words, what is real or knowable about a media system is real or knowable only for the specific social system in which that system exists. Its epistemology, how knowledge is developed and advanced, is based in comparative analysis—we can only judge (and therefore understand) the worth of a given media system in comparison to the ideal spoused by the particular social system in which it operates.

Finally, normative theory’s axiology is, by definition, value-laden. Study of a media system or parts of a media system is undertaken in the explicit belief that there is an ideal mode of operation based in the values of the social system. Theorists interested in the press’s role in a democracy would most likely employ normative theory, as would those examining the operation of the media in an Islamic republic or an authoritarian state. Problems arise if media systems based on one normative theory are evaluated according to the norms or ideals of another normative theory.

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