Theory and Research in Mass Communication: Contexts and Consequences

Theory and Research in Mass Communication: Contexts and Consequences By David K. Perry

Second Edition

Citizens, policymakers, and communication practitioners who are concerned about mass communication issues otfutrenn t o the academic community for answers. Their questions often involve such things as whether, to what extent, or why media violence or sex contributote asn tisocial or criminal behavior among audiences. The answers often are not as simple or consistent as they might like. As one scholar put it:

only after much research has been completed does a statement come tboe viewed int he scholarly community as tru-ea status very few communication theories are ever likely to reach. Even then, the truth value is to be found more in the degree of agreement among scholars, an intersubjective criterion, than in any ultimate reality. (Chaffee, 1991, p. 11) Definitions of truth as scholarly consensus are often found in modem literatures of the history (e.g.K, uhn, 1970) and philosophyo f science (e.g., H.I. Brown, 1977). They are not a producotf the present century. During the 19th century, pragmatist philosopher Charles Peirce (1878/1957) defined truth as that “opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to who investigate” (pp.5 3-54).P eirce believed that proper inquiry (at least if carried on to infinity) could lead members of a scientific community, who initially might disagree, to reach inevitable conclusions. His stress consensus simply assumed that many heaadrse better than one and that truth is a product of many minds.

Of course, as Peirce recognized,i t is perhaps best not to definet ruth solely in terms of whatever a community of inquirers accepts. For example, one must excludteh e possibility that scientists will accepftr audulent research. Similarly, political or religious dogma sometimes may determine the conclusions of scholars, most obviouslyin totalitarian societies. Hence, notions of usefulness and/or some sort of correspondence may remain necessary (seeth e appendix). In fact, scientists often consider a scientific idea valido r true because they findit useful and/or believe that it corresponds to the external world (Kaplan, 1964).

Today, Peirce’s consensus criterion may seem too optimistic. Serious doubts persist that science progresses bya ttaining ever closer approximations of any ultimate reality (Hesse, 1980; Kuhn, 1970). Rather, different ideas about phenomena may gain currencayt different timep eriods before sometimes fallinogu t of favor and perhaps reappearing later in a modified formI. n short, research frequently shows no signs of satisfying what Dewey (1929) called the quest for certainty. Because of this, scholarly disagreement perhaps may always exist about the degree of truth in almost any social scientific idea. Faced with this, how might those who would like to use research react to the available, but less than certain, conclusions of scholars? Perhaps another pragmatist, William James, provided an answer. Untial nd unless inquiry attains Peirce’s ideals, “we have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready to-morrow to call it falsehood” (James, 1907/1975, p. 107). Here, as elsewherien their work, Peirce had his eytreu tohn a s generality, and James focused on what woirnk sp articular situations. Their positions display two different philosophical viewpoints -realism and nominalism – found within both pragmatism and philosophy more generally (Lewis & R.L. Smith, 1980). Realists such as Peircea rgue that universals (e.g., scientific laws or essences of objects such as blue jays) exist separately from the human mind. In contrast, nominalists like James deny their existence or see them (but often not the physical world) as mindimposed. The phrase ”only particulars exist“ (Pepper, 1942; p. 214; italics original) effectively captures the nominalist view.

This issue (see also the appendix) has many implications for both communication research and life more generally. References to it arise at various places in this book. For example, the United States is a quite socially nominalistic society( see Lewis & R.L. Smith, 1980). Itsc ulture emphasizes individuality more than commonality or community. i nT makoedne ration, nominalism probably has positive consequences, encouraging individual initiatives that benefit all. However, certaino f fcoormmms unity ties, which some forms of mass media may disrupt (see chap. 9), appear to promote economic prosperity, human health, and public safety (Putnam, 2000). In his most famous essay, ”WTihlle t o Believe,” James (1898/1960a)d – dressed the problems people face when they must respond to uncertain situations, sucha s whether to believine God. Writteni n the late 19th century, the essay primarily referred to maonradl religious questions, rather than to scientific ones. His essay explicitly rejected scientism, the “pernicious exaggerationo f both thes tatus and functiono f science in relation to our values” (Kaplan, 1964, p. 405).

James began by definingli v ae hypothesis as a proposal that seems possibly true, and hence a potengtuiaidl e to action, to a person considering it. For example, a researcher, policymaker, or consumer who reviews evidence concerningt he long-term behavioral impacto f exposure to television and televised violenocne t he young( see chap. 10) might find two live hypotheses. Perhaps exposure early in life increases the total amounoft violent, criminal behavior that young people engage iwn hen they reach the crime-prone ageosf late adolescencea nd early adulthood (Centerwall, 1989). Yet it may have no long-term effect on aggressiveness (Milavsky, Kessler, Stipp, & Rubens, 1982). In contrast, any idea that such exposure reduces overall behavioral violence now seems quite implausible. In James’ terms, it seems a dead hypothesis.

Two competing live hypotheses do not necessarily present a genuine option, according to JamesT. o do so, the choice must involve two additional conditions. It must have momentous (or pearth laepast nontrivial) consequences, and some decision between the hypotheses must be inescapable. Obviouslyi, n a purely intellectual sense, one can easily suspend one’s judgment.

However, someone who does so may face a “real-world” decision. A parent may wonder whether to limict h ail d’s exposure. A network executive or government policymaker may consider ato rpelastnr ict the amount of violence during prime-time hours. In James’ terms, these choices certainly are more genuine thwaans the intellectual one. They may or may be momentous depending on the actual consequoefn bcoetsh mediatedv iolence and the contemplated action. Nonetheless, the person must either act or fail to act. Hence, James’ (1898/1960) central thesis: Our passional nature noot nly lawfully may, but must, decidaen option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision, -j ust like decidingy es or no, -and is attended with the samries k of losing the truth. @. 11)

In emphasizing the function of values in everyday life, James was responding to scientistic thinkers of his day who argued that it is always wrong to believe anything, such as the existeonf cGe od, without conclusive evidence. Such thinking reflects a vatlhuaet a person is betteor ff to risk failingt o detect truth than to risk making an error about B iyt . its nature, science usually proceeds cautiously. According to its dominant values, the judgment of the scientific community in some ways should resemble that of a jury, which must acquit a criminal as long as any reasonable doubt exists of the person’s guilt. Those responsible for public policy sometimes proceed in a similar fashion. According to Rowland (1983), the less-than-conclusive results of past media violence research sometimes have allowed policymakers to appear concerned and avoid taking regulatory action. Nor is this necessarily inappropriate. Restricting media violence by law or public policy could have dangerous consequences for other civil liberties, for instance. Perhaps beocfa uthsies , and the influence of powerful commercial television industries, possib”lyth e level of ‘proof’ demanded goes well beyond what is usually accepted in less controversial social science research” (Huston, 1987, p. 942). Audiences are not bound ttoh e same standards, however. After weighing both the evidence and potential consequences of allowing a child to view violencew ithout restriction, the parent might or might not dectiod e limit exposure. For examplhee, or she might restrict viewing based on after recognizintgh at children do not havet he same legal rights to view media contents daso adults. Nevertheless, the parent might fitnhde evidence less than convincing or decide that only a slight chance exists that television will affectht e child negatively. Thus, he or she might conclude that no restriction is needed. In any case, the parent’s concern is with a specific situation.

James came to regrtehte title of his essay. It left him otpoe nch arges of encouraging wanton or wishful thinking. He believed that the phrase “Right to Believe,” instead of “Will to Believe,” better summarized its theme (Murphy,1 990).I n short, people can base their actions on whatever evidence is available, as wealls their values. Thus, mass communication consumers today have a ritgoh bt elieve or noat,n d to act or not, after taking evidencei nto account. In such a light, this bioso inkt ended for a very broad audience, including scientists, teachers, studentsa, nd anyone else concerned with mass communication issues.

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