BUSNM050: Philosophy of Research
John Quinn B00016128
School of Media, Language & Music
‘The requirements of original research in my subject area’
‘Originality’ and ‘research’; two terms that can be seen to be prolific, ubiquitous, and often interrelated within the academic world, yet, as Walliman (2005) suggests, terms that are nonetheless subject to vigorous debate with regard to their very nature. As such, to explore the requirements of originality in a particular research area, it seems appropriate to attempt to define that area in terms of its development of knowledge. This essay intends therefore, to discuss firstly, the development and nature of research within the field of media effects theory, defining broadly the area, then narrowing the focus to identify important contributions related specifically to the immediate effects of television violence. Secondly; the essay shall attempt to explore these contributions in terms of how their nature has impacted on their research methodologies, and how the resulting knowledge has been developed and advanced. Finally, the essay shall discuss the importance of such factors to originality in the research, contrasting the nature of originality in a proposed piece of research against the existing body of work.
Becher and Trowler (2001) argue that conceiving of an academic discipline can be a complex and often uncertain process. This can be seen to be particularly true for the study of the effects the mass media have on its consumers, where the argument within the academic community, as Barker and Petley (1997) point out, is already deeply split theoretically and methodologically, with arguments ranging from concrete and direct behavioural effects, to no affect at all (with many waypoints in between). As such, a review exploring how the current area of media effects research has developed shall be attempted, drawing in part from the meta-analyses of McQuail (1987) and Preiss et al. (2006).
As McQuail (1987) suggests, the study of media effect is, and has been, underpinned by the popular and pragmatic premise that our behaviour is modified by the media texts we consume/receive, through the process of active/passive mass communication. Consequently, McQuail (1987) suggests that the first investigations of the mass media (circa 1900-1930) where based not on scientific research, but rather on observations of the exploding popularity of the new media (in this case - radio and film) along with the rapid growth of the press. Where, as according to Bauer and Bauer (1960), the media were imbued with the power to shape opinion, habits, beliefs and behaviour according to the will of its controllers. McQuail (1987) further suggests that the development of thinking about the effects of the media is shaped by the circumstances of time, place and environment, such as the propagandists of the first World War, who utilised the fledgling mass media technology in a way that reinforced and furthered the popular belief in an ‘all-powerful media’ (McQuail, 1987:252).
In this vein, with, as McQuail (1987) suggests, the inclination to confirm the popular belief: scientific research into the mass media began in the late 1930’s. Drawing from the work of Bertrand and Hughes (2005), the study of the mass media can be seen to be routed in communication theory, where ‘media’ represents not only institutions, but also a means of exchanging information across space and time. As such, the initial contributions can be seen to be those of the process school of communication theory, where, in the simplest terms, communication is defined through the mechanistic model of: sender-message-receiver. In essence, a sender creates a message, which is sent via a media, to a receiver, who perceives and interprets that message. Lasswell (1948), with his original public speaking, or transmission model can be seen to exemplify the process school, describing communication through the flow of information from sender to receiver, however Lasswell (1948) also formulated a hypothesis on the function of communication in society, developing the structural functionalist approach to the study of communications.
This approach, as described by Rubin (2002) works on the assumption that the function of communication is to maintain society by generating common effects related to: the surveillance of the environment; the correlation of environmental parts; and the transmission of social heritage. However, as this form of interaction involves the activity of human beings, it can be conceived of in terms of the study of culture. As such, even at the earliest level, the study of the mass media can be seen to confirm the academic uncertainty of Becher and Trowler (2001) where division arises as to whether or not one is studying a mechanistic process of information flow, or the construction of culture.
From this beginning, as discussed by McQuail (1987), the ever growing complexity of the mass media diversified views on its processes, and rendered any single mass media theory inadequate. Rosengren (1983) suggested that this division could be split into four paradigms across two dimensions, which are presented as a scheme by McQuail (1987) (Figure 1). The vertical axis of figure 1 tracks media power from dominance through to pluralism, with the horizontal axis tracking media as the impetus for social change through to a society centred view.
The result is a set of theory developments, broadly based on the understanding of the possibility of effects of the mass media on society, which are structured and diversified by similarity, difference, and often opposition. This stratification can been seen to suggest that there is ‘no straight path of cumulative knowledge that can easily be
discerned’ (McQuail 1987:252), in so far as defining the area as a whole. Using Becher and Trowler’s (2001) definition of academic disciplines therefore, McQuail’s (1987) work can be seen to be suggestive of an interdisciplinary field of study, where the research is not confined to one relevant academic department, thus denying an autonomous map of knowledge or mechanism for conducting research, instead arguably a picture develops of an area divided into disciplines by ideological position.
Becher and Trowler (2001) suggest that clear disciplinary areas of study have a strong paradigmatic form that denotes academic consensus, media effects can be seen as one of those areas that deny single paradigmatic form, and has components in opposition and competition with each other, resulting in academic disagreement on how to interpret the problems and tackle the research. As such, the four paradigms of figure 1 could be considered weak enough to suggest that the study of media effects conforms to Kuhn’s (1996) distinction of a divergent area, where the overall flow of research is arguably pre-paradigmatic in opposition to the mature sciences. Therefore, and to return to the initial aim of this first section of the essay, the focus can now be narrowed to the study of the immediate effects of consuming television violence, in order to evaluate whether there is evidence of clearer and more cumulative disciplinary development.
The first contribution to be examined, and arguably the most famous contribution to the study of the effects of media violence was that of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. Drawing from Bandura and Walters (1963), social learning theory can be seen to be a form of behaviourism based on a reciprocal form of determinism where individuals learn by observing others behaviours, attitudes and the related outcomes. In this model human behaviour can be explained by the interaction of cognitive, behavioural and environmental influences with the dependant factors of: attention to that with is observed; the retention of the observations; the reproduction of the observations; and the motivation for imitation.
Social learning theory developed out of laboratory experimentation where two groups of children were exposed to adults playing with various toys, and then acting violently towards a doll. One group experienced the acts in person, the other viewing the incident on television. The groups were then exposed to the doll and the instruments used to ‘assault’ it, along with a control group who had observed adults playing benignly with the doll. The results suggested that the groups learned through modelling and interacted with the doll according to the adult behaviour they had been exposed to with the group exposed to the film representation of violence reacting similarly to the group exposed in person.
After the initial work of Bandura, as discussed by Anderson et al. (2003), a tentative paradigm for randomised experimentation in media violence effect studies can be seen to emerge. In the paradigm the researchers randomly expose participants to violent (experimental) or non-violent media (control), assessing and contrasting their short-term behaviour patterns. Studies such as; Berkowitz (1962, 1965); Donnerstein and Berkowitz (1981); Bjorkqvist (1985) and Josephson (1987) all used laboratory experimentation to develop the stimulus-response model building on the complexities encountered in earlier research.
However, as argued by Gauntlett (2005), the laboratory experimentation, while providing tentative confirmation of media violence affecting behaviour, also drew criticism due to its methodology. The un-naturalistic nature of the experimentation measures forms of aggression that are substitutions for actual violence, and as suggested by Howitt (1989) can be seen to be open to experimenter demand/effect, where the unusual activities of the laboratory suggests to the participant that something is expected of them. Gauntlett (2005) further describes criticisms of the media content used, as being not directly comparable to the content normally consumed outside the laboratory, being either specially made, or un-contextualised fragments of a larger text.
Media violence effects research is not however confined to the laboratory, studies such as Feshbatch and Singer (1971) utilised field experiments in the hope of gaining a more naturalistic environment. As described by Gauntlett (2005) such experimentation utilised the same method of randomly assigning groups to violent media and non-violent media, but regulated consumption in the participants’ natural environment. However such methodology still received criticism for creating an unnatural environment, where even in a natural setting the regulation of media consumption distances the research from a naturalistic event.
Recent research into the area can be seen to utilise the methodology of the correlation study. Work such as; Bernthal (2003); Bernthal & Medway (2005); DuRant et al. (2007); Kaestle et al. (2007); Soullier (2005); Tambourini et al. (2005); Waxmonsky & Beresin (2001); and Woo & Kim (2003) utilising such methodologies as, survey, content analysis, participant observation and ethnography, suggested correlations between violent television programming and levels of aggression in the consumers. While the methodologies here, as discussed by Gauntlet (2005), can be seen to be sound in the exposition of correlations, the research has still been criticised in so far as the findings of positive correlations does not demonstrate causality.
From this brief overview, the area can be seen to have developed from social learning theory and concentrated on methodological paradigms based on random experimentation, and later, correlation studies. The general problem however for research into such effects, seems to be in successfully showing that the consumption of violent television leads to immediate behavioural effects in a naturalistic social environment. The area has been successful in demonstrating that such effects can take place in the laboratory, or under experimental conditions, and has drawn positive correlations between violent television and increased aggression in the consumer; however a truly naturalistic exposure of direct causation has eluded the researchers.
With this clearer definition of the area, the study of the effect of television violence can be seen to lie within the social sciences, a mixture of communication theory and psychology, reminiscent of Becher and Trowler’s (2001) metaphor of a patchwork quilt of knowledge, but what do these developments say about the requirements of originality in the area? Again, using the work of Becher and Trowler (2001) the lines of development seem to follow a progression of ideas, revising the existing body of work according to continual criticism from within the area. As such originality in advancing the area can be seen to have to come from modifying existing theories, taking small steps forward, as opposed to superseding the entire body of knowledge that has gone before, as in the vein of Kolb (1984) and the experiential learning cycle. In this cycle the four stages of adaptive learning (experience-observation-conceptualisation-experimentation) can be seen to lead to the development of assimilative knowledge, where the problem is conceptually interpreted and transformed through internal reflection.
This development of knowledge can be seen to conform to Pantin’s idea of an unrestricted science, where the problems that are to be investigated may lead the researcher into many different areas, as cited in Becher and Trowler (2001). This appears to complement the idea of a number of differing methodological paradigms, which are chosen in relation to the specifics of the study, such as the initial studies of the process school, which sought to understand the mechanical processes of the communication system. The subsequent development of this through the laboratory random experimentation of Bandura and Walters (1963), and the refining of this through the field experimentation of such as Feshbatch and Singer (1971), which attempted to counteract the methodological criticism of laboratory experimentation.
As such, based on Becher and Trowler’s (2001) framework, this area of study can be seen to be a soft discipline, with divergent practitioners, numerous methodological paradigms, and no clearly defined disciplinary boundaries. In this sense a sufficient contribution to knowledge can be seen to have a much wider methodological scope than that of the harder sciences such as physics, which typically have a convergent consensus on what the problem is and how to solve it. However it is possible to suggest that the area, which initially could be seen to be an applied form of research, that, according to Becher and Trowler (2001) is functional, aiming to solve problems that came from out with the academic community, is moving towards a purer form of research. A form where the development of knowledge is cumulative, reiterative and concerned with verifying disputes coming from within the knowledge its self; such a development would appear to be in agreement with Kuhn’s (1996) notion that pre-paradigmatic disciplines will over time evolve to become more convergent.
Nonetheless, an original contribution to knowledge in the area of the effects of television violence does not yet have to be, as Kuhn (1996) suggests, a unique solution to the problem, as in the mature sciences, but rather a contribution that helps the discipline mature. As Becher and Trowler (2001) suggest, this also reduces the pressure on researchers in this area, as researchers working on topics that ‘cover a broader stretch of intellectual territory’ (Becher & Trowler, 2001:106) can be seen to be more ‘rural’ working alone and within a multitude of topics, they need not be overly concerned with competition, like those in the ‘urban’ disciplines, who can be seen to be in intense competition to provide the new solution.
To turn now to the final aim of the essay, it is possible to explore whether or not a proposed study may meet the requirements of originality in the discussed research area by contrasting it to the existing body of work surveyed here. As can be seen from the discussion so far, the idea of an original contribution that will advance knowledge in the area could be derived from the modification of existing theory, inline with criticisms, transforming how the resolution of the problem itself is conceptualised. In this light a study that returns to the behaviourist development of the stimulus response model, such as Comstock et al. (1978) (Figure 2), could modify the theoretical approach to include work from the fields of; social comparison; evolutionary psychology; and the semiotics of performance, in order to expand on some of its assumptions.
Should the proposed study be concerned with a selected television text, with known instances of consumer imitation (television wrestling), then the study could modify the input/arousal box of figure 2 to be concerned with social comparison, and relate the perception of consequences and reality boxes to the semiotic interpretation of the screen performance. Thus, the study could look through correlation to see if individuals who imitate screen violence have a deficiency in their social comparison judgements. If this hypothesis is confirmed the study could then explore through interview whether or not there are embedded messages in the text that cause imitation in certain viewers.
It is possible to suggest therefore that such a development of theory could be seen to fit with Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning, by reflecting on an interpretation of a small section of the existing knowledge, and transforming it to develop understanding. However, it is also possible to suggest that this is not directly cumulative, as in the sense of Becher & Trowler’s (2001) pure developments of research, nor fully purposive and applied, nor functional. Argument could also be made that the research is not directly maturing the area, such as the process of developing methodological paradigms described by Kuhn (1996), but the process could be seen to fall into some of the qualifications for the requirement of originality in research made by Philips and Pugh (1994). In this light, the proposed research could be seen to be attempting a synthesis of theory that has not been made before, or indeed, bringing a technique from another area and applying it to a foreign field.
As such, the requirement of originality in ‘my’ area can still be seen to be ambiguous, and open to interpretation by whoever is making the judgement, based on their own ideological positioning. This can be seen to be especially true of the area of media effects as a whole, which, at the moment, still struggles to define itself in terms of a general consensus on the interpretation of the problem. Fortunately for study in this area however, the consequence of this dissension amongst the research community is that attempts to develop the body of knowledge are by nature less restricted than the more mature sciences, and as such there is more scope for the finding and accepting of the elusive original contribution to knowledge.
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 For video of Bandura’s experiment go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDtBz_1dkuk
The official blog of John Quinn's media effects research study! Ever wondered why some people bash each others brains out in the garden after watching wrestling?........if so read on...oh and its best to read this page from the bottom upwards!!