Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Admitting Our Limitations - Core Post 3

Surprised to see Dr. Seiter’s essay not getting a lot of traction on the blog. I’ll take that as my cue to dive in. I think the strength of the essay is its quick and modest admission of the flaws of a field with a severe inferiority complex desperate to be taken seriously. Throughout the piece, Seiter strongly makes the case for media researchers to rely on qualitative analysis, rather than quantitative or effect studies. This may seem ineffectual, but quantitative analysis is the simplest way to be taken seriously by other fields. After all, hard sciences like physics and chemistry are nearly all numbers, so other fields should be like them too. However, Seiter emphatically makes the case that research she is about to present is rooted in all sorts of ideologies, not bound to the scientific method, and is certainly not very generalizable (463-464), but that this is okay.

Yet, I think the essay does a great job highlighting the limitations of other methods adopted by communication scholars, such as the process of encoding and decoding with the example “experiment” regarding race relations and The Cosby Show. Ultimately, Seiter asserts, “The danger in such a design is that television is used as a mere pretext for conversation and insufficient attention is given to the complexities of television form. Thus the television programme may be reduced to a series of 'messages' (as in the traditional effects paradigms) and themes - aspects of programming that arc clearly only a small part of the experience of television viewing and could easily be ignored or rejected by viewers” (467).

The essay does not stop at the denigrating quantitative analysis for media studies. Seiter also takes shots at faulty methodologies of qualitative analysis, such as the presence of an interviewer who may not be the same race, gender, class, etc. of the interviewee, and how this factor can influence the responses of subjects (477), as well the problem of self-selecting samples that can lead to a homogeneity of subjects (477).

Overall, I think this essay is an important reminder at how difficult it is to properly conduct an experiment and the pitfalls humanities scholars face by making sweeping statements based on more or less anecdotal evidence without any sense of internal or external validity.


  1. Thanks Christian for posting on this one, and I really like Seiter's essay as well. Perhaps the reason it hasn't gotten traction is today it feels rather like an agreeable position, while the past it may have been much more contentious. Also none of us are really COMM Studies students, so our likelihood to engage in statistical analysis (very little, but I'm curious if anyone in our class really wants to do quantitative research!!) might be a little much pushing us toward one side.

  2. Thanks for taking on Dr. Seiter's essay, Christian. However we will have to fundamentally agree to disagree that qualitative researchers are desperate to prove their legitimacy and suffer from any type of inferiority complex. I'm also not convinced that if qualitative researchers do in fact seek validation that it would be from a physicist or chemist. Our fields are separate entities, and that separation necessitates different methodologies. To that end, Seiter's project is less a hand-wringing justification for her research and more a survey of the available methodologies for those interested in qualitative audience research, which includes an examination of the methodology's intrinsic advantages and limitations. I should also mention that quantitative research also has its own intrinsic advantages, limitations, and biases depending on the methodology and biases of the given researcher/study.

    Furthermore, to say that qualitative research is based on anecdotal evidence devalues both the work of these researchers and the audiences they study. I would furthermore point out that social scientists, psychologists, etc. also employ interviews in their own research. So this "anecdotal" aspect of qualitative research actually extends beyond the lowly humanities and reaches all the way up to those academically superior, more True and Worthy fields of study in the Sciences.

    1. Jon, I like that you're suggesting a continuum between the humanities and the sciences (at least in terms of how research is conducted), because I think one of the central positions of Seiter's article is that the messy field of media research has valuable lessons for all disciplines that involve people in their research. After all, these various disciplines will inevitably encounter communication-related snags in the process, and will have to reckon with the methodological implications Seiter describes. Probably the most notable implication that Seiter's article proposes is the following: "one of the things we would expect to hear from subjects is the reiteration of certain prior existing discourses on the self, society, politics, and gender" (474). Essentially, speakers rarely express their feelings, intentions, and/or identity with perfection -- being sensitive to the fissures, elisions, and indeterminacies of discourse should be important to all researchers, regardless of discipline.