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Communications, Policy, Impact: Some Thoughts on the Necessary Knowledge Conference at Penn.

Posted by chanders on February 25, 2008

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the first Necessary Knowledge for the Public Sphere conference at the Annenberg School in Philadelphia. Sponsored by the Social Science Research Council, the Center for International Media Action (CIMA), and the Media Mobilizing Project, the conference was a chance to reflect on what it meant to be an “engaged” scholar, how we define impact (both in terms of our own research and in terms of the media itself), and the funding opportunities available for scholars researching communications and the media.

The following are some random thoughts about what impact means (in terms of media impact) and where impact is measured (in terms of “the impact of meaningful research.”) A lot of these ideas can be found in more systemic form in the paper on power and authority in communications research that I’m presenting at the ICA this May.

Traditionally, communications scholarship has defined media impact in at least three ways. Under the first definition, a particular event or group can impact something else (for example, society) through the media. This understanding of media impact is most common in traditional social movement research. Here, the media is seen as a channel or conduit through which framed messages must pass … or as a tool which can be used in a strategic way to advance political goals. In this research, the primary analysis is of a) the group doing the framing or the “pushing,” and b) the target of that message or force. “The media” itself is secondary, though not entirely irrelevant.

In short: people or groups or social forces use the media to have an impact.

According to the second definition, the media itself is seen as its own force that “impacts” something else. This tradition parallels (though it does not exhaust) both the long-standing “media effects” research program as well as its erstwhile academic rival, hegemonic or Gramscian studies of the media. The model of media impact articulated under the first definition:


still largely applies, but the focus has now shifted to the middle of the model, to the media itself as a force that either impacts the message (as originally crafted) or the receiver … and without necessarily needing a “message” defined at all. According this model of media, the media does things– to people, or culture, or society, or politics. In short: the media, by itself, has an impact. It makes people vote a certain way (or doesn’t); or or serves to maintain hegemony (or doesn’t).

Under the third model, the media comes to be seen as an institution with a particular concentration of power (usually economic capital) that has a structural impact on politics and society. As in the second model, the media is still something that “does things”– that has an impact– but it is now seen as more of an institution than a medium, more of a collection of offices and people and practices than a signal or a conduit or an electronic wave.

In short: the media, through its institutionalization in social space and through its possession of economic capital, has a structural impact.

(as a side note, I think its safe to say that hegemony, as defined by Gitlin and others, is really a combination of model two and three. In fact, its obvious that none of these categories are mutually exclusive, but sometimes making broad distinctions is useful.)

As we’ll see in a moment, this third understanding of media impact is the closest to my own perspective, though not entirely so. And under all three of these models– this is the key point– the media is treated as an independent variable (how does “the media” impact “x”?)

To turn these questions into funded research, the next step is usually to ask how these impacts operate at the level of policy. One relevant example of the way this works goes as follows: a researcher examines how media concentration impacts the diversity of voices populating the public sphere. The critically engaged scholar (and remember, not every scholar is critically engaged) then takes the next step and advances an argument, either on her own or in collaboration with social movement groups, about how policy choices (usually in the form of government regulation) can affect, mitigate, exacerbate, or retard the impact just documented.

Now, all these are perfectly fine ways to think about impact. Indeed, the very fact that we’re now considering the media as a collection of powerful (capitalist) institutions that have a deep structural impact is a wonderful research advance. The fact that we’re now seriously talking about the additional steps an engaged academic might want to take when confronted with these political and social questions is even better, But, this isn’t the way I think about my own research. And it might be nice someday for grant makers to think about impact the way I think about it, and to thus give me lots of grant money. Until that day, however, I’ll be perfectly content to present my thoughts at the ICA, and on this little blog.

My own research takes the final understanding of the media and adds to it. I see the media as a cluster of institutions that possess both economic and symbolic (cultural) power ALONG WITH cultural authority. Without getting into the entire distinction here between power and authority, let me just say that they are not the same thing, and while power usually refers to the ability to command, authority refers to the right or legitimacy of command (I talk about this a lot more in my paper). Drawing on Bourdieu and John Thompson, we can visualize media institutions (journalists, newspapers, etc) as being composed of multiple types of power and, correspondingly, multiple types of authority. And various external forces then impact these media institutions (technology changes, competition from other social actors and social movements, legal and regulatory decisions, etc) correspondingly affect this power and authority.

In short: the media is seen under this model as a dependent variable (how does “x” impact “the media.”

There is a problem at this point; at least, there’s a problem when it comes to thinking traditional types of funding. Impact under this model must be measured at the level of the media institutions themselves rather than at the policy level. In other words, researchers are forced to  look at the relevance of “development y” (for instance, the emergence of new networked technologies)” for journalism rather than the relevance of “development y” for public policy.

What would it mean for foundations to fund this kind of research?

For one thing, grantors would have to become comfortable looking at how social developments impact non-public institutions (ie, market-driven private companies), something they’ve seemingly been quite reluctant to do. Often, the only places willing or interested in studying these institutions are tied to the industries themselves or have overlapping interests (a la the Knight Foundation News Challenge)

Even more importantly, grant makers would have to start thinking about democracy and policy in a different way. In this new way, changes in journalism (as the democratic art and practice par excellence, a la Carey) would, quite obviously, have a profound impact on policy and democracy in the larger, political sense. If we want to understand how democracy is changing, how could we not attempt to understand how journalism is changing? In the end, ironically enough, we are back at the original insight of James Carey– while journalism is possible without democracy, democracy is impossible without something much like journalism. To study one is to study the other.

3 Responses to “Communications, Policy, Impact: Some Thoughts on the Necessary Knowledge Conference at Penn.”

  1. Todd said

    This is all good, and in the rubric you provided I tend to agree with your answer. That said there are two issues that came up that need to be parsed out. 1) the role of the academic. 2) the very 20th century notion of media that is employed throughout the conference.

    To the first, the conference or at the least the session on public scholars works off the assumption that there is a divide between the life of the scholar and the life of the polis. This is a new development and one of American making. In the history of social change scholars were not tethered to some “neutral” (read:corporate) institution that drained the life blood of scholarship for social change out of thinkers in order that they meet promotion and worry about how they are recognized by their peers w.in the institution and discipline. I reject this assumption and frame which does not challenge the institutional structures. If we care about these issues then we must realize as scholars or otherwise that we are implicated in them. The our life as scholars is not driven by the university and our career (tail wagging the dog) but driven by the role of scholarship in the world. This fraem which I am outlining is one among many but one that those in the conference session did not touch on, nor could they even imagine it exists and that is the state of American scholarship, which I think is a pity.

    Secondly the entire frame of that conference is wholly focused on media and misses the role of communications in the 21st century. I am going to take a quick passage out of my work to frame this:
    This outlook converges with Marx’s discussion of peasant organization in relation to the proletariat in The Eighteenth Brumaire Of Louis Bonaparte (1963). Marx writes, “Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organization among them, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.” (124) The significance of this statement, as Hardt and Negri later recognize (2004), is that the lack of internal communications and circuits of social cooperation of the French peasantry is what hinders their ability to be a class for itself. Said succinctly, the inability to communicate leads to an inability to represent. This leads Hardt and Negri to argue “In Marx’s view, political subjectivity requires of a class not only self-representation, but first and most fundamentally internal communication (122-123).” They go on:
    Communication in this sense, is the key to the political significance of the traditional division between city and country and the political prejudice for urban political actors…not so much idiocy but incommunicability defined rural life.

    the point here is that the way we frame media is all wrong now. MMP is built on this other notion of media not as a form of representation but as a tool of communication to cohere a community or class. This is the promise of new technologies. I am not polyanna about this, battles need to be fought over the terms that define our lives but none of that is important if lines of communication aren’t better studied and understood so we understand how people cohere through communications into classes or communities fighting for change. this is particularly vital as one of the defining characteristics of “new poverty” is political demobilization. Anyway, I will stop there but this is a good discussion.

  2. TomG said

    I’m sympathetic to your analysis but it leaves me with a question. Is it possible to assess impact on incredibly complex systems? (See Peter Coleman’s work on complex conflict systems http://www.dynamicsofconflict.iccc.edu.pl) Unfortunately I’m not convinced it is and if this is the general case then how do you get around the issue. Perhaps you make the projects bigger so that you can assess impact or you create lots of links between small projects so that there is at least a possibility of measuring impact on the system even if it can’t directly be attributed to a specific action…perhaps….

  3. chanders said

    Hi Tom and Todd,

    Tom: I agree with you that complexity is a major problem here. My own solution has been to go as “micro” as possible (education in one or two classes, journalism in one city, etc), sacrificing generalizability for thickness. With the hope (perhaps misplaced) that we can eventually build out a series of micro studies in order to get a better grasp on the system at large.

    Todd: With regard to your second point– James Carey has written extensively on the “ritual” (as opposed to “transmission”) view of communication, although from a decidedly non-Marxist standpoint. His work might interest you if you’re not familiar with it.

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