Media and Communications Research Methods


Researching anything is an exciting journey of discovery. According to Priest (2009, p. 3), some controversy exists about whether social science is science at all. One of the earliest sociologists was the 19th-century scholar Auguste Comte, who first thought of society as being like a biological organism divided into parts that function together. This was an analogy derived directly from biological science. Strict reliance on an empirical or data-based research method in social science continues to be associated with Comte’s positivist philosophy, which held that it was both possible and desirable to develop a science of society.

As social sciences developed, the argument that society could best be understood by applying the methods of science, based on systematic direct observation, continued to be made. Historically, the emphasis in science on using evidence from direct observations to settle issues of truth had arisen in part as a reaction against reliance on traditional beliefs, intuition, or personal opinion (Reagan 2006, p. 102). Certainly, social science could develop most fruitfully by relying on the same approach.

Over time, though, some researchers began to question the usefulness of the scientific model for social science. Some began to see the positivist position as a weak or limiting factor rather than the strength of social scientific inquiry (Preiss 2007, p. 63). The assertion that it is possible and desirable to measure or assess, in a scientifically accurate way, everything that is of interest to a social scientist is still controversial but can not be supported. Several quantitative research studies in mass communication have also been criticized for only making a positivist assertion. A quantitative approach limits investigation to factors that can be measured and this can mean ignoring important aspects of human social behaviour that may be difficult or impossible to quantify (Pernia 2004, p. 59).

For these reasons, mass communication researchers sometimes question past over-reliance on quantitative methods. In practice, the methods are excellent choices for some types of problems but less useful for others. Today, researchers are more likely to recognize that the interpretive method, which uses human feelings, reactions, and insights of the researcher, are equally valuable (Cates 2004, p. 19). Interpretive methods, sometimes called naturalistic methods, are generally qualitative. Both qualitative and quantitative social science work is empirical in the sense that they rely on systematic observations. What most clearly distinguishes any social science from the humanities is the systematic reliance on data, whether qualitative or quantitative.

Qualitative Versus Quantitative Methods

The distinction between qualitative and quantitative methods is important, although it is often overemphasized. Nevertheless, a majority of social science researchers, including those that study mass media and communication, tend to be specialists who use one of these methods more regularly than the other. This section also discusses various research methods that are significant to media and communication studies.

The Arguments for Qualitative Methods

Qualitative methods are designed to explore and assess things that can not easily be summarized numerically. Descriptive observations of conditions and practices in another culture, interviews that use open-ended questions, and analysis of the structure or the arguments in a set of newspaper editorials are all examples of qualitative research (Sparks 2012, p. 73). Also, qualitative researchers may actively reject the positivist assumption that everything of interest can be measured. Their training and experiences have taught them the value of looking at subtle aspects of human social life that are best described in words.

Furthermore, there is not necessarily a single, accurate description that all researchers agree on. Considering that the use of language and symbols is a key characteristic of human beings, it is practically impossible to meaningfully study people and their communication by limiting ourselves to only looking at those aspects that can be captured by numerical representations. Qualitative social science researchers may see quantitative research as flawed by a tendency toward reductionism, or artificially simplifying complex social phenomena.

Instead of seeing investigators’ insights and responses to what goes on around them as interfering with accurate observation, qualitative researchers doing interpretive research try to make use of those insights and responses systematically. They may also argue that quantitative researchers tend toward reification of the objects of their study. Qualitative researchers generally look for truth in the development of insightful descriptions of how something in social life works, rather than statistics or equations.

The Argument for Quantitative Methods

Quantitative methods, simply put, use numbers. Most public opinion research, many kinds of psychological experiments, and studies that count the different sources quoted in newspaper stories or the exact proportion of entertainment versus educational programming on television are all examples of quantitative research. As noted earlier, quantitative methods are associated with the positivist assumption that the things scientists are interested in can always be measured.

Mass Communication Applications

Qualitative methods in general and ethnographic description using participant observation and depth interviews, in particular, are well recognized in communication studies (Priest 2009, p. 19). These are ideal methods for understanding the role of media in everyday life in ways that experimental or survey research, without the rich contextual detail and holistic approach of ethnography, can not duplicate. However, some of the earliest mass communication studies also used participant observation and other qualitative techniques.

Made possible by the expansion of broadcast bandwidth, the proliferation of specialized media material catering to particular ethnic and language groups helps to illustrate the degree of cultural pluralism in many modern societies. To a large extent, ethnography is a good way to approach the answering of questions on everyday social life, rich with opportunities to increase our understanding of the relationship between media and society using ethnographic methods.


Generally, questions are a central part of the communication process, integral to our everyday conversations. One can ask questions to gather information, evaluate opinions, establish common views, and to understand key aspects of our lives. According to Brennen (2012, p. 26), interviewing has been used as a research method for thousands of years. The Egyptians, for example, surveyed people to determine their social and economic status. Romans used interviews with participants in the Peloponnesian Wars to gather source material to construct a history of the wars. For many years, journalists, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, and clergy have also drawn on interviews for their academic research, clinical counselling and diagnosis, and to try to understand people’s social, economic and cultural conditions, as well as their political and religious views. These days, many researchers agree that because people speak from a variety of different backgrounds and perspectives, interviewing is a valuable method that may be used to gather a large amount of useful, interesting, relevant, or important information.

Some of the information accessed through interviews helps to broaden our knowledge base while other information may also help us to understand alternative points of view (Berger 2010, p. 10). In contemporary society, a variety of different types of interviews are routinely used in marketing surveys, legal interrogations, public opinion polls, advertising surveys, and research questionnaires. Ordinarily, researchers use three basic types of interviews which include structured, semi-structured, and unstructured open-ended conversations. Structured interviews use a specific and standard procedure, which includes pre-established questions that encourage a limited range of response and are open to interpretation. For all participants in a given structured interview study, the same questions are asked in a predetermined order, using a consistent approach, format and words. Structured interviewing is most often used for survey research and focuses on gaining factual information from respondents with the goal of obtaining accurate and precise data that can be coded. Semi-structured interviews are also usually based on a pre-established set of questions that are asked to all respondents. However, there is much greater flexibility with semi-structured interviews.

Unstructured interviews focus on the complex voices, emotions, and feelings of interviewees, as well as the meanings within the words that are spoken. They are in-depth purposeful conversations that seek complex information about complicated issues, emotions, and concerns in an attempt to understand the historical, social, economic, and cultural experiences of individuals or groups (Jensen 2002, p. 15). They strive to go beyond common sense explanations to explore and reflect upon the contextual boundaries of that experience and perception. Unstructured interviews usually begin with a general list of topic areas, themes, or open-ended questions that an interviewer draws upon.

Participant Observation and Depth Interviews

In today’s globalized world, fewer and fewer cultural groups remain isolated from the influence of other cultures, with the media acting as a key source of this intercultural influence. However, the original research methods developed by cultural anthropologists to study the cultures distant from their remain extremely valuable (Belk 2007, p. 98). Two key research methods in this category are participant observation and the depth interview. Both can contribute to the development of ethnography or systematic description of a social group and its way of life. These methods can also be used in other types of studies, however, and are sometimes combined with quantitative approaches.

Participant observation is learning about a social group and its culture by engaging in the group as a member (Stokes 2003, p. 107). The researcher’s reactions are useful clues as to what is importantly different about the culture. In the past, the difficult field conditions experienced by early cultural anthropologists limited what they could do. Surveys and experiments were not practical alternatives either. Instead, participant-observers made attempts to become a part of the group they were studying. By making systematic notes about their experiences and observations regularly, they would be able to grasp what everyday life is like in the group they were studying without imposing their expectations. They would try to understand the various social roles they observed, who the leaders and followers were, what men, women, and children were expected to do, and how the group was organized. They paid attention to the beliefs and to important ceremonies, as well as to the material culture or possessions of the group.

A key principle of ethnographic work is holism and not isolated parts. All parts of a cultural system depend on each other, and cultural values and beliefs tend to be internally consistent even where their aspects appear irrational to the outsider. This principle has proved itself over and over again. Isolated practices or beliefs may seem old to be uninformed, but to the insider, they will make sense. The researcher’s task, then, is not to explain the noticeable oddities but to look for the internal consistency that weaves them together from an insider’s point of view.

Observation, however, does not always tell the whole story. Ethnographers often rely on individuals willing to give up their time to explain what is going on. Such an individual is called an informant. Although finding reliable informants is not a trivial problem, the ethnographer never tries to sample a population like a survey researcher would but rather try to gain access to shared cultural knowledge that every member of the group commands (Ruddock 2001, p. 91). Depth interviews with one or more informants are the second key method used by ethnographers and other qualitative researchers. The depth interview is an open-ended conversational exploration of an individual’s world view or some aspect of it. Unlike a survey questionnaire, the depth interview does not have a rigidly preset structure, although the interviewer may rely on a list of topics or general questions as a guide. For these reasons, these are sometimes called semi-structured interviews. The interviewer is free to ask to follow up questions or to rephrase a question to get a complete answer, unlike a survey procedure where each person must be asked the same question.

The results of participant observation and depth interviews, along with other data gathered on the group, are generally combined into a holistic description of the group and its way of life. Although the ethnographer need not strive to be objective, there is still the obligation to be as systematic as possible and to strive to make the written description as true as possible to the ethnographer’s observations and experiences. Even though well-written ethnographies do a good reading, they are not easily constructed.

Psychology and the Experimental Method

In some ways, experimental psychology is at the opposite end of the social science spectrum from cultural anthropology because it tends to be very quantitative rather than qualitative and focuses more on individual and not on broader cultural or social influences (Martin 2002, p. 25). As is true for anthropology, however, there are historical reasons why psychological methods developed as they did.

Participants in psychological experiments are usually tested in a special research setting, not in their homes (Renckstorf 2004, p. 15). Each subject is treated the same, and this minimizes the chance that a difference in room colour, temperature, the order in which events occur, the way a question is asked or a task is explained, or something else about the subject’s interaction with the researcher, the research setting, or the research staff has an influence on the dependent variable that might be different from one subject to another. To achieve the desired results, the choice of subjects may be controlled by limiting the subject pool. For example, if the researcher wants to rule out the influence of gender, he or she could study either men or women but not both. Unfortunately, in this case, the results would apply to only half of the population, because results obtained for one gender might not apply to the other. Although control achieved by limiting participation is possible, it should be used with so much caution.

University researchers often use students as subjects. This helps to eliminate the possibility of age or level of education affecting the results but opens the researcher to the very common criticism that his or her results do not apply to people who are not college students (Kwansah-Aidoo 2005, p. 21). Nevertheless, this convenient form of control is appropriate. Another element of subject selection involves assignment to different treatments or conditions. Modern techniques for statistical analysis can also do a good job of estimating the effects of different independent variables and therefore compensate for treatment groups that are not perfectly equivalent.

However, well-controlled experimental methods are designed to investigate cause-and-effect relationships. In real life, the media act as both cause and effect at the same time (Gunter 2000, p. 29). If the media influence public attitudes, public attitudes are also reflected in the media. One key characteristic of communication media content is that it reflects what some members of a society and culture are thinking, doing, and feeling. Experimental methods allow researchers to work around this but run the risk of reifying the idea that media influence is a one-way street.

Experimental work is subject to two other important criticisms. It usually measures only short term effects, whereas many important media effects are cumulative and take place over a lifetime of exposure (Hansen 2010, p. 47). Also, the way people act and react in laboratory situations, while perhaps satisfying the experimenter’s need for controlled conditions, may not be very much like the way they would act and react in actual everyday life. This is especially true for mass media studies. Persons watching television at home while doing the dishes or surrounded by family or friends could react to the programming quite differently than they would in a research setting.

Content Analysis as a Key Research Tool

While sociologists and political scientists also use different forms of content analysis to describe the content of media messages, this is a technique that media research can rightfully call its own. No other social science discipline is so directly concerned with examining what is being conveyed in mass communication messages, as is the case in media studies. Some social scientists also use the term content analysis to describe the analysis of interview material or other records of verbal responses, but this is a subtly different type of project from the analysis of media content.

Media content is generally constructed by a professional communicator according to specific conventions such as the use of named sources. According to Plooy (2004, p. 63), many of the concepts used in the content analysis are borrowed from survey research. One challenge in the content analysis that is not as visible in survey work with people is the way that a population and the appropriate unit of analysis are chosen. Furthermore, it is not easy to address the question of the population in media content analysis.

Other Methodological Contributions

Several other alternatives have been adopted by media studies scholars that were developed in sociology before becoming popular choices in media research. They include unobtrusive observation, focus groups, and case studies. Unlike participant observation where the researcher is a visible member of a group, unobtrusive observation refers to a research strategy in which the observation is not known to those whose behaviour is being observed (Weerakkody 2008, p. 34). This sounds a lot like spying and is carried out in places where people expect to be in private rather than in public. Often used in market research, a focus group is a group of people brought together to gather their collective reactions to an idea or a product. Questions are asked of the assembled group rather than of individuals one at a time. In general, focus groups often deal with emerging issues or potential new products. Finally, case studies often involve the collection of available data about the social setting under study, such as the demographics of members or workers in an organization.


Regardless of the extent to which social and political factors influence the choice of research problems or what methodological approaches are used to study these problems, the underlying strategies that have made science useful in modern societies have not changed. Good science uses theory well, gathers evidence systematically, and contributes to the accumulation of knowledge. This continues to be the basis of good science and good social science. Good social scientists, whether positivists or interpretive researchers, using qualitative or quantitative methods, follow these same principles. They strive to gather empirical evidence carefully, evaluate it systematically, and present it cautiously.

Reference List

Belk, RW 2007, Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods in Marketing, Edward Elgar Publishing, Northampton, MA.

Berger, AA 2010, Media and Communication Research Methods: An Introduction to Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, California.

Brennen, BS 2012, Qualitative Research Methods for Media Studies: An Introduction, Routledge, New York, NY.

Cates, JA 2004, Journalism: A Guide to the Reference Literature, Libraries Unlimited, Westport, CT.

Gunter, B 2000, Media Research Methods: Measuring Audiences, Reactions and Impact, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, California.

Hansen, A 2010, Environment, Media and Communication, Routledge, New York, NY.

Jensen, K 2002, Handbook of Media and Communications Research: Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methodologies, Routledge, New York, NY.

Kwansah-Aidoo, K 2005, Topical Issues In Communications And Media Research, Nova Publishers, New York.

Martin, JB 2002, Mass Media: A Bibliography With Indexes, Nova Publishers, New York.

Pernia, EE 2004, Communication Research in the Philippines: Issues and Methods, University of the Philippines Press, Quezon City, Philippines.

Plooy, GM 2004, Communications Research: Techniques, Methods and Applications, Juta and Company Ltd, Lansdowne.

Preiss, RW 2007, Mass Media Effects Research: Advances Through Meta-Analysis, Routledge, New York, NY.

Priest, SH 2009, Doing Media Research: An Introduction, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, California.

Reagan, J 2006, Applied Research Methods for Mass Communicators, Marquette Books, LLC, Spokane, WA.

Renckstorf, K 2004, Action Theory and Communication Research: Recent Developments in Europe, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin.

Ruddock, A 2001, Understanding Audiences: Theory and Method, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, California.

Sparks, GG 2012, Media Effects Research: A Basic Overview, Cengage Learning, Boston, MA.

Stokes, JC 2003, How to do Media and Cultural Studies, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, California.

Weerakkody, N 2008, Research Methods for Media and Communication, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

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