Sunday, October 18, 2009

Marcus' Questions

Week 7:

Q1) I think Potter’s discussion of “translating” data really speaks to the heart of the quantitative-qualitative debate. His argument is that translating numbers to present meaning, in effect, adds needless circuitry; but I would argue that he’s missing the point of quantitative research. Qualitative methods are all about meaning, certainly, and it’s difficult to construct “meaning” with a multiple-choice question. Meaning is a subjective concept, and it’s hard to objectively establish subjective concepts. But I don’t think the goal of numerical research is “meaning” – I think it’s context, and there’s a huge difference. We can talk all day about the meaning of teenage pregnancy, or the meanings behind new media usage in isolated schools, or the feelings associated with neo-conservative or neo-liberal ideologies – but without statistics on the number of teenage pregnancies every year, or the total usage of new media tools in classrooms, or the voting trends associated with neo-con or neo-lib politicians, then “meaning” becomes intangible.

Yes, you have to translate numbers – “Variable 12” is completely unhelpful in and of itself, you have to break it down. But that numerical research provides benchmarks and context for cultural study that otherwise would have no frame of reference – no agreement on what is, or what isn’t, to even begin establishing “meaning.” I’m not saying that “meaning” is unimportant, I’m just saying that it needs context. And I don’t think Potter gets that.

Q2) I’m inclined to agree, though, that the goal of the traditional interview is to get a verbal response. I think that’s because, in traditional print media especially, it’s generally frowned upon to discuss non-verbal communication – either the mayor commented or she didn’t, but debated whether she frowned or not opens up a whole new can of worms. Even in television, where the image is right there, I can see scenarios where debates pop up about what is or is not a frown. That being said, that rule doesn’t necessarily need to be standard fare for academic research, since the rules are different; I think it adds some flexibility that would’ve been useful back in my small newspaper days.

Q3) I like that Flick establishes criteria for long-term qualitative study, since I think trend research is traditionally reserved for quantitative research. What I think he could have explained a bit more, though, is how controls are established for the passing of time. Do you almost have to pick as tame a time frame as possible, just to reduce the likelihood of outside variables from influencing your interviews? Or did I misunderstand his argument?

Q4) I think the discussion of convenience vs. relevance when selecting focus groups is a pertinent one, and it reminded me of a conversation I had with my adviser back at Trinity last week. We were talking about the tendency of conservative ideologues to type cast academics and university research as liberal and out-of-touch ( there was a catalyst involving a hyper-conservative newspaper ad that I won’t get into, we ran it at the Trinitonian a few years ago but a school in Wisconsin just made headlines for rejecting it, so that’s how it came up). But the connection here is that if focus groups are allowed to use university students too much, doesn’t that reinforce the cultural gap between the academics and the public – or, put more crudely, the well educated and the less educated? It bugs the hell out of me when anti-educational initiatives, like the tirades my old adviser was discussing, get so much traction because the debate spirals very much into a “leave them kids alone” direction, which doesn’t work as well on the college level as Pink Floyd would have us believe – especially if they just stay home from college, which happens a lot. But I do wonder if there’s been any study on the cultural effects of research like this – do university lifestyles tend to really be that insular, and is ol’ Rushbo right about a self-perpetuating liberal ideology? Or has it been established that it’s just a matter of convenience?

Q5) And actually, along the same lines, although I know it’s a bit of a tangent – we’ve discussed that quantitative research in journalism study tends to be the norm, but it just occurred to me that the bulk of the conversation, and many of the authors, are from well-established and often large universities. That makes sense, since they’d likely have the most to offer; that’s why those authors are employed there in the first place. But as far as research norms go, do the same routines apply in some of the smaller satellite schools out there? Do research practices at UT-Tyler, for example, tend to follow the same patterns as UT-Austin?

Week 8:

Q1) I liked Manning and Cullum-Swan’s description of semiotics in these readings. Much easier to follow than some of the other explanations I’ve seen in the past. It was actually something that kept popping into my mind yesterday – I was watching college football, and it occurred to me that the “Hook ‘Em” is a perfect example. To anyone tied to the Horns or college football, that’s a symbol for UT, but there’s nothing about the pointer and pinky fingers that is fundamentally tied to any one university. Then a commercial for one of those rock band video games came on, and there was an animated musician throwing the same symbol to a crowd; to them, it meant something completely different.

Q2) Which, now that I think about it more, really speaks to the idea of a “mass audience.” It’s hard to get more massive than 100,000 + fans watching the same 22 men on a field. But I’m not sure that’s a “dehumanizing” practice; it’s about conformity, sure, but you can be part of a group without turning life into one of Erich Fromm’s nightmares. And I don’t think it negates evolution at all, since over time – going back to the hook ‘em example – UT’s identity has changed, from an out-of-the-way Texas school to an urban, liberal institution with a very different cultural identity than A&M or Tech. You could make similar arguments about OU and OSU, and certainly about Ole Miss and Mississippi State, although I’m not sure how many of them have established hand gestures. So as long as those symbols are semiotically tied to ideas, and those ideas aren’t completely stagnant, then how can it be dehumanizing or negate evolution?

Q3) This may be a no-brainer, but how can you code for implications that are not present? I understand that what’s not said can be just as important as what is said, that makes perfect sense. I’m just not sure how you would justify a study of what’s not said, for our uses, since potentially any number of things could be left unsaid? Does that make sense?

Q4) I think Makus has a point about dominant societies stigmatizing those outside its own cultural identity. But I think recessive societies do it just as much – there can’t be a gothic sub-culture in a high school, for example, without the cheerleaders and the football team establishing their norms. But I think it’s more than that – I think many sub-groups wouldn’t be around without their opposition to the dominant culture, so in those cases, I think it’s hard to argue that the dominant groups are “stigmatizing” outside sub- and counter-cultures; it’s a symbiotic relationship at that point, not a power struggle. Certainly that’s not always the case, particularly when violence is concerned, but am I the only one thinking that the power structure model doesn’t always apply?

Q5) Makus’ discussion of dominant societies actually made me think about my own education. I graduated from middle school in a western compound in the Middle East – oil brat – and in the middle of nowhere, there’s no football. No sports of any kind, really, since we were the only school for miles and there was no real competition. So the traditional jock/cheerleader society that tends to dominate in the States didn’t apply out there; that left the skater-punks, who here would be considered a stigmatized counter-culture, feeling like they were at the top of the social order. On the one hand, it’s an interesting vindication of Makus’ commentary, since a traditionally recessive society behaved just as the dominant ones do when given the opportunity; but, it’s also a rebuke of that model, since outside groups gladly defined themselves in opposition to those skater punks. The local Boy Scout troop was huge – again, middle of nowhere, plenty of desert to wander off into, at least back in the 90’s before it got too dangerous – and we were enthusiastic about not being the skater punks and, you know, not wearing our pants around our knees. So it wasn’t really a power structure at all, it was a symbiotic relationship that developed in about as close to a vacuum as you can find when discussing American kids. So why the insistence on power structures, then?

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