Archive for April 12th, 2010

Blogs and other Media

Those few who read my blog regularly have probably noticed I’ve had a reduced number of posts lately.  I’ve been putting together a paper for a conference coming up in Chicago, working on presentations, and expanding my research project.  Now that I take it to the next level, I’d appreciate advice.

This research project will likely occupy the next four or five years of my life, and is a major shift away from European/German foreign policy.   My goal is to study the impact of the media — all forms of media — on American political culture.   While I’ve done press analysis before (involving German newspapers), the field of media studies and the impact of media on culture is a change of direction for me.   The motives come from recent teachings (particularly “Children and War,” and “Consumerism, Politics and Values”), and my own read on the state of US and global politics.

The information revolution we’ve been experiencing for half a century is changing everything.     I’ve had a plethora of posts on consumerism, one of the main cultural consequences of the rise of technological modernism.  I’ve also posted a lot about the impact of modern materialism on the quest for value and meaning in life.   The fact these themes are so dominant in my blog reflects my own curiosity and fascination with how dramatically the world is changing.

Luckily, I am not a university which is focused on teaching over publication.   It isn’t necessary to spew out journal articles and books.   In fact, a good teacher here primarily needs to  show continued academic activity.   So there is no pressure for me to stick to my specialty and churn out articles just to pad my CV.  I can focus on what I want, and take my time.   I also want this to be my theory, one I craft and an argument I make, borrowing from others, but creating my own synthesis.   This research will be my statement about the world in which I find myself, my attempt to leave a mark.   As such, it’ll take time, and I’m sure I’ll explore many dimensions as I work on this.

The theory behind the research is straight forward, but controversial.  It borrows heavily from Gramscian cultural theory, the Frankfurt school, and American pragmatism.   (Posts related to the research project here).   In essence, humans live in a socially constructed reality.   By reality here I mean social reality.   If I flip my middle finger at you, that physical reality may be true wherever you find yourself.  But it’s meaning, the impact it has, the way it might get you in trouble or punched in the face — those are aspects of the social reality of that act.

So this deals with meanings, ideas, shared and contested beliefs about the world.   Some beliefs are so widespread that they become seen as conventional wisdom, the “way things naturally are.”  For a long time that included owning people from “inferior races” as slaves, preventing women from working or voting, etc.  At the time, those practices were normal, questioned only by the fringe.    We have a set of culturally shared beliefs about the world which give us a sense of how the world is.   When we see or hear something, it’s meaning is understood not through some unbiased capacity of the mind to determine the essence of a thing, but by the social meanings and understandings we’ve acquired during our lives on this planet.

Up until recently, those meanings came from religion and tradition.  Then came the enlightenment and the goal of liberating ourselves from tradition, and learning how to see reality as rationally and objectively as possible.   This had a double effect on socialization.  First, it weakened greatly the way family, religion and tradition socialize us.   Second, the rise of mass media took the place of tradition, as I described last month. That included psychology (we are driven by our passions more than reason), the media (the media manipulates emotion), the importance of cultural discourse.  I won’t repeat what I wrote in that post, except to note that media socialization may be the most dramatic change in politics in the modern era, starting when the media was used by folk like Mussolini and Goebbels to grab power.    Moreover, it also could be the greatest threat to American democracy.

So far, I’ve focused on the discourse of war and economic policy as covered in popular newspapers and newsweeklies.  But I need to expand this to look at blogs, other media, things like satire (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert), news networks with an obvious bias (FOX, MSNBC), talk radio, and the like.

Alas, time is not unlimited, at least not for me in this lifetime, and the resources available at a small teaching college are meager.  I currently have a good undergraduate research assistant, but that could change.   So I have to find a selection of blogs I can print out archives to capture various time frames, access to archives of talk radio shows, or video clips that can easily be accessed for news media.   Any suggestions about other media — facebook, twitter, etc. — will also be appreciated.

Subject matter already includes the two big issues of war/foreign policy and the economy, where people arguably held false perceptions of the US and its role in the world, not seeing the disasters on the horizon.   I also am considering examining current issues (where data collection is easier) such as the health care debate, global climate change, and the tea party movement.   I need a variety from all sides of an issue, yet with time constraints, I will have to choose what I want to focus upon.

More later on this project (probably blog posts now and then for the coming years).   But please comment or e-mail me suggestions.    Suggestions on material for the theory behind this approach are also welcome, especially from other fields like psychology or media studies.   It’s exciting to dig into a new project, and wherever this goes, I’m sure I’ll learn a lot moving forward!   Ultimately, that’s what matters to me most.